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In Search of a Legacy

June 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now for an historical conversation about race. In calling for a national dialogue last weekend, President Clinton joined a long line of leaders who have grappled with the subject of race in America. And for perspective on that, we turn now to NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson; and they’re joined tonight by Bill Kristol, editor and publisher of the “Weekly Standard,” and Roger Wilkins, professor of American history at George Mason University. Michael, you heard Mark say that perhaps this is a way for the president to get on Mount Rushmore. That its all about historical legacy. How did the speech strike you as an historian?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I don’t think it’s a speech that will be very long remembered. It was a speech that led to this idea of a national dialogue. Nothing wrong with that, but the kind of things that get Presidents on Mount Rushmore are not having national dialogues and not giving speeches but, for instance, as Mark mentioned, Harry Truman opposed discrimination in federal employment, John Kennedy, June 1963, much too late, but he was the first President to say that civil rights was a moral issue. Lyndon Johnson, the first night of his presidency, after Kenney was murdered, was told, delay a comprehensive civil rights bill; you’re going to stall your presidency; wait until you’re more in power.

And Johnson said, “What is the presidency for?”. We’ve always been looking with Clinton for a kind of core issue for which he’s willing to take a big risk. Many people have said that it would be race and civil rights. And certainly Clinton did see as a child in Little Rock 1957 in Arkansas when Little Rock High School was famously desegregated, one of the great moments of the 1950′s, and also 1992, when Clinton was running, that famous letter about the draft, he talked about his hatred of discrimination in America.

But the way that you get on Mount Rushmore is to try to get the public to come around your point of view on a big issue that involves some political risk. I think in California in certain ways he sounded more like the man he scorned consistently during the 1992 campaign, and that was George Bush.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger, what do you think? Do you think it’s a way to get started towards Mount Rushmore?

ROGER WILKINS, Historian: You know, I think that the way to look at this legacy issue is to look at Lyndon Johnson and Johnson had a massive, tragic failure in Vietnam. It was a tragedy for the nation, and it was a personal character failure for the President. So that would have been a classically failed presidency but for the fact that he really did things in civil rights. He took risks. He fought for civil rights, and he fought for civil rights consistently, until near the end, when he became tired and angry.

So when you look back at Johnson you say, well, he failed at Vietnam, but there’s civil rights. And you never can forget the civil rights. And I think that that is part of what’s in President Clinton’s mind, but the difference is that Johnson did things. The country changed as a result of his leadership and his leadership meant he took chances. So far, President Clinton hasn’t taken any chances, and the speech is not going to be remembered very long.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, both Michael and Roger have talked about risk. Is that the key element in the Presidents’ actions, who have made a difference on race, taking risk?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think what it is, it’s a combination of political courage and moral fervor, but also events in the society that are happening, that you somehow grapple onto, I mean, for example, when you look at Roosevelt, the most important thing he did was to respond to pressure from A. Philip Randolph with a threatened march on Washington in 1941.

And then he was able to get the Fair Employment Practice Commission through because he was responding to something already out there. And you look at Lyndon Johnson–I so agree with Roger–I think historians of the future will look back at civil rights and Lyndon Johnson and give him much more credit than we who lived through it and saw it happening was able to see. And, for example, when Kennedy died, it was true, he had the martyrdom of Kennedy and a legacy of Kennedys he wanted to make good on.

But even after he got the desegregation bill through in 1964 and people said, stop, you’ve got to absorb it; the country has to get through this huge act, he said, “I want to go for more. I want the next step.” Something happens sometimes in a President when they want something to last the test of time and they want to be a statesman and not just a politician.

So he said, I’m going for voting rights in 1965. But then he waited to put that bill before the Congress until Martin Luther King’s march in Selma had aroused public opinion to the point where the majority of the country felt it was terrible, what was happening to those peaceful demonstrators in the South. He goes to that joint session of Congress with that fabulous, “We shall overcome” speech.

