On the afternoon of January 22, 1973, Lyndon Johnson suffered a massive heart attack and died. Coming just two days after Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, Johnson’s death was a painful irony for those whose political philosophy had been embodied by the man whose presidency was practically synonymous with both liberalism’s postwar apex and its demise. For parts of four decades during the middle of the twentieth century, Johnson’s long political career almost perfectly spanned the era of liberal consensus. As president from 1963 to 1969, Johnson promoted a vision for progress and reform that captured the highest ambitions of postwar liberalism. But discontentment on both the Left and the Right, much of it related to the size of government and the war in Vietnam, killed Johnson’s Great Society before it could achieve most of its goals. Meanwhile, Johnson’s actions on civil rights cost him and the Democratic Party the loyalty of many white conservatives in the South, while expediting partisan realignment across the entire Sunbelt. In the wake of Nixon’s greatest political triumph, Johnson’s death in early 1973 seemed to symbolize what many already knew: the long-dominant New Deal coalition was dead.
Not surprisingly, Johnson’s death was front-page news all across the country. Ironically, however, it was not the only major political story to command front-page headlines that day. Also on January 22, 1973, just hours before Johnson died, the United States Supreme Court issued its widely anticipated ruling in Roe v. Wade, an abortion case originating out of Dallas, Texas. In Roe, as well as its Georgia-based companion case Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court declared state laws restricting abortion to be unconstitutional in view of due process clauses and privacy rights as interpreted through the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling, therefore, guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion until the point of fetal “viability,” a term ambiguously defined as the beginning of a pregnancy’s third trimester. Roe was a political triumph for feminists and other pro-choice activists who, for decades, had been quietly fighting to legalize abortion as part of a larger fight to control their own bodies and lives. For others, however, Roe represented the high stakes of a very different type of political fight.