As nyceve noted in a superb piece last night, many can take credit for the historic nomination of Obama for this nation's highest office. While she specifically mentioned LBJ as someone who made it happen, biographer Robert Caro offers considerably more detail on this subject in a superb op-ed piece in today's NYT.
As we all know, Obama's ability to pile up landslide margins of AA voters starting in SC played an essential role in his victory. As Caro notes, prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, black voter registration levels were abysmal in the South:
In March 1965, black Americans in the 11 Southern states were still largely unable to vote. When they tried to register, they faced not only questions impossible to answer — like the infamous "how many bubbles in a bar of soap?" — but also the humiliation of trying to answer them in front of registrars who didn’t bother to conceal their scorn. Out of six million blacks old enough to vote in those 11 states in 1965, only a small percentage — 27 percent in Georgia, 19 percent in Alabama, 6 percent in Mississippi — were registered.
LBJ took grave political risks in passing this historic bill. He had already seen the Deep South flip to Goldwater in the face of a Dem landslide the year before. He was opposed by his Senate mentor, Richard Russell of GA, and by other old political allies. As Mark Shields recently noted, LBJ acknowledged those risks to his aide, Bill Moyers:
On Aug. 6,1965, after the Congress had passed his Voting Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson, the master politician and son of the Confederacy, confided solemnly to Bill Moyers, then his young White House assistant, "Bill, I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."
LBJ obviously proved to be the prophet on that point. The 1964 Public Accomodations Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act fueled the rise of Wallace, which led to Nixon's Southern Strategy, which led to the transition of the Solid Dem South to the Solid GOP South. Gingrich, DeLay, and Rove, sadly, all owe a great deal to LBJ's civil rights achievements.
Thankfully, that brand of GOP "conservatism" has finally collapsed of its own weight in the past 4 years. Iraq, Katrina, Schiavo, gas prices, and housing prices have all laid bare the moral bankruptcy of that brand. Sen. McCain has been set up as the victim of that collapse, and Sen. Obama is poised to be its beneficiary. The light at the end of a longgg tunnel is finally becoming apparent.
Sen. Obama will stand on the shoulders of many people when he speaks to a weary nation tonight. He will, obviously, acknowledge his debt to Dr. King on the 45th anniversary of the reverend's most famous speech. He will also, however, owe a huge debt to LBJ as well. As Caro notes:
"Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans," I have written, "but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life."
LOOK what has been wrought! Forty-three years ago, a mere blink in history’s eye, many black Americans were unable to vote. Tonight, a black American ascends a stage as nominee for president. "Just give Negroes the vote and many of these problems will get better," Lyndon Johnson said. "Just give them the vote," and they can do the rest for themselves.
W/o people getting beaten in Selma, there would've been no Voting Rights Act. W/o equally brave people who were willing to risk their lives registering voters in MS, there never would've been that Act. W/o the actions of countless brave people who have been lost to history, God knows when the franchise finally would've been broadly extended.
W/o the incomparable legislative skills of LBJ, however, it wouldn't have happened either. Bismarck's famous adage of lovers of laws and sausages not seeing them made probably applies here, too. We'll never really know what arm-twisting, horse-trading, and other manuevering was required in order to pass this Act. We do know that LBJ's hand was the one pulling most of the strings in that essential process.
We all know that Sen. Obama will give a memorable speech tonight, and we all know that he will hail many people who made his nomination possible. Here's hoping that he can put in a kind word for a Dem POTUS whose actions 43 years ago paid such dividends this year.