Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village stirred controversy by highlighting the importance of the community, as opposed to mere parents, in the rearing of children. Recently she touched off another political tussle by emphasizing that it took a politician, President Lyndon Johnson, not merely the courage of folks like Martin Luther King, to win passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“I would point to the fact that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Senator Clinton, concluding, “. . . it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.”
Her statement immediately created a hullabaloo, what with Senator Barack Obama’s inspiring oratory and his campaign of unity and hope so reminiscent of King. And perhaps because, while Mrs. Clinton’s self-portrayal as the insider who can move Washington in Johnson-esque fashion is simply fairy-tale spin, her calculated campaign — and likability quotient — do remind one a bit of LBJ.
Of course, what bothered me was the essence of Hillary’s point, its sheer idiotic quiddity. Unquestionably true in a narrow sense, it is broadly false. President Lyndon Baines Johnson did indeed push enough reluctant Democrats to vote with congressional Republicans to pass the landmark legislation. But just as with her arguments about the village vis-à-vis parents, she’s missed the forest for the lumber.
LBJ’s mathematical ability to count votes — including the number of potential future black votes — hardly exists on the same moral and historical plane as the extraordinary courage exhibited by Martin Luther King (and others) in facing down water cannons, police dogs and billy clubs. Of course there is reason to thank President Johnson for what he did. But let’s first remember those who bore great suffering to assert their rights before President Johnson saw advantage in recognizing those rights.
Granted, King’s crusade certainly would have been longer and tougher without LBJ’s decision to push the ’64 act. But the movement would have ultimately succeeded without Johnson.