LBJ advisor: Obama has to 'get fingernails dirty'

Joseph Califano Jr., 82, a domestic policy adviser for LBJ, talks on USA TODAY's Capital Download about the battle 50 years ago to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and about lessons today for President Obama. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: President Obama and three former presidents will be at a ceremony in Austin next month to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Johnson. How much difference did that law make?

It made an enormous difference. Remember, before the '64 Civil Rights Act, hotels were segregated. Restaurants, all public places were segregated, all over the South and there was a lot of segregation in the North.

It was Step One followed by the Voting Rights Act, which opened voting to African Americans, and followed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which opened housing to everybody, and the bail reform, the Fair Jury reform. A whole host of pieces of legislation changed the whole landscape for African Americans in this country.

Q: President Obama delivers the keynote address at the LBJ Library. Michelle Obama will be there. For them personally, how much difference did Johnson's presidency make?

In the big ways, of course, it's inconceivable that Obama could have been elected president without the Civil Rights Act of '64 and without the Voting Rights Act of '65. Critical to his getting elected were the extraordinary proportion of black votes that he got.

Number two, remember both he and Michelle went to college and law school on college grant and loan programs that were part of the Great Society's health, education act, subsequent versions of it.

Number three, his mother was on food stamps for part of the time when she was raising him. So I think the Great Society touched him from the time Barack Obama was a child until today.

Q: In 1964, the nation was mourning JFK. You had big Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. How could it be so hard to get legislation passed?

You have to remember something. We had Democratic majorities but we didn't have majorities that were in favor of civil rights or of the Great Society programs. All the Southern Democrats were opposed to civil rights and a lot of the Republicans. All of the Southern Democrats and a larger group of Republicans were opposed to the Great Society programs — the poverty programs, Medicare, Medicaid. These were all tough hauls. Some passed by very close votes.

Q. What was the partnership between LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr. like?

It was tight. ... Right after Johnson was re-elected by this landslide in '64, King called him and congratulated him. And Johnson talked to King and he said, you know, I'm going to need your help. I'm going to call you because we have to talk about voting rights.

And a few days later, in January of '65, the president called Martin Luther King. And he said, now, look I want you to find the worst place in the South for a Negro to vote. Where they have to recite the Constitution. You just go down there somewhere. And he mentioned Alabama, Mississippi. You find the worst place down there. You get all your people down there. You march down there, you demonstrate down there. And you get the television down there and the radio down there.

Then when a guy on a tractor in the Midwest sees that, he'll say, this isn't fair. And he says, don't talk about it as a Negro's rights. Talk about it being every American's right to vote.

King picks Selma. When Selma exploded during the first attempted march and a minister from Boston got killed, Johnson got Gov. George Wallace, the governor of Alabama up there — and very well-publicized that he had called him a son of a bitch — and told him (to) protect the people with the Alabama National Guard.

Wallace said, well I don't have the power to. And Johnson said to Wallace, you were able to beat me in Alabama. You have control of the state. If you don't do it, I'll do it with federal troops. We did. We nationalized the Guard. We protected them.

Q: You've seen presidential leadership up close with President Johnson, again with President Carter. What makes a president succeed as a leader?

A clear vision, focus, 24/7. Recognizing also that this is a presidential nation. And Congress is never going to work unless the president is driving it. It just simply won't work. We have a lot of bitter partisanship today and we have a lot of money in this city today affecting how people vote, which may be even more of a problem. But the one person that can make the Congress work is the president.

If you just look at the last century — the three great eras of progressive legislation were Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. And they all dominated the Congress. They all really went at the Congress. And I think that was critical.

It's not possible the way we're structured, with ... the House constantly running for re-election, increasingly in the Senate like that, unless there's somebody over it. And that's very important. And we're missing that. I think President Carter missed it, too. ...

Q: What's missing with President Obama?

I don't think President Obama really understands that this is a presidential nation. That sure, there are problems. (House Speaker John) Boehner has got plenty of problems with the Tea Party. Moderate Democrats surely have problems as the Democratic Party gets further and further out on the left. But you can't just let that happen. He's got to get his fingernails dirty with Congress.

He's got to be sitting there with Boehner and saying, look, what do you need, what do you need to get enough votes to get this thing done? Let's figure it out. I'll get it for you. I'll help you get it. And to the Republicans in the Senate, and with (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid, what do you need, what do we need to break the filibuster? It's the president that's got to lead that effort. There's a limit to what Harry Reid and Boehner or any majority leader or any speaker can do.

Q: The White House would say they face unprecedented Republican obstructionism, that it's just a different time.

We faced unprecedented Southern Democratic obstructionism. Don't forget, the Democrat senators from the South controlled all of the committees in the Senate and most all the committees in the House, you have to think about that, and we had to work with them. ...

We had a similar problem. I don't think the Tea Party, the right-wing Republican Party, are any less entrenched than Southern Democrats were — not just on civil rights. They were against the spending for the Great Society.

Q: We've seen big 50th anniversary celebrations for LBJ, for the March on Washington. But LBJ's legacy has been defined in large part by the Vietnam War.

I think that's true. It has affected particularly the academic world and academic historians. ... But I will say to you and anybody, this world that we're living in today is more Lyndon Johnson's world than the world of any other president.

Just start thinking about it. We mentioned the Civil Rights Act, which changed this country. The immigration reform law, which ended the national quota system and opened it up to Asians and Africans and southern Europeans and South Americans. It's changed the demography of the country dramatically. Medicare and Medicaid sent life expectancy soaring. ... Public broadcasting, public radio, public television was a Great Society program. Education, every part of it: Head start for preschoolers, elementary and secondary funding, higher-education grants, loans and work-study grants. The first air pollution law, the first noise pollution war, the first water and clean air laws, the national endowment.

And culture — people say culture, Johnson? Wait. ... If you were in Washington in the 1960s, you would realize that for 20 years they had been trying to get a cultural center in Washington. Couldn't get it. Black city, no cultural center. Johnson got the cultural center in the city — in '64, before he gave the State of the Union — by calling it the John F. Kennedy cultural center and saying we got to do this for President Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy. ...

It is his country in that sense that we're living in.


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