The challenge was immediate and immense. From the moment the rifle shots in Dallas catapulted Lyndon Baines Johnson into the presidency, he knew he must convince a grief-stricken nation that he could unite the country and lead it through the crisis. Although Johnson had served as Senate majority leader beginning in the 1950s and as vice president for almost three years, his public image was hazy at best. The first opinion surveys after the assassination showed that many Americans had doubts about whether he was up to the job. A Louis Harris poll on November 24 reported that one-third of the population believed that the southerner would slow down action on civil rights. Other polls showed that 70 percent doubted Johnson could carry on as well as Kennedy, and 67 percent claimed to know “next to nothing” about the new president. But Johnson didn’t wait for polls to tell him that he had to move swiftly to win the confidence of Americans who mistrusted, disliked, or simply didn’t know him.
From his first moments as president, Johnson reached out to leaders of the nation’s diverse interests — governors and members of Congress, corporate executives and organized labor, church and religious leaders, and perhaps most important, liberals and civil rights organizers. With many liberals, Johnson had to overcome suspicions, feuds, and misunderstandings that had been decades in the making. He knew that no Democrat could govern effectively, much less win the presidency in his own right, without the support of the party’s large and powerful liberal wing. With the 1964 election less than a year away, he had little time to spare.
The new president worked from sunrise until late into the night — taking part in ceremonies for President Kennedy, meeting with governors and foreign leaders arriving in Washington for the funeral, shaping the budget headed for Congress, urging the Kennedy Cabinet and White House staff to stay on, while reaching out by telephone to dozens of influential Americans. To all of them Johnson’s message was clear: The country faced a crisis that required national unity and continuity. As president, he personally needed and welcomed their advice.
Johnson began November 25, 1963, his third full day as president, by walking in the funeral procession from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral with the late president’s widow and brother Robert. He did so over the strenuous objections of the Secret Service, whose leaders, fearing yet another assassination, wanted him to ride in an armored car.
Watching the procession from a crowded sidewalk, anonymous among the weeping thousands, was a dispirited Martin Luther King. King had flown to Washington from Atlanta the previous evening for the funeral. He was deeply disappointed that the Kennedy family had not invited him as an official guest.1 The battle-scarred minister came anyway, standing unnoticed among the throngs watching the funeral cortege with its riderless black horse, the veiled widow, and the new president pass by.
On the day after the assassination, King had issued a statement saying that he believed that “President Johnson will follow the path charted by President Kennedy in civil rights. . . . It does not at all mean a setback.” King felt that Johnson, with his “statesmanlike grasp of the problem and great political sagacity,” was “equipped to be affirmative in getting congressional results” on civil rights. The statement clearly delivered a compliment and at the same time issued a challenge.
Turning to the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, the SCLC associate who stood beside him on the sidewalk, King remarked, “If they can take out a president, they can take us out, too.” At least, the two ministers agreed, “Lyndon Johnson was no George Wallace.” They speculated hopefully that Johnson might have “freed himself from the racism of his region.” But King could not overcome his own despair. “We’re still a ten-day nation, Walter,” he said gloomily, referring to his sense that the country seemed unable to focus on a single issue such as civil rights for more than ten days. Three months had passed since the heralded March on Washington and King’s dramatic “I Have a Dream” speech. Now civil rights legislation was again stalled, black children had been killed in a Birmingham church bombing, and a president who had just started to show promising signs of support for their cause had been assassinated.
President Johnson telephoned King the evening of the funeral, reaching him at 9:40 p.m. at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, where he and other civil rights leaders had gathered to decide how they should deal with the new president. They were comparing their opinions of — and experiences with — Lyndon Johnson, debating how the assassination would affect the pace and direction of their movement, and discussing whether to call off scheduled demonstrations or convert them into memorials for the slain president.
Most of the leaders had been impressed by Johnson’s support for civil rights as vice president. Yet they still had reservations about how committed the tall Texan was to their cause. They had not forgotten that during his first twenty years in Congress, Johnson had opposed every civil rights bill. Civil rights veterans still remembered candidate Johnson in the 1948 Senate race, his career hanging in the balance, shouting at audiences, “I voted against the so-called and misnamed civil rights bills, and I expect to continue fighting them in my six years as senator.” Johnson’s position on civil rights had evolved over time, but his reputation was that of a political wheeler-dealer without ideological bearings and a fierce defender of the Southwest’s oil and gas interests.
Johnson began his telephone call to King by thanking the minister for his public expression of confidence. In his folksy, intimate style, the new president immediately engaged King as a confidant and partner in his effort to get results from Congress. “It’s just an impossible period,” the president explained. “We’ve got a budget coming out that’s practically already made, and we’ve got a civil rights bill. . . .We’ve got to just not give up on any of them. . . . I’m going to call on Congress Wednesday to just stay here until they pass them all. They won’t do it, but we’ll just keep them here next year until they do, and we just won’t give up an inch.”
“Well, this is mighty fine,” replied King. “I think one of the great tributes we can pay in memory of President Kennedy is to try to enact some of the great progressive policies that he sought to initiate.” “I’m going to support ’em all!” Johnson replied. “And I’m going to do my best to get other men to do likewise, and I’ll have to have you-all’s help. I never needed it more than I do now.”
“Well, you know you have it. And just feel free to call us for anything,” said King, speaking for the group. “Regards to the family,” he added.
“Thank you so much, Martin,” Johnson replied. “Call me when you’re down here next time and let’s get together — and any suggestions you have, bring them in.”
In that brief telephone exchange, King politely hinted at what the civil rights movement wanted most from Lyndon Johnson: his commitment to pass the bill formally proposed by the late president five months earlier.
The legislation had not yet been approved either by the House or by the Senate, where it faced a certain filibuster from opponents in the all-white southern delegation.
Independently, Johnson and King had reached the same judgment: the outpouring of admiration and affection for the late president — along with widespread feelings of grief, remorse, and guilt — had created a compelling opportunity for action. Both men were instinctive masters at seizing unexpected openings and turning them into victories. “Now’s the time to shove in our stack, boys,” Johnson would exhort his allies when they held the high political cards. In similar fashion, King pressed his demonstrators relentlessly when he sensed the possibility of a decisive victory.
