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The Election That LBJ Won

Alabama troopers attack voting rights marchers at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965.
Alabama troopers attack voting rights marchers at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965. (Associated Press)

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

If the polls are right, if it don't rain and the creek don't rise, the winner of the presidential election is sure to be . . . Lyndon Baines Johnson. When he signed the epochal Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson knew he was also signing away the South and, with it, much of the white vote elsewhere as well. "We have lost the South for a generation," he supposedly said back then. For that generation, time's up.

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Barack Obama is often called a transformational figure, and this election, it then follows, is a transformational one. I beg to quibble. Barack Obama is a confirmational figure, and this election confirms what has been gradually occurring in American society ever since that July day when Johnson virtually outlawed most forms of racial segregation in America. We've been transforming ever since.

My colleague David Broder dates to Dec. 8, 2007, the moment he knew "this presidential campaign was going to be the best" he'd ever covered. That was when about 18,000 people crammed into Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines to see Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and you knew, if you were there -- and I was -- that something momentous was happening. There, on the stage, were Obama, his wife, Michelle, and Winfrey. I turned to my friend Joe Klein of Time magazine and said we were immeasurably lucky. We were witnessing history being made.

There, you see, was an immense throng of white people, with an occasional nonwhite face, sometimes Asian or Hispanic. It was a fairly young crowd, and no matter what their age or their race or their sex, they were drawn to this event by two black people -- Obama and Winfrey -- and it was hard to tell then who mattered more. At least in that place and at that time, the post-racial society had arrived.

I am not naive. Pockets of racism exist, and depending on the issue -- crime, for instance -- they can swell. But the country has changed. It has done so because of personalities, policies and actions that at the time might have been questionable. The civil rights acts of the Johnson era compelled whites to eat with blacks in the same restaurants and to share the same motels and hotels. Affirmative action accustomed whites to seeing blacks in positions from which they had, by custom or by law, been excluded. Blacks and whites could, in fact, work together. The racists were wrong.

Constant pressure on the entertainment industry to feature more African Americans paid off handsomely. Some of the top American entertainers are black -- Denzel Washington and Chris Rock, for instance -- and their audiences are multiracial. Still, it seems that certain themes do not do well. Washington's very good film "The Great Debaters," the story of the 1935 Wiley College debate team, was no box-office smash, maybe because it had a mostly black cast and was about a black college, or maybe because it had no car chases; probably, both.

Somewhere beyond the gaze of Karl Rove, America was changing. You could see it on TV all the time. Oprah -- not some white, Andy Griffith-type, as the 1957 Elia Kazan movie "A Face in the Crowd" envisioned -- had become the most powerful figure in the medium. Ellen DeGeneres also has a daytime talk show. She's a lesbian -- not reputed to be or reported to be, but proud to be. She's a hit, too.

America is a changed country. Blacks have been the mayors of majority-white cities and the governors of majority-white states (Massachusetts, for instance). The governor of Louisiana is Bobby Jindal, an Indian American, the senatorial contest in Minnesota is between two Jews -- one a former comedian, for crying out loud -- and the governor of California cannot even pronounce the name of the state.

The wedding pages of our newspapers announce the unions -- civil or otherwise -- of gay men and lesbians. The governor of Alaska accepted the vice presidential nomination of the family-values party accompanied by her pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter -- and (almost) no one batted an eye. Maybe this was because a recent president had extramarital sexual relations in the Oval Office and left the presidency with an approval rating in the mid-60s. It was the economy, stupid.

Just as John F. Kennedy was only incidentally a Catholic, so is Obama only incidentally a black man. It is not just that he is post-racial; so is the nation he is generationally primed to lead. This, of course, was the dream of the man who is buried on his beloved ranch -- the unheralded winner of this election. As he would put it: My fellow Americans, we have overcome.

LBJ, RIP.

cohenr@washpost.com


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