Home » Archive by category "Johnson"

The Rules Matter…

Director Steven Spielberg’s latest offering – Bridge of Spies – works on several levels as his best films tend to. In fact, it may be one of his very best films.

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan

The movie is a classic big screen thriller with adequate action and suspense. It’s a finely tuned period piece (mid-century modern) complete with old cars, vintage billboards, and “duck and cover” filmstrips.

Bridge of Spies is also an actor’s movie with superb performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, perhaps the world’s most acclaimed stage actor, and a talent that will be new to many movie goers.

And since this is Spielberg, the film is also an American history lesson.

When the Cold War Was Really Cold…

Hanks, who seems to hit his stride when working with Spielberg, plays New York attorney, James B. Donovan, who improbably becomes the key player in arranging a celebrated Cold War prisoner swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action is set at the end of the Eisenhower Administration and continues on into the Kennedy years – days of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and spy versus spy.

The key figures in the prisoner swap – again all true – were the young American Air Force lieutenant Francis Gary Powers, who is appropriated to fly spy planes for the CIA, and the notorious Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel.

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962

Powers became a Soviet prisoner in May 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down in the Ural Mountain region of the Soviet Union during a photography run. Powers survived the crash – great scene in the movie – and was captured by the KGB.

The Eisenhower Administration originally tried to pass off the incident as a wayward weather aircraft, but the Soviets produced wreckage of the super-secret U-2 and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reaped an international propaganda windfall. A summit meeting in Berlin was cancelled and efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations were temporarily derailed. It was a major international incident that also had the human dimension of a young American with a head full of secrets about U.S. spy activities sitting in a Russian jail.

Earlier, in 1957, after a long string of events that read, appropriately enough, like something out of John Le Carre, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service identified Colonel Abel as a Soviet spy who had been operating in the United States for some time. Abel was arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. The New York lawyer, Donovan, was appointed by the federal court in New York to defend him.

The film mangles some of the timeline and a few things are invented out of whole cloth – this is Hollywood after all – but the real power of the story and its great relevance today is in the courtroom scenes where Abel is first convicted and then loses an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

After seeing and completely enjoying the film, I got to wondering what really happened in the U.S. justice system during the height of the Cold War when the government tried a man thought to be a Soviet spy.

Does a Soviet Spy Deserve Due Process…

The film understandably compresses a good deal of the story, which played out over several years, but makes some powerful and important points in the telling.

A basic question is raised early on when attorney Donovan (played by Hanks) has to confront the dilemma of an upstanding attorney, a pillar of the New York Bar, signing on to do his best to defend a Russian spy. What are the implications for his career, his law firm, his family? I immediately thought about the private attorneys who continue to represent Guantanamo detained terror suspects.

The real Rudolf Abel

The real Rudolf Abel

The film makes us confront whether it is merely enough to give Abel a defense that goes through the motions of due process or whether he deserves a no-holds-barred defense, including appeals on grounds that his hotel room and apartment were improperly searched.

At one point a CIA operative shadows Donovan in order to question him about what his client has been saying. Donovan, in one of the film’s best moments, tells the CIA fellow that he won’t – indeed can’t – talk about what his client is telling him since it is protected by attorney-client privilege. There are rules, Donovan says, most importantly the Constitution that make our system different than the system that is detaining Gary Powers.

Abel’s case, both in the film and real life, eventually reaches the Supreme Court over the question of the lack of a proper warrant that specifically authorizes a search the defendant’s rooms. Give Spielberg credit, he even gets the Supreme Court courtroom correct. Abel’s case was argued, actually twice, in 1959 and the courtroom has since been remodeled.

The case turned on a complex question about whether a warrant for an “administrative arrest” – Abel was actually arrested by the immigration service after being detained and questioned by the FBI – allowed the subsequent FBI search of his rooms. The celebrated Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the rather technical 5-4-majority opinion upholding the legality of the search and Abel’s conviction stood.

This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant…

As is often the case, the dissents in such cases make for better reading and offer more insight into the workings of our justice system. Justice William O. Douglas wrote one of the dissents in the Abel case and Justice William J. Brennan another.