Martin Luther King, the minister and passionate orator, expressed surprisingly little public emotion at Kennedy’s death. In his Thanksgiving Day sermon six days afterward, King mentioned the assassination only perfunctorily, preaching instead on the black experience of slavery in America. Meeting privately the next day with Donald H. Smith, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, King suggested coolly and pragmatically that Kennedy’s death might actually improve prospects for civil rights legislation. “I think that we still have the possibility for a strong civil rights bill,” King told him. “It may well be that the president’s death will speed this up. Because I’m convinced that, had he lived, there would have been continual delays and attempts to evade it at every point and water it down at every point. But I think his memory . . . will cause many people to see the necessity for working passionately and unrelentingly to get this legislation approved.”
Although he admired and even envied Kennedy’s easy, graceful political style, King judged him strictly on the way he responded to the plight of black Americans. In King’s view, the late president had repeatedly been slow to deliver on grand promises. At the time of Kennedy’s death, King was furious at the way the president and the attorney general were handling a civil rights confrontation in Albany, Georgia. Curtly rejecting King’s fervent appeals, Robert Kennedy had insisted on prosecuting nine black demonstrators for picketing a store owned by an unfriendly white merchant, but did nothing to punish white mobs that were terrorizing the demonstrators. Not a single white attacker had been arrested. Meeting with the attorney general about the case, King had erupted in a rare display of anger. He found ludicrous Robert Kennedy’s claim that he was only dispensing “even-handed justice.”
Lyndon Johnson immediately focused on gaining a mastery of civil rights and other critical domestic issues, but he could not ignore a nagging problem nine thousand miles away. In a visit toWashington, Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, had told Johnson, as the president put it, that “it’s going to hell in a hand basket out there.” Three weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination, the United States had sanctioned a coup that resulted in the assassination of Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Now there was continuing chaos, Lodge told Johnson. The new president expressed his considerable “misgivings” about “whether we took the right course in upsetting the Diem regime,” and about influential members of Congress “who felt we should get out of Vietnam.” But then Johnson came to a quick, firm conclusion.
“I am not going to lose Vietnam,” he told Lodge. “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” Two days later Johnson signed a National Security Action Memorandum reaffirming U.S. determination to assist the people and government of Vietnam “to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy.” The United States would maintain its level of financial support and of “advisers” — whose numbers had risen from 685 to 16,700 during John Kennedy’s nearly three years in office.
After meeting with Lodge, Johnson revealed his underlying motives in a conversation with aide Bill Moyers. “I told [Lodge] to go back and tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word, but by God I want something for our money. I want ’em to get off their butts and get out in those jungles and whip hell out of some Communists. And then I want them to leave me alone, because I got some bigger things to do right here at home.” From the outset, Johnson drew a connection between success in Vietnam and achieving his goals for overarching social reform at home. If he were going to equal or exceed Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson believed, he had to satisfy conservatives in Congress by bringing Vietnam to a successful conclusion.
Not all of President Johnson’s friends agreed that he should wrap himself in the cloak of the martyred president. Senator George Smathers, a Florida Democrat, told Johnson in a telephone call that he had the opportunity and freedom to chart his own course. Smathers suggested that Johnson start by dropping Kennedy’s tax cut plan, which had the Senate tied up, blocking other important legislation.
“No, no, I can’t do that,” Johnson replied. “That would destroy the party and destroy the election and destroy everything. We’ve got to carry on. We can’t abandon this fellow’s program, because he is a national hero and people want his program passed, and we’ve got to keep this Kennedy aura around us through this election.” Speaking with the conservative Smathers, Johnson talked the tough, pragmatic politics of necessity. With others he sounded sincere in his desire to pursue civil rights vigorously on moral grounds.2 At a long meeting at The Elms that first week, Johnson’s advisers debated how he should handle civil rights. When one veteran insider cautioned the president against expending his early goodwill on the controversial legislation, Johnson loudly retorted, “Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?”
Was LBJ acting out of political necessity or out of conviction? If political necessity, how long would it last? Those questions were on the mind of James Farmer, executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality, as he met with the president in the Oval Office. Farmer thought that Johnson radiated an optimism bordering on euphoria as he described his plans to fight for civil rights legislation. Farmer listened, fascinated, as Johnson periodically interrupted their conversation to take telephone calls in which he vigorously lobbied senators to support the civil rights bill.
“Mr. President,” asked Farmer, “why are you doing this?” Johnson answered by describing the humiliations experienced by his college-educated cook, Zephyr Wright, and her husband whenever they traveled in the segregated South. In Johnson’s vivid story, Mrs. Wright, denied the use of “whites only” restrooms, would have to “go squat in the middle of a field to pee.” A key feature of the proposed civil rights law called for eliminating segregated public accommodations, including motels, restaurants, restrooms, movie theaters, parks, and swimming pools.
Then, with a twinkle in his eye, Johnson gave Farmer another explanation for his civil rights advocacy. “To quote a friend of yours,” he said, “free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last!” In quoting Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Johnson intimated that now that he had reached the presidency, he was free of the political constraints that had bound him during twenty-seven years as a representative and senator and even as vice president. In his first years in Congress, Johnson had told civil rights advocates that his vote for a civil rights bill would only guarantee his defeat in the next election. By 1957, as a Senate majority leader who hungered for national office, Johnson had begun to change his position on civil rights. Demonstrating extraordinary political and parliamentary skills, he had steered through Congress the first civil rights law enacted since Reconstruction.3 For his efforts he was condemned by southerners as a traitor to his region and race and by liberals for pushing through a toothless piece of legislation. Now Johnson had to win over those who had scorned his performance in 1957, including Roy Wilkins, who had called the 1957 law “soup made from the bones of an emaciated chicken which had died from starvation.” Wilkins also compared Johnson’s next civil rights bill, three years later — which sought to guarantee black voting rights — to prescribing “liniment to cure a tumor.”
Now Wilkins, sixty-two years old and in his ninth year as the NAACP’s executive director, was the first civil rights leader President Johnson summoned to the Oval Office. A slim, immaculately dressed man, Wilkins spoke with the dignity and authority of the leader of the nation’s largest and best-known civil rights organization. Despite his contempt for Johnson’s handling of the earlier civil rights bills, Wilkins had been impressed by Johnson’s performance as vice president, particularly his work chairing the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which sought to end job discrimination and segregation by government contractors. When Wilkins had complained to Johnson about racial discrimination at the Lockheed Corporation’s Georgia airplane plant, the vice president had acted quickly to remedy the problems. Over the years, Wilkins had judged Johnson to be not a “visceral segregationist” but a product of his political circumstances.