Two months later, we get a Voting Rights Act, and then again people said, you’ve got to stop now. He goes to Howard University and he calls for what essentially became affirmative action. He goes for an open housing act and gets that too. So it’s that ability to see timing when you go to the country, when the country’s aroused, and you keep moving forward. So it’s moral fervor plus political skill, which he had hands down over any President since Abraham Lincoln.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Haynes, in this case, there was a grassroots movement pushing for these things. Is that part of the President–part of the problem; that President Clinton doesn’t have that sort of thing right now?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Just listening to Roger and Doris and Michael also, I mean, if you think back, they’re exactly right, of course. It requires both. Rhetoric alone doesn’t change anything. You can’t stop people from hating, but you can lead. And if you have something that’s happening that can engage the energies of the country, as Lyndon Johnson was able to do in the civil rights crisis 30 some years ago, you can make a difference. You can change the laws. Of course, one of the problems now, it’s infinitely more complicated. The legal laws have been struck in terms of segregation. When I first met Roger, it was on the Selma march. That’s exactly where we–if you remember–out on some dusty road down in Alabama.

And at that point the vivid nature of what was starkly right and wrong, people clubbed to death to register to vote in front of your eyes–and the country could be engaged with great leaders like Martin Luther King, or Lyndon Johnson courageously. It’s much more difficult now. What the President’s trying to do is–and I agree with Michael–this speech will not remembered. If he could energize the country to have a real dialogue about not just race but where we are as Americans, beyond that, I think that would be a very signal thing for him. But it’s much more difficult, in my view, to do so.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bill Kristol, do you think that Presidents can make any difference in the racial divide, given the current situation and looking back over what it’s taken to do so in the past?

WILLIAM KRISTOL, Weekly Standard: Sure they can. But it really does require a kind of rhetoric, not just the moral fervor and political courage–those are important but race is a serious issue. I mean, it is the–it is the tragic crucible of American history. Slavery was our racial sin, and the kind of rhetoric–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I mean, early Presidents were slave holders.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: They, well–some of them–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some of them.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: Many of them were, but they also addressed race with a kind of gravity, whatever their deficiencies, their hypocrisies; there was a kind of gravity and seriousness with which they addressed this issue, which showed that they too knew this was a fundamentally important issue to the meaning of America. And I do think in that respect Clinton’s speech is a huge disappointment and really does a dis-service to the notion of seriously addressing race. He just utterly lacks–I mean, it’s a politician’s speech.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re talking about tone here, I mean, the sense of gravity that say Jefferson had in talking about the issue.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: I mean, Lincoln is too a high a standard, obviously, for any President, but Johnson is a fair standard. And in his speeches on race he has a different tone and sounds much less like a Texas politician and much more like an American President addressing a fundamentally important moral issue than in a lot of his other speeches.

So Johnson could be a pretty down and dirty politician. But in this speech of Clinton’s there’s all the usual pandering, the kind of multiculturalism, the disingenuousness, the notion that no one’s ever thought of having a discussion about race. And now he’s coming along at the League of Nations. I must say that part of it–agree or disagree with Clinton on affirmative action–that’s one thing, but that part of it I do think just rang the wrong note. And I do think it means that he’s got this dialogue off to a bad start.

ROGER WILKINS: Elizabeth, there is one parallel.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead.

ROGER WILKINS: People say, well, nothing’s going on now, and so it’s harder for Clinton, but, in a sense, nothing was going on when Truman was President. And Truman grasped the deep–depth of the problem and said, I’m going to do something; I’m going to desegregate the armed forces; I’m going to create a commission on civil rights; I’m going to send up a packet of legislation. The fact is Truman is remembered for having been a great civil rights president because he did things. He didn’t say let’s talk.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Even without some huge pressure–

ROGER WILKINS: Yes. He came up and said these are conditions in the country on which I’m going to exert my leadership.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Roger is absolutely right, and, you know, another thing is Eisenhower in the 1950′s, the Supreme Court passed Brown Vs. Board of Education, said that public schools can’t be segregated; that segregated schools are not equal. Dwight Eisenhower, whom I otherwise admire on so many things, was absolutely silent. He went along with us grudgingly. He enforced the court order with a minimum of enthusiasm, and I’ve so many times thought that in the 1950′s if you had Eisenhower with his world prestige, highly popular in the United States, saying it’s time to integrate America and give black Americans their full rights in this country, he could have had an enormous impact in the absence of black Americans marching in the streets.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Doris, there is something a President didn’t do in Michael’s view?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: No. That’s true. Although I think, to be fair to Clinton’s speech, in the absence of something happening–and I understand what Roger’s saying about Truman–it’s hard for a speech to be an event. I mean, if Patrick Henry had said, “Give me liberty or give me death” to a Chamber of Commerce meeting, we wouldn’t be remembering it today. It took place at a certain moment. So Clinton’s first task is to arouse the country to potentially some action.

