|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Lawrence F. O'Brien, President Kennedy's and later President Johnson's chief of liaison with the Congress, recalled it this way:
[Y]ou had a battle on two fronts simultaneously. You had a battle with the conservatives on the committee, the southern Democrats, conservative Republicans, but you had just as tough a battle with the liberals. Their position was the old story of the half loaf or three-quarters of a loaf, and [now they were saying] "we'll settle for nothing less [than the whole loaf.]" . . . We shared their views, and we'd love to do it their way.
We were accused by some of being weak-kneed but, my God, are you going to have meaningful legislation or are you going to sit around for another five or ten years while you play this game? Those liberals sat around saying, "No, we won't accept anything but the strongest possible civil rights bill, and we won't vote for anything less than that." To kill civil rights in that Judiciary Committee was an appalling possibility! And it was not only a possibility, it came darn close to an actuality.
The Kennedy administration had wanted to get past the civil rights fight by the end of 1963, so as not to have the struggle continue into the following election year. That hope had by now gone by the boards, even if the committee reported favorably on the bill, and promptly. It took until November 19 for the measure to make it to the Rules Committee to be scheduled for consideration on the floor of the House. And Rules Committee Chairman Smith was certain to seek ways to stifle the bill first.
But at 12:30 p.m., on a sunny November 22 in Dallas, everything changed.
Jack Valenti, a top aide to Johnson, gave this account of what happened on the night of John Kennedy's assassination:
Twelve hours later, LBJ was in his home in Spring Valley, three trusted friends by his side—the late Cliff Carter, Bill Moyers, and myself. He lay on his huge bed in his pajamas watching television, as the world, holding its breath in anxiety and fear, considered that this alien cowboy was suddenly become the leader of the United States.
That night he ruminated about the days that lay ahead, sketching out what he planned to do, in the almost five hours that we sat there with him. Though none of us who listened realized it at the time, he was revealing the design of the Great Society. He had not yet given it a name, but he knew with stunning precision the mountaintop to which he was going to summon the people.
In his address to the joint session of Congress on November 27, President Johnson gave notice that he wanted quick action on both civil rights and the tax bill:I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this Nation both at home and abroad.
And second, no act of ours could more fittingly continue the work of President Kennedy than the early passage of the tax bill for which he fought all this long year. This is a bill designed to increase our national income and Federal revenues, and to provide insurance against recession. That bill, if passed without delay, means more security for those now working, more jobs for those now without them, and more incentive for our economy.
On November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, Johnson met with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, to talk about the civil rights bill.
"He was asking us if we wanted it, if we would do the things required to be done to get it enacted," Wilkins recalled. "He said he could not enact it himself. He was the President of the United States. He would give it his blessing. He would aid it in any way in which he could lawfully under the Constitution, but that he could not lobby for the bill. And nobody expected him to lobby for the bill, and he didn't think we expected him to lobby for the bill. But in effect he said — and he didn't use these words - 'You have the ball; now run with it.'"
This was Johnsonian hyperbole. Given LBJ's legendary record for "lobbying" members of Congress, the President could only have meant that he couldn't get civil rights passed by himself. In fact the President had been on the phone that same day with the minority leader of the Senate, Everett Dirksen, the Illinois Republican.
"If Congress is to function at all and can't pass a tax bill between January and January, why, we&'re in a hell of a shape. . . . They ought to pass it in a week," Johnson told Dirksen. "Then . . . every businessman in this country would have some confidence. . . . We've got an obligation to the Congress. And we've just got to show that they can do something, because we can't pass civil rights. We know that."
Johnson meant that the southern senators were sure to filibuster against the civil rights bill, and there weren't yet enough votes to shut off the debate.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There was every reason for American forces to invade Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. But that war was botched and lost by the Bush crowd, and Barack Obama does not have a magic wand now to make it all better.
The word is that Mr. Obama will tell the public Tuesday that he is sending another 30,000 or so troops to Afghanistan. And while it is reported that he has some strategy in mind for eventually turning the fight over to the ragtag and less-than-energetic Afghan military, it’s clear that U.S. forces will be engaged for years to come, perhaps many years.
The tougher choice for the president would have been to tell the public that the U.S. is a nation faced with terrible troubles here at home and that it is time to begin winding down a war that veered wildly off track years ago. But that would have taken great political courage. It would have left Mr. Obama vulnerable to the charge of being weak, of cutting and running, of betraying the troops who have already served. The Republicans would have a field day with that scenario.
Lyndon Johnson is heard on the tapes telling Senator Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, about a comment made by a Texas rancher in the days leading up to the buildup in Vietnam. The rancher had told Johnson that the public would forgive the president “for everything except being weak.”
Russell said: “Well, there’s a lot in that. There’s a whole lot in that.”
We still haven’t learned to recognize real strength, which is why it so often seems that the easier choice for a president is to keep the troops marching off to war.