Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ... It took a president to get it done. -- Hillary Clinton, Jan. 7
WASHINGTON -- So she said. And then a fight broke out. That remarkable eruption of racial sensitivities and racial charges lacked coherence, however, because the public argument was about history rather than what was truly offensive -- the implied analogy to today.
The principal objection was that Clinton appeared to be disrespecting Martin Luther King Jr., relegating him to mere enabler for Lyndon Johnson. But it is certainly true that Johnson was the great emancipator, second only to Abraham Lincoln in that respect. This was a function of the times. King was fighting for black enfranchisement. Until that could be achieved, civil rights legislation could only be enacted by a white president (and a white Congress).
That does not denigrate King. It makes his achievement all the more miraculous -- winning a permanent stake in the system for a previously disenfranchised people, having begun with no political cards to play.
In my view, the real problem with Clinton's statement was the implied historical analogy -- that the subordinate position King held in relation to Johnson, a function of the discrimination and disenfranchisement of the time, somehow needs recapitulation today when none of those conditions apply.
The analogy Clinton was implying was obvious: I'm Lyndon Johnson, unlovely doer; he's Martin Luther King, charismatic dreamer. Vote for me if you want results.
Forty years ago, that arrangement -- white president enacting African-American dreams -- was necessary because discrimination denied blacks their own autonomous political options. Today, that arrangement -- white liberals acting as tribune for blacks in return for their political loyalty -- is a demeaning anachronism. That's what the fury at Hillary was all about, although no one was willing to say so explicitly.
The King-Johnson analogy is dead because the times are radically different. Today an African-American can be in a position to wield the emancipation pen -- and everything else that goes along with the presidency: from making foreign policy to renting out the Lincoln Bedroom (if one is so inclined). Why should African-American dreams still have to go through white liberals?
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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