Joan Wong, photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Living in L.B.J.’s America

Aug 27, 2016

Originally published Aug. 27, 2016
Originally appeared in The New York Times


“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Hillary Clinton claimed during her 2008 campaign against Senator Barack Obama, before adding, “it took a president to get it done.”

Mrs. Clinton got considerable flak for this remark from Mr. Obama, who called it “ill advised.” But Mrs. Clinton was right, and it is instructive to note how much of a role two of L.B.J.’s least remembered accomplishments — the Johnson Amendment of 1954, which banned overt political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions; and his revision of our immigration laws — have already played in this year’s presidential race.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for civil rights was the proudest moment in our country’s history, and attaining at least some level of racial justice was achieved first and foremost by what generations of black people did for themselves. But overturning Jim Crow required the reception of their appeal. It meant winning elections and changing laws in what was still an overwhelmingly white country.

The man who finally got it done, of course, was Lyndon Baines Johnson, and in this time of gridlock and division, Johnson has come to be seen more and more as a protean figure, a man who, for all of his faults and grotesqueries, could make things happen. L.B.J. was born 108 years ago on Aug. 27, but his Great Society programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, extensive federal aid for higher education; the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Fair Housing acts, which barred most forms of public discrimination — still define what we think of as the rights and privileges of modern America. And yet, his influence does not stop there.

For those puzzled about why so many evangelical leaders were willing to endorse Donald J. Trump, the most openly irreligious major-party presidential candidate in our history, Jerry Falwell Jr. provided the answer in his singularly graceless speech at the Republican National Convention: “Mr. Trump has added a plank to this party’s platform to repeal I.R.S. rules sponsored by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 barring churches and nonprofits from expressing political free speech.” Mr. Falwell assured his audience, “Trust me, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment will create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.”

Mr. Falwell was referring to a change to the tax code added by Johnson when he was the Senate minority leader. The amendment, as The Times reported in 2011, was not aimed at churches, but at “two nonprofit groups that were loudly calling him a closet Communist.” These were the Facts Forum, funded by the Texas oil billionaire H. L. Hunt to produce and distribute McCarthyist books, television programs and radio shows; and the Committee for Constitutional Government, another far-right, multimedia and mass-mailing center founded by the newspaper magnate Frank Gannett.

The Johnson Amendment stated that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” In other words, tax-deductible charitable contributions could not be used to fund election campaigns. This was considered so uncontroversial at the time that no record of what Johnson was thinking or precisely how he got this clause attached to the tax code seems to have survived. It was passed by a Republican Congress, and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Churches on all sides, liberal and conservative, proved able to skirt the provisions of the amendment easily enough, and it went largely unchallenged until 2008, when the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal and political organizing arm of right-wing Christian evangelicals, started a campaign to repeal it. The A.D.F. began an annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in which ministers were encouraged to give overtly political sermons, and then send recordings of these talks to the I.R.S.

Just as it has done in its attacks on gay rights, the Christian right is attempting to flip this issue on its head and make it one of “religious freedom.” The A.D.F. has cast its own adherents as the real victims, deprived of their rights of free speech and association, and conjured up a vision of countless federal Javerts filling the pews, jotting down every word. But the I.R.S., hobbled by years of budget cuts, has refused to rise to the bait. It is not believed to have opened any audits of churches for noncompliance under the Johnson Amendment since at least 2009, and all that ministers who send in recordings receive is a form letter thanking them for their interest. The A.D.F.’s efforts have fared little better in court, as Johnson’s typically airtight legislation did not differentiate between religious institutions or any other type of nonprofit.

“A broad change to the provision would likely cause minor-level chaos within the U.S. political system,” Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic this month. “There would no longer be any meaningful difference between charitable groups and lobbying organizations.”

And yet what is Donald Trump but a sworn agent of chaos? Repealing the Johnson Amendment would most likely flood our political system — and especially Republican Party coffers — with still more money, all of which would be tax deductible.

Whether Mr. Trump ever gets that opportunity could well be decided by the demographics of a country that is less white — and less Christian — than it has ever been. This was mostly Lyndon Johnson’s doing as well.

“Throughout most of the history of the United States,” as the historian Randall B. Woods wrote in “LBJ: Architect of American Ambition,” “laws were on the books that declared the vast majority of the people in the world legally ineligible to become full citizens solely because of their race, original nationality, or gender.”

Free Africans and Asians were repeatedly barred from the United States. The bogus science of eugenics and fears of importing radical, “foreign ideologies” inspired the 1924 National Origins Act, which slammed shut the “golden door” through which millions had found safe haven. Immigration from countries outside the Americas was limited to 2 percent of the total number of foreign-born persons from those nations who were residing in the United States according to the 1890 census — that is, before the peak years of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Immigration was cut by more than half within a year, with the number of immigrants from Italy alone reduced by over 90 percent. More terribly, a decade later the new quotas helped prevent millions of European Jews from escaping the Holocaust. The devastation of World War II and the conflicts of the Cold War led to some softening of our immigration rules, but not much. Southern congressmen opposed taking in even the most desperate refugees from Europe as vehemently as Trump supporters wish to exclude Syrian refugees today.