When the NAACP leader entered the Oval Office, the president pulled his own chair up to Wilkins’s so their knees almost touched. Johnson poked his finger in Wilkins’s chest, thrust his nose within an inch of Wilkins’s, and declared, “I want that bill passed!” Moreover, Johnson said, he wanted the legislation approved intact — without compromise or weakening amendments. In 1957 and 1960, Majority Leader Johnson had watered down stronger bills passed by the House in order to get them through the Senate, and black leaders feared that he would follow the same tactic as president. Johnson spent the rest of their forty-five-minute meeting telling Wilkins how he expected him and other civil rights leaders to lobby Congress to pass the bill.
Wilkins’s doubts about the president’s intentions were largely dispelled by the meeting. In past dealings with Johnson, even though they often disagreed, Wilkins had found him forthright, a man of his word. Now he believed that Johnson had committed himself to go much further on civil rights than ever before. Leaving the meeting, Wilkins told White House reporters that the president would push the civil rights bill both out of “his own convictions” and because of “political necessity.”
Wilkins’s experiences with Lyndon Johnson were quite different from his dealings in the Oval Office with John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had been “polite and sympathetic on all matters of basic principle, but too often evasive when it came to action.” Although Kennedy portrayed himself as “dry-eyed and realistic,” Wilkins had thought that the young president was too “green,” lacking in understanding of “what was possible in Congress, and in his knowledge of the South.” In contrast, Wilkins believed that “Johnson knew exactly what was possible” in dealing with Congress, and was more forthright in saying what he would do. Whereas Kennedy had been reluctant to pressure members of Congress to support his program, Johnson was a master of persuasion. Kennedy’s greatest contribution was to help change “the moral climate of the country, the first step before civil rights legislation could be passed,” Wilkins decided. But it would take an entirely different kind of president — a Lyndon Johnson — to get a strong civil rights bill enacted into law.
Even as they worried about Johnson’s deep ties to the South, black leaders based their hopes to some extent on a story from black folklore. Blacks would finally gain their freedom, the story went, after the arrival of an enlightened white southern leader. The folktale received new attention as black leaders discussed what they could expect from Johnson and how they should deal with him.
There was something else about Johnson’s southern roots that the black leaders found significant: any southern white politician who dared take up the cause of civil rights did so knowing full well that his commitment would expose him to rejection by his closest white southern friends and allies. Advocating civil rights could spell defeat in the next election. There was a real cost, politically and personally, for a southerner that the northern white politician did not face. Therefore the southerner’s commitment demonstrated true courage.
As Johnson sought the support of a succession of black leaders, he reached back to his past and passionately described the populist roots that had animated his early political career. Meeting with Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Johnson reminisced about how “Mary McLeod Bethune put my integration diapers on me during my NYA days.” Bethune, an intimate of Eleanor Roosevelt and founder of the NCNW, served as deputy director of the National Youth Administration, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. At age twenty-six, Lyndon Johnson had been the youngest state director of the NYA, which funded jobs for unemployed youths during the Great Depression. Bethune had lectured an initially reluctant Johnson that “you represent the federal government, and the NYA is a federal program” — and that therefore the program must serve all youths, not just whites. “From that point on,” Johnson told Height, “I never questioned. I was an agent of the federal government.”4 The reminiscence created an important connection for Johnson: as a young woman, Dorothy Height had served as Bethune’s personal assistant.
Johnson also reminded black leaders of his experiences in the late 1930s as a young Texas congressman who proudly marched under the banner of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his progressive New Deal. As a freshman congressman, Johnson had gone to the White House to protest to the president that Agriculture Department programs grossly discriminated against black farmers in his congressional district. Johnson had been one of only three representatives from the South who dared to support Roosevelt’s bill to establish a minimum wage. As a freshman, he had brought one of the nation’s first public housing grants to Austin — and directed part of the funds to housing for blacks and Mexican Americans. Critics noted that the housing was segregated and that Johnson often did more for whites than for blacks. Still, he was among the rare southern politicians who risked white disapproval by openly supporting measures to help his black constituents. In return, blacks in Texas supported Johnson, even knowing that in the 1930s and 1940s he had voted against civil rights legislation that would have eliminated the poll tax5 and made lynching a federal crime.
Johnson’s ambitions were tied to another populist influence that he seldom talked about out of political caution. It was all right to acknowledge Franklin Roosevelt as a personal mentor. But Johnson also was an admirer of Huey Long, the legendary “Kingfish,” who built a huge populist following as governor of Louisiana, as a senator advocating a radical and highly controversial “Share the Wealth” plan, and as a politician ambitious enough to challenge FDR himself for the presidency.
Horace Busby, who had joined Johnson’s staff in 1948 and served as an idea man and speechwriter, recalled Johnson’s enduring fascination with Long as he listened to the president discuss his plans and ambitions for the second night running, and into the morning of November 24. After dinner at The Elms, Johnson got a rubdown from his masseur Olaf Anderson and then slipped into a pair of white silk pajamas — the kind LBJ believed had been worn by Huey Long. As a young congressional aide to Representative Richard Kleberg of Texas in the early 1930s, Johnson had studied everything he could about Long. He seldom missed an opportunity to hear Long speak in the Senate. He and a friend from Oklahoma took one of Long’s secretaries out to dinner and questioned her about her boss’s interests and habits — including how he dressed and what he liked to eat. What most fascinated Johnson was how Long had amassed political power and then won adoration from his constituents by using that power to secure government services for them. Long had paved Louisiana’s muddy network of rural roads and helped the poor, while avoiding the virulent racism then virtually universal among southern politicians.
Johnson talked with Busby until 3 a.m. about all the things he wanted to accomplish — pass strong civil rights legislation, reform immigration laws so they didn’t discriminate against immigrants who were not from England and western Europe, build up the Social Security system, and complete the agenda of the New Deal. Most important, he wanted to provide health care for the elderly and guarantee federal support so that no American would be denied an education for lack of funds. In Busby’s view, Johnson not only wanted to accomplish great things but also yearned to be loved by the people, as he imagined Huey Long had been. Long’s rambunctious, outsized personality may not have been cut to fit the image of the successful politician in the age of television, but Lyndon Johnson still identified with the Louisianan as much as he did with Franklin Roosevelt.