Mr.  Justice Douglas

Mr. Justice Douglas

“Cases of notorious criminals—like cases of small, miserable ones—are apt to make bad law,” Douglas wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Justice Hugo Black.

“When guilt permeates a record, even judges sometimes relax and let the police take shortcuts not sanctioned by constitutional procedures. That practice, in certain periods of our history and in certain courts, has lowered our standards of law administration. The harm in the given case may seem excusable. But the practices generated by the precedent have far-reaching consequences that are harmful and injurious beyond measurement. The present decision is an excellent example.”

Douglas was saying sure this Abel is a Soviet spy – a notorious criminal – but the rules apply to him just as they apply to “small, miserable” law breakers.

“If the F.B.I. agents had gone to a magistrate, any search warrant issued would by terms of the Fourth Amendment have to ‘particularly’ describe ‘the place to be searched’ and the ‘things to be seized,’” Douglas wrote. “How much more convenient it is for the police to find a way around those specific requirements of the Fourth Amendment! What a hindrance it is to work laboriously through constitutional procedures! How much easier to go to another official in the same department! The administrative officer can give a warrant good for unlimited search. No more showing of probable cause to a magistrate! No more limitations on what may be searched and when!”

Brennan was just as pointed: “This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant. Yet we must take care to enforce the Constitution without regard to the nature of the crime or the nature of the criminal. The Fourth Amendment protects ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ This right is a basic one of all the people, without exception…”

Real American Exceptionalism…

The court case and the film also make the fundamental point that Abel, not a U.S. citizen, still enjoyed the full protections of the country’s justice system, a point worth pondering as the terror suspects sit year after year in Cuba.

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated return of Bay of Pigs captives

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated the return of Bay of Pigs captives

Rudolf Abel languished in U.S. prisons until early 1962 when the Donovan-brokered exchange took place on a bridge dividing East and West Berlin. That bridge gives the film its title. The New York attorney was publicly acknowledge by the Kennedy Administration as having helped make the arrangements.

The negotiations over the swap are some of the best moments of the film and, intentionally or not, Spielberg shows that the New York insurance lawyer who became an Cold War negotiator turned out to be a lot better high stakes deal maker than his CIA minders.

The film is already getting some Oscar buzz – it is certainly worthy – if only for its deft storytelling and the great performances. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Rudolf Abel is nothing short of brilliant. And the script by the Cohen Brothers is first rate. A typical Cohen touch is the reoccurrence of Abel’s response when his lawyer asks him if he’s worried or afraid: “Would it help?” That has become my new mantra.

As good as the movie is as entertainment here’s hoping a few enterprising high school (or college) teachers use the film in class to make the more important points about our justice system and our history.

The hero in the film is, of course, attorney Donovan, a man mostly lost to history whose role in Abel’s trial and in the spy swap may now finally enjoy some long overdue recognition. Donovan, who died in 1970, spent years working on the Russian spy’s defense and appeals and donated half his $10,000 fee to Fordham University and split the rest between Harvard and Columbia. Setting aside the Abel case and the spy swap, the rest of Donovan’s career – naval officer, Nuremberg prosecutor, New York board of education member, U.S. Senate candidate – was truly incredible. A great American story.

Even though he lost at every level Donovan said after the Supreme Court ruling, “The very fact that Abel has been receiving due process of law in the United States is far more significant, both here and behind the Iron Curtain, than the particular outcome of the case.”

That one sentence says a lot about why we won the Cold War.


Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

– – – – –

Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.


Selma: The Movie, The History

The Movie…

If you haven’t seen the Oscar-nominated film Selma you should. While mostly snubbed by those whoSelma decide which of Hollywood’s features are deemed worthy of acclaim, the film is worthy of much acclaim, and is a stunning and passionate look at recent American history. Given the country’s continuing struggle to reconcile its aspirations regarding equality with its history of racism and hatred, Selma presents a part of our history that must be remembered and understood, celebrated and mourned.

