How a presidential power-play helped undo U.S. segregation 50 years ago

Alexander Panetta / The Canadian Press
July 5, 2014 04:00 AM

U.S President Lyndon B. Johnson is shown in Nov. 17, 1967 file photo. The landmark American anti-segregation law adopted 50 years ago owes its existence to a presidential tour de force of flattery, fear and federal pork. The U.S. Civil Rights Act might seem obvious today, but at the time, it appeared condemned to failure. The story of its adoption remains relevant as a masterpiece in American lawmaking and the use of presidential power. Lyndon Johnson's success in ramming it through seems surreal in today's deadlocked Washington. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo

WASHINGTON - The landmark American anti-segregation law adopted 50 years ago owes its existence to a presidential tour de force of flattery, fear and federal pork.

The U.S. Civil Rights Act might seem obvious today but, at the time, it appeared condemned to failure.

The story of its adoption remains relevant as a masterpiece in American lawmaking and the use of presidential power. Lyndon Johnson's success in ramming it through is unfathomable in today's deadlocked Washington.

A few days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the new president informed a mourning country that he was determined to advance his predecessor's stalled bill to end segregation in schools and businesses.

In private, he spewed disdain on the Kennedy White House's legislative savvy.

Polls showed a shift in favour of civil rights following Kennedy's death. Still, the bill remained stuck in Congress. Southern Democrats had been blocking civil-rights bills for years, and they kept this buried in a House committee controlled by a staunch segregationist.

Johnson sounded out some old colleagues from his days on Capitol Hill, and was told not to even bother.

"They said, 'Don't even try to pass this bill,'" Johnson's biographer, Robert Caro, told CNN this week. "They said, 'Don't waste your time on a lost cause. You're going to antagonize the South. This may be a just cause, but it's a lost cause. Don't do it.'

"You know what Johnson says to them? He says: 'Well, what the hell's the presidency for, then?'"

Johnson set his sights on a rare legislative tactic, called a discharge petition. He knew one representative had suggested that tactic, which involves stripping a bill from a committee and putting it to a direct vote on the legislative floor.

Even that gambit appeared doomed. It required Republican votes to pass, and that party's leadership had threatened to expel members who supported it. So Johnson called in church pastors and unions to apply pressure, and the tone of the debate shifted.

Then he called the Republican House leader into his office.

He knew Charles Halleck faced a tough congressional re-election fight in a few months. And he surmised that Halleck's biggest priority was to secure NASA research funds for Purdue University, a main employer in his home state of Indiana.

So, with Halleck sitting in his office, he called NASA administrator James Webb.

"I need to do anything I can for Charlie Halleck," the president said, according to White House phone recordings. "Now isn't there something you can do?"

Webb said he'd do whatever he could, but Johnson cut him off before he could even finish the sentence: "If (Halleck's) not satisfied and he comes back to me well, then," Johnson said, "I'm gonna be talking to you again."

Halleck got the funding. The bill passed the House.

Then it was on to the Senate chamber, where Johnson's longtime friend and mentor Richard Russell had warned against touching the civil-rights bill.

Phone records show that the president called his mentor frequently. That month he sought his advice on the degenerating situation in Vietnam, praised his brilliance, and in one call told him he loved him.

There was a bed of nails, however, beneath those bouquets.

A biography by Robert Dallek says the mentor warned his pupil that the bill might cost him the 1964 election. Johnson replied that he'd gladly pay such a price and, for good measure, he told his dear old friend: "I'm going to run over you. I don't intend to cavil or compromise."

Caro said the old master knew his pupil meant business.

"(Russell) tells a friend, 'You know, we could've beaten John Kennedy on civil rights. We can't beat Lyndon Johnson,'" Caro told CNN. "He says, 'He's a man who understands power, and how to use it. He'll tear your arm off at the shoulder and beat you over the head with it. But he'll get your votes. We're gonna lose to Lyndon Johnson."

And they did. The Senate ended years of filibusters, and the bill was adopted.

It became law on July 2, 1964.

Different presidents have since looked back in amazement at Johnson's work.

"You don't have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded," Bill Clinton once wrote in the New York Times. "Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans. (But Johnson) knew just how to get to you, and he was relentless in doing it."

There's a debate in Washington about who's to blame for unprecedented gridlock nowadays, as the simple act of maintaining highways and avoiding debt default is now treated like some major legislative achievement.

President Barack Obama is often knocked for not using his powers to their fullest extent.

One charge against him is that he doesn't use carrots or sticks effectively — in other words, there are no consequences for those who defy him, and no attempt to shower attention and care on possible allies.

Obama expresses impatience with any Johnson comparisons. In an interview, he noted that the great tactician himself eventually struggled to get bills passed, once his honeymoon wore off.

"When (Johnson) lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have," Obama told the New Yorker recently.

"I say that not to suggest that I'm a master wheeler-dealer but, rather, to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don't have much to do with schmoozing."

The stats reveal that every congress during Johnson's reign passed more than 600 bills — that's more than double what's expected in this deadlocked iteration.

But Johnson's own biographers call any modern-day comparison unfair.

In that New Yorker piece, Dallek said that some of the things that used to be acceptable in Washington would be denounced today as corruption — like promising to make a lawmaker's constituent a judge, in exchange for their vote.

Caro said it's unfair to compare anyone to Johnson when it comes to lawmaking. He'd already earned a reputation as a gifted tactician early in his congressional career, long before he joined the Kennedy administration.

"Johnson was unique," he said.

"We have never had anyone like him, as a legislative genius."

Johnson's political antennae also made him acutely aware of the potential fallout. The day he signed the Civil Rights Act into law he predicted, rather accurately, that he'd ruined his party in the South for years.


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