January 16, 2008

Many hissyfits have been thrown in the lefty blogosphere about Senator Obama's stated desire to get past "the fights and arguments of the '90's," but it seems we still haven't gotten past the '60's. Case in point: Barbara Ehrenreich takes Obama's principle opponent, Hillary Clinton, to task for her focus on the role LBJ played in passing civil rights legislation:
At first I took it as another, yawn, white rip-off of black culture and creativity: the Rolling Stones appropriating the Bo Diddley beat, Bo Derek sporting corn rows, and now Hillary giving Lyndon Baines Johnson credit for the voting rights act of 1965. If you had to give this honor to a white guy, LBJ was an odd choice, since he'd spent the 1964 Democratic convention scheming to prevent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party from taking any Dixiecrat seats. By Clinton's standards, maybe Richard Nixon should be credited with the legalization of abortion in 1972.
There are so many things that are disingenuous about Ms. Ehrenreich's post, but I thought it would be best just to focus on that first paragraph. First, the former First Lady spoke about LBJ's (and JFK's) role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not the VRA the following year. I know all civil rights bills look alike, but still. There was a huge difference in context between the two bills, but it seems like her rationale for misstating Senator Clinton's quote is that it allows her to bring up the MFDP and the sainted Fannie Lou Hamer, and thus act like Ms. Clinton is not only dissing MLK, but also the martyrs of Mississippi as well. Since Congress passed the 1964 Act well before the Freedom Summer of '64, Ehrenreich is being just a wee bit dishonest here.

The MFDP battle at the '64 Democratic Convention was always considered a turning point for white leftist activists in the '60's, which brings me to my second point: by playing up the importance of what was little more than a floor fight in Atlantic City over credentialing (and one that managed to piss off both sides in the end), Ms. Ehrenreich is playing to one of the more trite cliches of that era, that LBJ was an evil racist cracker who only supported civil rights when it suited his purpose. By giving all the credit for passage of civil rights laws to "the Movement," while disparaging the role played by mainstream politicians of both parties, almost all of whom were white, male and middle-aged, she (and others of her generation) can relive the heady days when liberals were the true enemy, no one over thirty needed to be trusted, and LBJ was synonymous with "genocidal Asian-killing madman."

Lastly, her last sentence about Nixon and abortion is just a piss-poor analogy. The Supreme Court, not Tricky Dick, affirmed the constitutionality of a woman's right to choose. Unlike Johnson, Nixon didn't break arms and horsetrade to get the High Court to legalize abortion.

Her colleague at the Nation, John Nichols, has a much more nuanced notion as to how political movements and politicians can successfully create great change. In discussing the controversy, Nichols points out:
Where both Clinton and Obama are misguided is in their shared attempt to score political points rather than to step back from the abyss of an ugly discourse and to seek the clarity that is so frequently absent from our politics.

Neither Clinton nor Obama is using history well or wisely. Neither is telling those of us who recognize the significance of the King-Johnson collaboration – and, for a brief shining moment it was a collaboration – what we need to hear. Neither is answering the fundamental questions: How, as president, would they relate to social and political movements? Would they invite the Martin Kings and the Frederick Douglasses of the twenty-first century to the White House? Would either of these two candidates, as president, sit down with those demanding fundamental change, craft policies with supposed radicals, and coordinate political strategies with influential outsiders – as did both Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s?

Frederick Douglass knew, as did King, that it mattered who held the presidency. An imperfect Lincoln was better than a perfect Jefferson or Jackson. As Douglass explained in remembering the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation,
"We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States."
King was similarly clear-eyed about Johnson, a Texas politician who came slowly to the cause of civil rights but was crucial to its advancement. Where the administration of John Kennedy had kept King at arm's length, Johnson reached out to the man who would win the Nobel Peace Prize during the new president's first year in office. King said Johnson helped him understand that "new white elements" in the American South might be motivated by a "love of their land (that) was stronger than the grip of old habits and customs." Johnson, in turn, recognized the necessity of maintaining close ties with King and other civil rights leaders, both because the president valued their insights and because he needed their support.
Ehrenreich is correct to suggest that without mass movements, there are no Great Men of History. But we should also not forget that without Great Men (and Great Women) in the right positions of power, mass movements are just SAFSN.

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