Cover image for The fierce urgency of now : Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the battle for the Great Society
The fierce urgency of now : Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the battle for the Great Society
Zelizer, Julian E., author.
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New York : Penguin Press, 2015.
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370 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
"Zelizer takes the full measure of the entire story [of Johnson's liberal agenda] in all its epic sweep. Before Johnson, Kennedy tried and failed to achieve many of these advances. Our practiced understanding is that this was an unprecedented liberal hour in America, a moment, after Kennedy's death, when the seas parted and Johnson could simply stroll through to victory. As Zelizer shows, this view is off-base: in many respects America was even more conservative than it seems now, and Johnson's legislative program faced bitter resistance"
The challenges of a liberal presidency -- Deadlocked democracy -- New president, same old Congress -- Legislating civil rights -- How Barry Goldwater built the Great Society -- The fabulous Eighty-Ninth Congress -- Congressional conservatism revived -- The triumph of austerity politics -- The endurance of the Great Society.
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E846 .Z45 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Popular Materials-Biography

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A majestic big-picture account of the Great Society and the forces that shaped it, from Lyndon Johnson and members of Congress to the civil rights movement and the media

Between November 1963, when he became president, and November 1966, when his party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded the most transformative agenda in American political history since the New Deal, one whose ambition and achievement have had no parallel since. In just three years, Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; the War on Poverty program; Medicare and Medicaid; the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities; Public Broadcasting; immigration liberalization; a raft of consumer and environmental protection acts; and major federal investments in public transportation. Collectively, this group of achievements was labeled by Johnson and his team the "Great Society."

In The Fierce Urgency of Now , Julian E. Zelizer takes the full measure of the entire story in all its epic sweep. Before Johnson, Kennedy tried and failed to achieve many of these advances. Our practiced understanding is that this was an unprecedented "liberal hour" in America, a moment, after Kennedy's death, when the seas parted and Johnson could simply stroll through to victory. As Zelizer shows, this view is off-base: In many respects America was even more conservative than it seems now, and Johnson's legislative program faced bitter resistance. The Fierce Urgency of Now  animates the full spectrum of forces at play during these turbulent years, including religious groups, the media, conservative and liberal political action groups, unions, and civil rights activists.

Above all, the great character in the book whose role rivals Johnson's is Congress--indeed, Zelizer argues that our understanding of the Great Society program is too Johnson-centric. He discusses why Congress was so receptive to passing these ideas in a remarkably short span of time and how the election of 1964 and burgeoning civil rights movement transformed conditions on Capitol Hill. Zelizer brings a deep, intimate knowledge of the institution to bear on his story: The book is a master class in American political grand strategy.

Finally, Zelizer reckons with the legacy of the Great Society. Though our politics have changed, the heart of the Great Society legislation remains intact fifty years later. In fact, he argues, the Great Society shifted the American political center of gravity--and our social landscape--decisively to the left in many crucial respects. In a very real sense, we are living today in the country that Johnson and his Congress made.

Author Notes

Julian E. Zelizer  is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at New America. He is the author and editor of numerous books that examine U.S. political leaders, policies, and institutions since the New Deal. His most recent books are  Jimmy Carter ,  Arsenal of Democracy , and  Governing America: The Revival of Political History . He is also a weekly columnist for

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Zelizer (Governing America), a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, turns his attention to the short, politically turbulent period in American politics from November 1963 to November 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson forged what has become known as the Great Society, which paved the path for many of today's essential social programs. Zelizer paints Johnson as a flawed-opportunistic, domineering, ambitious-yet impressive leader, who took advantage of a perfect storm of legislative and governmental conditions to push through an unprecedented number of projects and achievements; a president who gambled greatly while his party and a liberal majority were in ascendancy and won accordingly. As Zelizer explains, "The political acumen Johnson and his colleagues on Capitol Hill possessed was essential, but what made the difference were the forces that temporarily reshaped Congress and broke the hold of conservatives on that notoriously inertial institution." His focus on the conflict between conservative and liberal factions is even more timely in today's climate. Zelizer writes with an expert's deep understanding of the subject, but the dry tone and painstaking attention to detail make this a scholarly resource more than a casual item. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Choice Review

In this impressive, comprehensive study of Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Great Society, Zelizer (Princeton) offers a refreshing portrait of a collaborative process, not of LBJ masterminding or ramming down the throat of Congress a program its members did not want. Zelizer states that before 1963, Congress was unmovable on larger issues. In 1962, John F. Kennedy saw Medicare defeated and was stymied by Dixiecrats and some Republicans. His 1963 proposal for a comprehensive civil rights act on the heels of the Birmingham crisis got a new agenda. After the assassination of JFK, Johnson dealt with Congress but not in the way usually described. Instead of the "Johnson treatment" with its suggestion of both charm and coercion as the keys to success, it was LBJ's knowledge of the Senate and the House that was successful. Along with allies in both parties, Johnson carefully designed the discharge petition that got the civil rights bill onto the floor of the Senate without that body consigning it to committee. After his 1964 landslide victory, Johnson took advantage of the goodwill to pass a staggering number of bills. Riots and the war in Vietnam slowed momentum, but LBJ took advantage of the window of opportunity and left a lasting legislative legacy. Excellent. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. --David R. Turner, Davis and Elkins College

Booklist Review

Princeton professor Zelizer revisits the myth that Lyndon Johnson utilized his considerable political (and arm-twisting) skills to overcome a recalcitrant Congress and establish his dream, a second New Deal. He asserts, rather, that the work of grassroots activists and changes in the power structure enabled a liberal president to fulfill his grand legislative ambition. The Great Society would subsume education, medical care for the elderly, and voting rights. The opportunity to institute these policies, Zelizer demonstrates, was brief, following LBJ's victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the window closed soon thereafter, although the effects were lasting. Shifting the interpretive balance from the Johnson-centric perspective of some previous scholars, Zelizer, though not the first to do so (Todd Purdum earlier this year, among others), offers a necessary corrective, although Johnson's massive personality overwhelms the argument even as it proceeds. Zelizer adds weight to the revisionist case, however, and this volume will take its place in the debate.--Levine, Mark Copyright 2010 Booklist

Library Journal Review

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson named his domestic program for civil rights and reform-in the areas of voting, housing, health care, and education-the "Great Society"; Zelizer (history and public affairs, Princeton Univ.) refers to it as our second New Deal. At the same time, the author argues that a shift in the mood of Congress offered a temporary opening for this epic run of lawmaking. By early 1965, with Congress reverted to its more usual position, it was all over. While Johnson had the political skill to take advantage of this brief window, Zelizer argues that our view of the Great Society is too "Johnson-centric" and the role of Congress is underplayed. He challenges implicitly our view as being too "Caro-centric" as well, since the latest volume in Robert Caro's Johnson biography, The Passage of Power (2012), is the historical script for most readers today. Zelizer, a regular commentator on CNN and elsewhere, is also an accomplished political historian, with books such as Governing America. VERDICT The author will engage academic readers with the nuance of his argument. While general readers will not find the grandeur of Robert Caro here, they will appreciate the clarity of Zelizer's writing and the brevity of his account. All readers will take note of his apt references to current Congressional dynamics and will discover in this book a fine complement to Caro's work. