Beck's Broke: LBJ passed civil rights legislation out of political expediency

I'm sure you'll be completely unsurprised to hear that in Broke, Glenn Beck describes President Lyndon Johnson as a “true progressive at heart,” and goes on to castigate virtually every aspect of his presidency. But Beck has a problem in attacking Johnson -- while his economic policies have been slammed by the right and his decision to escalate the Vietnam War has been savaged by the left, it's almost impossible to find someone who doesn't champion the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Beck's Fox colleague John Stossel excluded, of course).

So what does Beck do? He smears Johnson's passage of landmark civil rights legislation as entirely motivated by political expediency. Beck writes:

The truth was Johnson couldn't have cared less about the plight of blacks. What he did care about was his image, and he knew that being perceived as a civil rights crusader would help strengthen it. [pages 77-78]

After several pages of attacks on LBJ's Great Society, including a reference to the work of white supremacist favorite Charles Murray, Beck returns to the point:

All along, Johnson's voting record proved that he had little interest in racial “equality.” Instead, he knew that shifting black voters into the Democrat column would be a key component for Democratic victories moving forward. The sad truth is that his strategy actually worked. In 1964, LBJ got 94 percent of the black vote, a record for presidential elections that stood until 2008, when Obama got 96 percent.

In 1965, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, and since then no Republican presidential candidate has ever gotten more than 15 percent of the black popular vote. [page 85]

Ok, a few points here. First, did you notice how Beck glosses over what happened prior to the 1964 election that might have led to record black support for Johnson? Johnson, who Beck despises, pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964; his opponent in that year's election, Sen. Barry Goldwater, the sort of libertarian Beck loves, opposed the bill. So yeah, Johnson's support for civil rights and his opponent's opposition to it probably did shift African Americans into the Democratic column.

But was that really why Johnson supported the bills? Let's put it this way: There's no story about the president signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, turning to Bill Moyers, and saying, “We have won the black vote for a generation.” But there is one about Johnson telling Moyers, “We have lost the South for a generation.” You may recognize the quote; it's probably the most famous thing Johnson is ever reported to have said, though Beck completely ignores it because it doesn't fit his narrative. Johnson knowingly sacrificed a large chunk of the Democratic coalition to pass civil rights legislation.

After all, if it was that easy -- pass civil rights legislation and reap the political benefits -- wouldn't it have happened before Johnson's presidency?

Elsewhere, Beck decries Johnson as “no MLK” because of his civil rights record, singling out how “when President Eisenhower pushed through the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Johnson watered it down in the Senate so it became largely unenforceable.”

That's an... interesting interpretation of history. Eisenhower's efforts weren't capable of passing a civil rights act in 1956, but somehow the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed. How? Here's celebrated Johnson biographer Robert A. Caro, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Master of the Senate:

Never had the hope that blacks like Margaret Frost would be able to vote seemed further from any possibility of realization. In the Summer of 1957, however, Lyndon Johnson, in an abrupt and total reversal of his twenty-year record on civil rights, would push a civil rights bill, primarily a voting rights bill, through the Senate -- would create the bill, really, so completely did he transform a confused and contradictory Administration measure that had no realistic chance of passage; would create it and then, in one of the most notable legislative feats in American history, would cajole and plead and threaten and lie, would use all of his power and all his guile, all the awe in which his colleagues held him, and all the fear, to ram the bill through the Senate. It was, thanks to him, a bill that the House could also pass, and that the President could sign -- the first civil rights legislation to be added to the statute books of the United States since 1870. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 made only a meagre advance toward social justice, and it is all but forgotten today, partly because it was dwarfed by the advances made under President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. But it paved the way -- its passage was necessary -- for all that was to come. As its Leader, he made the Senate not only work, but work toward a noble end. [page xxiii-xxiv]

Incidentally, in Broke, Beck quotes from a few pages earlier in Caro's book -- to make the point that Johnson had a poor civil rights record as a senator. Maybe he just didn't make it that far?