Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

MLK, LBJ and Joe Califano

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LBJ and MLK in “Selma”

Selma, the movie, depicts President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Joe Califano, who was Johnson’s top domestic policy adviser, says that’s simply not true.

Califano claims Johnson and King were partners in the battle for civil rights. He said Johnson asked King to find the worst place in the South for racial discrimination and expose it for all America to see. That place turned out out to be Selma, Alabama.

The brutality and hatred that frothed out of Selma onto TV screens changed a lot of minds in America. Califano insists Johnson’s mind had already been changed much earlier as a young teacher in a Houston school with Latino kids who were poor and despised.

On Face the Nation, Califano said Johnson told him about how looking into the eyes of those kids, who didn’t understand why people despised them, changed his mind about racial equality and, later as President, motivated him to do something about it.

This is not the picture of Johnson painted in Selma.

The historic accomplishments of Johnson in pushing through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts are undisputed. His intimate knowledge of senators and congressmen enabled him to find the openings to persuade or cajole or black-mail. His power-play personality was legendary.

It’s also historically accurate to say Johnson’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by his role in expanding the Vietnam War and hiding its failures. Obsessed by the thought of being the first U.S. President to lose a foreign war, Johnson abandoned his domestic agenda, cannibalized budgets for the War on Poverty and hunkered down in the White House. He increasingly shunned talking to people, the source of his energy and leverage, as he devoted time to personally picking out bombing sites that he imagine would turn the tide of the war he knew he was losing.

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MLK and LBJ in the White House

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked as an LBJ intern and was his choice to write his biography after he left office, draws a sympathetic portrait of a man with coarse habits, deep resentments and an obsession with leaving a larger-than-life legacy, certainly as large or larger than his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. Arguably, Johnson did with the creation of Medicare and school lunches, legislation on immigration reform and gun control and funding for federal aid to education. He managed to lower the poverty rate in America, especially among senior citizens.

Califano’s re-released book, The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, which contains an updated forward and some new material drawn from tapes, also describes a man with a super-sized degree of good and not-so-good. The tragically ambitious, but flawed characterization led to the play MacBird! comparing LBJ’s scheming and unraveling to MacBeth’s.

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LBJ and MLK in “All the Way”

More recently, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland debuted All the Way, LBJ’s campaign slogan in his landslide 1964 election, which dramatizes how Johnson shoved through the Civil Rights Act in his first year in office following Kennedy’s assassination. Playwright Robert Schenkkan portrays Johnson as needy and vulnerable, always seeking the limelight and resentful of those who dismiss him as a hick from Texas. But he also portrays him as sympathetic to ending racial inequality, much as Califano claims.

All the Way depicts King as caught in the middle of a power struggle between conservative and aggressive voices in the civil rights movement. The activists win out and launch “Freedom Summer,” which gives birth to events in Selma.

Johnson was not a man always easily understood. But we can, with the benefit of time and space, clearly understand he was a man maniacally determined to leave a mark on civil rights, poverty and the lives of senior citizens. How and when he made up his mind to do those things may not really matter.

 

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