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]-Robert Nardini, Niagara Falls, NY (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CHAPTER ONE THE CHALLENGES OF A LIBERAL PRESIDENCY Lyndon Johnson hated being vice president. He was at heart a legislator who had been relegated to the sidelines of legislation. For almost three years he had watched John F. Kennedy fumble most of the big domestic issues of the day, either because the president was unwilling to take on the toughest challenges of the moment, or because he was too afraid of the political fallout, or because he knew he lacked the ability to win the legislative battles he faced on Capitol Hill. At the time of Kennedy's death, most of his major domestic initiatives--including civil rights, a tax cut, federal assistance for education, and hospital insurance for the elderly--were stalled in Congress or had not yet been introduced there. Kennedy and his advisers had made a conscious decision to keep Lyndon Johnson out of their inner circle, despite his extensive experience on Capitol Hill, for fear that his well-known thirst for power would cause problems for the president.1 At 4:00 a.m. on November 23, 1963, the day after Kennedy's assassination gave him the presidency, Johnson reclined on his bed, his top advisers arrayed around him for an impromptu meeting. He mapped out a grand vision for his team. The new president told Jack Valenti, Bill Moyers, and Cliff Carter, with "relish and resolve," according to Valenti, "I'm going to get Kennedy's tax cut out of the Senate Finance Committee, and we're going to get this economy humming again. Then I'm going to pass Kennedy's civil rights bill, which has been hung up too long in the Congress. And I'm going to pass it without changing a single comma or a word. After that we'll pass legislation that allows everyone anywhere in this country to vote, with all the barriers down. And that's not all. We're going to get a law that says every boy and girl in this country, no matter how poor, or the color of their skin, or the region they come from, is going to be able to get all the education they can take by loan, scholarship, or grant, right from the federal government." After pausing to catch his breath, almost as if exhausted by his own ambitions, the president concluded, "And I aim to pass Harry Truman's medical insurance bill that got nowhere before."2 Jack Valenti's recollection of that moment perfectly portrays the Lyndon Johnson who had suddenly become the nation's leader. He was a creature of Congress, a legislator by character and long experience, who was determined to push through a transformative body of laws that would constitute nothing less than a second New Deal. Though many liberals had long doubted that Johnson was anything but a southern racist conservative who sometimes pretended to be one of them, he was, when he became president of the United States, truly determined to expand the role of the federal government in domestic life far beyond what his hero Franklin Roosevelt had accomplished. Johnson had started in politics as a New Deal liberal, and over the years he had grown ever more determined to deal with issues FDR had ignored and on which Johnson himself had been ambivalent at best during his own political career, most notably civil rights and health care. He wanted to use the presidency to build legislative majorities behind the ideas that liberals had been discussing and deliberating--but not enacting into law--for more than a decade. Lyndon Johnson's vision of a presidency that would spearhead major liberal legislation faced enormous obstacles, however. Historians have often failed to understand how the Great Society--President Johnson's agenda of big domestic programs--was enacted, because they have accepted two myths about the nature of the political challenges the Great Society had to face. The first myth presents the 1960s as the apex of modern American liberalism, the culmination of those forces that arose in the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century when the federal government came to be seen as a positive good, when social movements leaned toward the left, and when conservatives were marginal and irrelevant. A recent generation of historians has shattered this portrait of the liberal era in politics. They have rediscovered the enormous influence of conservative activists, philanthropists, organizations, and politicians in the decades that directly followed the New Deal. Shifting attention away from the White House and toward the U.S. Congress is one of the most effective ways to gain a very different perspective on the dynamics of American politics before the age of Reagan. Though many of the nation's presidents had embraced liberal ideas, Congress was a powerful institution dominated by a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans who rejected liberalism. During the 1930s, as the political scientist Ira Katznelson has shown, FDR was already forced to compromise his New Deal to appease southern Democrats and Republicans by agreeing to federal legislation that protected the racial order of Dixie and made it difficult for organized labor to gain a foothold in that low-wage nonunion region.3 After the 1930s, Congress was a graveyard of liberal legislation. At the time of President Kennedy's death, the record for liberal reform was meager. The spirit of the New Deal seemed a distant memory. It had been two and a half decades since any significant social legislation had been passed. President Truman lacked the skills of his predecessor, and he spent much of his political capital advancing the nation's involvement in the cold war. Congressional conservatives killed most of his marquee domestic proposals, including national health care, and even turned back one of the hallmark achievements of the New Deal, the Wagner Act, which had guaranteed the right of workers to organize into unions and created the National Labor Relations Board to supervise union elections, by passing the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed states to enact "right to work" laws that made it more difficult for unions to organize workers. The Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, though he accepted the permanence of the New Deal, had limited domestic policy aims and spent much of his second term pushing back against liberal Democrats in Congress who were demanding that the government do more, and spend more, to tackle social problems. President Kennedy, a hard-nosed pragmatist who continually rebuffed liberals who he believed had unrealistic expectations of what could be accomplished through legislation, saw his fears confirmed when he was soundly throttled by the conservatives in Congress on a number of proposals. As Kennedy pointed out in an interview in 1962, "I think the Congress looks more powerful sitting here than it did when I was there in the Congress." Many of the southern Democratic committee chairmen, who, with their Republican allies, dominated Congress, opposed the changes Johnson hoped to pursue. These long-serving southern Democrats were dead set against racial integration in public accommodations and believed that a proposal to provide insurance to cover the hospital stays of the elderly was socialized medicine. They believed in the right to vote in principle but didn't support giving the attorney general any power to ensure that African Americans could exercise that right. These conservatives vehemently opposed the idea that the federal government would provide financial assistance to the schools that educated the nation's children, and they claimed that communists were pulling the strings of all the grassroots movements that were seeking racial equality and economic justice. The committee chairmen were shocked but not moved by Kennedy's assassination. When Johnson called on the nation to fulfill Kennedy's agenda in order to honor the life of the martyred leader, congressional conservatives responded with stolid indifference. When Johnson took office, liberalism was in bad shape, fragile and ineffective, beset on all sides by powerful enemies. If Johnson was going to persuade Congress to pass his policy wish list, he would have to change the power structure that reinforced the conservative stranglehold on the legislative process. Despite the nostalgia many feel today for the Congress of the 1960s--wishful memories of an institution where it was easier to pass legislation--the truth is that until 1964 Congress was seen as a dysfunctional branch of government, where southern Democrats and Republicans regularly brought the legislative process to a complete standstill.4 The short period in which Congress enacted most of the Great Society programs was more an aberration than the norm in those years. The second myth about the 1960s has to do with presidential power. Much of the history written about the Great Society in this period presents it as the product of Lyndon Johnson's brilliant legislative prowess--how he wielded the power of the presidency to force legislators to vote for legislation they had long vehemently opposed. "Johnson left huge footprints wherever he stepped," wrote the historian Bruce Schulman, "overwhelming nearly everyone who crossed his path and achieving more than nearly any other American politician."5 The central image of the myth is Johnson as practitioner of "the Treatment"--this imposing man, six feet four and whose fluctuating weight crept up to 240 pounds, literally leaning on his colleagues, physically and verbally bullying, cajoling, lobbying, and threatening until they had no way out but to give him what he wanted. In photographs of the Treatment we see Johnson, having barged into the personal space of his target, putting his hands on the man's shoulders or inching his nose right up to his face as he bends the man to his will. "The Treatment," wrote the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, was "an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless."6 Although the physical dimension was gone when Johnson tried to convince over the phone, he used the same bullying techniques to win people over with his voice. The Treatment could be seductive or terrifying, or usually a little of both. Yet Johnson did have an uncanny command of the legislative process, which he had perfected as Senate majority leader in the 1950s. He employed powerful strategies for scheduling debates, manipulating arcane parliamentary rules, learning the background and personality of every legislator and using all this information to his advantage, conducting votes on legislation, and using pork barrel politics to build voting alliances on the floor. His mastery of all these tactics has been used to explain how, as president of the United States, Johnson changed the way Americans lived their lives. Johnson remains a central figure in the debate about the triumph of presidential power in these decades of the twentieth century--the so-called rise of the "imperial presidency." In this context, Johnson is the essential clue to how presidents can make Congress work by handling legislators and the legislative process in the right way. When health-care and financial regulation bills were stuck in Congress in late 2009 and early 2010, Democratic senators were reading Robert Caro's most recent volume about the Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson to figure out how President Obama could get his troubled bill through an obstructionist Congress. "A few of us joked that we should just get Robert Caro's book on Lyndon Johnson, highlight a few pages, and leave it on the president's desk," one