LBJ Goes for Broke

LBJ Goes for Broke

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

The only news Johnson received that weekend was bad news. He had waged a spectacular fight, but he was going to lose. All his work, it seemed, had been for nothing.

On Monday and Tuesday, developments appeared to confirm that appraisal. Monday, when Johnson returned from Texas, was bad, with Carey’s letter being read into the record by Pennsylvania Senator Joe Clark, who jeered at Johnson’s attempt to get labor support, with New York Senator Jacob Javits holding the floor for hours, further antagonizing southerners by his manner, and with increasingly bitter squabbling between liberals and southerners.

Tuesday was worse. The day began for Johnson when, still in bed that morning, he came upon a large advertisement in the WashingtonPost. It was “An Open Letter” to “the Senate of the United States,” but it might have been addressed to him personally, so directly did it attack what he had been doing: “It would be better not to pass any civil rights legislation at all than to pass [this] bill. . . . We are in a better position to get justice in civil rights cases under existing laws than we would be if you pass the proposed ‘jury trial’ amendment.” The letter was signed by eighty-one southern liberal leaders.

A column by Murray Kempton published that Tuesday in the New York Post described Lyndon Johnson as “almost the prisoner of the South,” and “with the 20-year dominant coalition between Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans in ruins, Lyndon Johnson’s cupboard is bare. The politicians who count in the Senate today are [California Senator and Minority Leader] William F. Knowland and [Vice President] Richard M. Nixon; and Lyndon Johnson is a state of things whose time is past.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, however, things began to improve. While Lyndon Johnson had been in Texas the previous weekend, the telephone calls from George Reedy had told him that his attempt to woo leaders of organized labor like Carey and Walter Reuther and AFL-CIO President George Meany with a jury trial amendment had apparently failed. That Sunday, however, a dissenting if informal, even offhand, remark had been made by Cyrus Tyree (Cy) Anderson, the rough-spoken, incisive chief Washington lobbyist for the Railway Labor Association—a loose central committee representing twelve railroad unions—to a casual Capitol Hill acquaintance: “Any labor guy who is against jury trials ought to have his head examined.” The acquaintance happened to repeat it to George Reedy Monday morning, and Reedy quoted it in a memorandum he gave to Johnson sometime after Johnson arrived back on Capitol Hill on Monday afternoon. And Johnson acted on it.

No one had thought of the railroad brotherhoods as potential allies—for a very obvious reason: for almost a century they had been fighting against equal rights for black Americans. But Johnson saw why the brotherhoods might be turned into supporters. On Tuesday morning, he telephoned Cy Anderson and asked for support for the jury trial amendment from the twelve brotherhoods— including a formal statement he could use to counter Carey’s.

With his eyes focused on organized labor as a source of support for a jury trial amendment, suddenly Johnson saw more. There was one union to whom the memory of the power of federal court injunctions was especially fresh and bitter: the United Mine Workers. The UMW’s chief counsel was Johnson’s friend Welly Hopkins, and Johnson now telephoned Welly and asked him for a formal statement of support from UMW head John L. Lewis.

Sometime after Johnson had returned to his office from the Senate floor, Lewis’ telegram was shown to him. He returned to the floor. The time was about 5:40. Olin Johnston was droning on. Asking the South Carolinian to yield, Johnson read the telegram, maximizing the impact by implying that it was an unsolicited bolt from the blue. “John L. Lewis had never communicated with me directly or indirectly until 2:48 p.m. today, when he sent me the following telegram,” he said. And even before he came to the floor, Johnson had used the telegram; he “saw to it,” as New York Timeswriter James Reston commented dryly, that it “was brought to [West Virginia Republican Senator Chapman] Revercomb’s attention.” On Lyndon Johnson’s smudged tally sheet, a number was erased from the right side of Revercomb’s name, and a number was written on the left side.

And Matthew Neely’s staff had been contacted, and a message had been sent to Bethesda. The dying West Virginia liberal had promised that he would leave the hospital and come to the Chamber in a wheelchair to cast his vote against the amendment if it was needed. Now that promise was withdrawn. Neely could not bring himself to vote for the amendment, but he said he would not leave the hospital to cast a vote at all. Although only one West Virginia vote would be added to the votes for the amendment, therefore, two were subtracted from the votes against it. The count had been perhaps 53–42 against Johnson before, but it was 51–43 now. He was only eight behind.

The other development that came to fruition that Tuesday was the result of another talent Lyndon Johnson had been displaying during the civil rights fight. It was a talent not merely for persuading men, but for inspiring them.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus