Using back channels: LBJ and Barack Obama

Jeff Greenfield’s historical novel, Then Everything Changed, is a collection of actual facts and plausible alternatives to facts. Without divulging too much about the book, the first of his three “what might have beens” involved Lyndon Johnson becoming president in 1960. Johnson knew that he was considered somewhat of a southern country bumpkin by many Northerners, particularly those who supported John F. Kennedy. He concluded that an effective way to gain their support was by advancing the cause of civil rights.

What Greenfield describes Johnson doing in 1961 is essentially what Johnson did in 1964 following the assassination of Kennedy. LBJ may have been from the South, but he wasn’t a Confederate.

Johnson’s strategy involved currying favor of members of Congress who were necessary to passing civil right legislation. He also worked the media. But fundamental to making civil rights legislation palatable and desirable to both Congress and the American people, was the way in which Negro leaders (as African-American leaders were called in the early 1960s) framed the issue.

Desegregated schools were already federal policy as a result of the Supreme Court’s unanimous landmark 1954 Brown v. School Board of Topeka decision. But discrimination in public accommodations was still legal. In February, 1960 when four young African-American men went to eat at the lunch counter of an F.W. Woolworth Company store in Greensboro, NC, they were not served and taunted. African-Americans essentially couldn’t eat at most restaurants in the South, stay in most motels, or use a restroom unless it was designated for “colored.” What Johnson knew was that the greatest fear of southern whites was that if an African-American male could sit next to a white female at a lunch counter, soon they’d be talking, then they’d be laughing, and ultimately they would wind up in bed together.

In Greenfield’s book, Johnson determined that the best way to advance civil rights was by extending the right to vote. There was constitutional protection through the 14th and 15th amendments. What was missing was federal legislation that would allow the Attorney-General to send federal officials to oversee the registration of African-Americans as well as their access to polls on election days. He reasoned that there was no plausible connection between voting and sexual relations between African-Americans and whites. Thus voting rights would be the best way to advance civil rights with the least amount of white resistance.

Johnson knew that he could not be the primary advocate for advancing civil rights. In fact, his best chance of success was if as president he played the role of a southern sympathizer who reluctantly came to the conclusion that there was no alternative to advancing civil rights.

So if not Johnson, then who would be the primary proponents of civil right legislation? Here is where timing was everything. The nation had a remarkable group of civil rights leaders. While most were men, they varied quite a bit in age. There were wizened veterans like A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer and Whitney Young. There were young ones such as John Lewis, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.. All were committed to advancing civil rights, but there was not a coalition that agreed upon a strategy.

This is where Johnson brilliantly played the “back channels.” While he had occasional scheduled appointments with civil rights leaders, he kept them limited in order to make its leaders look like just another interest group that was bidding for his time and attention. But after hours, Johnson was relentlessly on the long lines talking to Dr. King, Lewis, Wilkins, and others. His message was two-fold: (a) civil rights had to be united behind a single issue if legislation was going to be passed, and (b) that issue had to be voting rights.

Many of the civil rights leaders had fought the battles of public accommodations, fair housing, and police brutality. Johnson reasoned that all of these issues could be addressed once African-Americans had the right to vote and actually exercised it. Using his unique combination of honey and vinegar, he brokered a consensus among the civil rights leaders to focus on voting rights. Though not visible to anyone other than the civil rights leaders and a few of his top aides, Johnson essentially organized a march on Washington in favor of voting rights. He picked the leaders, speakers, invitees as well as the date and location. He would do everything but be present at the march. He wanted to be the solitary, pensive figure in the White House who saw this march for justice. He heard the stirring rhetoric and viewed hundreds of thousands of marchers who were non-violent and law-abiding. He had no choice but to act.

In Greenfield’s book, behind the scenes Johnson orchestrated this effort to make voting rights the call of the nation. Whites joined blacks in clamoring for immediate passage by Congress, and that’s precisely what happened.

What about President Barack Obama and back channels? As president, is he making private calls to advance his priorities? What issues are important to him that he can’t state publicly. Does he work cleverly behind the scenes to advance these causes?

Tens of millions of people voted for Barack Obama because they truly believed his progressive rhetoric in the campaign. They thought that his conservative words, such as continuing America’s presence in Afghanistan, were pro forma words that he had to say in order convince the Americans he would support military action when needed.

While he didn’t fully endorse a public option in health care, many felt that once in office, he would settle for nothing less and use back channels to make that clear to anyone who was uncertain. He would quietly and invisibly reach out to Planned Parenthood to not just protect existing reproductive rights, but to advance them so that every woman in American would be in charge of her own reproductive decisions.

Barack Obama may not be an enigma to those who know him best. But to many Americans, particularly those left of center, many of his actions seem unfathomable. Why did he give away the public option with no apparent concession in return? Why did he not take a firm stand against continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy? Why did he cut the payroll tax when we need to actually increase it, specifically on those making over $106,800, to provide the long-range viability that we all seek?

On the surface, President Obama does not seem to be a very clever or even active negotiator. This would be acceptable if behind the scenes he was orchestrating progressive and effective change. Just as there’s no way to prove a negative, there’s no way to assess what is invisible to us. He must be doing something through back channels, right? Let’s hope so, and let’s hope that it involves the progressive agenda that so many of us want.

What we see gives little reason to be confident about what he is doing behind the scenes. What I do know is that he’s an avid reader. Mr. President, may I suggest Jeff Greenfield’s Then Everything Changed?