LBJ’s Biden Moment

May 15, 2012

by George Packer
[posted on newyorker.com on May 15, 2012]

In one of those coincidences that get you thinking in historical analogies, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage just a few days after the publication of Robert Caro’s fourth volume on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson, “The Passage of Power.” Obama arrived at his position in very much the way that John F. Kennedy decided to put the force of the White House behind civil rights: slowly, reluctantly, and with a big assist from his overlooked, often ridiculed Vice-President.

I spent the summer of 1980 as an intern at a legal-aid office in southern Alabama, and in the houses of poor black people I got used to seeing a sign on the wall that said, “The three who set us free,” beneath pictures of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It always struck me as unfair that Johnson had been erased from history, not just in those homes in Alabama, but in the judgment of liberal-minded Americans all over the country. After all, it was President Johnson who got civil rights and voting rights passed, along with the entire program of social-justice legislation known as the Great Society.

For their part, President Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, spent their first two and a half years in office doing everything possible to avoid taking a position on the central moral issue of their time. The Freedom Rides, sit-ins, James Meredith, Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, and Bull Connor—time after time, the Kennedys watched Americans risking and giving their lives for basic rights and refused to take a clear side. Instead, the President urged patience and talked about enforcing laws and court orders, as if it were a purely legal question. In May, 1963, in the midst of police violence and massive arrests of schoolchildren in Birmingham, Kennedy was asked by a reporter whether it would be useful to speak to the country on the issue. read more