To get his Great Society domestic agenda passed, Lyndon B. Johnson dominated the legislative process like few — if any — other presidents have.
There was one issue, however, on which LBJ could not get Congress to bend to his will: political autonomy for the District of Columbia.
“From his election in 1964 he had sought self-government for the District; in the summer of 1967 he was determined to set the stage for it,” Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s domestic policy chief, wrote in his memoir “The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.”
At the time, Washington was the only big city in the country where a majority of the population (58 percent) was African American. The Constitution gives Congress the power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the District. The city’s residents, who included a new generation of activists, were increasingly frustrated over their lack of self-determination in such basic matters as electing a mayor and other local officials.
Johnson’s urgency was stoked in part by a fear that Washington might follow other areas, notably the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, that had erupted in riots. The president’s message bordered on the apocalyptic at a bill-signing ceremony Aug. 26, 1965. (That was not much more than a year after the May 22, 1964, speech in which — exactly 50 years ago on Thursday — he outlined his goals for the Great Society.)
“Those of you here in the District of Columbia,” Johnson said, “I want to warn you this morning that the clock is ticking, time is moving, that we should and we must ask ourselves every night when we go home: Are we doing all that we should do in our nation’s capital, in all the other big cities of the country where 80 percent of the population of this country is going to be living in the year 2000?”
He added: “Remember, when people feel mistreated and they feel injustices, and when they have to move from their homes and they have no jobs, and they have no vote, and they have no voice — well, there is not one place to go if you can’t go up. Just any adventure, any danger, you can’t do much worse than you are doing now. And I asked myself last night, what can I do to see that we don’t have any more incidents as occurred in Los Angeles in this country? So, let’s act before it is too late.”
Rep. Gerald R. Ford (R-Mich.), the future president, who was then the House minority leader, accused the president of issuing “an invitation to trigger terrorism in the streets.”
White House aides tried to lower the temperature, saying that Johnson had not meant to single out the nation’s capital. To which the president retorted, “I meant just what I said — that we ought to try to face up to these problems that we have before we have to suffer more serious problems.”
LBJ’s commitment to self-rule for the District also reflected his personal connection to the city.
“By the time Lyndon Johnson became President, he had lived in Washington, D.C., almost all his adult life; he was as much a Washingtonian as any resident of the nation’s capital. While the press caricatured him as a big-handed, big-nosed, larger-than-life, tall Texan — and he had indeed loved the state of his birth and youth — it was Washington where he and Lady Bird lived day to day,” Califano recalled. “Lady Bird would leave a stunning legacy of floral beautification along the Potomac, the Mall, and throughout the parks. LBJ’s legacy to the District of Columbia, as might be expected, was political.”
LBJ was not the first president to ask Congress to give the District home rule. Harry S. Truman had tried; the proposal won Senate approval but failed in the House, where the District of Columbia Committee was dominated by conservative Southern Democrats.
Johnson also managed to get his bill through the Senate, in July 1965, and he attempted to end-run the House D.C. Committee by using a “discharge petition,” a procedure by which a majority of House members can force a floor vote on a bill.
It was a long shot. “Of the previous 818 attempts to discharge a bill, only 23 had succeeded. Johnson pulled out all the stops to defy the historic odds,” Califano wrote. LBJ also fell short, and the House passed a watered-down substitute that would set up a prolonged, uncertain process for establishing home rule.
In early 1967, Johnson and Califano came up with alternative route: to establish a mayor and city council appointed by the president, with Senate confirmation (giving the House D.C. Committee no say in the matter). That one succeeded, and Johnson appointed Walter E. Washington the first black mayor of a major American city.
“The people of Washington are about as franchised as I can get them,” Johnson told Califano.
Johnson would not live to see the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, which provided the city with an elected legislature, though true autonomy in the form of statehood remains a distant goal.