As her husband spoke with Busby, Lady Bird Johnson sat at her dressing table nearby, getting ready for bed. Listening to her husband talk endlessly about his White House plans, she said, “Thank God there’s only ten months of this to go.” The new first lady was counting the months until someone else would be elected president. “No, Mrs. Johnson, it’s going to be more like nine years,” replied Busby, adding to the remaining time in Kennedy’s term the two four-year terms Johnson could serve in his own right. “Don’t say that,” Lady Bird protested as she adjusted an eye mask and went to bed.
In a meeting earlier that same evening at Johnson’s office in the Executive Office Building across from the White House, Walter Heller, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Johnson about a program to fight poverty that he had been designing for President Kennedy’s consideration. Johnson seized upon the idea. “That’s my kind of program,” he said. “We should push ahead full tilt.” Johnson instructed Heller, an economist from the University of Minnesota, to spread the word to his liberal friends that the president was not a “conservative budget slasher.” “If you look at my record,” Johnson told him, “you would know that I’m a Roosevelt New Dealer. As a matter of fact, John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.”
Continuing his exploration of the poverty issue and reconnecting with his liberal past, Johnson invited two of his oldest friends from his New Deal days, social worker Elizabeth Wickendon and her husband, Arthur Goldschmidt, to The Elms for Sunday supper. “I have a very difficult problem,” Johnson confided to them. “I feel a moral obligation to carry on the things that Kennedy proposed, but I have to have issues I can take on as my own. I have to get reelected in a year.” Johnson told them that he was considering making poverty his issue.
Less than two weeks after becoming president, Johnson wrote a public letter to the National Welfare Association promising “a national assault on the causes of poverty.” Suddenly a complex political dynamic was transforming a proposed modest investigation into the causes of poverty into a full-blown “War on Poverty,” though the strategy and the weapons to fight the war had yet to be chosen. Competition between the new president and Kennedy aides carrying their fallen leader’s banner quickly drove up the political stakes. The expansion of Johnson’s agenda from securing civil rights to fighting poverty was propelled by multiple forces: his old populist instincts, his desire to find his own issues, his need to heal old quarrels with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and his competition with the Kennedys. Although he publicly praised the fallen president at every turn, Johnson would begin privately pointing out that he was succeeding with Congress where Kennedy had failed.
As Senate majority leader, Johnson often had scorned liberal senators as impractical — more interested in rhetoric than in results, hidebound against compromise, and devoid of political savvy.6 One of his favorite jokes was, “You know the difference between cannibals and liberals? Cannibals eat only their enemies!”
To achieve results in an ideologically divided Senate, Johnson had had to perform a constant juggling act — seeking courses of action that would command the votes of both liberal northern Democrats and conservative Democrats from the South. Had he failed, a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats could have controlled the Senate. Johnson had achieved legislative results, including the 1957 and 1960 civil rights laws, however much they might be criticized by liberals who believed that his compromises better served the interests of President Eisenhower and the Republicans than their own.
Blinded by their passion and their personal dislike of Johnson, the liberals denied their majority leader any credit, even for two remarkable accomplishments: Johnson had succeeded in getting the Senate to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin for recklessly slandering political opponents as Communists,7 and he had defeated an effort by the body’s right-wing conservatives to strip power from the Supreme Court after its 1954 decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional. In those fights, the liberals had made the fiery speeches while Johnson worked behind the scenes, employing shrewdness, guile, and a knowledge both of Senate rules and of the members themselves to win victories. Other senators shared conservative Iowa Republican Bourke Hickenlooper’s view that the wheeler-dealer majority leader was a man whose partisanship was exceeded only by his “personal opportunism.”
Most politicians, whether friend or foe of Lyndon Johnson, struggled to comprehend the complexity of this leader, with his huge ambition and extravagant personality. Former representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, a liberal California Democrat, onetime actress, and intimate Johnson friend, thought she knew what the nation was in for when Johnson became president. She catalogued his contradictory qualities: “Ambitious, driving, alert, careful, calculating, secretive, seemingly with inexhaustible energy, sensitive to criticism, vain, an explosive temper that could erupt over the smallest details, a natural talent for organization, a listener — not a reader, a legislative director, organizer — not a legislative designer, an activist — not a planner. LBJ perfected the plans of others. He was an operator, and I say that in the best sense, not a creator.”
With key members of the liberal establishment, Johnson tried with words and deeds to assuage the bitter feelings left over from old political feuds. To that end, Johnson did something that had been virtually unthinkable in the past: he apologized. He admitted that he had been wrong. No telephone call Johnson made in the early days of his presidency was more difficult than his conversation November 23 with Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Texas Democrat who led a liberal faction in the Lone Star State that often opposed Johnson. The division between liberal and conservative Democrats in Texas ran bitter and deep. Only the day before in Dallas, Yarborough had ridden in the same car as the vice president only because President Kennedy had insisted. The day before the shots rang out in Dallas, Johnson was still pressing several of his Texas congressional allies to challenge Yarborough in the 1964 Senate primary. Now everything had changed. Johnson told Yarborough he needed his support and Yarborough pledged to give it. In return, Johnson asked the conservative Democratic faction not to oppose Yarborough’s bid for reelection.
On his second Sunday in the White House, Johnson called in James Rowe, a liberal Washington insider who had begun his political career as a clerk to Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and then as an aide to Franklin Roosevelt. It was Rowe who had pushed Johnson to support civil rights legislation in 1957, arguing that the Democratic Party could not regain the presidency without proving its dedication to the interests of black voters in the big cities. Rowe’s tolerance of Johnson’s petulant tirades had run out during the 1960 campaign. When the vice presidential candidate made one petty demand too many, Rowe quit. The two had parted angrily and had barely spoken in three years.
Now Johnson admitted to Rowe that he had been out of line during the campaign. He wanted to mend their relationship and needed Rowe’s support. Rowe, ever the gentleman, tried to take the blame for their quarrel, to which Johnson responded, “Damn it, can’t you be content to be the first man the thirty-sixth president of the United States has apologized to?”
