President Lyndon Johnson, domineering and manipulative, lives on in American memory as the classic power broker. He bullied opponents, sweet-talked skeptics, and chewed out subordinates. He oozed confidence as he passed one piece of landmark social legislation after another, even as his cockiness helped to mire the country in Vietnam. Yet this is not the Johnson who emerges from volumes seven and eight of The Presidential Recordings, a transcription of his phone conversations from June 1 to July 4 of 1964.
The power broker was in top form at the beginning of this five-week span, guiding the Civil Rights Act through a divided United States Senate. By the end, the master politician was plotting his re-election campaign. But in between, we hear Johnson’s voice hitting unfamiliar registers—this collection also includes a DVD with audio footage—as it crackles across the decades.
Five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson committed himself to a strong civil rights bill. Scholars have depicted this as a defining moment in his presidency. The native Texan wanted to show skeptical Northern liberals that he stood tall for racial equality. Just as crucial, Johnson was driven by ambition. He believed that passage of this bill would help secure for him a grand legacy.
According to the legend, Johnson admitted to White House aides that his signing of the Civil Rights Act would hand the South to the Republican Party for generations to come. It was a high price, but one that Johnson was willing to pay. This prediction has become a central part of the Johnson story. Historians, drawing on memoirs of White House insiders, retell this story with reverence in the way that relatives pass down cherished pieces of family lore. The Democrats thus became the party of racial progress; the Republicans seized the South. The story remains so powerful because Johnson gazed far into the future, foreseeing those political maps of America that would color entire regions in red or blue.
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