Too little, too late for ‘Selma’

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’: How Lyndon Johnson, the great tactician, got the Great Society going.

The new movie “Selma” looks at Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement, and a new book by Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency Of Now,’’ demystifies LBJ’s role in passing the laws that came to define the “Great Society.” Both are a much-needed corrective to our historical memory of LBJ, who is often depicted as a master politician, capable of cajoling members of Congress into bending to his will.

A few months after he became president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson told Bill Moyers, his speech writer and adviser, that he had precious little time to enact his legislative agenda. “In an ideal world,” Mr.In a New York Times column published Saturday, Maureen Dowd wrote that she enjoyed director Ava DuVernay’s film but was dismayed by its representation of President Lyndon B.Tim Roth, who plays George Wallace in the film, was on his way to the White House screening of the film Friday when TMZ asked if the film’s team has been in poor spirits since Oscar nominations were announced Thursday. Johnson explained, a president would have two, four-year terms. “I won’t make it that far, of course, so let’s assume we have to do it all in 1965 and 1966, and probably in 1966 we’ll lose our big margin in Congress.

The film, about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, shows Johnson butting heads with King and saying that giving blacks the right to vote is not a priority. “I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant,” Dowd wrote. “But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Zelizer’s excellent book goes deeper and shows how much of Johnson’s success was the result of big legislative majorities in Congress and strong public support for his liberal initiatives — not his larger-than-life personality. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood because fewer people see through it.” Dowd, who wrote that taped conversations between King and Johnson confirm that the president supported King’s cause, is worried that young people will now assume that Johnson was an obstacle for civil rights leaders. Bursting the “great man/president who can change history” myth about Johnson is long overdue; the notion of an omnipotent president distorts Americans understanding of how the legislative process works — and how little power the president actually has, particularly on domestic policy. She also dismissed DuVernay’s explanation that the film should just be appreciated as art and not as a historical document. “The ‘Hey, it’s just a movie’ excuse doesn’t wash,” Dowd wrote. “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.” Dowd is hardly the first person to criticize the film’s apparent distortion of the facts.

In the narrow confines of Congress, he was — as his biographer Robert Caro puts it in “Master of the Senate” — a brilliant student of not only legislative minutiae, but also of the needs, wants, and political constraints of his fellow senators. Johnson’s Great Society accomplishments included civil rights and voting rights bills, Medicare and Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Head Start, the War on Poverty, and the Immigration and Nationality Act. In a delicately wrought scene in which Coretta Scott King calls out her husband about his infidelities, some of the teenage girls reacted with a chorus of “oooohs.” DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr.

With Republicans on the defensive — and reasonably cooperative — and two years before midterm elections, Johnson had a small legislative window with which to operate. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.” Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men.

His command of the rules and the culture of the House and Senate, the strengths, weakness, and hobbyhorses of his colleagues, and his ability to coax, convince, and coerce them to vote his way, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, acknowledges, were crucial in getting so much landmark legislation passed. But there would be a cost: a lack of attention to execution; a failure to cultivate the necessary constituencies to sustain the programs that were created; and a lack of monies devoted to Johnson’s domestic vision. Over and over, LBJ promised more than he could possibly deliver, which only added to his ever-expanding “credibility gap.’’ As a legislative battler, Johnson viewed politics in crude, transactional terms, where political support could be traded for a parochial benefit that he, as president, could provide. (This was a man, after all, who believed that he could convince Ho Chi Minh to give up his fight for a unified Vietnam in return for a Tennessee Valley Authority for the Mekong Delta.) That approach might have worked in the Senate, but among the American people it was a harder sell.

Indeed, frustration at Johnson’s domestic agenda was less about opposition to the Great Society per se and more that he was trying to do too much, too quickly.-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.” Hollywood has done that with films like “Mississippi Burning,” which cast white F.B.I. agents as the heroes, or “Cry Freedom,” which made a white journalist the focus rather Denzel Washington’s anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko. Top Johnson aide Jack Valenti told Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, that L.B.J. aspired to pass a Voting Rights Act from his first night as president. Valenti said that his boss talked to him about it the night of J.F.K.’s assassination in the bedroom of Johnson’s house in D.C., The Elms, before the newly sworn-in president went to sleep.

Believing that his domestic agenda could not be sustained if he didn’t show sufficient hawkishness on Vietnam, he began the journey down the slippery slope of war in Southeast Asia, even though most of the country opposed escalation. And the Democratic landslide of 1964, which brought to Washington the most liberal class of elected officials in decades, clearly greased the wheels for Mr. Less clear (in the 1960s and in 2015), however, and virtually impossible to measure, is the impact of public opinion and grass-roots activity on the votes of politicians. Johnson’s view on how the politics of national security worked — developed in the 1950s during the time of the “Who Lost China?’’ debate and at the height of Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist excesses — were practically unchanged by 1968.

Significant external pressure was not much in evidence as congressmen and senators decided to vote yea or nay on other signature Great Society measures. What Johnson lacked are skills so often derided in American politics today: a willingness to change course or to factor in new evidence and political realities into his actions. In the fall of 1967 when Johnson and the war were increasingly unpopular; when Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy directly challenged him for the Democratic nomination; when the military situation in Vietnam appeared to increasingly be a stalemate; when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was telling him it was time to get out of Vietnam, Johnson stayed the course — and tried to convince Americans that there was in fact a light at the end of the tunnel on Vietnam. The war in Vietnam — and the “credibility gap” that accompanied it — took a toll on the president’s popularity (his job approval fell to 39 percent in 1968) and emboldened his critics. As I have written about “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo,” and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about “The Imitation Game,” the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough.

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street — and they were no doubt shocking to the D.C. school kids.

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