Deception & Misdirection

That Lyndon Johnson quote (Part 2)

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

Last week, at, I took a look at that story that has circulated in recent years as, in essence, a smear of Southern Republicans: that President Lyndon Johnson, after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said that “We have lost the South for a generation.”

More from my investigation of this quote:

► Almost all uses of that version of the quote are from the past 10 years. However, I found a close variation in a 1988 Washington Post article by Patricia Brennan in which she quotes Johnson aide Ben Wattenberg. (Wattenberg was one of the first “neoconservatives” in the original sense of the term, a New Deal liberal who came to recognize the failures of Big Government policies.) As quoted by Brennan, Wattenberg said that, even during Johnson’s 1964 landslide, “there were six states that Barry Goldwater kept: Arizona and five states in the South. You trace it forward and you see that they never came back. They were out because of civil rights and they stayed out. . . . The day they passed the civil rights bill, LBJ said to Bill Moyers, ‘You know, I think we gave the South to the Republicans.’”

I suspect that Wattenberg, apparently speaking off the cuff, paraphrased another Moyers quote of Johnson (about which, more below). Further garbled over time, as in the Telephone Game, that quote in the Washington Post article may have been the source for the lost-the-South-for-a-generation version. Or it’s possible that the quote originated as an indirect quote, one without quotation marks, that appeared in the magazine The Economist in 2002. By 2004, the quote was appearing in articles with quotation marks. I can find no direct reference to Johnson saying it or to whom it was said. It is always used as a quote that, well, everyone knows.


► In the early 1990s, another version of the story held that the Johnson statement was “There goes the South.” The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald used that version November 4, 1992.

Timothy Noah of the left-wing online magazine Slate (then affiliated with the Washington Post) wrote (January 27, 2004, posted at

“There goes the South for a generation,” Lyndon Johnson is said to have predicted as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Actually, it’s been two generations, but otherwise Johnson was dead-on. For 40 years, the Democratic Party begged Southern Democrats to return to the fold.

Considering that all Southern states except Virginia voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, while Carter was losing the rest of the country as a whole, and that, with the exception of in 1964, the South was significantly more Republican than the country as a whole beginning in 1988 at the presidential level and in 2010 at the local and state level, the fake Johnson quote was hardly “dead on.” Still, I suppose that Noah deserves credit for only half-lying because he qualified his use of the fake quote (“Johnson is said to have predicted”).


► The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2000, published an interview with Johnson aide Harry McPherson and Jack Valenti in which McPherson was quoted as saying that another Johnson aide, Bill Moyers “came in on the evening of the passage of the Voting Rights Act.” (Note that he referred to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 rather than the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

. . . Johnson, having had a wonderful day signing the bill, everybody around him praising him, was sitting, Bill says, with his head in his hands at his desk. Bill said, “Mr. President, it’s the greatest day of your presidency.” Johnson said, “Yes, and it’s the day we gave the South to the Republican Party for the rest of our lifetimes.”

Interestingly, Valenti wrote an account of the passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act for the August 5, 1990 Washington Post. The piece is long for an op-ed, 1,049 words, and Valenti includes two anecdotes intended to make LBJ look heroic.

In one, Johnson is pressuring Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), a mentor, not to oppose him on the legislation: “I’m going to run over you if you challenge me or get in my way.” Russell warned him, “I’m here to tell you that it will not only cost you the South, it will cost you the election.”

The president listened intently. Then he spoke, very quietly: “Dick, my old friend, if that’s the price for this bill, then I will gladly pay it.”

Later, “On Aug. 6, 1965, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act in the Rotunda of the Capitol. But for me the climax came three days earlier when Roy Wilkins and other civil rights leaders visited the Oval Office to celebrate passage of the act.” Valenti wrote that he walked out with Wilkins, who put his arm around him and said, “Jack, God does move in strange and mysterious ways. . . . The bravest, most effective friend the Negro in America has ever had turned out to be a Southern president.”

Of course, Valenti’s article was about the Voting Rights Act, not the Civil Rights Act of the previous year. Yet it seems likely that, if Valenti had personal knowledge of an I-saw-this-coming Johnson quote regarding the earlier legislation, he would have made reference to it at some point. He did not, or, at least, I can’t find any such reference. That would seem to eliminate Valenti as the source for the giving-away-the-South quote. It also raises the possibility that the source for the quote is a garbled version of the response that Valenti claimed was made by Johnson to Russell (“. . . if that’s the price . . .”).


► This long and winding road takes us to a version of the story that could be true, but is uncorroborated and highly questionable. It’s from the aforementioned Bill Moyers.