Next Johnson reached out to Joseph Rauh, chairman of Americans for Democratic Action and a key strategist and lobbyist for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Rauh had denounced Johnson as majority leader for selling out to his Deep South friends on the 1957 civil rights bill. At the 1960 Democratic convention, Rauh had taken the floor to denounce Kennedy’s choice of Johnson as his running mate. Now Johnson asked Rauh to fly with him to the funeral of former New York senator Herbert Lehman, a liberal hero. The president then brought his former detractor to the White House, where the two men agreed to work together to pass the new civil rights bill.
Johnson then sought to make peace with Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, whom Johnson had humiliated during a civil rights debate in the 1950s. Douglas, a white-maned liberal orator, had distinguished himself as a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and then as a fifty-year-old marine enlistee in World War II. Of all the Senate liberals, Douglas had been the most determined opponent of Johnson’s highhanded leadership style and his temporizing on civil rights. Now Johnson invited Douglas to his Texas ranch, where he apologized for his rude treatment of the Illinois senator. “He said we’d had many disputes,” Douglas later recalled, “but in looking back, he felt that it was mostly his own fault — which I thought was very handsome of him.”
As Johnson drove Douglas and others around his ranch in the heart of the Texas hill country, he talked of growing up there in the early years of the century. From those central Texas hills, with their thin soil, mesquite trees, and struggling farmers came the rural populism that shaped Johnson’s early political career. He often recited for guests his family history — how he had started out in the political footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom had served in the Texas state legislature, where they had opposed the Ku Klux Klan and championed the rights of the workingman.
There were few blacks in Blanco County, so Johnson never experienced anything like the stratified and segregated plantation society of the Deep South. But there were lots of poor white people who tried to scrape by farming. Johnson’s father had failed as a farmer, and money was scarce as Johnson grew up. He vowed never to fail as his father had. Johnson identified with underdogs, even after he had become a rich and powerful senator backed by and often serving the interests of the state’s wealthy oil and business men.
At his ranch, Johnson entertained visitors in his swimming pool and on harrowing rides in which he would startle unsuspecting guests by driving his amphibious car straight into the middle of Lake Lyndon Baines Johnson. He told them of the upbringing that had shaped his character and influenced his ideas, including the story of how his grandmother and her children had hidden in a cellar under a trapdoor while marauding Indians ransacked their house.
Born in 1908, Johnson was the last president to have experienced the final vestiges of the American frontier. He would show visitors the one-room schoolhouse where he had begun his education and tell them of his heart-rending experiences as principal of a dilapidated school attended by poor Mexican American children in rural Cotulla. From his own meager salary Johnson had bought school supplies and paid for extracurricular activities. Later, when he served as debate coach at a high school in Houston, he again used his own money to help poor Mexican American children.8
Johnson would tell his visitors about his proudest accomplishment: bringing electricity to the farmers and ranchers in his sparsely settled congressional district. Before he was elected to Congress in 1937, there had been no electric power in the thousands of square miles of the hill country. First Johnson persuaded President Roosevelt to approve dams on the Colorado River to generate power. Next he won special approval from the Rural Electrification Administration to install power lines through vast stretches of country with a population density of less than one person per square mile. The project, built between 1937 and 1948, brought the hill country people into the twentieth century. For the first time, they could listen to the radio, draw water by electric pump instead of by hand, wash clothes without backbreaking labor, and light their homes. The grateful voters remained loyal to Lyndon Johnson all their lives.
By the time guests such as Senator Douglas left the LBJ Ranch, they had a better understanding of their old adversary: Lyndon Johnson was more than a political operator with slicked-back hair, hand-tailored suits, and a domineering personality. Douglas decided that Johnson was sincere, and that securing civil rights was more important than nursing old political grievances.
From a small sitting room on the second floor of the White House where she recorded her daily diary, Lady Bird Johnson could see the procession of leaders arriving to meet with the president. She found it painful to watch Johnson’s relentless courtship of men like Joe Rauh, who she felt had unfairly excoriated her husband and his native region. She was particularly upset when the president virtually ordered conservative Texas congressman Joe Kilgore, the Johnsons’ close friend, not to challenge Johnson’s political foe Ralph Yarborough for reelection. Lady Bird feared that Lyndon’s wooing of the liberals and the intensity of the civil rights struggle would damage her relationships with members of Congress from the Deep South and their wives, who had been the Johnsons’ closest friends in Washington. She understood and agreed with her husband’s push for civil rights,9 but it still angered her that the South’s most strident critics never acknowledged the region she loved for its beautiful land and its gracious people.
She had grown up Claudia Alta Taylor, nicknamed Lady Bird as a child, in the town of Karnack in East Texas, where her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a prosperous merchant, landowner, and community leader, was called “Boss” Taylor by the black sharecroppers. It was an environment vastly different from Lyndon Johnson’s hill country, which was more a part of the Southwest. Karnack belonged in Deep South plantation country, and Lady Bird Taylor was raised in the manner of a southern gentlewoman. She was bright and well educated, with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. Lyndon Johnson, still a congressional aide at the time they met, had swept her off her feet in a cross-country courtship that he pursued as relentlessly as any political campaign. After eight weeks of impassioned letters, roses, and exhortations to her father, she agreed to marry him. He called her “Bird.” She became the anchor in his life, radiating serenity in the most difficult times. On the afternoon of November 22 it was she who had made the telephone call to their daughter Lynda Bird, an eighteen-year-old student at the University of Texas. “Lynda, the president has been shot and killed,” Lady Bird told her calmly. “We are fine, on the plane flying back to Washington. You go over to the governor’s mansion and be with Johnnie Connally. You’ll be safe there.” Lynda was struck by how self-controlled her mother always was, in contrast with her tempestuous father. With patience and inner strength, Lady Bird Johnson constantly saved her husband from his worst excesses. Lyndon Johnson depended on and trusted his wife’s judgment like no one else’s.
His whirlwind round of meetings was important, but the acid test came on November 27, 1963, at 12:30 p.m., as Lyndon Baines Johnson entered the chamber of the House of Representatives. Johnson knew that this address to a joint session of Congress would be the most important speech of his life. All of the private entreaties he had made to leaders of government, business, labor, churches, the news media, and the civil rights movement would be for naught if he did not connect with the American people. Dressed in a dark blue suit, speaking in a quiet and controlled voice, Johnson began his speech: “Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the House, Members of the Senate, my fellow Americans — all I have I would give gladly not to be standing here today. The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time.”
