Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | May 8, 2014

More on LBJ and the Civil Rights Act

Mansfield Dirksen

Senators Mike Mansfield (left) and Everett Dirksen (right), 1967.

Anderson points us to an article by Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books looking at the legislative maneuvers that were necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Anderson describes it as “a corrective to the LBJ-centric account that overshadows the work within the Senate.”) Drew’s article is also (and perhaps firstly) a review of Robert Schenkkan’s Broadway play All the Way, in which Lyndon Baines Johnson is played by Bryan Cranston (he of Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle fame).

From Drew’s piece:

The play is about Johnson, so perhaps it’s inevitably a Johnson-centric picture of how the civil rights bill came about. This is all the more understandable when one reads that the play leaned heavily on Robert Caro’s version in his most recent Johnson book, The Passage of Power, which makes Johnson the dominant figure in the bill’s passage.

In reality, Johnson wasn’t in a position to guide events to this extent and Johnson had good reason to be chary of getting deeply involved in the workings of the Senate. He recognized the “Upper Chamber’s” institutional pride; he’d been there, after all. Moreover, shortly after he became vice president, Johnson asked to attend Democratic caucus meetings and was told, Nothing doing. Charles Ferris, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s counsel at the time, told me recently, “His friends in the Senate chose the independence of the Senate over their friendship with LBJ. After that, LBJ was gun shy in dealing with the Senate.” Within the confines of the Senate and publicly as well Mansfield repeatedly made it clear that the Senate would work its own will.

The real drama about whether there would be a civil rights bill in 1964 took place not in the Oval Office but within the Senate, most particularly in two intense weeks of negotiations in the office of Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, which began at the end of April. Present at these meetings that took place roughly three times a week were senators of both parties; officials of Kennedy’s Justice Department, who were deeply involved in the designing and protection of the bill; and on occasion representatives of the Leadership Conference. …

The Democrats were blessed with the support of several Republicans, most importantly Thomas Kuchel of California, who was the minority whip. But Dirksen was crucial to obtaining enough votes from conservative Republicans to break the filibuster. Mansfield and Humphrey kept Dirksen informed of their plans—an approach that is unimaginable in today’s Senate. But at the heart of their strategy was the understanding on the part of Johnson and the Democratic leaders that the way to win over Dirksen was not by “arm-twisting” but through his ego: build him up, make him the great statesman. Stewart said to me at the time, as I was covering the bill, “We’re going to put Dirksen in a corner of the garden and bathe him in blue lights.”

It was no sure thing that a compromise could be reached. Dirksen was a true conservative and believed that the feds shouldn’t be telling private businesses whom they had to serve or hire. He was concerned that under the pending bill the federal government could harass individual owners with threats of court orders. The logjam was finally broken with a formulation under which the government could bring a suit only when there was “a pattern or practice” of racial discrimination—a phrase sufficiently susceptible to various interpretations that it mollified all sides.

Once Dirksen was on board and after a few more maneuvers to pacify other Republicans, who worried that he was getting (and gloating about) too much attention, the bill was essentially in hand. Humphrey knew that he had the sixty-seven votes needed to end the filibuster. This was the model for achieving consensus on a highly controversial piece of legislation, a long lost art—in any event virtually impossible in today’s politics.

Interesting throughout. Worth reading in full.

See also another piece by Drew — “Obama and the Myth of Arm-Twisting” — looking at the topic of presidents and legislative tactics in the present day.

Image Credit: Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen conversing, April 1967. Photographer unknown. Photo from the White House Photographic Office by way of the National Archives and Wikimedia Commons.

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