President Obama on LBJ: Looking Back, to Look Forward

Yes, it’s long, but it’s well worth the listen. Video via the Washington Post. (CNN has a three-minute clip, if you’re in a hurry.) Transcript from the Wall Street Journal:

Four days into his sudden presidency — and the night before he would address a joint session of the Congress in which he once served — Lyndon Johnson sat around a table with his closest advisors, preparing his remarks to a shattered and grieving nation.

He wanted to call on senators and representatives to pass a civil rights bill — the most sweeping since Reconstruction. And most of his staff counseled him against it. They said it was hopeless; that it would anger powerful Southern Democrats and committee chairmen; that it risked derailing the rest of his domestic agenda. And one particularly bold aide said he did not believe a President should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be. To which, it is said, President Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” (Laughter and applause.) What the hell’s the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?

Those of us who have had the singular privilege to hold the office of the Presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating and sometimes you’re stymied. The office humbles you. You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision.

But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents — by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates; by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by reimagining the world as it should be…

He understood laws couldn’t accomplish everything. But he also knew that only the law could anchor change, and set hearts and minds on a different course. And a lot of Americans needed the law’s most basic protections at that time. As Dr. King said at the time, “It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” (Applause.)…

And that means we’ve got a debt to pay. That means we can’t afford to be cynical. Half a century later, the laws LBJ passed are now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are foundational; an essential piece of the American character.

But we are here today because we know we cannot be complacent. For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways. And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. Our rights, our freedoms — they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline, and persistence and faith…

And a coda, from Texas political cartoonist Ben Sargent:

gop not termites sargent
(via GoComics.com)

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27 replies
  1. 1
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history,

    What a powerful metaphor. I don’t know if a speechwriter should be credited, or if POTUS himself came up with it, but it sure does work.

  2. 2
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Laws against lynching are of no use if they are not enforced.

    It’s time to start getting serious about dealing with those who ignore the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

  3. 3
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    What the hell’s the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?

    The President is chief waterboy for the Owners of America.

  4. 4
    Keith G says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader: And they are very thirsty.

  5. 5
    NobodySpecial says:

    Thank the gods LBJ had 60 votes.

  6. 6
    Baud says:

    @NobodySpecial:

    IIRC, the Senate rules at the time actually required 67 votes to invoke cloture. So more like, thank the gods there were sane Republicans back then who still believed they were the party of Lincoln.

  7. 7

    I know there’s an open thread below, but it’s gotten a little full, so forgive me if I butt in here to ask whether anybody else is the least bit worried that Stephen Colbert is going to take over David Letterman’s show in a year or so… He’s a satirist, and specifically a fake-conservative. I worry that he’ll have less scope to skewer the idjits if he gives up his character. Tell me I’m wrong to fret about this…

  8. 8
  9. 9
    JPL says:

    @Smedley Darlington Prunebanks (formerly Mumphrey, et al.): I don’t know. He is talented and I’m glad he has the chance.

  10. 10
    efgoldman says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    It’s time to start getting serious about dealing with those who ignore the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

    You mean those five black-robed troglodytes in DC?

  11. 11
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Smedley Darlington Prunebanks (formerly Mumphrey, et al.):

    I worry that he’ll have less scope to skewer the idjits if he gives up his character.

    Did you see the clip of his Jane Goodall interview I posted last night? I think Colbert’s getting tired of having to fit stuff he actually likes into the RWN character his current show is built around — he’s done brilliant work, but even the best satire has its limits. The new show (and he has a year to prep for it, remember) will give him a chance to be honest… just as the 2016 election cycle starts to heat up. That should be worth the price of admission!

  12. 12
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Smedley Darlington Prunebanks (formerly Mumphrey, et al.):

    Tell me I’m wrong to fret about this…

    Okay, I’ll tell you you’re wrong to fret about this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Colbert hauls out his character from time to time (the way Carson hauled out Carnak the Magnificent, Art Fern, etc.), but I think not having to be “in character” all the time will give him a good bit more freedom and leeway to indulge his talents. He’s already shown that he can be funny and biting when not bound to the “Stephen Colbert ‘character’,” and I personally think he’ll take full advantage of a looser, or at least different, format to apply his skewer in new and unexpected ways. Great move for him, and a class act for CBS. As long as they can keep their hands off and not pull another “Smothers Brothers.”