In uttering those few words, Johnson identified with the grief felt by millions of Americans. His central theme was that he would continue the policies and maintain the spirit of John F. Kennedy. After quoting the 1961 inaugural address in which Kennedy had declared, “Let us begin,” Johnson now affirmed, “Let us continue.”
Then Johnson boldly seized the moment: “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about civil rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in a book of law.”
No president from the South had ever uttered such words — much less a president who had opposed every civil rights bill offered during his six terms as a Texas congressman in that very House chamber. Now, Johnson left no doubt about his meaning, or about his commitment.
“I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward and eliminate from this nation every vestige of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this nation both at home and abroad. . . . The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and respect each other. So let us put an end to the teaching and preaching of hate and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into the nation’s bloodstream.”
Johnson’s speech was interrupted thirty-four times by applause. It struck a positive chord around the nation, spawning widespread public sentiment that Johnson was indeed up to the job of succeeding Jack Kennedy as president. The response from the civil rights community was immediate and generous. Martin Luther King Jr. called the speech “a heroic and courageous affirmation of our democratic ideals.” Roy Wilkins said that Johnson had provided “a profound sense of new hope.” But the political importance of what Johnson had just done was summed up best by black comedian and activist Dick Gregory. “When Lyndon Johnson finished his speech,” cracked Gregory, “twenty million American Negroes unpacked.”
The impact of Johnson’s first presidential address came in part from where he chose to make it. He rejected the idea of a televised speech from his desk in the Oval Office, choosing instead the halls of Congress, where he reminded his former colleagues that “for 32 years Capitol Hill has been my home. I have shared many moments of pride with you, pride in the ability of the Congress of the United States to act, to meet any crisis, to distill from our differences strong programs of national action.” He knew most of the people there well. Many were his friends. Some were enemies. But all appreciated his declaration that he respected the independence of the legislative branch and his vow to govern with Congress as an equal partner.
Although civil rights was his most dramatic theme, Johnson addressed other issues, too. He committed himself to the major proposals of the Kennedy–Johnson administration: medical care for the elderly, federal aid to elementary and secondary education, commitment to a strong national defense, loyalty to the nation’s allies, maintenance of a stable economy, prudence in government spending — themes that were reassuring to a wide range of Americans, including those who did not support the president’s passionately declared commitment to civil rights. In historical terms, Johnson had described the major unfulfilled promises made by a series of Democratic presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Harry Truman’s Fair Deal to Jack Kennedy’s New Frontier. Few in the audience realized just how long Johnson had dreamed of gaining the power to fulfill those promises, and to compete with Roosevelt in accomplishments and in winning the love of an appreciative people.
In the first critical days, Johnson used all the techniques of persuasion — known collectively as “the Johnson treatment” — that he had used to dominate the Senate as its majority leader from 1955 until his inauguration as vice president in 1961. He knew the intricate details of the most complex legislation. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of each senator’s interests, strengths, and weaknesses. He knew which senators to flatter, which to promise favors — and, when necessary, which to threaten. Most often, though, Johnson’s appeal of last resort was to urge a senator to put the national interest above his own. Almost from the first moments of his presidency, Johnson employed the “treatment” toward achieving his greatest priority: passage of the civil rights bill.
The Johnson treatment was highly physical. He would stand nose to nose with another senator and literally press the flesh of a hand, an arm, a shoulder. At six foot four, Johnson loomed over most men and women, and he employed his size as another resource for dominating others. “He’d get right up on you,” Hubert Humphrey recalled. “He’d just lean right in on you. . . . He was so big and tall he’d be kind of looking down on you, then he’d be pulling your lapels, and he’d be grabbing you.”
Johnson also outworked the other ninety-nine senators with an energy and intensity few could match. “Let’s reason together,” he would say as he reached for consensus. Not every senator liked Johnson. Some resented his ceaseless hunger for power and his arrogance. Yet most admired his ability to make the Senate work effectively on the public’s business.
Now, on an even larger political stage, Johnson sought to persuade men and women from broad range of interest groups to follow his leadership. Courting the liberals and civil rights activists was essential. But Johnson also needed support from conservative Democrats and Republicans, including those opposed to granting equality to 20 million black Americans. Perhaps no consensus could be reached with diehard southerners on civil rights. But that issue aside, he still sought consensus.
In those first days of his presidency, Johnson reached out with extraordinary gestures to a wide range of Washington power brokers. Early one morning, he stopped his limousine at the home of George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, and rode with him to the White House. Over breakfast the president pledged his commitment to Meany’s top priority: passage of the civil rights bill. The next morning, he repeated the same limousine-and-breakfast routine with Charles Halleck, the Republican leader of the House. Normally cantankerous and highly partisan, Halleck left the White House clearly charmed and pleased by his visit — and pledging to cooperate with the new president.
With the conservative Senate barons — the powerful committee chairmen — he offered a menu of enticements. For John McClellan, the crusty Arkansas scourge of wasteful government spending and corruption, Johnson promised to attack fraud and waste in defense contracts. And he followed up on his words with action, instructing Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to cut Pentagon spending even by the politically sensitive method of closing unneeded military bases.
As an essential part of his legislative strategy, Lyndon Johnson set out to break the coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans that had held up President Kennedy’s top legislative priorities, civil rights and tax reduction. The tax bill was needed to stimulate a sluggish economy. The civil rights bill was a response to legitimate grievances long ignored and to the growing wave of black demonstrations, which both Kennedy and Johnson feared could escalate into rebellion. The southerners’ strategy — planned by Richard Russell of Georgia, the most powerful member of the Senate — was to stall the tax bill as long as possible in order to delay and defeat the civil rights bill. With the start of a presidential election campaign only months away, the southerners hoped to drag their feet on civil rights until the summer political conventions forced adjournment of Congress.
Revising Kennedy’s legislative strategy, Johnson decided to concentrate first on the tax bill — the less difficult fight to win. Once the tax legislation was out of the way, Johnson planned to bring the civil rights bill to the Senate floor for a fight to the finish against the segregationist bloc. The key to passing the tax bill was to overcome the opposition of Virginia’s Harry Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and an ardent opponent of government spending.10 Byrd had held the tax bill hostage in his committee, refusing even to hold hearings.
