Extreme Measures

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

A few hours after President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 — outlawing segregation in public places and discrimination in employment — he was alone with an aide. Melancholy replaced the euphoria of the recent ceremony, and the president observed: “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Always a realist in assessing political dynamics, Johnson understood the vote-changing implications and party-switching consequences of the new law. A Southerner and a Democrat, he realized it was time for all Americans to confront prejudice, racism and other forms of injustice. For the Texan, public policy — and improving the lives of people not getting a fair shake — trumped partisan politics, though he recognized the price.

The White House signing ceremony took place July 2, about eight months after Johnson became president following John Kennedy’s assassination and four months before the only Election Day LBJ contested for the nation’s highest office.

The Civil Rights Act became the most important legislative initiative (and achievement) as the Johnson Administration took power in the executive branch. Its passage, in the often-repeated phrase of commentators, changed the face of America. Moreover, with the votes that were cast that November, the electoral map began to look substantially different from the past. This one law produced social, political and economic effects that continue to reverberate throughout the country.

How was a new, at the time unelected, president able to get the most sweeping and historic civil rights legislation passed by Congress during an election year?

Published accounts describe Johnson’s efforts to gain approval. An even more compelling behind-the-scenes portrayal of what happened comes from Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, who, in 1964, was not only Notre Dame’s president but also a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Comparing Hesburgh’s recollection to the written record puts the focus more directly on Johnson in action, illustrating the power of a president’s personality on a policy of enduring consequence.

First, though, LBJ looks back. “A President cannot ask the Congress to take a risk he will not take himself,” he observes in The Vantage Point (1971), his presidential memoir. “He must be the combat general in the front lines, constantly exposing his flanks. I tried to be that combat general. I gave to this fight everything I had in prestige, power, and commitment.”

After dramatizing this self-portrait for commanding his troops, LBJ backtracks a bit: “At the same time, I deliberately tried to tone down my personal involvement in the daily struggle so that my colleagues on the Hill could take tactical responsibility — and credit; so that a hero’s niche could be carved out for Senator [Everett] Dirksen, not me.”

Johnson’s naming of Dirksen, the Republican minority leader from Illinois, harks back to a political era when bipartisan cooperation took place with regularity rather than being the unusual, indeed newsworthy, occurrence that it is today.

The Vantage Point, as presidential autobiographies tend to do, puts the most positive, self-serving spin on the past. What about reportage by less blinkered observers? How do they present what it really was like at this time for Johnson, who was the Senate majority Leader for six years until being selected by Kennedy to run for vice president to help secure the South for the Democratic ticket in 1960?

Robert A. Caro has spent the last four decades working on a multivolume biography of LBJ. In The Passage of Power (2012), the fourth installment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro unmasks the outside-inside game the president played with the Civil Rights Act.

During one news conference, according to Caro, a question about a proposed Senate amendment prompted this Johnsonian response: “All I know is what I read in the papers.”

Away from public view and probing reporters, the reality of the situation — as Caro portrays it — is that LBJ “knew all the tactics, devising many of them himself, thinking ahead to the tactics [Senator Richard] Russell would use to counter them and how those tactics could then be countered in turn. And the generals carrying out his tactics knew that he was looking over their shoulders — with little patience.” (There were other “generals” but only one “combat general” — who was also the commander-in-chief.)

Russell, who hailed from Georgia, had been Johnson’s close friend during their 12 years together in the Senate. As president, however, LBJ wasn’t afraid to do battle with his former mentor, the leader of Southern opposition to civil rights. For this legislation, which meant so much to Johnson, the Republican Dirksen became an ally, while Russell, a fellow Southerner and Democrat, turned into a principal opponent.

Johnson tried to keep his maneuvering on behalf of the bill out of earshot and away from the glare of cameras. One person, though, who’d seen what was called “the Johnson treatment” firsthand and heard even more about the techniques of this master manipulator was Father Hesburgh.

In his autobiography, God, Country, Notre Dame (1990), Hesburgh discusses his 15-year service as a member and, ultimately, chairman of the Civil Rights Commission. Praising Johnson for passage of civil rights legislation, he comments: “Without Lyndon Johnson’s courage and vision upon taking office, we would not have come as far as we have today on civil rights and human rights.”

In his memoir, Hesburgh never explains the methods LBJ used to secure the congressional votes he needed in 1964. But the priest and public servant did go into detail about Johnson in action — as “combat general” — during a class session of mine in the spring of 2008, seven years before his death in 2015 at age 97. For the “American Political Life” course, I invited Hesburgh to talk about presidents he’d known and worked with throughout his governmental service, which spanned almost a half-century. Remarkably, he’d met 12 presidents (of the 17) in his lifetime.

In discussing LBJ, Hesburgh focused directly on the Civil Rights Act and the presidential stratagems involved in gaining congressional support. Explaining that previous efforts to pass such legislation had failed, Hesburgh said LBJ deserved credit for deciding “he was going to take on the toughest problem in the history of the United States . . . the problem of race as it goes up against the concept of equality for all American citizens.”

