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(Cheryl Carlin)

The Unmaking of the President

Lyndon Johnson believed that his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign would free him to solidify his legacy

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But King's assassination gave the bill new life. The Senate had already passed it; the House followed suit on Wednesday, April 10. Johnson signed the bill the next day, a week after King's death, surrounded by 300 friends, staffers, civil rights leaders and members of Congress. Taking note of the violence of the past few days, he said, "The only real road to progress for a free people is through the process of law." He also pleaded with Congress to pass legislation he had already introduced for social programs totaling $78 billion ($465 billion today). "We have come some of the way, not nearly all of it," he said.

But by then his power was spent. He would get his surtax passed later that year, but only after agreeing to painful spending cuts. Congress would approve a plan for new low-income housing, but it was a GOP-backed plan. Johnson couldn't even claim full credit for passage of the fair-housing bill: Richard Nixon, who was pursuing the Republican nomination for president, telephoned GOP legislators that weekend urging them to support it, the better to remove civil rights from the coming campaign. The bill also included a ban on transporting or teaching the use of firearms and incendiary devices deployed in riots, making it palatable to law-and-order advocates. And in the end, Congress refused to provide money to enforce the ban on discrimination.

Johnson may be remembered as the Vietnam War president, but in his mind his greatest legacy was his efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans. And he had much to show for it: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Head Start and more. But as the 1960s wore on, he also saw himself in a race—against black militancy, against rising ghetto frustrations, against an increasingly conservative white electorate.

At times, he privately lashed out at black America. "I asked so little in return," he later lamented to Kearns Goodwin. "Just a little thanks. Just a little appreciation. That's all. But look what I got instead....Looting. Burning. Shooting. It ruined everything." And April 1968 was the final blow. In a telling memo from April 10, Califano confronted his boss: "You are publicly on record promising a message. Failure to deliver will be considered a breach of faith by the entire Negro community and a good deal of the influential white community." Johnson scribbled angrily in reply, "I promised nothing. I stated my intentions only. Since changed by riots."

More than wounding his pride, the riots forced Johnson to realize how little his efforts had actually changed the country, at least in the short term. He had naively hoped that a massive assault of federal spending would relieve conditions in the ghetto overnight; when 125 cities erupted over one weekend, he had to confront the fact that nothing he had done seemed to have had an effect. "God knows how little we've really moved on this issue, despite all the fanfare," he later told Kearns Goodwin. "As I see it, I've moved the Negro from D+ to C-. He's still nowhere. He knows it. And that's why he's out in the streets.

"Hell," he added, "I'd be there too."

Clay Risen is the author of A Nation in Flames: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, due out in spring 2009.

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