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On 50th Anniversary Of Civil Rights, LBJ Remembered As An Opportunist?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to start off the program with some of the latest politics on Capitol Hill before Congress heads off on recess next week.

And the nation is celebrating a big anniversary in civil rights this week. We wanted to talk about these topics and more. So we've called Maria Cardona. She's a Democratic strategist and a principal in the Dewey Square Group, which is a public relations firm - or public affairs firm. She's here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back.

MARIA CARDONA: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Kevin Williamson, roving correspondent for the National Review. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Kevin back - Kevin, welcome back to you as well. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So let me start with you 'cause you were born and raised in Texas and wrote a book about LBJ. This weeks marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It bans discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. The law was pushed for and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.

Four presidents are paying tribute to him this week at the LBJ Library. So, Kevin, let me start with you as a native Texan. I wanted to ask, first of all, is Johnson's civil rights legacy something that is kind of part of your DNA as a Texan?

WILLIAMSON: No. I think Lyndon Johnson was a monster, one of the worst people to ever hold the office of the presidency probably next to Woodrow Wilson. So, yeah, it's the 50th anniversary of signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It's the 57th anniversary of his gutting the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

It's the 64th anniversary of his blocking the Civil Rights Act of 1950. And I forget which anniversary it is of his filibuster the anti-lynching bills. But, you know, Johnson was an absolute opportunist, from what I am able to put together about him. I'm not sure he could even tell principle from self-interest apart.

MARTIN: But he is a person who went - as you know, as you wrote - for blocking these anti-lynching bills to being a civil rights champion in a very short period of time. So...

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, remarkable turnaround. And, you know, he gave a talk to some of his fellow - former, fellow senators when he was president. And one of the Robert Caro books talks about this.

And he gives them this little speech about, you know, these negroes are getting uppity, but now they've got something they didn't have before, which is political clout. And we have to give them something, not enough to make a difference - and these are LBJ's words - but just a little something.

MARTIN: You think this was just pure opportunism on his part, is that what you think?

WILLIAMSON: Oh, I think his whole career was pure opportunism. And again, I don't - I don't think he actually knew the difference between his own political self-interest and the national interest.

I think he had a real sense of sympathy, a genuine and authentic sense of sympathy for the downtrodden and the marginalizing the excluded. But I think that that manifested itself in him in just, you know, sort of pure political calculation. And he was a genius at that, you know. He was, as they say, the master of the Senate.

MARTIN: Well, Maria, presumably, you're about to explode here. So I take it you have different view.

CARDONA: Strong words, yes. Yes, very, very, very different view.

MARTIN: Let's hear your perspective.

CARDONA: Clearly, LBJ evolved during his political career as so many politicians do. Now, understanding that Republicans don't really believe in evolution, I can see why they would have a problem with LBJ's evolution. He's being called an opportunist.

But I think the bottom line is that he gave the opportunity to millions and millions of voters in this country who did not have the opportunity to really have their voices heard, to have their voices heard. We're talking about African-Americans. We're talking about Latinos. We're talking about new Americans.

We're talking about everybody who did not have a voice up until then. Say what you want about what he did or said or why he did it before then, there is no question that he changed the course of history by giving millions of people the right to have their voice heard. And that is historic.

WILLIAMSON: And signing a Republican civil rights bill, incidentally. So but, you know, what happens to a man when he's that age and that far along in life? He's already been vice president and all the rest of it.

And over the course of seven years, which is a relatively short period of time, he goes from being a guy who is, you know, gutting the Eisenhower civil rights bill, taking all the significant stuff out of it - specifically removing the enforcement provisions - to being the guy who says this is going to be my cornerstone. And he says he's going to do it, you know, as a tribute to John Kennedy. Well, John Kennedy voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1957 as well.

MARTIN: So how do you - Kevin, how do you think you want to remember his legacy? I mean, I also want to mention, look, during his years, America also saw the creation of Medicare and Medicaid...


MARTIN: ...Consumer protection laws, environmental protection laws, immigration.

WILLIAMSON: Disaster after disaster after disaster.

MARTIN: Well, but how do you want to remember his legacy?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think...

MARTIN: How do you want us to remember it?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think how we should remember LBJ's legacy is as honestly as we can, which is that, you know, he was a guy who came into office on the strength of the New Deal. And, you know, you talked about me being from Texas. I grew up not far from a town called New Deal, Texas.

The New Deal was extraordinarily popular in Texas. And Johnson's political strategy was to try to re-create that in the 1960s with the new set of programs of which the civil rights bills were part of and the war on poverty stuff was also a part of. But they were mostly not very good programs. You know, I think - unlike a lot of my fellow libertarian-minded people - that something had to probably be done at the national level in 1964.

Just the situation of African-Americans was not a socially or politically sustainable thing. And waiting for civil society to act on that was not going to be really the way to go. But we declared war on poverty at a time at which the poverty rate had been collapsing for 20 years. And then that reduction thereabout froze and a few years after that, has been going up since. You know, we've spent a little over a trillion dollars on the so-called war on poverty. And the poverty rate's the same now as it was in 1964.

MARTIN: Well, let me give Maria a chance to respond. How do you want to remember his legacy?

CARDONA: I think that we should remember his legacy the way that President Bill Clinton is remembering it this week, which is to focus on the fact that - again, say what you will about how he got there - he got to a place that was right for this country, that was, you know - it's interesting that Kevin says that it was a Republican civil rights bill.

What's so interesting about the backwards evolution that Republicans have gotten to is that today we're celebrating 50 years of the civil rights bill, the Civil Rights Act. And today in Republican legislatures all across the country, we are seeing laws that are being passed that are actually trying to take away that right from so many minority voters. So those Republicans are clearly going in the wrong direction.

