A few minutes after he signed the Civil Rights Acton July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Hubert Humphrey, who had led the fight for its passage in the Senate, with a copy of his signing speech. On it, the president wrote, “without whom it couldn’t have happened.”
Johnson wasn’t one to share credit easily, but he understood a simple fact about Washington: Humphrey—and the dozens of other people who made the bill happen—would be relegated to a footnote, and history would give credit to the man who signed it. And he was right. Three days later, The New York Times credited Johnson as “the man who pushed [the bill] through Congress.”
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the impression that Johnson single-handedly drove his forces in the Senate, manipulating his opponents with flawless ease, has only grown with time. In the latest volume of his acclaimed Johnson biography, 2012’s The Passage of Power, Robert Caro largely parrots Johnson’s own account of the period: “It was a struggle,” he writes, “whose strategy and day-by-day tactics were laid out and directed by him.” And the play All the Way, which opened last fall with “Breaking Bad”’s Bryan Cranston in the role of Johnson, likewise portrays the president as the omniscient political manipulator.
But this is mostly myth. Johnson had many legislative achievements during his presidency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection.
The one thing I would add is that while some of Caro’s rhetoric in The Passage of Power can get a little green lanterny in his description of the mechanics he’s still pretty clear that Congress was in the driver’s seat. If Harry Byrd’s top priority was still to oppose civil rights, he could have kept the bill bottled up for as long as he wanted. At any rate, the Civil Rights Act is an excellent example of the fundamental truth that the White House is where campaigns for political change end, not where they begin. A president can make some changes marginally more likely and can certainly obstruct change, but they don’t effect change by imposing their will on Congress. That’s not what LBJ did and it’s not what FDR did either.
None of this changes the obvious fact that Obama totally could have gotten single payer with some speeches, some threats to primary people who aren’t running for anything, stuff like that there.