Over the years, this version—with Johnson saying “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come”—has appeared in countless articles, usually without the identification of any source. When a source is cited, it is never a published book or article or speech or interview; it’s a citation of a citation or a citation of a citation of a citation. (As I’ve noted many times, editorial oversight of news articles and peer review of academic articles are both shams. With extremely rare exceptions, no one really checks this stuff out, provided it supports the prejudices of the writers, editors, or “peers.”)

Here’s one example of this path of fake citation. In Writing Southern Politics, edited by Robert P. Steed and Laurence W. Moreland, published in 2006 by the University Press of Kentucky, there was this paragraph in an article by Harold W. Stanley:

Shortly after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson reportedly told an aide: “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” (Black and Black 1992, 6). Subsequent presidential politics proved Johnson more prophetic than wrong.

At least they wrote “reportedly.” There, the citation was to the book The Vital South: How Presidents are Elected, by Earle and Merle Black, published by Harvard University Press in 1992. Sure enough, they wrote on page 6:

Shortly after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson told an aide, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

In turn, the citation for that quote is an article, “Tough Talk for Democrats,” in the New York Times Magazine, January 8, 1989, by former Johnson aide Joseph A. Califano, in which Califano wrote:

. . . [T]he evening after the signing ceremony, as Johnson scanned the banner headlines and glowing editorials, he remarked to an aide, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.’” His words, as we know all too well, were prescient.

Califano did not list a source for the story.

Follow all that? The 2006 book cited the 1992 book, which in turn cited a magazine article that didn’t even identify a source. (Years later, in a January 15, 2008 Washington Post article, Califano remembered it this way: “The day after passage, Johnson told his aide Bill Moyers, ‘I think we delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine.’” It was yet another version of the quote, but at least Califano in 2008 named the source.)


► Hilariously, an introduction to a collection of Johnson’s secretly recorded White House conversations ( cites the quote as The One That Got Away:

[Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, then…] Later that evening, in a mood described by White House aide Bill Moyers as “melancholy,” Johnson predicted that “we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” [Footnote] That remark is one of the most telling (and frequently repeated) statements about race and politics from Johnson’s presidency. Unfortunately, those words were not recorded by any of the electronic equipment at the White House. Several hundred other conversations from that summer and fall, however, were captured by audio recorders, and the material on those once-secret recordings constitute one of the richest and most dramatic sources for exploring the politics of race in the Johnson era.

One of the most important Johnson quotes—one that was “telling”—and yet it wasn’t recorded! Darn! Just our luck!

The footnote for that quote notes the confusion over what Johnson actually said and when he said it.

Most accounts, particularly by Bill Moyers, claim that the president made this statement to him following the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Lady Bird Johnson and Harry McPherson trace the statement to a conversation after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.


►If we can safely assume that Moyers was the ultimate source, when did he start making the claim that Johnson said that? (Keep in mind that, until the late 1980s by any measure, or the 2000s by some measures, the South was less Republican than the rest of the country, so that, for many years after it was supposedly uttered, the LBJ quote could hardly have been taken as prophetic. It only began to appear after, in the eyes of the Left, the prediction started coming true, with Reagan carrying the South in 1984 as he carried 49 out of 50 states, and with a small number of Southern offices going Republican in 1980-84.)

The earliest use of the Moyers/delivered-the-South version that I can find dates from 1985. Michael White, a left-wing commentator, wrote in the London Guardian (May 4, 1985):

. . . Reagan’s attempted counter-revolution [was] for the affluent majority at the expense of the poor. But LBJ’s had been ‘the only national policy conducted by the majority for the benefit of the minority.’

And it hasn’t stuck. Johnson had anticipated it, for on the morning of the passing of the Civil Rights Act he told Moyers: ‘I have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime.’

The earliest use of the quote by Moyers himself that I could find was in the Winter 1987 New Perspectives Quarterly, in an article (posted at that is described as taken from an April 1986 speech by Moyers.

America was a segregated country when LBJ came to power. It wasn’t when he left. From his very first hours in office, he would move to combat it on a broad front. But he also knew not an inch would be won cheaply. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to many of us a watershed in American history. It was one of the most exhilarating triumphs of the Johnson years. Yet, late on the night of signing the bill, I found the President in a melancholy mood. I asked what was troubling him. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” he said. Even as his own popularity soared in that heady year, the President saw the gathering storm of a backlash.


We are left with this: The claim that Johnson made the comment comes from one person, Bill Moyers, a Johnson aide whose reputation for intense partisanship is fairly likened to that of George W. Bush’s aide Karl Rove.