WILLIAMSON: With the terrible, onerous restriction that people do to vote what they have to do to get on an airplane or go to the bank or walk into a government building, which is show a photo ID.

CARDONA: And Republicans...

WILLIAMSON: I mean, if you're really going to compare that to Jim Crowe...


WILLIAMSON: ...This is nonsensical. This is not a supportable...

CARDONA: Republicans love to say that, but you know what, Kevin? Not everybody in this country has the privilege of walking onto an airplane. Not everybody in this country can even show a birth certificate or have a photo ID. It costs money. It has resources. If you have grown up in a group home without parents, you do not have a photo ID. You don't necessarily have the means to even get a...

WILLIAMSON: Every state that has introduced...


WILLIAMSON: ...A voter ID bill has included a provision to get them for free.

MARTIN: All right, let's just take one moment here to let people know what we're doing. And if you're just joining us, we're having our political chat with Democratic strategist Maria Cardona and the National Review roving correspondent, Kevin Williamson. We're talking about the legacy of LBJ.

And since we're in a moment of remembrance, Maria, do you mind if I take a moment to acknowledge the late secretary of commerce, Ron Brown. He died on April 3, 1996 in a plane crash during a trade mission to Croatia that took the lives of Secretary Brown, 34 business, military and government officials, including 11 employees from Congress. You were deputy press secretary at commerce, so I just wanted to take a moment to say so sorry for your loss and the loss to the country.

CARDONA: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: But another reason I'm acknowledging this is that that kind of ascension of political leadership is something that people do attribute in part to the civil rights movement. Secretary Brown, and now more recently Democratic Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina - Republican - and on Wednesday, they joined forces for the first time to unveil their proposed LEAAP Act, which stands for leveraging and energizing America's apprenticeship programs - hate these bill titles, just hate them.

But what it would do is give tax credit to employers who offer apprenticeships. So, Maria, I just wanted to ask what you make of this kind of - some people might think a bit of an odd couple - bipartisan odd couple. What do you think?

CARDONA: I think it's terrific. I think it actually shows that in this era of tremendous polarization in our politics that when two leaders come together to really focus on trying to get something done, to focus on solutions, put politics aside, focus on the needs of the nation - we can get something done.

And this bill is actually something that would help to introduce more opportunity within the high-tech sectors, which we really need, and frankly more opportunity from, again, communities of color who have been left out of so many of the opportunity vehicles in this country. So I applaud them. And I think it's proof that we can actually do something in Washington.

MARTIN: Kevin, I'm interested because one of the reasons that I'm interested in Tim Scott's role in this is that he has declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus saying that he thinks it's divisive.

And so it's interesting to me that he is - I mean, and black Republicans who've served in the Congress generally have joined. So it's, you know - it's interesting - maybe it's generation on his part, but I'm interested in your perspective on this as well.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, well, I have no idea why he would or wouldn't join the Congressional Black Caucus. I sort of, you know - and like a lot of conservatives - am uncomfortable with these sort of, you know, racial groupings. And I think they're basically unhealthy. But, yeah, I mean, I'm not a huge Cory Booker fan for a lot of reasons, but I think it's a very sensible piece of legislation. I hope it works - I mean, of course it's a federal program so it won't. But it's well-intentioned. And - but I think...

MARTIN: But it's a tax credit so that should cheer you, should warm your heart, no?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Well, yeah - I'm not that big on tax credits actually. But, you know, the idea that we really only have sort of one model of education, which is all oriented towards sending people into four-year college degrees in liberal arts and getting office jobs and that sort of thing, I think, is intensely destructive.

And there are a lot of people who, never mind the question of capacity, just don't have the inclination to have those sorts of jobs. They don't want to work in an office, they want to do other sorts of things. And if we can get them into apprenticeship programs, if we can get them into other sorts of career paths to give them a viable way forward from the time they're fairly young, than I think that's going to be tremendously useful.

And I do think - if I could just add one thing since we're talking about civil rights - it is worth noting that, you know, in Philadelphia where I lived and worked for a long time, this was a huge issue in the city council there because the Philadelphia trade unions of course are one of the few remaining basically segregated important entities in America public life.

MARTIN: Final thing I wanted to get to - we really don't have time to have a deep discussion about it - is this whole question of sort of pay equity, Democrats pushing for legislation that would - they say would close the gender wage gap.

Republicans in the Senate shot down this Paycheck Fairness Act. And pretty strong words - we don't have time to sort of play them, but you all know what they said. Kevin, very briefly, good call or bad call for the Republicans because the Democrats are clearly pushing this hard as a way in part to attract more women, and presumably they think they're right.

WILLIAMSON: Sure, well...

MARTIN: So good call, bad call?

WILLIAMSON: The whole point of introducing bills like this is making Republicans vote against them. It's a nonsense issue. The 77 cents thing is a long-discredited figure. It has nothing to do with how businesses actually make decisions about compensation. It has to do with the choices people make about careers.

MARTIN: So you think they're right?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think they're right to shoot it down. I think it's a political loser for them, but that's the whole point of putting these things up.

MARTIN: OK. Maria, final thought from you.

CARDONA: If Republicans think that the 77 cents or the pay inequity is a myth, then just ask Lilly Ledbetter, who frankly was - she missed out on more than $230,000 throughout her lifetime. The Supreme Court agreed with her. So as a Democratic strategist, I hope Republicans continue down that line.


CARDONA: As a woman, it is absolutely offensive.

MARTIN: Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, principal of the Dewey Square Group. Kevin Williamson is roving correspondent for the National Review. Maria, here in Washington - Kevin, in New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CARDONA: Thank you, Michel.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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