Hey! Hey! LBJ! What Can You Teach the President Today?

“The Democratic party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime and possibly yours,” roars Brian Cranston as a grizzled Lyndon B. Johnson at soon-to-be vice president Hubert H. Humphrey in the Broadway production “All the Way.”

“What the f— are you so happy about?”

An expression of Johnson's unshakeable disquiet with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these lines close out the first act of “All the Way,” and set the stage for Johnson's upcoming election. The play is excitingly reminiscent of both “House of Cards” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Rife with political intrigue and backroom dealings, its first act focuses almost entirely on Johnson’s desire to reassure a distraught public that the “accidental president” is just as competent as his murdered predecessor by passing major legislation.

Lyndon Johnson and specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have, not accidentally, recently become of significant public interest. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the bill’s passage, and the journalistic world has made a pet project out of comparing the legacies of President Johnson and President Obama.


Many yearn in a dismally nostalgic way about how successful Washington used to be. How a strong, charismatic, slithering executive with ample experience could mobilize a significantly divided, but ultimately competent body. Congress was neither as obstinate nor as divided then as it is today, and thus deserves ample credit. But more often than not, praise is given mostly to the will and power of the executive, not the legislature: for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the slew of other legislation passed during the Johnson administration.

There is little question that without Johnson’s prowess and familiarity with Washington wheeling and dealing such legislation wouldn’t have passed. But when it comes to comparing legacies, some argue that Obama’s lack of experience is overshadowed by the ineffectuality of Congress, and that something like the Civil Rights Act could never be passed today, even if Obama had Congress by the testicles (imagery Johnson apparently would have loved, according to “All the Way”).

It would be quite interesting from a historical and theoretical point of view to be able to see who really deserves the credit when loads of legislation are passed, but Washington today, which could provide a controlled experiment to find the answer, instead gives us the tools to be lazy and inconclusive just like itself.

Congress today is perpetually throwing a temper tantrum, and we also have a weak president—the worst of both worlds. If merely one of the bodies—executive or legislative—were inadequate, perhaps we could see whether much-needed legislation reaffirming the promise of the Voting Rights Act or making the National Security Agency more transparent could pass. But instead, we must scream and shout at both the president and the Congress while the former only slowly begins to resurrect the moral compass which guided him through his Senate and campaign years, and the latter sticks its fingers in its ears and votes in accordance with whomever fills its coffers the most.

We know we want change— it’s the same reason why we elected this president twice. But the question remains about which body will actually do it.

I have very little faith in Congress’s ability to transform during the present administration. The body representing the moneyed class has an inexhaustible fuel supply and no incentive to change its course. Until a new generation of disenchanted and angry legislators emerges, riding on a populist anti-corruption wave, little will change.

On the other hand, I do have possibly naive faith that the last two Obama years will finally see the emergence of a strong executive. Not one of the odd-machismo variety we have seen in the new millennium—one who maps out axes of evil, proclaims doctrines of intervention, and draws red lines—instead, one dedicated to progressive values, to the actual improvement of the health, longevity, and prosperity of its citizens.

Perhaps Obama should take a page out of the Johnson playbook. At least then his conscience would be clear, and the overzealous evaluators could perform an accurate comparison of the two men, even if Obama’s legacy still would pale in comparison because of a childish legislative body.

This past week the Obamas took some much-needed vacation time to see Denzel Washington in “A Raisin in the Sun.

Perhaps they chose the wrong play, perhaps they didn’t. Either way—there’s not a lot to be f—ing happy about.

Vivek A. Banerjee ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.


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