White House aide recalled. "Sometimes a president just needs to knock heads. It's kind of what the combatants secretly want. [Johnson] twisted their arm, they had no choice--he was going [to] defund them, ruin 'em, support their opponent, whatever the fuck--and the deal was cut. It lets them off the hook. They had no choice. I mean, for fuck's sake, he's the goddamn president."7 But all the political savvy in the world has never been enough to move a Congress where the legislators who controlled the chambers fundamentally opposed the proposals that were coming from the White House. The veneration of the Treatment obscures how politics works; it overemphasizes the capacity of "great men" to effect legislation by force of personality and undervalues the more complicated and significant effects of the political environment in which a president must operate--congressional coalitions, interest groups, social movements, and voting constituencies. In 1963, Johnson understood this better than most, given his extensive experience on Capitol Hill. Political scientists correctly remind us that the institutional rules and procedures of Congress play a huge role in determining what kinds of opportunities presidents have in office because they structure the incentives and behavior of legislators on Capitol Hill.8 This was as true for Johnson as it has been for all other presidents. In November 1963, the committee process defined Congress. Johnson knew that the conservative committee leaders in the House and the Senate had the power to set the congressional agenda, to put certain issues on the front burner and ignore others, regardless of what opinion polls or grassroots activists were saying the American people wanted, to say nothing of what the president of the United States wanted. Senior committee chairmen could prevent bills from being debated or voted on; they could attach rules to legislation that would make floor debates unmanageable and susceptible to tricks and tactics that would subvert legislation. The secretive nature of Congress in this period, when television cameras were still prohibited from the chambers and when most hearings were conducted behind closed doors, gave elected officials the liberty to subvert legislation without being subject to public scrutiny. Senators had the right to engage in filibusters, speeches of unlimited length on any topic that stopped the normal progress toward a vote and could not be ended except by a virtually impossible supermajority of sixty-seven senators. Johnson often complained of the limits of his power and scoffed at the perception that he had extraordinary human skills that enabled him to move his colleagues. Indeed, he had lost some of his ability to directly shape this process as he wanted when he moved from Capitol Hill to the White House. As president, he had to rely on legislators to do for him much of the legislative work he had once done for himself. About his power, President Johnson once complained, "The only power I've got is nuclear . . . and I can't use that."9 The key to the success of the Great Society had less to do with the overwhelming popularity of liberalism or the presidential power of Johnson than with the specific changes between the summer of 1964 and the November elections that created unusually good conditions in Congress for passing domestic bills. In other words, we need a less Johnson-centric view to understand how this historic burst of liberal domestic legislation happened. We need to ask not only what Lyndon Johnson did that was so special but what legislative conditions existed that allowed someone with Johnson's skills to succeed. During this critical period, the power of the conservative coalition was diminished, first by the actions of the civil rights movement, which in 1963 and 1964 placed immense pressure on legislators in both parties to pass laws that would benefit African Americans, and subsequently by the 1964 elections, which gave liberals the huge majorities they needed to prevent conservative committee chairmen from thwarting their domestic policy aims in Congress. Not only did liberal Democrats have the votes necessary to pass bills and kill filibusters, but Republican moderates, a sizable force in their party, were running as fast as they could from all positions that might allow Democrats to brand them as right-wing extremists in the wake of the ultraconservative senator Barry Goldwater's landslide loss in the presidential election. Johnson deserves his share of credit, but less for being an especially skilled politician who could steamroll a recalcitrant Congress than for taking advantage of extremely good legislative conditions when they emerged. Moreover, Johnson's success with domestic programs resulted from a risky political maneuver he undertook in 1964 and 1965 to maintain momentum for his legislation. Resisting all the opposition he faced from White House advisers and legislators, including hawks like the Georgia senator Richard Russell, Johnson escalated American involvement in the war in Vietnam. There were many reasons why he ended up listening to the hawks and embarking on a disastrous war in Southeast Asia, including his general agreement with the domino theory of communism, but one of the most important was a political calculation that a liberal Democratic president had to be hawkish on foreign policy in order to be successful. Otherwise, Johnson believed, he would give conservatives--who had thrived on foreign and domestic anticommunist crusades in the early 1950s--too much ammunition with which to attack his administration as weak on defense. Johnson was forced to deal with the consequences of this decision when legislative conditions deteriorated after the 1966 midterm elections. The ability of Republicans to play on concerns about inflation and Vietnam, and a brewing racial backlash among northern Democratic constituencies in response to urban riots and the black power movement, significantly reduced the size of the Democratic congressional majority. The conservative coalition rebounded after its losses in 1964, and when Johnson once again had to face a strong conservative coalition, all the Treatment and parliamentary tricks in the world had little practical effect on Congress. Johnson spent his final two years as president contending with the politics of austerity as he pushed for a desperately needed tax hike and congressional conservatives pushed back for steep cuts in domestic spending, all of which, combined with the protests over Vietnam, virtually crippled his ability to secure more big legislation. Although this period of liberalism was much more fragile, contested, and transitory than we have usually remembered, the programs that came out of it have endured. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Great Society is how much still lives with us today, fifty years later, so much so that most Americans regard its programs as essential manifestations of the national government's responsibility to its citizens. This is a book about how the work of grassroots activists and changes in the power structure of Congress enabled a liberal president to fulfill his grand legislative ambition--the creation of a second New Deal that would complete the work of Franklin Roosevelt, expand the welfare state, and extend the full rights of citizenship to African Americans and the poor. The conditions in which these achievements were possible existed only for a short time. When those conditions changed, the great period of liberal legislation was ended by a resurgent opposition, but the achievements of the period were never overturned and have remained irrevocable. CHAPTER TWO DEADLOCKED DEMOCRACY When John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, over twenty thousand Americans gathered in bitter-cold weather at the east front of the U.S. Capitol to watch the new leader take over from his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, a military hero who had been extremely popular throughout his two terms in office, times of relative peace and prosperity. Though Kennedy had barely defeated Vice President Richard Nixon, those who voted for the Massachusetts senator were delighted with their choice. He had had a thoroughly mediocre record in Congress, but his enthusiasm, his charisma, and his youthful energy, all of which had been emphasized by television, led many Democrats to believe that Kennedy could be a transformative president. In his speech, Kennedy offered tough words for the Soviet Union. He warned that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But the words that inspired liberals were his challenge to "my fellow Americans" to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." In this phrase liberals heard a president demanding that citizens take action to improve conditions in their country. They were desperate to see in Kennedy a leader who would move their domestic agenda forward after two long terms of standpat Republican rule in the White House. The inauguration also offered at least one symbol that confirmed liberal hopes about the true intentions of this cold warrior from Massachusetts. Kennedy had invited Marian Anderson, the African American singer who had once been barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing at Constitution Hall, to sing the national anthem, a choice that displeased southern Democrats opposed to civil rights. Here Kennedy, the centrist Democrat, who during his eight years in the Senate had been tepid toward organized labor and a tough anticommunist, gave a hint that some observers took to mean that things could be different for African Americans during his presidency. The editors of the New York Times went so far as to say that "President Kennedy's Administration opens a new chapter in the history of the American people."1 Yet even if the president turned out to be on their side, the chances of success were not great for liberals whose outlook and aspirations had been tempered by the events of the post-World War II era. Despite the expansion of presidential power that had taken place since the early twentieth century, most political veterans understood that the shift from one administration to the next frequently produced more limited results than voters expected at the height of the campaign. This was because of the immense power of a legislative branch in which conservative southern Democrats still ruled by virtue of their tight hold on most of the major committees and their voting alliance with the GOP. For years, Congress had been the chief obstacle to liberalism. While congressional conservatives didn't have enough power to dismantle the New Deal, much of which their constituencies supported, they were able to prevent liberals from expanding the