Lyndon Johnson was reportedly not a very easy man to get along with. He was vulgar, mean, and quite possibly one of the neediest people in the history of humanity. When I read stories of Johnson's personal life, I squirm in my seat from all the uncomfortableness. So President Obama's speech today on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act was a good reminder that for all his personal failings, and for all the ways he failed the country, Johnson's political legacy is an impressive one. He's responsible for the most progressive laws we've seen since FDR.
This speech seemed like a personal one for Obama. It feels like a reconsideration of President Johnson, a passionate defense of his record. It's always fascinating to hear presidents discuss other presidents, and this speech, with its melancholy account of Johnson near the end of his own presidency, is especially noteworthy. It's hard not to note that Obama is nearing the middle of his second term, that he's heading toward the steep downward slope of his eight years in office, and that he's got to be thinking about his own legacy. He has to be wondering what a president will be saying about him, fifty years from now. It's this complicated mixture of history and current events that makes this speech one of Obama's most memorable performances.