Hesburgh recalled that Johnson was characteristically bold in asserting his goals for the House and Senate. In fact, at the beginning of LBJ’s first State of the Union address early in 1964, he declared: “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.”

After explaining to students the personal and institutional force behind LBJ’s commitment, Hesburgh began to dramatize how Johnson operated, even mimicking a Texas drawl when imitating the way the occupant of the White House spoke. The priest’s description is vivid and specific, and what he recounts is revealing about both Johnson and himself.

“Here’s a guy, who is the president of the United States, and he said, ‘You are all going to vote for my bill,’ because now it has become my bill. And everybody said, ‘He is out of his mind. This problem has been around since Jefferson and Lincoln, and there is no way on earth this is going to be solved by one guy in Washington.’

“But they underestimated Johnson, and for the next six months he was on the phone every night. He had his little book with all of their foibles, and by all of them I mean senators and congressmen. What he didn’t know about them, he could pick up from J. Edgar [Hoover, the FBI director], who loved to come to the White House for a scotch at 11 o’clock at night and fill the president in about some things he didn’t know about the senators and congressmen. Johnson was absolutely ruthless in this pursuit. I have to applaud his ruthlessness because it was in a cause where nobody else could have gotten that law through.”

As Hesburgh talked about Johnson’s tactics and “ruthlessness,” the students seemed mesmerized, some leaning forward to hear as clearly as they could what he was saying. Having provided contextual background, Hesburgh continued with an even more explicit rendition of LBJ’s uncommon methods. He recounted a typical scene of Johnson communicating with a generic, nameless senator. Similar techniques of presidential persuasion also applied for legislators in the House of Representatives.

“He would ring up, say, Senator X or Senator Y,” Hesburgh said. “I don’t know when Johnson slept, but he would call them at 3 in the morning and hear this guy come on the phone, and say ‘This is your president,’ and the guy would say, ‘President of what?’ Now [the senator] is coming awake, and Johnson says, ‘President of these United States, and I call you up, Senator, because I understand that you are not going to vote for my bill.’ And [the senator] says, ‘Lyndon, come on. You are a Southerner. I vote for your bill and they will cut my throat.’

“Johnson says, ‘You have been in the Congress for 35 years, and no one is about to cut your throat, but I will tell you something. If you don’t vote for my bill, I’ll cut your throat.’”

“Mr. President, that is no way to talk to a U.S. Senator.”

LBJ’s decision to have Dirksen, a Northern Republican, play a central role in halting the 60-day Southern-led filibuster through a vote of cloture paid off. So, too, did the arm-twisting and phone-bullying from the White House.

Heightening the drama of his story, Hesburgh described how LBJ would conclude one of his dark-of-night phone conversations with a congressional colleague.

“‘Well,’ Johnson says, ‘Let’s change the scene a bit. Let’s say next Thursday, front page of The Washington Post, the newspaper of record in Washington, D.C., and the headlines are about you, Senator, and it says: ‘What is the senator doing in room 346 of the Mayflower Hotel every Saturday night at 9 o’clock? Is he up there to say the Our Father with somebody?’

“And of course by now the senator is outraged, and he says, ‘My God, they will kill me.’

“‘You got it right. You better vote for my bill,’ and Johnson slammed down the phone.”

Once Hesburgh reached the end of the phone call he was bringing to life for the students, he offered an assessment of LBJ’s single-minded focus and brass-knuckle techniques; the interplay of situational ethics and promised greater good became readily apparent.

Johnson, Hesburgh said, “literally blackmailed everybody that he had something on, and he had something on just about everybody. And, believe it or not, having dumped that bill in their laps the first week in January, on the first week of July he signed the bill, which had been approved by the majority of senators and congressmen.

“I swear to you that no president since him could possibly have gotten that bill through Congress, and he got it through because he was ruthless and because he had all the dirt on everybody, and he wasn’t above threatening them, and he did it person-by-person, and he did it when he had them at a disadvantage at 3 in the morning.

“The message came through: You either go along with the president or he is going to get you fired from your job. Now that is playing hardball, and you don’t read much about that in the history books, but that is how that happened.”

Hesburgh’s words “blackmailed, “ruthless” and “hardball” paint a precise portrait but also prompt speculation. Are such tactics an essential element of successful leadership in a situation with elevated stakes and inflexible positions?

Legislative logjams can be broken up with personal threats once or maybe twice before spines stiffen and a late-night ultimatum loses its force for political injury. Johnson’s style worked in this case, but how he did it seems particular to his Texas-size personality and more the province of an earlier period of governmental action than what happens today.

What’s remarkable about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not only the executive branch tactics but also the strong support that came from Republicans in Congress. In both the House and the Senate, the percentage of Republicans that voted for the bill far exceeded the balloting by Democrats in favor of the provisions outlined in the 11 sections of the legislation.

In the House, Republican support was 76 percent; Democrats 60 percent. In the Senate, a stunning 82 percent of Republicans offered their backing compared to 69 percent of Democrats.

LBJ’s decision to have Dirksen, a Northern Republican, play a central role in halting the 60-day Southern-led filibuster through a vote of cloture paid off. So, too, did the arm-twisting and phone-bullying from the White House.