domestic role of government any further. When liberals had proposed measures to expand FDR's New Deal--legislation to deal with racial discrimination, workers' rights, housing conditions, or health care--conservatives had always struck them down. The brief grace period to come would be defined by Kennedy's efforts to navigate the growing tensions between the ambitions and demands of postwar liberals and the determination of a powerful and entrenched conservative coalition to prevent them from achieving any progress whatsoever. Liberals, who had been shut down for years by the conservative coalition, were hoping in January 1961 that this time things would be different. They anticipated, without much justification other than what they had observed on the campaign trail and a few signals during the inauguration ceremony, that they would get energy and support from Kennedy. They hoped that the charismatic young Democratic president would have the ability to deliver legislation and get their agenda moving in a Democratic Congress. CONGRESSIONAL CONSERVATISM Though conservatism had many sources of support in the decades prior to 1960--including business leaders who funded anti-New Deal Republicans and grassroots activists who railed against Franklin Roosevelt's liberalism--the primary base of power for the Right was Congress, dominated by a coalition of powerful southern Democratic and midwestern Republican representatives and senators. The southern Democrats represented primarily rural constituencies of farmers, agribusiness, poor whites, poor African Americans, and individuals involved in military contracting. Most of the Republicans in the coalition represented rural interests, fiscally conservative small-town voters, and small- and midsize-business leaders. Members of this coalition were not united on everything, but they were united in opposing most legislative proposals that could benefit African Americans, immigrants, organized labor, and other disadvantaged groups and in supporting benefits for farmers, small businesses, poor whites, and military contractors. The conservative coalition had taken form in 1937 in reaction to President Roosevelt's landslide reelection victory, which seemed at first to have cemented a productive future for New Deal liberalism. FDR had trounced his Republican opponent, Alf Landon, and Democrats had gained huge majorities, but in the year after the election Roosevelt overreached. He had been deeply frustrated in 1935 and 1936 when the Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional. So now, without consulting any legislators, he proposed adding up to six new justices to the Court, in a transparent effort to dilute judicial opposition to his policies. There was furious opposition to this proposal. Conservatives said it would destroy the constitutional separation of powers, and they compared FDR to certain European dictators. Many liberals and moderates, who had been totally unprepared for FDR's request, were publicly critical of the president as well. They worried that expanding the Supreme Court would set a precedent that some future conservative president might use against them and their interests. Roosevelt aggravated the situation by proposing a reorganization of the executive branch that conservatives saw as a further attempt to usurp congressional power. They defeated the court-packing plan and watered down the executive branch reorganization bill. During the 1938 Democratic primaries, a defiant Roosevelt campaigned against five congressional opponents in his own party. Unfortunately for Roosevelt, four of the candidates won and returned to Capitol Hill to oppose him in 1939.2 FDR died in 1945, but the conservative coalition lived on. President Truman watched helplessly as the coalition stripped away everything it could of FDR's achievements, notably the price controls that had been put in place during World War II and a federal commission to combat racial discrimination in wartime employment. When Truman called on Congress to pass national health insurance in 1949 and 1950, the coalition, allied with the American Medical Association, labeled the plan "socialized medicine" and made sure the bill was defeated. The coalition was also a driving force behind anticommunist legislation in the 1950s; its members insisted that the government use the most stringent measures possible in pursuing alleged communists. While anticommunism had a powerful hold on politicians of both parties in this period, the conservative wing of each party generally wanted to take ever more aggressive steps in hunting alleged communists, in making allegations about who might be a fellow traveler or sympathizer, and in flouting civil liberties protections. Whenever President Eisenhower veered to the center on polices aimed at rooting out communists at home, the coalition pushed him back toward the right. The conservative coalition was able to maintain its power in Congress because each of the major parties was fractured. Unlike today's parties, which are ideologically united with virtually no overlap at their extremes--no Republican is more liberal than the most conservative Democrat; no Democrat is more conservative than the most liberal Republican--then there was notable cross-party overlap and frequent breaking off of factions from each side of the aisle. Democrats were divided between a conservative southern and a liberal northern faction at odds over civil rights and unionization, Republicans between midwestern conservatives who wanted to constrain the government on most economic matters and liberal northeasterners who were sometimes more progressive--on civil rights, for example--than many Democrats. The coalition's operations were informal and ad hoc. Conservative Democrats met in one building and conservative Republicans in another. Each group would send one member to the other group as a liaison. Representative Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, who was the leader of the House Republicans from 1939 to 1958, later explained that "when an issue of spending or of new powers for the President came along, I would go to Representative Howard Smith of Virginia, for example, and say, 'Howard, see if you can't get me a few Democratic votes here.' Or I would seek out Representative Eugene Cox of Georgia, and ask, 'Gene, why don't you and John Rankin [of Mississippi] and some of your men get me some votes on this?'"3 The practice of organizing and sharing votes was important, but the coalition exercised its power primarily through members who held key positions in the congressional hierarchies.4 All members of Congress served on committees that debated proposals and drafted bills to be sent to the House or Senate floor for general debate and a vote; each committee focused on legislation in its assigned policy areas. The House Ways and Means Committee, for example, handled taxation, trade, and Social Security and unemployment compensation. In 1960, conservative southern Democrats chaired almost half the major committees in the House and the Senate, including Ways and Means. The committees determined what bills would reach the House and Senate floors--no bills could make it there without a majority vote of one committee or more--and the committee chairmen exercised total control over their committees. After a committee passed a bill in the House, the bill also had to make it through the House Rules Committee, which determined the schedule and rules for debate on the floor, before it could be voted on by the entire chamber. In the early twentieth century, as a result of reforms that decentralized power in response to a series of ruthless House Speakers and a strong desire to spread the workload in Congress as the government grew in size, formal rules were established and informal rules evolved that gave committee chairmen significant autonomy from the Speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, and other party leaders. Chairmen controlled the agendas for their committees, they decided which bills would be discussed and which would be ignored, and they managed the bills--they planned the strategy and the rounding up of votes necessary to pass the bills--after their committees sent them to the floor. A large number of the major committee chairmen, who by the rules had a virtual veto on all legislation, were southern members of the conservative coalition. This was because promotion on committees depended entirely on seniority, rather than on any assessment of ability, knowledge, or even party loyalty. When a member entered Congress, the party assigned him or her to one or more committees. Naturally, a legislator would ask to be assigned to a committee where he could implement benefits to his constituents--or, in common Washington parlance, deliver pork. A legislator elected by a largely urban constituency would have little interest in being placed on the Agriculture Committee. A member well positioned to provide benefits to his constituents was likely to win reelection, move up in committee rank by virtue of his accumulated seniority, and in time reach a position of leadership--chairman, if his party was in the majority, or ranking minority member. The longer a member stayed in office, the higher he rose in rank, whether or not he voted as the president or his party leadership wanted him to. Theoretically, party leaders could make new committee assignments at the start of each Congress, but in the 1950s and 1960s the parties followed the norm of seniority as if it were law. Committee members were never punished for disloyalty or disobedience. When each new Congress began, the party caucuses in the House and the Senate automatically voted to approve the most senior committee members of the majority party as chairmen. To amass enormous power, a legislator had only to be reelected by his constituents and remain conscious some of the time at committee meetings. Senator James Murray of Montana, who became senile in the 1950s, continued nonetheless to chair the Interior Committee, while the more junior Washington senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson ran things behind the scenes. Between 1946, when legislative reorganization consolidated the committee system, and the late 1960s, the norm of seniority advancement was violated only on rare occasions.5 One was in 1953, when the Oregon senator Wayne Morse switched parties. Southern Democrats did notably well in the seniority-based committee system because their districts were not competitive. From the end of Reconstruction until the 1970s, the South was a one-party town; Republicans were virtually nonexistent there. Most elected Democrats held on to their offices for many terms; they were usually able to defeat primary challengers who were less