  13. 13
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    Interesting segment on TRMS with Michael Beschloss on the backlash from the ’65 Voting Rights Act, which as Beschsloss notes, is not over. Democrats lost 47 seats in the House, and LBJ named CA candidate Reagan as a beneficiary of white resentment. The flip side of WHY CAN”T OBAMA BE LIKE LBJ!

  14. 14
    gbear says:

    @efgoldman: Clarence Thomas’s already microscopic soul must shrivel up and die a little bit more every time he hears Obama give one of these speeches. I hope Ginni blathers his ears off about this kind of thing.

  15. 15
    james says:

    You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before

    Unless you are on the Supreme Court.

  16. 16
    catclub says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Colbert hauls out his character from time to time”

    I would. I think that character woorks only if he never breaks character, but what do I know.
    (Didn’t I see some post where CBS was saying that character will be retired?)

  17. 17
    Singular says:

    Can you guys please elect… this guy… for another term? Somehow? He’s just, while not perfect and who is, such an improvement on his predecessor, that it hurts to think of the alternative.

  18. 18
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @catclub:

    (Didn’t I see some post where CBS was saying that character will be retired?)

    Oh, I dunno, maybe. I didn’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. As someone pointed out upthread, however, he has a year to work out a new character, or characters, and play with the format of the show, and I expect he’ll do most of that, or at least much of that, in consultation with CBS brass. And I imagine a lot of these issues are actually being addressed in whatever contract he’s signed. I can’t imagine Stephen Colbert agreeing to suddenly turn into a little corporate milquetoast. I think he and his lawyers/agents would play pretty hardball on allowing him the most possible leeway. I’m not worried.

  19. 19
    MomSense says:

    @Singular:

    I so wish we could.

  20. 20
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Singular: I sure wish we could.

  21. 21
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Singular: We’d like to, but the darn 22nd Amendment is in the fucking way.

  22. 22
    J R in WV says:

    And that’s all FDR’s fault! If he hadn’t taken 4 whole terms, that 22nd amendment would never have flown.

    Now that we need a 3rd term, we can’t get one!!!

    He probably needs a break, anyway. Maybe his wife can run in 4 or 8 years. She’s just as good looking, just as well educated, and probably pretty smart, too.

    Would the RWNJs go crazy or what? Mrs. President Obama!! Whoot!

  23. 23
    ruemara says:

    Hey, we don’t need this loser. After all, the great minds of leftism said he’s just a waterboy for the real owners of America. And they should know, because, something something.

  24. 24
    Amir Khalid says:

    @J R in WV:
    Then again, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of 12 or 16 years of presidents named Clinton — regardless of Bill and Hillary’s considerable merits, the idea of presidential dynasties is in itself not appealing to Americans, and rightly so. (I wish the idea of prime ministerial dynasties were similarly unappealing to Malaysians. Our sixth PM, no great shakes at the job, is the son of the second and a nephew of the third.)

  25. 25
    Paul in KY says:

    @Singular: Absolutely critical that we elect another Dem, whomever it is, in 2016. Then he/she can appoint Pres Obama to the Supreme Court (if he agrees).

  26. 26
    Paul in KY says:

    @J R in WV: If FDR hadn’t got that 3rd term, we’d probably be wearing lederhosen & wondering who the next American Reichsfuhrer was going to be.

  27. 27
    Nathanael says:

    Great words from President Obama. Like most of what he says, they’re empty words, as long as he isn’t backing them with action.

    He said he’d vote against the FISA Amendments Act, too. Then he voted for it and lied about what was in it.

    He made the Bush tax cuts for the idle rich permanent. I will never forgive this.

    I have no use for smarmy liars. Have disliked them since at least Ronald Reagan.

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