July 5, 2014 6:39 am
Updated: July 5, 2014 6:48 am

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

U.S President Lyndon B. Johnson is shown in Nov. 17, 1967 file photo. 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 seems surreal in today’s deadlocked Washington.

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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.

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In private, he spewed disdain on the Kennedy White House’s legislative prowess.

Johnson took advantage of polls that showed a shift in favour of civil rights following Kennedy’s death. Yet the bill remained stuck in Congress. Southern Democrats had been blocking civil-rights bills for years, and they stalled this one in a House committee that was controlled by a staunch segregationist.

Johnson called some old colleagues from his lengthy career on Capitol Hill, and they told him not to 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 knew one representative had suggested a rare legislative tactic, called a discharge petition, which would remove the bill from committee and put it to a direct vote on the legislature floor. But the bill needed support from Republicans, and that party’s leader in the House had threatened members with expulsion if they voted for the discharge.

Johnson called in church pastors and unions to apply pressure. And he called the Republican leader, Indiana’s Charles Halleck, into his office.

He surmised that Halleck’s biggest priority was to secure NASA research funds for Purdue University, a main employer in his state. 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 replied that he’d do whatever he could, but Johnson cut him off before he finished 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, where Johnson’s longtime friend and mentor Richard Russell had warned him not to touch 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 warned his 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 to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber,” 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 today about who’s to blame for unprecedented gridlock, in an era where the mere act of avoiding debt default is hailed as some major legislative accomplishment.

President Barack Obama is often knocked for not using his powers to their fullest extent. The charge against him is that he doesn’t use carrots or sticks effectively – in other words, not much social outreach to allies, and not much punishment for the lawmakers who defy him.

But Obama has expressed impatience with the Johnson comparisons. He has noted that even the great tactician himself eventually struggled to get bills passed, once his honeymoon wore off.

“When he 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.”

Johnson’s own biographers call any Obama comparison unfair.

In that New Yorker piece, Dallek said that some of the things that used to be acceptable in Washington- like promising to name a lawmaker’s constituent as a judge – would be denounced as corruption today.

Caro said it’s unfair to compare anyone to Johnson, when it comes to legislating.

“Johnson was unique,” he said.

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

Johnson’s political antennae also made him aware of the damage his party would suffer. The day he signed the Civil Rights Act into law he predicted, rather accurately, that he’d ruined his party in the South for 40 years.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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