The McCarran-Walter Act, passed over President Harry Truman’s veto in 1952, contrived to renew the bar against almost all Asians and most Jews. Pat McCarran, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, associated both these groups with Communism, and defended his bill in words that might have been lifted straight from the Trump campaign:

“I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors,” he proclaimed, but added: “However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission, and those gates are cracking under the strain.”

President John F. Kennedy sent Congress a message in the summer of 1963 calling for the revision of McCarran-Walter, declaring it “without basis in either logic or reason.” But like so many other proposals in J.F.K.’s New Frontier, this went nowhere. Kennedy had solid majorities in both houses of Congress, but on many issues legislation was just as gridlocked as it is now, thanks to the conservative Democrats who ran leading committees.

McCarran was dead, but the reactionary stalwart James Eastland of Mississippi now held his chairmanship. Francis Walter, the racist Pennsylvania congressman who had partnered with McCarran to pass the bill that bore their names, still ran the House Judicial Subcommittee on Immigration and Nationality. And while L.B.J. himself had aided dozens of European Jews in escaping Europe before and during World War II, he had also voted with his fellow Southerners to override President Truman’s veto of McCarran-Walter.

Johnson the president would once again surprise everyone, telling Congress in his 1964 State of the Union address: “We must also lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country, particularly those who have much needed skills and those joining their families. In establishing preferences, a nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’ But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?’ ”

Johnson’s point man in the House of Representatives was Brooklyn’s feisty Emanuel Celler, whose maiden speech in the House, 41 years earlier, had inveighed fruitlessly against the National Origins Act. In the upper house, Johnson turned to Michigan’s Phil Hart, the liberal “conscience of the Senate,” who had forged an unlikely friendship with Senator Eastland. (When Eastland was up for re-election once, Hart deliberately gave a Senate speech denouncing him, so that Eastland could gain standing back in Mississippi.)

The bill was still a heavy lift, but on Oct. 3, 1965, at a ceremony held under the Statue of Liberty, Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act into law. Immigrants would finally be admitted to the United States without consideration of their race, ethnicity or country of origin.

This was a seismic change, but at the same time a cap of 120,000 a year was put on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. Contrary to the rhetoric dominating the present campaign, our southern and northern borders had usually been highly permeable, with the number of Mexican laborers, in particular, allowed in the country according to the desires of American employers.

Yet the greater principle was established. The leading countries of origin for American immigrants by 1980 were Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea and China. The Hart-Celler Act, the economist Vernon M. Briggs Jr. would write in 1984, was already “contributing to an ethnic pluralism of the population to a degree that has never truly existed before.”

Or as Randall Woods put it: “The Immigration Act of 1965 did nothing less than ensure that America remained a land of diversity whose identity rested on a set of political principles rather than blood and soil nationalism.”

That blood and soil nationalism is what Mr. Trump and his supporters seem intent on selling this election year. But while the Republican candidate may boast the runaway animal spirits of Lyndon Johnson, he possesses few of L.B.J.’s more subtle political skills, and none of his overarching vision for this nation.

Hillary Clinton’s political profile bears a closer resemblance to Johnson’s. She has an even greater breadth of experience in government than Johnson did when he became president, and just as much ability to master policy. Much like Johnson, she is also little trusted by the liberals in her party.

Even if Mrs. Clinton wins an overwhelming majority of electoral votes, she will not have the enormous momentum that Johnson carried into office. This momentum stemmed from President Kennedy’s tragic death and a generation of liberal successes before him, but it also came from the booming energy of a young, optimistic nation, richer and more powerful than it had ever been before, eager and even furious to address issues of reform, justice and opportunity left unresolved during the prosperous but staid years of the Eisenhower administration. This was the sort of pressure that L.B.J. needed and welcomed — at first, anyway, before he was lured into Vietnam, turning so many of his natural allies against him.

Mrs. Clinton lacks something else, as well. While she was right that it took a Lyndon Johnson to make Dr. King’s dream a reality, what she does not quite seem to understand is how much of the dream Johnson appeared to carry within himself. Mrs. Clinton lacks, thank goodness, the paranoia, the need to brutalize and dominate that L.B.J. possessed. At the same time, she is all too willing to obfuscate, to cut corners on the truth but especially on a vision. She seems unable to summon the inspiration that Johnson — never a great speaker — was able to rouse when he talked of his Great Society or when, standing before Congress after the battle for voting rights in Selma, Ala., he told a national television audience, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice — and we shall overcome.”

For better and for worse, no one we elect this year is going to be a Lyndon Johnson. No one could be, in a country this closely divided. Whether Mrs. Clinton can use the nastier, more pessimistic turmoil engulfing this year’s election to accomplish anything positive is not readily apparent. It will be up to the rest of us, just as it was up to us, ultimately, even under “Big Daddy” Johnson, to achieve something greater.