No one was ever more effective at twisting arms to win votes than Lyndon Johnson. But the most important arm he ever twisted, and the most important vote he ever won, belonged to our own Sen. Everett Dirksen.
The Passage of Power is the newly-released fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s neverending LBJ biography. The book’s climactic scene is the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson had inherited the bill from John F. Kennedy, who had been unable to get it past the segregationist Southern politicians who controlled Congress. But Johnson knew how to beat the Southerners at their game, because he’d played it himself. As a junior senator from Texas, he’d been part of the anti-Civil Rights bloc. But in 1964, he was trying to get elected president of a nation that expected a Civil Rights bill.
The bill was the subject of the longest filibuster in Senate history: 57 days. Back then, breaking a filibuster required 67 votes. The Southern states were all represented by Democrats opposed to civil rights, so Johnson was going to need help from the 33 Republican senators. To get that help, he’d need to win over Dirksen, the Senate Minority Leader. (Dirksen is one of Sen. Mark Kirk’s political idols. Last year, Kirk unveiled a portrait of Dirksen in his Washington office.)
Dirksen had promised Kennedy that he would allow a floor vote on the bill, but when it actually arrived in the Senate, he balked. He wanted changes that would have weakened the public accommodations and fair employment sections. But Johnson refused to compromise.
“Now you know that this bill can’t pass unless you get Ev Dirksen,” Johnson told Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the bill’s floor leader. “You and I are going to get Ev…You get in there to see Dirksen! You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”
Humphrey went on Meet the Press, where he praised Dirksen’s statesmanship: “He is a man who thinks of his country before he thinks of his party…and I sincerely believe that when Senator Dirksen has to face the moment of decision where his influence and where his leadership will be required to give us the votes that are necessary to pass this bill, he will not be found wanting.”
Johnson reminded Dirksen that not only did he lead the Party of Lincoln, he represented Lincoln’s home state. Throughout the filibuster, the Capitol was thronged with clergymen, lobbying senators to vote for civil rights. Finally, Dirksen gave in. Johnson allowed him to add a few innocuous amendments, to look as though he’d contributed to the bill. But Dirksen also realized he could not stand in the way of “an idea whose time as come,” as he would tell reporters. As Caro writes:
Dirksen agreed that the time for cloture had arrived. When Johnson telephoned him, the Republican leader said he had told [Georgia Sen. Richard] Russell that morning, “Dick…I think we’ve gone far enough.” He promised to Johnson, “We’ll…see what we can do about procedure to get this thing on the road and buttoned up.”
“You’re worthy of the ‘Land of Lincoln,’” Johnson said. “And the man from Illinois is going to pass the bill, and I’ll see that you get proper attention and credit.”
The cloture motion was approved, 71-29, with 27 of Dirksen’s Republicans voting in favor. It’s been said that the Civil Rights bill completed the work of Abraham Lincoln, but it couldn’t have passed without the support of a Senator from the Land of Lincoln.
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