In a stirring speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama praised former President Lyndon B.Johnson for fighting to expand opportunity through legislation that affected the whole nation, but also the lives of himself, his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Sasha and Malia.
"In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it's perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change, that we are trapped by our own history, and politics is a fool's errand, and we'd be better off if we roll back big chunks of LBJ's legacy," Mr. Obama said. "I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts. Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts, because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us."
Four of the five living presidents gathered this week at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, to commemorate the landmark 1964 legislation and grapple with ongoing debates over equality. For Mr. Obama, it was a time to reflect on his own struggles leading the nation and fighting for his priorities.
"Those of us who've had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow. Frustrating. Sometimes you're stymied. The office humbles you. You're reminded daily that in this great democracy you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bounds by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision," he said. "But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws, and by shaping our debates."
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Johnson, Mr. Obama said, was a genius for his ability to work within the confines of the world around him while also envisioning the world he wanted to see. "Passing laws," the president said, "was what LBJ knew how to do," with a combination of charm, ruthlessness, persuasion, flattery, and an ability to horse trade.
He recalled the former president's upbringing in the poverty-stricken Texas hill country and later experience working in a school for Mexican-American children that showed him how much worse that same poverty could be for minorities. When he was elected to office, "he was not a perfect man," the president said, choosing not to challenge convention and voting against every civil rights bill that came up for a vote in his first 20 years of Congress.
But when he hastily assumed the presidency after President John F. Kennedy's death, Johnson ignored the advice of his advisers not to pursue civil rights legislation, asking "what the hell the presidency" was for if not pursuing causes he believed in.
"He would reach back in his own memory and he would remember his own experience with want. And he knew that he had a unique capacity as the most powerful white politician from the South, to not merely challenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, but to ultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation," the president said. "He's the only guy who could do it...that's what his presidency was for."
Mr. Obama said Johnson didn't stop there, but went on to push for passage of the Voting Rights Act, an immigration reform bill, housing legislation, and Medicare. Mr. Obama noted that some of Johnson's opponents called Medicare "socialized medicine," a nod to the own criticism that his own landmark legislation, the Affordable Care Act, has received.
As the central debate of Johnson's presidency, the role of government, continues to divide the country, Mr. Obama warned that "we cannot be complacent."
"Securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. Our rights, our freedoms, they are not given, they must be won, they must be nurtured through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith," he said.
Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton excoriated voter ID laws across the country that he says seek to the progress made in the half-century since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. President George W. Bush is scheduled to speak this evening.