Gingrich walks back civil rights comments

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz yesterday quoted Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker from Georgia, warning that Obama’s support for sweeping health care reform would plague Democrats for decades, much as Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 jostled the party and led to the entrenchment of Southern Republicans that we still have today.

“‘They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years’ with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s,” Balz wrote, quoting Gingrich.

newt gingrich

That statement led to my short post yesterday, questioning why Gingrich would suggest that political expediency should trump reforms as vital as those ensuring basic human rights. More recently, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also latched onto Gingrich’s comments, asking today: “Who in modern America would say that L.B.J. did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality?”

Turns out Gingrich didn’t like the way his words were framed, and he let Balz know it in a series of emails yesterday. That exchange led Balz today to issue this separate addendum, in which Gingrich says the Civil Rights Act was a moral necessity.

Gingrich responded with several emails saying that the context misrepresented his views by implying that he believed Johnson was wrong to sign the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. To the contrary, he said, the civil rights revolution of 1956-1965 was “morally absolutely necessary” for the country and Johnson was correct in pushing for the legislation. Other Johnson actions, he said, inflicted more damage to the Democratic coalition.

Johnson shattered his party, Gingrich went on to say, because he had “grotesquely overreached” in four areas: mismanagement of the economy, the failure in Vietnam, the cultural divisions that emerged in part over Vietnam and later civil rights initiatives. Johnson’s mistake on civil rights, he said, was not in signing major legislation but in later getting ahead of the country by supporting school busing and failing to take a firmer stance against racial violence in the cities.

“If LBJ had done nothing on civil rights,” Gingrich said, “he would still have been in trouble on the economy, Great Society big government, the counter culture and the war.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say he’s right about that. It still doesn’t clear up the issue. For one thing, Gingrich’s comments weren’t intended to be friendly advice for Democrats. (What does he care if they flail in chaos for the next 40 years?) They were lobbed as a Hail Mary attempt to kill the health reform by causing House Democrats to fear the political repercussions of their support. And what single vote under the Johnson White House would make that point most clearly but the one enacting the Civil Rights Act?

Joe DeSantos, a Gingrich spokesman, wrote in our comment thread this morning that “Gingrich was not drawing an analogy between the health care bill and civil rights legislation.”

Maybe not. But Balz is standing by it. Indeed, despite the separate addendum, the original story remains unchanged.

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Mike Lillis

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