Jack Colwell: LBJ was a big man when it came to civil rights
Thursday, September 15, 2016 10:38 AM
SOUTH BEND – President Lyndon B. Johnson was a big man, 6-foot-4 and heavy-set, very heavy. I know. He once stepped on my foot. Accidental. Not because of anything I wrote. Happened as he toured devastation in Elkhart County from the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes. Secret service agents kept pushing me along right beside the president, either because he wanted the interview or because I provided a nice shield.
LBJ was a big man also in presidential accomplishments, especially in civil rights, although he was diminished in stature by the war in Vietnam, one he couldn’t win but couldn’t figure out how to escape without being branded a loser. He didn’t escape and was branded a loser, leaving office with such low voter approval that he declined to seek another term.
Last weekend, while in Austin, Texas, for a football game, exciting but featuring a seemingly defenseless Notre Dame team, I toured the LBJ Presidential Library and the nearby LBJ ranch, now a national park. While his foibles and problems with Vietnam weren’t neglected in the presentations, it was the focus on the persuasive power of Johnson to get things done in Congress, including passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, that was of special interest to me.
One reason was that I had just read in the new book about Notre Dame’s Theodore M. Hesburgh, “Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh,” by Robert Schmuhl, of admiration the long-time Notre Dame president and key member of the Civil Rights Commission had for Johnson’s determination to push through that 1964 act, despite the odds and political dangers.
The commission’s recommendations for finally dealing with so many of the continued inequalities from slavery never were pushed for passage by President Kennedy. Too risky. Danger of losing support in what then was a Democratic “Solid South.”
Johnson, a southerner, took on the task of passing the Civil Rights Act as a top and personal goal. He did it in the way he knew best in dealing with Congress. Pressure. Unrelenting. And not exactly with tactics that Father Hesburgh, as a priest, would recommend. As also a realist, Hesburgh knew it was what it took to get reluctant members of Congress to support the act.
The book, citing Hesburgh’s recorded presentation to a class taught by Schmuhl, a Notre Dame professor, relates how Johnson, in Hesburgh’s words, was “ruthless” in “a cause where nobody else could have gotten that law through.”
Hesburgh told of how Johnson would make phone calls, even in early morning hours, to members of Congress such as a senator committed to vote against what Johnson called “my bill.” What would happen, Johnson would ask that senator, if a Washington Post front-page story questioned what the senator was doing in a certain room of the Mayflower Hotel every Saturday night at 9?
The senator, realizing that Johnson, who seemed to know everything about everybody in Washington, could leak devastating information, would say in the example cited by Hesburgh something like, “My God, they will kill me.”
And Johnson would reply, “You got that right. You better vote for my bill.” And hang up.
LBJ persuasion wasn’t all about blackmail. Recorded phone conversations at the LBJ Library let us hear how he played hardball with members of Congress over appropriations. Support “my bill” and I’ll consider that extra appropriation you want for your state.
One recorded conversation was with Sen. Vance Hartke of Indiana, who was endangering passage of a bill Johnson wanted because of special treatment Hartke wanted for musical instruments, then a vital business in Elkhart.
The bill itself is what voters nationally were concerned with, Johnson thundered, not band instruments. Hartke could only get in meekly that the instruments still were a concern in Elkhart.
The LBJ way got things done then wouldn’t work today. Of course, now, no approach seems to get anything done.
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.