The historian, biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, and author most recently of The Bully Pulpit talked to the Bulletin about the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how presidents, the media and the public change the world.
Q: As a graduate student of government, what did you make of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
A: I had been involved in the March on Washington in 1963. I was with friends carrying a sign, "Protestants, Jews and Catholics for Civil Rights." When that act passed, it was an extraordinary moment for my generation, who felt history was being made.
Photo by Jason Grow
Q: What was Lyndon Johnson's most effective tactic to get the law through Congress?
A: He believed in that law. He once said, "What convinces is conviction." He was passionate. Then, of course, the Johnson treatment was spectacular. He knew every senator. He had big charts, so he knew what everybody wanted and called them regularly. He traded things. He used every skill, every weapon, every charm, every bludgeon.
Q: Why did LBJ urge civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young to pressure Republicans?
A: He understood you have to mobilize from the outside in sometimes to get Congress to act. It was a perfect partnership between the civil rights movement pressuring Congress from the outside in and Johnson from the inside out.
Q: LBJ didn't stop when the Civil Rights Act passed.
A: A great thing about LBJ is he then said, "We're going to work on voting rights next year." Everybody said, "We can't! The country has to absorb the civil rights struggle." He said, "No, voting rights are the meat in the coconut."
Q: I gather from reading The Bully Pulpit that Teddy Roosevelt didn't know the Senate quite as well as Johnson did.
A: Roosevelt's strength was that he understood he would never get anything through the Republican old guard, his party, unless the public pressured Congress. So he mobilized the journalists. He mobilized the public. He went out on the train and gave speeches, and then the public pressured Congress to do something.
Q: So journalists played an important role in the Progressive Era?
A: Journalists were at the forefront. From the Civil War until the early 1900s, nothing was being done to solve the problems of the Industrial Age. You had women and children exploited in factories. You had huge monopolies swallowing up small businesses. You had a huge gap between the rich and the poor and the middle class struggling to survive. Journalists presented the problems as stories. People can absorb stories better than facts. Suddenly, the country was talking about these problems.
Q: And during the civil rights era?
A: The stories were being created by the movement, but journalists had a certain courage to follow some of those stories in the South. The country responded with empathy and understanding. More and more people realized something had to be done.
Q: How do today's journalists compare?
A: Today, hardly any editors would support two years of research the way the great McClure's magazine did so that Ida Tarbell and Ray Baker could write 10,000-word pieces that would come out every month. Even if editors did today, given our fragmented attention, would people read long pieces?
Q: How can we make our government work better?
A: The presidents I've written about were chosen in eras when people cared about public issues. Young people felt that they were part of something larger than themselves. The editor of McClure's said, "In the end, there is no one left but all of us." That's still true today. If I were younger, I would be out there trying to get a constitutional amendment on campaign finance.
Q: One commonality of the Progressive Era, the '60s and today is inequality. What should we learn from earlier times?
A: We were worried about the same thing at the turn of the 20th century as we are now. I don't think the answer is necessarily to go against the rich. America's promise used to be, if you worked hard, you could move up the ladder. That's less true today than it was before. That's what people should be fighting about.
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