Johnson speculated with his advisers that Byrd might be persuaded to release the bill if Johnson could cut the proposed federal budget, which was expected for the first time to exceed $100 billion, a number with great symbolic significance for opponents of government spending like Harry Byrd. Johnson told his aides to find ways to reduce the budget. “Unless you get that budget down around $100 billion,” said Johnson, “you won’t pee one drop.” Then Johnson personally arranged all the details — including a menu of potato soup, salad, and vanilla ice cream — for a private lunch with Byrd in a small room next to Johnson’s office.
Harry Byrd was a proud southern aristocrat, patriarch of a political machine that ruled the Commonwealth of Virginia and, as he saw it, guardian of the U.S. Treasury against reckless spending. At Byrd’s command, Virginia had defied the U.S. Supreme Court by closing its public schools rather than integrate them. From their Senate years together, Johnson liked Byrd and had found ways to work with him. Now, over dessert, Johnson maneuvered the strong-willed Virginian toward a budget figure he would accept. If he could bring the budget below $107 billion, the president asked, would Byrd permit the tax bill to come to the Senate floor? “Too big, Mr. President, too big,” Byrd replied. Johnson asked the same question with successively lower totals. Repeatedly Byrd shook his head “no.” Finally Johnson asked, “Just suppose I could get the budget somewhere under $100 billion. What would you say then?”11 Reluctantly, Byrd agreed that he would allow the bill to come up for a vote in the full Senate.
At his first legislative breakfast with Democratic congressional leaders on December 3, President Johnson laid out his strategy for passing the civil rights bill. Over scrambled eggs and bacon, he discussed the obstacles facing the bill with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts, and House Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma. Ahead loomed the immense task of breaking the filibuster that would be mounted by the determined segregationists from the Deep South. But the first roadblock was the House Rules Committee, where chairman Howard Worth Smith, an ardent segregationist from Virginia, had kept the bill bottled up. Smith, who ruled northern Virginia as his personal duchy within the political empire of Senator Harry Byrd, refused to call committee meetings whenever his dictatorial power was threatened. When “Judge” Smith, as he was called, wanted to block a bill, he simply retired to his farm outside Washington.
To get the bill to the House floor, Johnson and the legislative leaders agreed to employ a seldom-used parliamentary procedure called a discharge petition. The leaders would file a petition to strip the bill from Smith’s committee and bring it before the full House for consideration. A majority of the House — 218 members — would have to sign the petition. The tactic seldom succeeded because the committee chairmen and other senior members would band together to repel any threat to their power. In taking on Judge Smith, however, Johnson hoped to do more than bring a successful discharge petition; he was sending a message to Congress and the country. In the drive to overrule Smith’s power, Johnson would use the bully pulpit of the White House to demonstrate his determination to move the stalemated Congress forward.
In a series of meetings, telephone calls, and public statements, Johnson hammered at the message that he was going to push a strong civil rights bill through Congress. He knew he had to convince friend and foe alike that he would not bargain away provisions to gain its approval, as he had done in 1957 and 1960. “I want that bill passed without one word changed,” the president repeated to Americans for Democratic Action lobbyist Joseph Rauh and Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP. Next he delivered an important message to Senator Richard Russell, leader of the southern opposition — and a Johnson mentor, benefactor, and friend.
Lyndon Johnson’s rise to power had been aided by a knack for cultivating mentors who helped advance his career. Johnson had made himself useful to a series of powerful men and women, beginning with the president of Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College, where he received his degree in education, and going on to include President Franklin Roosevelt, House Majority Leader (later Speaker) Sam Rayburn, and Richard Russell. In Rayburn and Russell, Johnson befriended aging, lonely bachelors. He not only served as their loyal lieutenant but also brought them into his home, where Lady Bird cooked their favorite foods and the Johnson daughters, Lynda and Luci, affectionately called them “Mr. Sam” and “Uncle Dick.” Johnson was unstinting in his devotion to the senior legislators, who recognized his promise and assisted his rise in Congress. With Russell’s support, Johnson had become assistant minority leader, minority leader, and then, at age forty-six, majority leader of the Senate. Johnson’s critics saw his courting of Rayburn and Russell as the actions of a sycophant. But Johnson had apprenticed himself to masters of the art of politics, much as an ambitious young carpenter might seek to learn his trade from a master craftsman.
On December 7, Johnson invited Russell to the White House for a swim and a leisurely lunch. Afterward, in the Oval Office, he delivered a firm message to his old friend. The subject was civil rights. “Dick, you’ve got to get out of my way,” Johnson said. “If you don’t, I’m going to roll over you. I don’t intend to cavil or compromise.”
“You may do that,” Russell replied. “But it’s going to cost you the South, and cost you the election.”
“If that’s the price I have to pay,” Johnson answered, “I’ll pay it gladly.”
For decades, the Democratic Party’s ability to win the presidency and to control Congress had depended on the “solid South.” What Russell was warning — and Johnson clearly understood — was that his advocacy of civil rights would likely precipitate a southern political realignment to the Republican Party.
As Johnson had expected, Russell carried the president’s message back to the other southerners in the Senate: the South should not expect any more compromises on civil rights from Lyndon Johnson. Asked whether Johnson would weaken the bill, Russell replied, “No. The way that fellow operates, he’ll get the whole bill, every last bit of it.” The die was cast. No quarter would be given — by either side. Either Russell and his lieutenants would stop the bill with a monumental filibuster, or the nation would get its strongest civil rights law since Lincoln.
Johnson sent another signal to his fellow southerners. “You’ve got a southern president,” he told them. “If you want to blow him out of the water, go right ahead and do it, but you boys will never see another one again. We’re friends on the q.t. Would you rather have me administering the civil rights bill, or do you want to have Nixon or [Pennsylvania governor William] Scranton? You have to make up your mind.”
Demonstrating his usefulness to the South, Johnson pushed through the House cotton legislation that provided several billion dollars in aid to southern farmers. To win that vote, he lobbied House Speaker McCormack and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who controlled the eleven votes of the Chicago delegation, to back the farm supports. McCormack and Daley opposed helping southern members of Congress who voted against civil rights and other social legislation, but they responded to Johnson’s appeal. By passing farm relief, Johnson demonstrated to the southerners and to conservative midwestern Republicans that he had the power to see that their needs were met — or not.
Using his support for the cotton bill as a lever, Johnson got a few southerners to sign the civil rights discharge petition. In a telephone call to Harry Provence, a Waco, Texas, newspaper editor and Johnson supporter, the president told him to ask if Texas Democrat William Robert Poage, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, would also sign the petition — after first reminding Poage of Johnson’s help on the farm bill. Poage refused, but half a dozen Texas congressmen did sign — out of loyalty to Johnson and at risk to their political careers.
