By William Fisher
In our country, we seem to revere only a few presidential speeches – Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural, John F. Kennedy’s “Ask Not”, and a few others.
But I have to confess that, while I have written thousands of words about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it has been many years since I actually listened to the words President Lyndon B. Johnson used to introduce this legislation.
I did that yesterday. Thanks to television’s last outpost of civility, C-SPAN, I watched transfixed as LBJ addressed a joint session of Congress.
Behind him was Vice President Hubert Humphrey seated next to House Speaker John McCormack. Before him were all the members of the Congress he loved so much, all the members of the Diplomatic Corps and the Supreme Court, and the whole Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the man who would ultimately share with the president the ignominious legacy of Vietnam.
“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” he began.
He went on: “I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
“There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.
“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight, ” he said, bringing most of the audience, Republicans and Democrats, to their feet – with the exception of Southern Democrats, who sat on their hands.
LBJ, more than almost anyone alive on that day, knew the political price he might have to pay. Because he knew the Congress better than anyone else.
Perhaps in purely rhetorical terms, LBJ’s speech wasn’t up to Lincoln, FDR or JFK. But in so many ways it was at least as consequential as any words ever uttered by an American president.
With the confidence of one speaking to friends, LBJ intoned:
“This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections -- Federal, State, and local -- which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.
“This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution.
“It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them.
“It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.”
Later, aware of the power he held, he said: “All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race.
“But I would like to caution you and remind you,” he went on, “that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty.
“Of course, people cannot contribute to the nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.
“So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.
Looking back on his early days as a teacher in a Texas schoolroom full of Mexican-Americans who could not understand why people didn’t like them, LBJ said, “I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country”.
Then he threw down the gauntlet: “But now I do have that chance -- and I'll let you in on a secret -- I mean to use it.”
In my personal pantheon of Presidential achievements, LBJ’s words on that day rank among the most portentous ever spoken.
Just think of what was accomplished in the days and weeks immediately following passage of this historic legislation forty years ago. And how it changed our country forever – for the better.
All of which only magnifies the excruciating sadness of LBJ’s downfall – and, for most Americans, his legacy. Quagmire, not Selma, is the word that has come to be associated with LBJ’s presidency.
I can think of no starker example of the price we mortals pay for hubris, for taking bad advice, for listening to people who peddle misinformation, for insisting on “staying the course” undeterred by inconvenient facts.
That’s a lesson our current President has yet to learn.
Like all second-term presidents, George W. Bush would like to leave a legacy that makes Americans proud. But what will it be based on? Iraq? The “war on terror”? Social Security? The “spread freedom” rhetoric of his second inaugural?
I hardly think so.
Our president needs to take an hour out of his vacation and listen to Lyndon Johnson.