WASHINGTON, May 28, 2017 — Shortly after Lyndon Johnson became president of the United States, he was advised not to waste precious political capital trying to pass President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation. Civil rights was a lost cause, the elder party leaders told him.
LBJ saw things differently. He was determined to get the civil rights bill through Congress, and he knew what he had to do to accomplish that.
LBJ noted that political capital is wasted only by failure. Besides, he said, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Speaking to Congress he said, “We have talked long enough in this country about civil rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the book of laws.” He knew this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.
Because of his meager upbringing in poor rural Texas, LBJ witnessed firsthand how devastating prejudice and unequal human rights can be. He was determined to pass laws ensuring civil rights.
To get both houses of Congress to pass the civil rights bill, Johnson knew he had to make deals. Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King wanted more than LBJ knew he could get through Congress. Still, Johnson persuaded King to support his version of the bill even though it lacked some components that King viewed as essential.
To get the bill through the House of Representatives, Johnson had to get through the House Committee on Rules which was chaired by Howard Smith, a Democrat from Virginia who was strongly opposed to the bill. Smith said, “The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people with equal intelligence … as the white people in the South.”
Eventually, through some presidential arm twisting and Johnson getting House Speaker Sam Rayburn to institute a “21 day rule” requiring introduced bills to be brought to a vote within 21 days of introduction, the bill was passed in the House.
In the Senate, there was another strong bloc of mostly Democratic senators from southern states who were determined to kill the bill. They decided to filibuster. Sixty-seven senators would have to vote to end the filibuster. LBJ had the backing of almost all of the Republican senators, but members of his own Democratic Party, particularly those from the south, including South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, were strongly opposed.
After 54 days, Johnson was able to make deals and eventually got enough votes to end the filibuster. More than 80 percent of Republicans and about 60 percent of Democrats voted for the bill. From the mostly Democratic southern states, fewer than 10 percent of lawmakers supported the bill.
Donald Trump has taken a lesson from President Johnson. Trump says he knows how to make deals and reach compromise to get legislation through Congress, something that President Obama has never learned to do. Few major initiatives have passed Congress during Obama’s tenure, not because Republicans are obstructionists, as Obama says, but because Congress knows that Obama’s proposals are not supported by a majority of Americans and are definitely not supported by the voters who elected them. And Obama won’t deal or compromise.
Some people criticize Trump for changing his views. They say that he is all over the place on major issues. He says one thing one day and something else the next.
That’s exactly what Johnson did to get the civil rights bill through Congress with enough teeth to satisfy Dr. King. Johnson cut bargains that his Democratic Party did not support, something a President Trump would do with Republicans.
There will be bills that Trump knows should be laws and that most people will support. He will make deals with Republicans and Democrats to get enough support to ensure passage, angering and pleasing people on both sides.
After eight years of a president who insisted that things be done his way, by laws if he could get them and by executive action if he could not, the country is ready for a president who can compromise, make deals and pass legislation that benefits America. The country is ready for and needs President Trump. Similarly, Donald Trump knows what to do to get legislation passed.