well-known, less well funded, and helpless to deliver congressional pork to their districts and states. Unfairly apportioned districts favored sparsely populated rural communities over urban centers. State legislative bodies in the South, which were biased toward conservative rural populations, drew up districts that granted far less representation to residents of the cities, where most African Americans lived. Even when there were big population shifts--African Americans moving into cities--the apportionment of districts stayed the same. Thinly populated rural white districts had the same number of representatives as densely populated urban areas. Even when the number of northern liberals increased in the House and the Senate during the 1950s, committee chairmen could push back against their demands for legislation. A measure required a majority vote on a committee to send it to the floor of the House or the Senate for action by the full body. The conservative coalition could usually provide enough Republicans to secure a conservative majority, but Democratic chairmen always had the ultimate power on their committees--to do nothing at all. The Mississippi senator James Eastland, an ardent racist who took over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1956, liked to joke that as chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights he was always a roadblock to legislation. "Why, for the three years I was chairman," he said, "that committee didn't hold a meeting. I had special pockets in my pants, and for years I carried those bills everywhere I went and every one of them was defeated."6 Of course, the bills were never actually defeated; they were simply never deliberated or voted on by the committee. If the Senate leadership had been motivated, they could have freed those pocketed civil rights bills from captivity in Eastland's committee by adding the contents of the bills as amendments to other bills or by taking advantage of rules that allowed senators to forcefully discharge legislation from the hands of a recalcitrant chairman. The House leadership had similar tactics available to its members. But representatives and senators were usually reluctant to violate any aspect of the committee process, because each member benefited from it in those areas most important to his political career; if a member stayed long enough in Congress, he might even capture a chairmanship and its powers for himself. Any challenge to a committee chairman would become a precedent that could ultimately limit any representative's prerogatives. Liberals were well aware that there were already a few senior liberals--like Emanuel Celler on the House Judiciary Committee--who used their powers as chairmen to move liberal bills to the floor. Southern chairmen were powerful also because of the importance of their region to the Democratic Party when it came to picking presidents. No Democrat could win the White House without winning the South, which therefore remained the electoral base of the party. Between Reconstruction and 1952, no Republican presidential candidate had won any state from the Old Confederacy. Liberal Democrats became even more cautious about angering southern leaders after the 1952 election, when the Republican Dwight Eisenhower won in Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. In 1956 he added Louisiana to the tally. On those occasions when one of the more liberal committees--House Education and Labor, for example, or House Judiciary--reported out a bill, the conservative coalition could still count on its voting power to defeat the bill on the floor. Even as the number of northern liberals increased in the House and the Senate during the late 1950s, southern Democrats had enough votes, along with their Republican allies, to kill most bills. In 1957 and 1958, southern Democrats and midwestern Republicans controlled 311 out of 435 seats in the House, and they held 71 out of 96 seats in the Senate. Even after the midterm elections of 1958, which increased the number of northern liberals in both chambers, the conservative coalition retained a ninety-two-vote majority in the House and an eighteen-vote majority in the Senate. John F. Kennedy didn't have any coattails; in 1960, Democrats lost twenty-two seats in the House, among them a substantial number of liberals.7 In the Senate, which the journalist William White called "the South's unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg," members of the conservative coalition had an additional tool at their disposal: the filibuster.8 It was first used in 1837, when a minority took advantage of the ambiguity in the chamber's rules regarding extended debate. A group of Democrats held the floor to demand that the Senate expunge from the record a censure of Andrew Jackson that had passed in 1834 after the president withdrew deposits from the Bank of the United States. After loading up on cold hams, turkey, and coffee, the senators only had to give speeches for a few hours before the rest of the Senate gave in and passed the resolution they were demanding.9 This event became the precedent for future sessions; the Senate held on to the notion that the majority could not limit debate but a minority of one or two or several senators could extend debate to intolerable lengths and to the exclusion of any other Senate business.10 The rules and traditions that developed around the practice of the filibuster permitted any member of the Senate to prevent a bill from being voted on as long as he stayed on the floor and kept talking--about almost anything. In the 1950s and 1960s, senators, or small groups of senators, regularly used this tactic to prevent civil rights legislation from reaching a vote. The filibuster was the ultimate reason why liberal senators chose not to take the risk of violating committee rules, procedures, and traditions to pull civil rights bills out of committees run by racist southern chairmen: they knew from experience that any civil rights bill that made it to the Senate floor would surely die there by filibuster. In 1917, senators had provided a mechanism for ending filibusters. Frustrated by a Republican filibuster against arming merchant ships in the middle of World War I, Democrats, with the support of President Woodrow Wilson, passed "Rule 22," which allowed senators to shut down a filibuster by voting for "cloture." According to the original rule, a filibuster could be stopped only with the support of two-thirds of the chamber, which by 1961 comprised sixty-seven votes. Unless there were enough votes for cloture, a filibuster could continue until a bill died and was buried under unlimited talk. In 1938, southern senators--among them Louisiana's Allen Ellender, who said, "I believe in white supremacy, and as long as I am in the Senate I expect to fight for white supremacy"--killed an antilynching bill by mounting a six-week filibuster.11 Southern Democrats did the same against anti-poll tax legislation in 1942, 1944, 1946, and 1948. In 1946 and in 1950, the southerners filibustered a proposal to make the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which had been established during World War II to maintain racial calm at wartime production plants, a permanent institution to combat racial discrimination in the workplace. Liberals sometimes used filibusters too. In 1953, Senator Wayne Morse filibustered for twenty-two hours and twenty-six minutes against legislation to allow states the right to control natural resources in certain offshore lands. These committee arrangements and Senate rules were the structural barriers Congress presented to President Kennedy when he entered the White House in January 1961. To those liberals who hoped that Kennedy would emerge as an effective liberal president, Congress presented a daunting challenge. A NEW GENERATION OF LIBERALS WANTS MORE Liberal politicians who entered Congress in the late 1950s and early 1960s knew that Congress itself was the main roadblock to their agenda. These liberals, primarily northerners, were part of a generation that had been inspired by FDR and his New Deal. They were committed to protecting and expanding Roosevelt's domestic record, though they were keenly aware of the other formidable obstacles they faced, among them the prevailing cold war mentality, which made political activity perilous for anyone whom conservative opponents could label a socialist or a communist. These liberals believed that the best way to separate themselves from the far left was to demonstrate their commitment to a muscular policy against the Soviet Union. The liberals were also well aware that they had been unable to advance their domestic agenda under Eisenhower, who balanced the federal budget by reducing spending and enjoyed close to 60 percent approval ratings throughout most of his two terms in the White House. The postwar liberal movement was driven by the actions of legislators, interest groups, and grassroots activists. All of them believed the New Deal had been enormously successful in easing the pain of the Great Depression and enacting domestic policies to create a more just capitalist economy. The economy was now expanding at a rapid clip. Unemployment was low, inflation was contained, and the gross national product was getting bigger every year. More and more people were enjoying the economic security that came with being part of the American middle class. The liberals' goals in the postwar period were to create programs that would help more Americans enter the middle class and to tackle structural problems that existed in good times and bad--racial inequality, inadequate health-care coverage, underfunded education, urban decay, and chronic poverty--but could best be addressed when the economy was producing economic rewards for a majority of the workforce. Starting in the 1948 election and continuing with each election through the 1958 midterms, the liberal bloc in the House and the Senate had gradually expanded. The spread of organized labor in northern states, the influx of African Americans into the North, and the growth of urban areas, which tended to be more liberal politically, had resulted in the election of more legislators who supported the New Deal and wanted the federal government to do more. In traditionally Republican areas of some states--California and Ohio, for example--organized labor was providing pivotal support in getting liberal Democrats elected. Younger senators, among them Paul Douglas of Illinois, Clair Engle of California, Vance Hartke of Indiana, Herbert Lehman of New York, Ed Muskie of Maine, and Harrison Williams of New Jersey, were itching to challenge the southern Democrats.12 They didn't want to follow the advice Speaker Sam Rayburn had given a newly elected congressman