In his new book, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Henry Holt), Todd S. Purdum ’82 tells the inside story of how Congress debated and ultimately passed one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century. Proponents of the bill were forced to overcome numerous hurdles, including a core of Southern Democrats determined to stop it by any means possible, including a filibuster. Purdum, a senior writer at Politico and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, talks about writing the book and how the Congress of half a century ago compares to the Congress of today.
You interviewed a few of the surviving participants in that debate. Are there many left?
Very few, and getting to them was something of a race against time because even the youngest of them are in their 80s and many are in their 90s. I talked to Nick Katzenbach [’43], the deputy attorney general at the time, just weeks before he died.
What were the greatest surprises in writing this book?
The biggest surprise to me was the story of Rep. Bill McCulloch of Ohio, whom I had never heard of before. McCulloch, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, was the person who dictated the legislative strategy, first for the Kennedys and then for Lyndon Johnson, insisting that they could not water down the civil-rights bill in the Senate, as Democrats had always done in the past. That forced civil-rights supporters in the Senate to break the filibuster.
There were other great characters as well. How could anyone not be entranced by Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate, a man who gargled with Pond’s cold cream and swallowed it! Or Charlie Halleck of Indiana, the Republican House leader, who had no blacks in his district but stuck by McCulloch because McCulloch was a ranking committee member, even though doing so meant giving Lyndon Johnson a legislative victory in an election year. Now it’s impossible to imagine that the opposition party would cooperate with the administration on something that they could have made a political football out of.
Why did so many Republicans support the bill?
Katzenbach told me that a motivating factor, not just for the Republicans but for a lot of Democrats, was not so much a high-minded devotion to civil rights but a frantic effort to stop the protests in the streets. Only by passing a law that ended the discrimination, they thought, could they end the demonstrations. As it turned out, though, the demonstrations continued and got worse.
Lyndon Johnson is commonly depicted as a legislative magician, but that doesn’t seem to have been his role here.
It was striking to me how hard he had to work to restrain himself. Johnson played a role in getting the Civil Rights Act out of the House Rules Committee, as Robert Caro [’57] wrote about in his recent book. Once the bill reached the Senate, though, if you listen to the Johnson tapes, you hear his frustration with the Democratic leaders, Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield, who were not moving as fast as he wanted them to. But he let them do it their way because he knew it would backfire if he tried to take control. Johnson exerted influence in more subtle ways. He was always working the phones, calling people, even opponents of the bill, not because he expected to change their minds but because he knew that he would get valuable intelligence from them about where things stood or find a way to work with them on something else.
Hubert Humphrey seems to have been the real Democratic leader. What was his role?
It’s clear that his patience in letting the Southerners have their say helped people like [Georgia Sen.] Richard Russell accept their eventual defeat. Nobody tried to jam that bill through. They debated it for months and endured the longest filibuster in Senate history, and in the end it passed the Senate, 73–27, with 27 Republican votes. I think that was one of the reasons why the law was largely accepted once it was passed. It makes an interesting parallel to the Affordable Care Act. The realities of modern politics required Barack Obama and the Democrats to pass that legislation on a strict party-line vote, but they have paid a price for it.
During the Senate debate, Humphrey said that he would eat the pages of the Civil Rights Act if it was found to contain any provision for hiring quotas related to race. Did the bill’s proponents believe that it would require affirmative action to achieve racial balance?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, explicitly said that nothing in the measure should be construed as requiring quotas, so Humphrey was telling the truth. It is also quite clear to me that, in 1964, many supporters of the bill did not envision what came to be known as affirmative action, and that many of the people who voted for it would not have done so had they thought that it was going to lead to affirmative action. They thought that it was supposed to be race-neutral and the goal was to make a color-blind society.
The first affirmative-action programs did not emerge until several years later, during the Nixon administration, because over time many people came to believe that racial equality required equality of condition, not just equality before the law.
Was the Civil Rights Act a model of how to get complicated legislation passed, or was it an exceptional circumstance?
It was an exceptional circumstance, but Lyndon Johnson had tools available to him that Barack Obama doesn’t. He had a personality that Obama doesn’t have. That said, the passage of the Civil Rights Act does carry some instructive lessons that would apply to the vastly different political landscape we have today. One is that it is good to have legislation drafted in private, because ideas can be tested and positions can be staked out tentatively. When congressional Democrats told Johnson about proposed amendments to the bill he said, “I’m against them and I’m going to be against them right up until the moment I sign them.” The use of flexibility as a legislative strategy is illustrated by that story beautifully. Don’t stake out positions you can’t back down from.
It seems as though we live in a different political universe today.
Johnson met with the leadership of both parties every week. Even Bill Clinton didn’t do that. Today, Barack Obama may say, why should I waste an hour of my week listening to John Boehner come here and recite his talking points? But I think it’s striking the way that people would keep open lines of communication [during Johnson’s era].
Newt Gingrich started the process of telling his members: Don’t move to Washington, keep your family in your district. But when they all lived here [in Washington, D.C.] and their kids went to school with each other, they all knew each other. It’s a lot harder to call someone a dirty name if you’ve been in his house.
The congressional leadership today does not have the same tools to reward or punish members. In 1964, Charlie Halleck felt bound to support Bill McCulloch because Halleck respected the seniority system, and he respected McCulloch personally, and that led him to bring the rest of his caucus along with him. I don’t think even the most powerful individual chairmen or ranking members have that kind of authority today.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83