Some people are peeved with Senator Clinton for allegedly claiming that President Johnson played a more important role than Martin Luther King Jr. in advancing the civil rights of black Americans.
“I would point to the fact that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done,” she said, in response to a question about how her dismissive attitude toward Obama’s “false hopes” would have applied to the civil rights movement. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished.”
It seems clear to me that this isn’t racist. Obtuse, perhaps, but not racist. What’s most striking is that Clinton seems to devalue the central importance of the normative shift that King arguably brought about. By drawing out the hypocrisies and institutional violence that undergirded segregation, he forced Americans, in the context of the Cold War, to confront the incompleteness of the US commitment to liberty and democracy. The Civil Rights Act was of course very important, but the days of segregation were numbered as soon as the US intelligentsia deemed official racism morally repugnant and strategically and economically counterproductive. One might say that Clinton is undervaluing the role played by the “war of ideas” and overvaluing the role played by the force of law.
To draw an admittedly inapposite comparison (it’s late, my brain is fried), Warren Harding was president and Charles Darwin was a scientist and a foreigner. Does Clinton believe that Harding’s legislative initiatives proved more consequential in shaping American life than Darwin? I should hope not. That would be flatly absurd. King, a socialist, pacifist, and internationalist, was a figure who transcended domestic politics. That Clinton seems to think of LBJ as the more substantial figure betrays an ideological bias — the real work of “change” is done by those who wield political power. Politicians “wear the pants” in her vision of a national family. So if a moral and intellectual leader like King can’t hold a candle to the likes of LBJ, surely innovators and entrepreneurs and intellectuals are but bit players in the drama of life.
I’m not saying Clinton is guilty of outright state-worship, but come on …
And incidentally, I’m increasingly worried that Obama might lose. Though Obama is almost as enthusiastic about central planning, he seems to have a basic appreciation for the fact that reasonable people disagree on what the size of government ought to be. His resistance to health care mandates is driven less by political calculation and more by a sense that Americans bridle against unnecessary coercion. And, as the King imbroglio suggests, he recognizes that visionary leadership needn’t come from the the Generalissimo in Washington. That seems like reason enough to root for him.