For the civil rights legislation to prevail in Congress, strong Republican support was required, and from his first days in office Johnson sought GOP votes. He had to have at least seventy Republican signatures on the House discharge petition, and he would need most of the Senate Republicans to defeat a filibuster there. He asked the Republican leaders for support, but he also sent them a tough political message. His chosen messenger was conservative Texas banker Robert Anderson, Treasury secretary in the Eisenhower administration and a close Johnson friend. The president told Anderson that if Rules Committee chairman Smith succeeded in stalling the bill until March, it would not pass in 1964. “Now, this country is not in any condition to take that kind of stuff. . . .Roy Wilkins told me yesterday that Negroes will be out in the streets again if we don’t make some little progress.”
Johnson told Anderson he wanted the Republicans to know that “you’re either for civil rights or you’re not. You’re either the party of Lincoln or you ain’t. By God, put up or shut up. This is it. If you are, you sign the [discharge] petition to consider it. If you’re not, why, just get over there, by God, with Jim Eastland12 and Howard Smith, and stay [there].”
If Republicans opposed the civil rights bill, Johnson told Anderson, “I believe we can dramatize it enough that we can wreck them. But I don’t want to do it that way, but when a man won’t even give you a hearing . . . that is just getting too damn rough.”
Johnson reached out to all the centers of power in America on civil rights. He called the executives who ran the television networks, national newsmagazines, and major newspapers. On December 2 he phoned Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, to ask for her newspaper’s editorial support for the petition to bring the civil rights bill to the House floor. Johnson had been a close friend of Kay Graham and her late husband, Philip, for years, and he now turned on the Johnson treatment full-throttle. He flirted mischievously: “I hear that sweet voice on the telephone, and I’d like to break out of here and be like one of those young animals on my ranch — jump a fence.” He told her how much he missed Phil Graham’s wise advice. He tried flattery, saying that the commission to investigate President Kennedy’s assassination should be called the “Kay Graham Commission” because it was her newspaper that had suggested the idea. As a personal favor to her, he agreed to speak at an upcoming meeting of the American Book Publishers Association. Finally, he chided the Post for writing about sex scandals on Capitol Hill rather than about the civil rights crisis. “Whether [a Senate official] had a girl or whether he didn’t is not a matter that is going to settle this country,” Johnson said, “but whether we have equality or justice is pretty damn important.” He asked Graham to publicize as “anti–civil rights” the name of any member of Congress unwilling to permit the bill to get a hearing on the floor of the House. The Post supported the discharge petition, running strong editorials for three consecutive days after the president’s conversation with Mrs. Graham.
In his first twelve days as president, Johnson pushed every lever of power he could reach to create a tide of public sentiment that Congress should move forward on civil rights. On December 3, the day after speaking with Katharine Graham, he held his first meeting as president with Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who Johnson knew could exert the greatest influence on American public opinion.
1 King might have felt less slighted if he had known that Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Whitney Young of the National Urban League were guests only because President Johnson had intervened with the Kennedy’s at Young’s request.
2 After his presidency had ended, Johnson told his biographer Doris Kearns, “I knew that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue [civil rights], the liberals would get me!”
3 The 1957 Civil Rights Act established a Commission on Civil Rights and a civil rights division in the Justice Department, and made it a crime to interfere with a person’s right to vote in federal elections.
4 Johnson did not follow Bethune’s instruction in 1936 to integrate his state advisory board. If he did so, Johnson wrote Washington, whites would not cooperate, and the program would be killed. His solution was to form separate white and black advisory boards. At the same time, Johnson doubled the number of jobs at two black colleges despite warnings from his mentor, Texas governor James Allred, about the political consequences of placing any jobs in black colleges.
5 Blacks in Texas won the right to vote after the Supreme Court of the United States in 1944 ruled unconstitutional the “all-white Democratic primary,” the winning of which was tantamount at the time to election.
6 Ironically, John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert shared much of Johnson’s jaundiced view of the politics of liberals. The Kennedys prided themselves on their pragmatism and scorned the high-minded idealism of liberals whose rhetoric was not coupled with results. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in a conversation with two aides, said he’d rather deal with Senator James Eastland of Mississippi than with some of the Senate liberals. At the time, Eastland, a plantation owner and unyielding segregationist, chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, from whose doors no civil rights legislation had ever emerged.
7 Johnson defeated McCarthy by waiting until the Wisconsin demagogue overplayed his hand. When McCarthy attacked the Episcopal bishop G. Bromley Oxnam as a Communist, Johnson told an ally that “McCarthy just made a fatal mistake.” Oxnam was a close friend of Senator Harry Byrd, the conservative southern patriarch, who then joined the fight and brought with him the votes needed to censure McCarthy.
8 In Cotulla, Johnson would buy an ice cream cone for a different child every day from the ice cream vendor who came by the school since he didn’t have enough money to buy cones for all of them.
9 Like her husband, Lady Bird Johnson was first sensitized to the cruelties of discrimination by the experiences of their servants. In the 1950s Mrs. Johnson was horrified when ambulance companies in Washington, D.C., refused to pick up Zephyr Wright, the Johnson’s black cook, after she fell on an icy sidewalk and broke her leg. Senator Johnson finally demanded and got help for Mrs. Wright.
10 In Lyndon, his oral biography of President Johnson, Merle Miller describes Senator Byrd as a “steadfast opponent of most of the twentieth century.”
11 The budget gambit with Byrd was Johnson at his manipulative best. But there was a cost to Johnson’s credibility. Both Byrd and the White House press corps felt later that Johnson had deceived them by first suggesting that the budget would far exceed $100 billion so he could claim a great triumph .
12 James Eastland had blocked consideration of the bill in the Senate from his position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“Let Us Continue” from JUDGEMENT DAYS:
Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr.,
and the Laws that Challenged America
by Nick Kotz
Copyright ©2005 by Nick Kotz.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
All rights reserved.
Nick Kotz appeared at the Virginia Festival of the Book, Charlottesville, with Sheryll Cashin (The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream) and Faith Childs, on March 24, 2006, in a conversation about race in America.
Hear the Archipelago podcast of “Race in America”
Thanks to the Charlottesville Podcast Network for this recording.
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