LBJ Goes for Broke

LBJ Goes for Broke

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With the liberals—not with the most ardent “red-hots,” for with them there was no hope—the key words were also we and us. He made them feel that they were in a battle, and that in that battle he was on their side. Warning one liberal senator that there must be a liberal “sentry” on the floor at all times to guard against a sudden southern legislative maneuver, he told him, “They’ll get us on the floor if we’re not manned on the floor at all times.” He told him, “They’ll pick our moment of least resistance and move in.” He played on their fears—the fear of what southern power in the committees could do to their vital projects.

He had to persuade the northerners to allow some sort of jury trial amendment in the bill, even though such an amendment stripped the act itself of its teeth. He tried to make them understand that the important thing was to get some bill, any bill, passed “to show them we can do it—once we’ve got the first one passed, we can go back and improve it”—and that the only way to get it passed was to vote for the amendment. When Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey tried to argue with him, he said, “Yes, yes, Hubert, I want all those other things—buses, restaurants, all of that—but the right to vote with no ifs, ands or buts, that’s the key. When the Negroes get that, they’ll have every politician, north and south, east and west, kissing their ass, begging for their support.”

Day after day, he was arguing one side of a point with the southerners and the other side with the liberals—and arguing both sides with equal persuasiveness. At the same time that he was telling the South that he had counted votes and had found that a filibuster couldn’t win, he was telling liberals that they couldn’t beat a filibuster.

He was working the cloakroom and the corridors now, working them with everything he had.

He used his health. He had had a heart attack [in 1955], he said, he was a sick man and he knew it. The strain was too much for him, he said, when he went home at night, he couldn’t sleep, the doctors kept giving him new pills, they didn’t work, he was starting to get chest pains again. “Ah don’t want to die right here,” he said. “Ah don’t want to fall on my face, drop dead right on the floor of the Senate.” He couldn’t take much more strain; “He made you feel that if you wouldn’t go along with what he was asking, you might be murdering this man,” one senator recalls.

He used their pride in the Senate: “We’ve got the world looking at us here! We’ve got to make the world see that this body works!” He used their pride in their party: “You’re the party of Lincoln,” he reminded one Republican. “That’s something to be proud of.” To Democrats, he said, “Our party’s always been the place that you can come to whenever there’s injustice. That’s what the Democratic Party’s for. That’s why it was born. That’s why it survives. So the poor and the downtrodden and the bended [sic] can have a place to turn. And they’re turning to us now. We can’t let them down.” He used his power and his charm. “I can see him now,” aide Bobby Baker says, “grasping hands and poking chests and grabbing lapels, saying to the southern politicians something like, ‘We got a chance to show the way. We got a chance to get the racial monkey off the South’s back. We got a chance to show the Yankees that we’re good and decent and civilized down here, not a bunch of barefoot, tobacco-chewin’ crazies.’ ” When he had finished presenting his arguments to a senator, aide Harry McPherson was to say, “he would sink back into the chair, his eyes wide with the injustice of his burdens, the corners of his mouth inviting pity and support.” Then he “would come back faceto- face, perhaps sensing that the other wanted to help and in that event should hear the whole story, all the demands, the pressures and the threats, as well as the glory and the achievement that awaited reasonable men if they would only compromise, not on the main thing, but just on this part that the other side would never accept as it was; unless there could be some accommodation, there would be nothing, the haters would take over, the Negroes would lose it all, I need your help.” He used his stories, and he used his jokes, he used his promises, used his threats, backing senators up against walls or trapping them in their chairs, wrapping an arm around their shoulders and thrusting a finger in their chests, grasping lapels, watching their hands, watching their eyes, listening to what they said, or to what they didn’t say: “The greatest salesman one on one who ever lived”—trying to make his biggest sale.

To every crisis in his life, he had risen with that effort that made men say, “I never knew it was possible for anyone to work that hard,” that effort in which “days meant nothing, nights meant nothing.” Now, in this greatest crisis, Lyndon Johnson, heart attack or no, rose again to that kind of effort. In the early-morning hours the residential districts of Washington and its suburbs were dark and silent, but now, in the night, the silence of a darkened street would be broken by the faint ringing of a telephone in a senator’s house. The senator, picking it up, would hear, “This is Lyndon Johnson.” The persuasion would begin, and it might go on for quite some time. Finally, the call would be over. The senator would go back to bed, to sleep if he could. And on another street, in another senator’s home, the phone would ring.

Try though he did, however, it appeared, as July drew to a close, that he wasn’t going to win. On Friday, July 26, the lines had stiffened dramatically. That morning, there had been a meeting of the Southern Caucus in Georgia Senator Richard Russell’s office, and around the huge mahogany table that morning there weren’t many smiles. Emerging from the meeting, Russell told Bill White of the New York Times that the Caucus had decided to support the jury trial amendment “to the end.” If the amendment was defeated, Russell said, the southerners would fight the complete bill “with every resource open to us.” In his article the next day, White explained the meaning of Russell’s phrases. “He meant that [if the amendment was defeated] the southerners would put in the most implacable filibuster of which they were capable.”

Johnson flew to Texas late that Friday, but during his weekend on the ranch, he received another blow: proof that he had underestimated the depth of organized labor’s commitment to civil rights. He had been hoping that labor would be enticed into support of the amendment by the extension of its jury trial guarantee to unions, but on Saturday, July 27, labor began to be heard from, in the form of a letter to Johnson from James B. Carey, president of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. The amendment, Carey wrote, “would prevent effective enforcement of the right to vote.

“The issue must be faced squarely,” Carey said. “We can have either the right to vote or trial by jury for contempt. We cannot have both.” And he said, “Labor will not barter away effective protection of the right of a Negro to register and vote” just to obtain gains for itself.


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