named Lyndon Johnson and others of their predecessors that they should "go along" to "get along." They didn't want to cooperate if it meant accepting that their principled aims would continue to be thwarted; they wanted to marshal their resources, use the advantages they had in Congress, and win. An archetype of this generation was the Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey. Raised in South Dakota, Humphrey was a product of prairie populism who idolized William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt. The politics of the 1930s captivated him; he wrote a master's thesis at Louisiana State University, where he graduated in 1940, about the philosophy of the New Deal. "Democracy and socialism," Humphrey wrote, "are alike motivated by the desire to free the individual from oppression and to guarantee to each an opportunity for personal happiness, for self-realization, for practical liberty and spiritual freedom."13 When he moved back to the University of Minnesota to pursue a doctoral degree in political science, he studied parliamentary procedure and learned how conservatives used congressional rules to block liberal legislation. He also served in the Minnesota branch of the federal War Production Board and as assistant director of the War Manpower Progress Commission. After a stint as a professor at Macalester College in 1943 and 1944, during which he worked as the manager for FDR's campaign in Minnesota, Humphrey decided to enter politics rather than just teach about it. He was active in the Democratic Party and in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which he and other local Democrats created in a 1944 merger with Minnesota's relatively successful left-wing Farmer-Labor Party. He continued to endear himself to liberal organizations. In 1945, organized labor helped him win election as mayor of Minneapolis by rallying working-class Democrats to his side. His administration created the first Fair Employment Practices Commission in municipal government. Three years later, he ran for the Senate. In the middle of his campaign, he drew national attention during the Democratic convention in Philadelphia when he called on all Democrats to endorse a stronger civil rights plank in the party platform than most, including President Truman, were willing to accept. He declared, "To those who say that this bill of rights program is an infringement of states' rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."14 The Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegations stormed out of the convention hall and lined up soon afterward behind the States' Rights Democratic Party and the candidacy of South Carolina's segregationist governor Strom Thurmond. After his election to the Senate in 1948, Humphrey continued to rattle conservative cages. He launched his senatorial career with a speech on the Senate floor in which he called the filibuster "a violation of the principle of majority rule on which our democracy is based." He also delivered a speech in which he proposed the elimination of the Joint Committee on Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures, a committee chaired by the Virginia senator Harry Byrd, one of the giants of Capitol Hill. Humphrey, who was already persona non grata among southerners for his support of civil rights, accused Byrd's committee, which was responsible for eliminating waste and extravagance, of being wasteful and extravagant. Notwithstanding his gracious demeanor, Byrd was not a man who took criticism lightly. He was known among his colleagues for being quick-tempered. Six days after Humphrey's speech, Byrd offered a rebuttal, in which he corrected "misstatements" Humphrey had made. Senior members of the Senate then stood up to denounce Humphrey, one by one, for four hours straight. When the Minnesotan, who slouched in his chair throughout the verbal beating, stood up to offer his response, his colleagues left the chamber. In the hallways of the Senate, senior members whispered derogatory statements about Humphrey within earshot.15 Over his years in the Senate, Humphrey learned to moderate his tone and to accept compromise. Doing so allowed him to serve as the informal liaison between the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Johnson, who felt he could use Humphrey to control and contain the liberals, had convinced the Minnesota senator that he had to be more pragmatic if he didn't want to "suffer the fate of those crazies, those bomb-thrower types like Paul Douglas, Wayne Morse, Herbert Lehman. You'll be ignored, and get nothing accomplished you want."16 Humphrey took Johnson's advice and moderated his style but always with the clear objective of securing a place for liberals at the legislative bargaining table. In 1959, younger liberal members of the House, frustrated with the power of the southern Democrats and their Republican allies, formed a caucus they called the Democratic Study Group (DSG). The caucus included about eighty members from twenty-one states, so it had the potential to be a substantial force in the House. It had grown out of an informal network of liberals, elected in 1954 and 1956, who had signed the "Liberal Manifesto" circulated by the Minnesota representative Eugene McCarthy, which outlined the goals of the more urban and liberal members of the chamber. The goals of the DSG were to lobby congressional leaders for liberal legislation and for procedural reforms that would weaken southern conservative committee chairmen and to help the growing body of new liberal members gain seats on important committees. The DSG employed a talented staffer named William Phillips to do research--on the powers of committee chairmen and other issues--intended to assist caucus members in devising successful legislative strategies. Senator Humphrey, the members of the DSG, and other liberal legislators were not working alone as they prepared their challenge to the conservative coalition in Congress. They could count on a number of interest groups that were formed in the late 1940s and the 1950s to fight for their agenda. One was the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), created in 1949 by professors, policy makers, and activists committed to pursuing tough anticommunist policies along with a progressive domestic agenda that included federal government actions to secure civil rights for African Americans. In 1955, the two major wings of organized labor, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, merged to form the AFL-CIO, which represented almost fifteen million workers. The AFL-CIO constituted a powerful counterforce in Washington to the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups and provided local union affiliates with a national lobbying operation. The AFL-CIO's president, George Meany, and Walter Reuther, who headed the United Automobile Workers, enjoyed a level of direct access to presidents that labor could never have imagined decades earlier.17 The AFL-CIO and all the groups devoted to civil rights, including the ADA, participated in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which coordinated communication and lobbying among more than fifty civil rights organizations. These liberal interest groups and others used various tactics to push Congress to pass bills that would strengthen unions, protect civil rights, offer assistance to the cities, provide health insurance to the elderly, and more. They distributed to their members and to journalists compilations of how congressmen and senators voted on important issues and grouped them--liberal, moderate, or conservative--so that constituents would be aware of where their representatives stood. At election times, these organizations provided campaign assistance and advice to candidates they supported. The AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education worked with the political departments of state and local chapters to endorse certain candidates, to distribute campaign material, and to conduct voter registration drives. The union leaders had the ability to persuade a large portion of their fifteen-million-person membership, which was heavily concentrated in northern states, to campaign for, and vote for, AFL-CIO-backed candidates.18 Most of these organizations also hired talented lobbyists; two were Andrew Biemiller, who worked for the AFL-CIO, and Clarence Mitchell of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Both men had spent their careers in liberal networks, knew how Congress worked, and became permanent fixtures in the Capitol. Biemiller was a former Wisconsin congressman who had been involved in socialist politics in the 1930s. Mitchell was a longtime political operative, primarily as a lobbyist for the NAACP. Both men believed that passing legislation was the best way to achieve social justice. "When you have a law," Mitchell said, "you have an instrument that will work for you permanently. But when you branch out on a separate line of direct action, you may wind up with nothing."19 These lobbyists constantly tried to pressure legislators to vote for liberal measures by presenting arguments in favor of a bill and by mobilizing or threatening to mobilize union members to create political pressure in a legislator's constituency. In an era when no cameras were allowed on the floors of Congress and most legislative deliberations were closed to the public, the lobbyists and their staffs informed their constituencies about what their representatives in Congress were doing on their behalf. While liberal congressmen and lobbyists worked Washington, grassroots activists stumped for liberal legislation everywhere around the nation. They pressured local, state, and federal government officials, and they pressured President Kennedy to throw the weight of the presidency behind the legislation they wanted to pass. Foremost among the liberal activist organizations was the civil rights movement. THE PRESSURE INCREASES FOR CIVIL RIGHTS Liberal Democrats in Congress believed that President Kennedy would use the bully pulpit to promote legislation on better health care and aid to education, both core issues in his campaign, but they were skeptical about how hard he would be willing to fight for legislation to achieve racial equality, and they were pessimistic about the results, even if he did push. Civil rights leaders were unwilling to assume that the president, or any other politician in Washington, would push hard enough for civil rights, and they were determined to force the issue with grassroots protests and massive lobbying in Washington to build pressure on Congress. By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement had been gaining strength for many decades. