Obama’s Win in LBJ’s Shadow

President Lyndon Johnson foresaw the end of th...

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Original Post – November 5, 2008by Crooked Timber

A few thoughts on history and yesterday’s election:

Barack Obama began his campaign before a moderate crowd on the steps of the statehouse in Springfield, Illinois, the place where Abraham Lincoln began his political career. Obama ended his campaign with a speech in front of 90,000 in Manassas, Virginia which is the location of the first battle of the Civil War known as Bull Run. Coincidence? Don’t think so.

LBJ: For me there has been an 800 pound gorilla in the room throughout this entire campaign, Lyndon Baines Johnson. I listened for his name throughout the campaign and it never came up. For all of the praise, in speech after speech, directed at JFK, RFK, and MLK, the silence on LBJ has been deafening. LBJ! The politician who probably did more for civil and voting rights for minorities than any other politician in the 20th century! When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he said that he knew he was signing away the south, and hence power, for his party, likely for generations. In 1965 LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act outlawing voter discrimination against millions of southern blacks which further alienated the south from the Democrats. Regardless of the political costs he did the right thing. As it turned out the party did suffer the consequences that LBJ predicted as Dems were only in the White House for 12 of the following 40 years, and even then we won by default– first Carter won on the heels of Watergate, and second Clinton, arguably, would not have won without Ross Perot splitting the Republican vote. What happened last night signaled the end of the period of loss that LBJ so presciently foresaw. For my money LBJ is the most tragic political figure in the latter half of the 20th century. The Right will always hate him for the Great Society (and many for the civil rights and voting acts) and the Left will never forgive him for Vietnam.

Speaking of Vietnam isn’t it fitting that this transformational election, that was given it’s legs by LBJ, was lost by a Vietnam war hero. John McCain is an honorable man who served his country with great distinction and honor in that war and he has continued to do so ever since. Mr. McCain should be appreciated and we all owe him a great debt of thanks. How many of us have put our lives on the line for our country? But it is time to finally put the sorrow and division over Vietnam behind us. We have had two consecutive elections where Vietnam vets have run for president and lost. It is a true testament to the progress toward healing the wounds of the 1960s that today, all these years later, the country has finally rallied around LBJs legacy of humanism and against the legacy of the Vietnam war. The sight of Obama’s adoring, peaceful, crowd last night in Grant Park was in stark contrast with memories of the violence that took place there in 1968 over Vietnam. There is an amazing circularity to it all. And don’t look now but the economic crisis, and the response to it, might resurrect some of the echoes of the Great Society. But I won’t say that too loudly, at least not yet.

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