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Obama, Bush Mark Passage Of 1964 Civil Rights Act


Happy Friday to you. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Two presidents with little in common in terms of policy, personal style, and politics each paid tribute to the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson yesterday. Barack Obama and George W. Bush were at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas for a conference marking the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

On the topic at hand, their words were in complete agreement, but their speeches also contained hints as to how they would like their own legacies to be judged. NPR National Political Correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: When President Bush left office he pledged to keep a low profile and he has. He's taken up painting and rarely gives public speeches. Yesterday was an exception. His opening banter was light and included what he said was one of his favorite Lyndon Johnson quotes.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If one morning, he said, if I walked on the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read "The President Cannot Swim."


GONYEA: The line speaks to a fellowship former presidents share - frustration when the public doesn't see their records the way they'd like. Then Bush got to the topic at hand.

BUSH: The real influence of a president is not found in the headlines. It can only be judged with time and at the distance of a half a century we know with complete certainty that America is a more just and generous country because LBJ set his mind and will to the cause of civil rights.

GONYEA: The former president praised LBJ for having the courage to step beyond his own roots in the segregated South and to challenge others from the region to see that the country needed to take Abraham Lincoln's words and actions to heart. Bush also noted Johnson's outreach to Republicans.

BUSH: He made one principle clear for all time. A segregated society can never be a successful society because the only success worth having is achieved together.

GONYEA: George W. Bush talked about education as an important component of civil rights. He said LBJ, once a teacher at a Hispanic school near the border with Mexico, understood that. He defended his No Child Left Behind program. He urged that achievement standards not be eroded and bemoaned too little progress in closing the reading gap between white and African-American students.

Still, much of Bush's speech echoed President Obama's remarks from earlier in the day. Where Bush, still relatively new as an ex-president, looked at how history judges leaders, President Obama - still struggling with a very divided Congress - looked at another aspect of LBJ's long career.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No one knew politics and no one loved legislating more than President Johnson. He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required.

GONYEA: There's been talk as to whether president needs to be more like Johnson in dealing with Congress. The White House says the times are different, the Congress is different. Others simply point out the very different backgrounds and personalities of Obama and Johnson. Yesterday the president described the cynicism that creeps into today's politics, saying it's the enemy of the kind of difficult achievement the Civil Rights Act represents.

OBAMA: Because of the Civil Rights Movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody - not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans, and Americans with a disability.

GONYEA: He then touched on his own personal connection as an African-American president.

OBAMA: They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that's why I'm standing here today.


OBAMA: Because of those efforts, because of that legacy.

GONYEA: President Obama and President Bush, each at the LBJ Presidential Library yesterday. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Austin, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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