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1909, in response to a wave of lynching and segregationist laws in the South. The organization focused primarily on getting judicial remedies for racial injustice; an example was the 1936 case that resulted in the desegregation of the University of Maryland's Law School. During World War II, it was the demands of African American leaders that impelled the federal government to create the Fair Employment Practices Commission to prevent employers from discriminating based on race when hiring factory workers for wartime production. Many of the 125,000 African American soldiers who returned from World War II became involved in local protests. These men, who had fought for democracy in segregated units against the Nazis and the Japanese, were in no mood to tolerate discriminatory practices at home. In the 1950s, the NAACP mounted court challenges to laws that upheld segregation, and it secured its biggest victory in 1954, when the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that school segregation was illegal. State Department officials also pressured the executive branch to be more proactive on civil rights in light of the Soviet Union's use of stories about racial conflict in the United States as part of its cold war propaganda. The horrible treatment of African diplomats near Washington, D.C., had long been an embarrassment to the U.S. government.20 At the local level, activists were starting to mobilize protesters. The 1955-1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was launched after the NAACP member Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The boycott brought the city to a standstill and captured international attention. In 1957, white resistance to the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas forced President Eisenhower to send federal troops into the state to protect black students. That same year, the charismatic preacher Martin Luther King Jr. formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organized against segregation at the local level and pressured Congress to enact national legislation. While the national NAACP was reluctant to embrace street action and mostly focused on fighting Jim Crow through the courts, some local affiliates worked throughout the 1950s to encourage the use of sit-ins to protest racial segregation. They organized networks of southern African Americans and trained them to conduct civil disobedience and political protest. After four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University started a sit-in to resist their treatment at a segregated lunch counter in the Woolworth's department store in Greensboro in 1960, the protests spread throughout colleges in the South, resulting in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During the early 1960s, dramatic acts of civil disobedience rocked the South, catapulting civil rights to the forefront of the national consciousness and moving non-southern legislators in Congress to support civil rights with greater force and conviction. On May 4, 1961, just four months after Kennedy's inauguration, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), under the leadership of James Farmer, dispatched interracial teams of young activists south from Washington, D.C., on Greyhound and Trailways buses. The first wave of these Freedom Riders passed through North Carolina and Virginia in an ominous calm, but in Alabama they encountered violent responses. Approximately six miles outside of Anniston, a white southerner tossed a firebomb onto a bus. The mob attacked the passengers as they escaped the flaming bus. In Birmingham, Alabama, the police, under the leadership of the commissioner of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, refused to protect the riders as they were beaten with baseball bats, tire chains, and iron pipes by a mob of Klansmen.21 "Negroes and whites will not segregate together," declared the man who controlled the police and who, as one of only three elected officials in Birmingham, had the authority to appoint temporary justices who controlled the court system. Connor was the law in Birmingham. The FBI was not helpful to the protesters. Its director, J. Edgar Hoover, had little sympathy for the civil rights cause. His main concern was finding out how many communists were working in the movement's leadership circles. The FBI director also depended on his connections with local southern law enforcement authorities to work on other sorts of crimes. He did little to force local police authorities to take any actions they didn't want to take. The protesters were standing alone. The White House kept the movement at arm's length during Kennedy's first few months in office. The president believed the Freedom Riders were aggravating tensions in the South to a level that would be unproductive; he did not want to be pressured into pushing for legislation he did not believe he could get passed; and he worried about a backlash against civil rights if some supporters in Congress believed the violence in the South was being provoked by grassroots activism rather than by racists determined to stop any progress toward ending Jim Crow. Kennedy asked his adviser Harris Wofford, an early supporter of civil rights and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s, "Can't you get your goddamned friends off those buses? Tell them to call it off! Stop them!"22 Kennedy's concern about racial injustice was genuine, but it was profoundly attenuated by political considerations. He was disgusted by the savage police attacks and sympathetic toward demands that the racial status quo had to change, but he was willing to take only small steps to address conditions that were now being seen on television news reports in the homes of more Americans every day. Kennedy had made gestures of support toward the movement in the past; shortly before his election he had called Coretta Scott King when her husband, who had been arrested in Georgia after a protest, was in prison. The call, which many of his advisers had strongly discouraged for fear it would cost him crucial southern votes, won Kennedy some respect among African American leaders who heard about it, and from King himself, who appreciated that the senator had taken the risk to reach out to him. In the White House, Kennedy was sometimes willing to take small steps toward promoting racial equality. He issued an executive order in March 1961 that created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity to investigate discriminatory practices in employment by businesses receiving federal funds and to encourage better practices. Vice President Johnson was put in charge of the committee, which had little actual power. It was soon clear that these presidential actions were not responsive to the magnitude of the racial crisis that was boiling up in the South. Some of Kennedy's reasons for restraint in addressing racial issues could be found in his view of the history of civil rights on Capitol Hill. When he looked there, he saw only discouraging prospects for the present and the future. Between the end of Reconstruction and 1956, every single civil rights bill had been killed in a congressional committee or by a filibuster. When Congress finally started to pass bills, they were deemed unsatisfactory by all parties. In 1957, the violent confrontation over school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, had persuaded President Eisenhower to propose civil rights legislation. Many congressional Republicans supported him; they felt that supporting civil rights was the moral thing to do, and they also believed it would be good politics; if they seized the initiative on civil rights, they could win African American votes in swing states. As Robert Caro has recounted, Lyndon Johnson, who believed the government would sooner or later have to address the problem of racial inequality and who felt that the Senate needed to respond to its growing liberal bloc, devoted all his tremendous energy to brokering deals and forming voting coalitions to pass the bill.23 The senior Georgia senator, Richard Russell, who was known as the most powerful man in the upper chamber at that time, was a masterful, soft-spoken parliamentary tactician and the person with the most sway over the Democratic caucus. He believed Lyndon Johnson was the only southerner who had a chance of becoming president, but only if he could get some credibility with northerners on civil rights. Russell was willing therefore to give Johnson some leeway to pass a bill as long as it was sufficiently weak to satisfy southerners. Leeway didn't mean Russell would support such a bill; it only meant he wouldn't go all out in his opposition if Johnson could find the votes to defeat a filibuster. To show Russell that he could put together support for such a bill, Johnson cut a deal with a group of western Democratic senators who had been seeking federal funds for the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Hells Canyon, on the Oregon-Idaho border. Johnson persuaded his southern colleagues, who had been adamantly opposed to sending federal money west, to vote in favor of the dam. In exchange, the western Democrats agreed to join with the southerners in voting against certain provisions of the civil rights bill that would be too radical for southerners to support.24 The primary intent of the 1957 legislation was to fortify the voting rights of African Americans. Only about 20 percent of eligible African Americans in the South were registered to vote at the time. The bill Johnson carved out of the original proposal assigned to local juries the job of deciding whether there had been violations of the law against depriving African Americans of voting rights. The fact that in the South blacks were never permitted to serve on juries virtually ensured there would be no convictions. Johnson also blocked a proposal, which liberals thought was essential, that would have given the attorney general the power to initiate suits to combat discrimination rather than requiring him to wait for private actors to bring suits. The provision would have freed African Americans from the responsibility--and personal risk--of pursuing redress on their own and placed that burden on the Department of Justice. But Republicans, including those who were supportive of civil rights legislation, and southern Democrats would not allow such a dramatic extension of federal power. At each stage in the deliberations, Johnson depended on the ad hoc coalition he had built around the Hells Canyon deal to extract concessions from liberals; they would have to go along, or there would be no bill at all. The severely watered-down compromise bill, which southerners forced northerners to accept through the filibuster, created prohibitions