In An Idea Whose Time Has Come (2014), a carefully researched account of the law’s passage, Todd S. Purdum reports that Johnson contacted Democrat Carl Albert, the House majority leader, shortly after the vote. “Johnson called Albert, whose Oklahoma constituents had little fondness for the bill, to congratulate him, adding, ‘I guess you know that probably you’ll get more congratulations up here than you’ll get at home.’”

Known by the nickname “the Little Giant from Little Dixie,” Albert had opposed civil rights bills in 1956 and ’57. But 1964 proved different, and the diminutive future Speaker of the House wasn’t alone in casting a yea vote that the electorate in his congressional district didn’t endorse.

That same year, Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona, to win a full term as president. LBJ’s victory was one of the largest in U.S. history: 61.1 percent to 38.5 percent as well as an advantage of nearly 16 million votes.

Impressive as these numbers appear, Johnson’s prediction that signing the Civil Rights Act would affect voting habits in Southern states played itself out on Election Day of 1964. LBJ lost Goldwater’s home state of Arizona — Goldwater was one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act — as well as five states below the Mason-Dixon line: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Traditionally, the phrase “the Solid South” referred to Democratic dominance in that region, featuring the electoral participation of so-called “Yellow Dog Democrats.” This canine nickname meant party loyalty for a Southern Democrat extended to casting a ballot for any old yellow dog before pulling the lever for a Republican.

Until 1964, a GOP White House ticket had not triumphed in Alabama, Mississippi or South Carolina since Reconstruction days after the Civil War. Even more tellingly, Georgia had never before voted Republican in a national election since the party’s founding in the 1860s.

The change in Southern politics also extended to elected officials. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, for example, switched parties from the Democratic to the Republican in September of ’64, with this procession continuing in subsequent decades. Today “the Solid South” is red-state, rock-ribbed Republican.

Interestingly, during Johnson’s time, his loss of support from Southern Democrats on civil rights legislation was counterbalanced by moderate, even liberal, Republicans in Northern and Midwestern states helping to pass measures the president advocated.

In recent years, however, the two main parties have become more recognizably regional, ideologically homogeneous and pointedly partisan. Democrats now hold a definite advantage in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while Republicans predominate in the South and Southwest. The conservative Southern Democrats of bygone days are as extinct a political species as liberal Northern Republicans. Political values and beliefs endure in both regions at the same time party allegiances change.

Conservatism in the South nowadays revolves around social, cultural and religious issues rather than civil rights, thanks in large measure to the legislation Johnson muscled through Congress in the mid-1960s. In an ironic inversion, many Southerners, who claim Confederate soldiers from Civil War time as ancestors, are now proud members of what’s often called “the Party of Lincoln.”

In Northern states and out West, more progressive politicians (and voters) gravitate to the Democratic Party. Maps we see each presidential election year, featuring red states and blue states, tell that story.

Today’s political geography and reality mean that Lyndon Johnson would probably not win election to the Senate from Texas as a Democrat. In fact, the last time that this happened was in 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen secured his fourth term. He was first elected in 1970 by defeating an incumbent (and liberal) Democrat, Ralph Yarborough, in a primary for the party’s nomination. Yarborough had voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. LBJ’s home state was already changing.

By any measure, saber-toothed partisanship has sharpened since the 1990s. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — all two-term presidents — largely had to rely on congressional support from lawmakers of their own parties for any major initiatives they proposed. Legislators “crossing the aisle” is almost unheard of nowadays; the two parties often seem to speak different languages.

American politics began to change in 1964 — evolving or devolving, depending on your viewpoint, to where we find ourselves today. One particular law helped to start that metamorphosis, and its long-range consequences can be traced to myriad aspects of life, including the composition and direction of political parties in the United States.

Reflecting on that very different time, Hesburgh in 2008 tried to come to terms with the enduring meaning of the Civil Rights Act and to look beyond LBJ’s “hardball” (and ethically questionable) tactics to garner the congressional votes he needed.

“It was a spectacular moment in history, and history can be pretty dry when you are reading it in a book,” he told the students. “But I can tell you from being a part of that history that it was a great day when Lyndon Johnson signed that bill.

“From that day on, the United States has been true to the ideal that was laid out by the founders of this Republic and by Lincoln, who upheld it when it was being tried during the Civil War. Today that problem is done, it’s buried, it’s over, it’s finished. This country today has as good a law on human rights as any country on earth.”

That statement is both true and laudable. Now, however (and in that same spirit), we need to concentrate our collective attention on how the nation can fix our democratic institutions and practices to make “Civic Rights” the centerpiece of citizen concern and purposeful action.

In an environment of anger, if not outrage, initiating specific measures of reform — on sensible redistricting approaches, on transparent campaign financing, on logical nominating procedures and all the rest — would be first steps on a much longer road to civic health and vigor for a body politic enfeebled by maladies both large and small.

Despite all its sound and fury, this particular election season should put the future of American politics front and center for the voters to debate and to decide.

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, where he’s taught since 1980. This article expands on one section of the chapter “White House Memories” in his new book, Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record, published by Notre Dame Press.