The problem is maybe the timing of the speech. If he had made this kind of speech when he first came into office, when he had that momentum behind him, he might have had more time for the dialogue to come forth with ideas, with programs, with goals, with some sense of movement, and then he could have capitalized on that movement. But it’s awfully late to be hoping that in the next two years–I think John Hope Franklin is a fabulous character, and I think he couldn’t have picked a better person for this dialogue, but will there really be time for him to mobilize the country and then do something about it, that seems really hard to imagine.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Bill, what about Haynes’s point, that it’s gotten so complicated it’s–right now–it’s not only the black-white issue, or the legacy of slavery, but it’s Hispanics, Asians, there’s a whole more complicated time now, and Clinton, President Clinton certainly recognized that in the speech?

WILLIAM KRISTOL: Well, but in a way that’s one of the disingenuous things in the speech. You know, life is not more difficult or more complicated for us today than it was for Johnson or Truman or Lincoln. And the notion that the problem is no longer black and white, it’s now multi-cultural–Asian-Americans are not having fundamental problems in America. They’re intermarrying at a better than 50 percent rate. Hispanic-Americans are behaving like pretty much other immigrant groups.

Race remains a fundamental issue. It’s a moral issue. It raises fundamental issues of policy, and one of Clinton’s problems, of course, he doesn’t want to address those issues. I mean, affirmative action is a really fundamental issue. I don’t think you can have a real dialogue about race without addressing the justice of reverse discrimination, as well as the original form of discrimination. There are real serious arguments on both sides.

Clinton doesn’t like to engage in serious moral arguments. So he wants us all to sort of get together and talk. There’s one, I think very revealing, thing in his speech. I think Doris might have been struck by this too since she knows Johnson’s speeches–Roger too–John’s speeches on civil rights so well–Johnson’s favor, I think, biblical quotation was from Verse 18 of Chapter 1 of Isaiah, “Let us reason together, sayeth the Lord.” Clinton in his speech said, “Let us learn together, let us talk together, let us act together.” But there’s no notion that we could reason together to arrive at a right public policy, at the right moral judgment about some of these issues. It’s all kind of post-modern dialogue, talking, feeling each other’s pain.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haynes, what has to happen now for it to become something that historians will certainly remember? I mean, I know it has to get more specific, but tell us what you think has to happen.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think we’ve all in different ways said what we think has to happen. You’ve got to set some goals. It can’t be just rhetoric. Rhetoric is important, and great speeches can help set a mood in a country, but then there has to be action. And you can’t get there unless you talk about the disparity between the underclass in our cities that are just hopelessly, pathetically, tragically powder kegs, and also the divisions that do exist among all of our groups. And if the President could actually generate–but he has to be consistent–of action all over the country, then maybe as the role as the educator–that’s all the President can do is lead.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it mostly like Truman, do you think? Is he the model here, or is there another model?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think he would like to have the standing of Harry Truman, who’s had this enormous rise, and as Truman left office, but one thing that we really have not seen in presidents is President in a second term saying, gee, what can I do that will impress historians later on. I hope it did not come out of this. I hope there wasn’t sort of market testing for this speech, and polling on what kind of thing will raise his esteem among contemporary Americans and historians later on because oftentimes I think I can probably say, at least for some historians, that can have the opposite effect.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris–go ahead–let me just ask Doris, just briefly, do you agree with that?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Yes, I do. I mean, I think it’s very rare for a president to say this is going to be my legacy. Normally, they take action and then years later historians look back and say, yes, that was his legacy. But you can understand there’s such a restlessness, such an urge, a yearning on Clinton’s part to be remembered for something. I think he’s chosen the right issue, so that he’s got to be credit for it. I agree with Bill Kristol.

I think in some ways our saying the issue’s so much more complicated today, it’s all these other groups, these immigrant groups, the black issue is just one small piece of it is a copout. There’s still something fundamentally more tough about the black-white issue that has to be addressed, and these other groups are not facing it, and I don’t know that’s Clinton saying that, but that’s what he should be saying.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Doris, gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.