against the denial of voting rights and established the six-person federal Civil Rights Commission to investigate voting rights abuses and make reports to the president. The attorney general could seek court injunctions against violations of voting rights, though not against other kinds of racial discrimination. Federal judges could hear cases based on violations, though local juries would decide the cases. In short, Johnson and the southerners had rendered the bill toothless; the law that was passed gave the federal government very little power to enforce its provisions. The most important aspect of the legislation was that it was the first civil rights measure passed by Congress since Reconstruction and cleared the way, or so Johnson promised, for stronger legislation in the future. "We've shown that we can do it. We'll do it again, in a couple of years," Johnson promised reporters.25 Liberals complained that the measure would have little effect. "I am fed up with the argument that the civil rights bill the Congress passed is better than no bill at all," the Oregon senator Wayne Morse said. "I deny that premise."26 Southerners of course complained that the bill did too much, that even this empty shell of prohibitions against voting discrimination established a reprehensible intervention by the federal government into matters that were constitutionally the business of individual states. The same dynamic recurred in 1960 when Congress moved to strengthen the 1957 voting provisions by giving the federal government more power to monitor voting practices at the local level. The legislation achieved only a small improvement in the law; it allowed federal referees, under the supervision of the Justice Department, to investigate local voting rolls. Enforcement of provisions that prohibited the restriction of voting rights would still be minimal under the bill; African Americans would still be prevented from voting, but the 1960 legislation, as mild as it was, passed only after a filibuster that lasted 125 hours and 16 minutes--until civil rights proponents agreed to a major compromise in the legislation. The photographs in newspapers of senators sleeping on cots during this filibuster, when Johnson insisted on keeping the Senate in round-the-clock sessions, vividly conveyed the efforts southern senators were willing to exert to prevent African Americans from enjoying their basic right to vote. The lessons from 1957 and 1960 were clear to President Kennedy, who had been in the Senate during both of these debates. Even mild civil rights proposals were guaranteed to encounter fierce political opposition from southern Democrats, who remained a potent and effective force. Battles over civil rights squeezed other important legislation off the congressional agenda. Proponents rarely obtained what they wanted, leaving liberals frustrated with continuing racial injustice protected by the filibuster and southerners enraged by the infinitesimal ground they had surrendered to civil rights. With all this history in mind, Kennedy didn't want to put civil rights anywhere near the top of his legislative agenda for 1961 or 1962. He agreed with a memo Harris Wofford had written during the transition period, in which his adviser had argued that the only real possibility for achieving progress on civil rights was by working through the judiciary and executive branches. Unless there was a reform of the filibuster rule to make it easier to achieve cloture in the Senate, Wofford had written, southern opponents would be able to block any meaningful civil rights measure that reached the Senate floor. If Democrats sought filibuster reform in 1961, Wofford added, "the Southern fight against this would inflict a serious wound to your other legislative prospects."27 The history of civil rights and these ominous predictions at the outset of the term had a profound effect on Kennedy's strategic thinking. Most civil rights activists believed it was essential to solve the racial crisis through congressional action, because only legislation forged out of national debate with bipartisan support could provide durable solutions to such massive social problems. Kennedy, for his part, didn't think he could get this done, nor was he willing to try. Instead, he decided to do what he could through executive action, though this was a limited solution and a fragile one; it could easily be reversed by the next president. The president's other concern was that if he tried and failed to legislate civil rights in his first year as president, he would have reduced his capacity to get Congress to pass what he saw as higher-priority legislation. His primary objective in 1961 was to pass a temporary, across-the-board tax cut that would boost demand and accelerate economic growth. He also wanted legislation that would provide health insurance to senior citizens. He expected that the conservative coalition would try to block all his domestic initiatives, but he hoped that by avoiding civil rights, at least early in his term, he would improve his chances of passing the rest of his proposals. The president was also worried about his prospects for reelection in 1964. Like all Democratic candidates, Kennedy was dependent on southern votes, but after 1952 the South was not as solidly Democratic as it had once been. In 1960, Kennedy had barely defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, and his decision to select Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, a move that infuriated liberal Democrats who saw the Senate majority leader as a pillar of the conservative establishment, had been essential to Kennedy's victory in Texas and in several other southern states. The president understood that his support in the region remained soft. After all, he had won only about 51 percent of the vote in Texas; many southerners didn't trust him; and despite his moderate record in the Senate, conservatives still feared he was secretly more liberal than he admitted. Kennedy was sympathetic to those who were fighting against racial injustice, but he possessed neither the moral determination nor the political tenacity to go all out for a civil rights bill. He pushed back against the pressure many officials were putting on him to respond to the violence against the Freedom Riders with legislation. Kennedy's brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy displayed very little sensitivity when he told the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case, "That's the problem with you people. You want too much too fast."28 What civil rights activists wanted was legislation, and they wanted it now. They rejected Kennedy's pragmatic logic, which had been used since Reconstruction as an excuse for federal inaction. The president was capable of vigorous efforts; they had seen him make them for other controversial domestic issues--health care for the elderly, for example, where he authorized a strong public relations strategy to pressure Congress. The perception that there would be no commitment from Kennedy only intensified the belief of civil rights activists that their program of protests and confrontations was the only way to get action from Congress. The relationship between Kennedy and civil rights leaders grew increasingly tense. James Forman of SNCC called the president a "quick-talking [and] double-dealing" politician.29 "The Kennedy civil rights strategy," recalled Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who chronicled these events, "however appropriate to the congressional mood of 1961, miscalculated the dynamism of a revolutionary movement."30 Martin Luther King Jr. believed it was imperative for Congress to pass legislation that would outlaw racial segregation and protect the voting rights of African Americans. Kennedy, for his part, feared that if the public perceived him as being too close to King, he would be hamstrung politically. Initially, the administration refused to invite King to meet with the president in the White House. When a meeting finally took place, on October 16, 1961, it only served to widen the divisions between the White House and the movement. King's invitation was conditioned on his keeping the meeting totally confidential. Before King saw the president, Kennedy's adviser Harris Wofford informed the minister that one of his top associates, Stanley Levison, was an active operative in a Soviet spy network. Levison had been a Communist Party member until he quit in 1956, before he started to work with King, but the accusation that a Soviet agent had infiltrated the movement and the further implication that it would harm King's credibility were clear attempts by the administration to use cold war hysteria to intimidate King. When, after a pleasant lunch with Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, King pressed Kennedy to fulfill his campaign promise to ban racial segregation, the president responded that he lacked sufficient congressional support to take such action.31 The violence against the Freedom Riders in Alabama was just the beginning. There was violence in other southern states too, much of it in reaction to Department of Justice efforts to integrate public universities. Kennedy's use of executive action to support court-ordered integration of specific universities had stirred extreme resentment in the South. The president's handling of these crises during the summer of 1962 was in stark contrast to his handling of the Cuban missile crisis in late October, when he stood up to the Soviets. These dramatic events, watched around the world, resulted in an apparent victory for the United States and displayed to Americans a resolve that was missing from Kennedy's dealings with the civil rights crisis. He had stood up to Khrushchev, but now he seemed to be standing by and allowing demonstrators to be brutally beaten when they asked for basic rights. Many Americans were appalled by the contradiction. Nor was Kennedy having success with his priority domestic legislation: health care for the elderly, a tax cut, and federal assistance for education were all bottled up in Congress. Nothing was getting done. Excerpted from The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society by Julian E. Zelizer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Challenges of a Liberal Presidencyp. 1
Chapter 2 Deadlocked Democracyp. 11
Chapter 3 New President-Same Old Congressp. 61
Chapter 4 Legislating Civil Rightsp. 85
Chapter 5 How Barry Goldwater Built the Great Societyp. 131
Chapter 6 The Fabulous Eighty-Ninth Congressp. 163
Chapter 7 Congressional Conservatism Revivedp. 225
Chapter 8 The Triumph of Austerity Politicsp. 263
Chapter 9 The Endurance of the Great Societyp. 303
Acknowledgmentsp. 325
Notesp. 329
Illustration Creditsp. 355
Indexp. 357