1963 November 26

LBJ: “What the Hell’s the Presidency For?”


Preparing for his first address to Congress and the people of the United States following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson told a group of advisers on this day that he was thinking of making the late President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill his top priority. Several cautious advisers counseled against it because Congress might not approve it, which could damage his status. LBJ thought for a moment and then said, “What the hell’s the presidency for?” He made the bill his top priority — and it became the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, which LBJ signed into law on July 2, 1964.

This exchange came in a private meeting, but on other occasions, Johnson also publicly declared to use the presidency to accomplish great things.

Read about LBJ’s comment: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama (2012)

And read Robert Caro’s monumental multi-volume biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982); Means of Ascent (1990); Master of the Senate (2002); and Passage of Power (2012)

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