Lyndon B. Johnson - Unfinished business



What Johnson lacked in Kennedy's urbanity, he made up for in energy so uncommon that one aide credited him with having "extra glands." Despite a severe heart attack in 1955—"the worst a man could have and still live," he liked to tell people—Johnson gave himself unstintingly to his work. Although he climbed into bed for a nap each afternoon, his long hours at his desk—spent mostly on the telephone—topped by his "night reading" left no doubt that he withheld nothing in fulfilling his duties. His desire to be embraced by the people and his constant sense of being unloved drove him to the limit relentlessly as he tried to earn his way into the company of the country's greatest presidents. He was tied to the reputation of Kennedy for his popularity in the beginning, and he struggled to create a devoted following of his own.

The desire to show he was in charge made his first month in office frenetic. From 23 November to 19 December he saw in his office almost seven hundred people alone or in small groups. Possibly to suggest that the new chief executive was economy-minded, the White House let it be known that he went about turning out unused electric lights every night—causing him to be dubbed for a time "Light Bulb Johnson." Still shaken by the circumstances of his own elevation to the presidency, Johnson consulted with Speaker of the House John McCormack of Massachusetts, next in line of succession, regarding any unexpected turnover of the White House.

About fifty pieces of proposed legislation were languishing in congressional committees, but the civil rights bill was the focus of Johnson's labors in the first several months. Its passage as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would thenceforth be the key-stone of Johnson's claim to fame as inheritor and keeper of the urban liberal base of the Democratic party. In seeking support for the bill's passage, he had beseeched Congress on sentimental grounds: "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill." In short order, the bill that Kennedy had prepared had been made stronger by a number of amendments proposed by ardent advocates. The House passed the revised bill on 10 February. In the Senate it met a filibuster by southerners that lasted eighty-three days, ending on 10 June only with the enactment of a cloture resolution. The bill finally became law on 2 July.

Johnson, feeling special responsibility as a southerner, had made the bill's passage a personal crusade. His efforts can only be called Herculean, for he cajoled and pulled strings to round up support from early in the morning to late at night, day after day, week after week. On more than one occasion in the White House, he upbraided opponents or fence-sitters by fairly screaming as he faced them down—often nose-to-nose, "Do you know what it is to be black?"

The act set in place some of the most fundamental social changes in American history. Among its provisions, it forbade discrimination on account of race in places of public accommodation. It contained protection of the right of blacks to vote. It forbade discrimination on account of race or sex by employers and labor unions. Moreover, to help monitor the law's operation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established. To accelerate the desegregation of schools, the new law empowered the attorney general to challenge local discriminatory practices in court.





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