July 2 is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark measure that fundamentally transformed American life and still serves as a reminder that lasting and massive change was once possible in Washington.
Of course, the situation was different then. President Lyndon B. Johnson was at the peak of his powers, considered the political heir of the martyred President John F. Kennedy, his predecessor. This gave LBJ enormous influence. Johnson also was heading for a landslide victory over Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in that November's presidential election and he enjoyed strong support in the House and Senate.
President Barack Obama bristles at comparisons between himself and LBJ because he is often found lacking as a leader, and because Obama is seen as disinterested in the kind of relationship-building that LBJ thrived on. Obama points out that when voters eventually turned against Democrats at the polls during LBJ's administration, much of Johnson's influence evaporated.
"When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have," Obama told The New Yorker recently. "I say that not to suggest that I'm a master wheeler-dealer, but rather to suggest that there are some structural, institutional realities to our political system that don't have much to do with schmoozing."
Some political scientists and politicians disagree. They say Obama doesn't know how to, or won't, engage in the kind of personal diplomacy with legislators at which Johnson excelled.
It's also true that Washington is deeply divided today between conservatives and liberals, and compromise is hard to find between the House, controlled by Republicans, and the Senate, controlled by Democrats. As a result, Obama has been bypassing Congress and resorting to a variety of executive orders and unilateral actions to get his way on issues ranging from climate change to raising the minimum wage for federal contract employees. He admits that passing legislation would create more comprehensive and lasting change but says the current political breakdown makes such legislation impossible so he is being forced to use his unilateral powers.
Yet during a recent speech at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Texas, Obama said it is still worth trying to push for massive change despite the difficulties. Obama noted an adviser once warned Johnson that winning passage for the Civil Rights Act would end in failure. But LBJ replied, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" Obama added: "What the hell's the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in? That was LBJ's greatness. That's why we remember him. With enough effort, and enough empathy, and enough perseverance, and enough courage, people who love their country can change it."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was "the most important piece of social legislation in the country's history," historian Robert Dallek told me. "It did not just break down the Jim Crow laws and the segregation in the South. It was challenging the de facto and de jure segregation across the United States."
And in many ways, it succeeded in bringing profound change, eliminating or severely limiting laws and practices that discriminated against African-Americans and paved the way for gains by blacks in many fields, including politics. Without that law, Obama would not have been elected the first African-American president in 2008.
But in today's Washington, effort, empathy, perseverance and courage have not been enough to break the stalemate. It might take the kind of forceful, rough-and-tumble leadership that Lyndon Johnson was known for.