No one in his right mind would accept, without corroboration, a quote in which, say, Karl Rove claimed that Bush predicted an Al Qaeda strike on 9/11 but said he couldn’t get people to listen. Yet we are expected to accept as historical fact an uncorroborated story from Bill Moyers—a story that happens to make the thuggish pathological liar Lyndon Johnson look saintly, as if he were sacrificing the wellbeing of his party politically for the good of the country—a story that is extremely helpful to Democrats in creating the (false) impression that Republican gains in the South are illegitimate, and that, therefore, Republican-backed election reforms are racist and any GOP majority in the U.S. House or Senate is illegitimate—a story that appears to have surfaced more than 20 years after the events are said to have taken place.

I have made a diligent effort to find a reference to the Johnson story that was published prior to 1985, and have found no such reference. Of course, my records aren’t perfect. It’s possible that the story appeared earlier. If anyone can point to an earlier reference, I will gladly correct the record.

As for that meme, fashionable among Leftists, that today’s Southern Republicans are simply the old segregationist Southern Democrats in different garb—well, I’ll deal with that nonsense in depth in a later article. For now, I’ll simply point out that few political observers until the mid-1980s took the idea of a Republican South as a serious prospect, and I’ll direct you to a Robin Toner piece in the New York Times that was published 23 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Note that the reference in the article to a “one-party South” means a one-party Democratic South.)

The New York Times, March 21, 1987

Democrats maintain hold on South

By Robin Toner

ATLANTA—In Washington, among those who formulate political strategy, the two-party South is considered a reality.

In civics books it is considered the ideal.

But in the halls of some state legislatures around this region, the notion of vigorous competition between the parties is still alien. Witness Thomas B. Murphy, the Speaker of Georgia’s House of Representatives, an unabashed proponent of the one-party South.

Mr. Murphy, who is 63 years old, presides over a chamber with 180 members, 27 of them Republicans, about the same number as there were in 1974, when he took over as Speaker. If he has anything to do with it, Mr. Murphy says, there will be even fewer Republicans by the time he leaves office.

‘No Need for a Two-Party System’

”I think the people of Georgia realize we have no need for a two-party system here,” Mr. Murphy said as he relaxed this week in his law office in Bremen, a textile town of 4,148 people, miles from the shopping malls and Republican voters of Atlanta’s New South suburbs.

”The Democratic Party of Georgia has ultra-conservatives, conservatives, moderates, liberals and ultra-liberals,” Mr. Murphy said. ”We’ve got anything you want in the Democratic Party.”

If men like Mr. Murphy are political dinosaurs, they still find the vegetation quite plentiful. The legislatures convening throughout the South this spring are testimony to the enduring Democratic dominance, preserved even when the Republican Party was sweeping Presidential voting in the region and picking up governorships and Congressional seats, To be sure, Republicans have made inroads into nearly every Southern legislature, but they began with an exceptionally tiny base. For example, the Republican share of legislative seats in the 11 states of the old Confederacy has more than doubled in the last 10 years, rising to 23 percent from 10 percent. Some states, such as Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, have registered substantial Republican gains.

Progress for Republicans

But the process has generally been one of incremental progress for the Republicans, with Deep South states such as Georgia proving very tough to crack. ”We feel very good about the trend in the South,” said Terry Wade, communications director for the Republican National Committee. But he added, ”We obviously have a long way to go.”

Both national parties are taking a unusual interest in state legislatures because of the role they will play in the next round of Congressional redistricting that takes place every 10 years, after every census. The South is considered particularly important because the 1991 reapportionment is expected to bring a significant shift in House seats from the North and Middle West to the South and West, in line with population shifts.

Political experts give a number of explanations for the durability of Democratic control of Southern legislatures, chief among them the inclination of voters to re-elect incumbents. Democrats also argue that state legislative races revolve around the kind of local issues their candidates handle well. ”The issues are property taxes, delivery of services,” said Al LaPierre, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party. ”We’ve had Republicans who tried to nationalize state legislative district races.”

Southern Republicans, on the other hand, say that their electoral progress is understandably slow, given a century of Democratic dominance at the grass roots. ”You’re fighting the sheriff, the county clerk, the county commissioners,” said State Senator Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican. ”It’s a tedious process to overcome all that apparatus.”

Party Switching Is Difficult

In addition, so long as Democrats maintain overwhelming majorities in the legislatures, it is difficult to persuade lawmakers to switch parties, said Lee Atwater, a South Carolina native who is the top strategist to Vice President Bush.

Indeed, Mr. Murphy said he felt sorry for Republicans who served for years in the Georgia House without ever moving into a position of leadership on a committee. On the other hand, so long as he is Speaker, he said, they never will. That, he said, is simply politics. . . .


After that New York Times article was published in 1987, Democrats would continue to control the Georgia House for almost 18 years, making it a total of almost 41 years after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act before power shifted to the Republicans in that chamber.

Imagine how hard it would have been for those Georgia Republicans if Johnson hadn’t “delivered the South to the Republicans” in 1964!


Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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