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|What a Real President Was Like; To Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society Meant Hope and Dignity|
|The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext) - Washington, D.C.|
|Author:||Moyers, Bill D|
|Date:||Nov 13, 1988|
WHILE Lyndon Baines Johnson was a man of time and place, he felt the bitter paradox of both. I was a young man on his staff in 1960 when he gave me a vivid account of that southern schizophrenia he understood and feared. We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. "I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it," he said. "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
Some years later when Johnson was president, there was a press conference in the East Room. A reporter unexpectedly asked the president how he could explain his sudden passion for civil rights when he had never shown much enthusiasm for the cause. The question hung in the air. I could almost hear his silent cursing of a press secretary who had not anticipated this one. But then he relaxed, and from an instinct no assistant could brief-one seasoned in the double life from which he was delivered and hoped to deliver others-he said in effect: Most of us don't have a second chance to correct the mistakes of our youth. I do and I am. That evening, sitting in the White House, discussing the question with friends and staff, he gestured broadly and said, "Eisenhower used to tell me that this place was a prison. I never felt freer."
In those days, our faith was in integration. The separatist cries would come later, as white flight and black power ended the illusion that an atmosphere of genuine acceptance and respect across color lines would overcome in our time the pernicious effects of a racism so deeply imbedded in American life. But Lyndon Johnson championed that faith. He thought the opposite of integration was not just segregation but disintegration-a nation unraveling.
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