Like all films that set out to depict real events Selma has historical problems. More on that in a minute. Yet even with these not insignificant problems, the portrayal of events leading up to the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama early in 1965, even when we know the outcome, makes for gripping viewing. Because of the realism displayed in the film to illustrate the hatred and gut wrenching violence deployed against peaceful protestors Selma is also at times difficult to watch.

Director Ava Duvernay was correct, I think, to put Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the center of her important film. KingHistory tells us, of course, that as important as King’s role was in leading his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a series of protests across the American South in the 1960’s, many, many others played key roles in advancing the cause of civil rights. Still it is impossible not to come away from Selma viewing King as a great and transcendent moral force, indeed a genuine American hero. Thanks to the multi-dimensional character that British actor David Oyelowo develops on the big screen, King becomes as vital for us as he became for his followers in those hard times a half century ago. It is difficult to understand how Oyelowo was passed over for a Best Actor nomination. He deserves it.

I wondered as I watched the brutal scenes where peaceful African-American protestors are set upon by nightstick and horse whip armed Alabama state troopers wearing gas masks, if a whole new generation of Americans might come to understand, thanks to Selma, the unbelievable courage and determination shown by Americans who were merely seeking the right to vote. History fifty years old might as well be ancient history for many Americans and seeing the brutality and the blood in color on the big screen cannot help but underscore the reality of racism and hatred better than the old grainy black and white television film most of us have seen in documentaries.

Selma is a stunning reminder of where we came from, how far we have come and, unfortunately, how very far we still must go. Go see it and take someone under 35 years old with you.

The History…

I admit to being initially put off by the lack of political nuance in the film, not to mention the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, but after reading and digesting much of the criticism and praise of Selma I find myself in agreement with Darryl Pinckney who wrote in the New York Review of Books: “A film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one, can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the US is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument.”

Perhaps it’s naïve on my part, but I harbor hope that the controversy about the movie, particularly the treatment of Johnson and the virtual absence of acknowledgement of the role congressional and presidential politics played in passage of the Voting Rights Act, will stimulate a greater understanding of the confluence of hatred, protest, violence, politics, bipartisanship, racism and religion that marked the eventual passage of the landmark legislation fifty years ago.

Every film, I guess, needs a villain and Selma has several. I would be personally more comfortable if the j-edgar-hoover-240-400x295filmmakers had cast J. Edgar Hoover, the long-time and truly despicable director of the FBI, as an even greater villain. Hoover deserves that treatment more than Johnson for, as LBJ’s one-time press secretary Bill Moyers has noted, “There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal [in the film] that is the worst kind of creative license because it suggests the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the ‘sex tape’ to Coretta King.”

Moyers refers, of course, to the notorious audio tape made by the FBI and sent to King in an effort to threaten him and, Hoover hoped, drive King from leadership of the civil rights movement. As Moyer says, “some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced” the charge that Johnson had anything to do with the tape. “And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him,” Moyers said recently.

The film also overplays Johnson’s opposition to the Selma march. In fact, Johnson understood as well as King that very public displays of protest would be needed to create the right kind of political LBJ-MLKenvironment in Washington, D.C. to pass voting rights legislation in 1965, particularly in the wake of the historic passage of civil rights legislation just a few months earlier. When Johnson, along with the rest of the country, saw the brutality in Alabama he realized the political moment had arrived and went to Congress quickly to insist on action.

This scene amounts to the climax of the film and disappointingly much of the drama of those moments is lost on the screen. The staging is all wrong for anyone who knows the history. Johnson spoke in the packed chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives where everyone from the members of the Lyndon Johnson, John McCormack, Carl HaydenSupreme Court to racist southern Democrats expected to hear an historic speech. They were not disappointed. Perhaps it was impossible to film this critical moment of the story where it actually took place, but for whatever reason Johnson’s speech in the film has little of the power it had at the time. It is reported that King, who was watching on television, wept – some of his followers said they had never seen that before – when Johnson adopted the slogan of the movement and vowed “we shall overcome.”

Additionally, Johnson was passionate and animated during that speech, not droll and understated as the usually excellent actor Tom Wilkinson plays the scene in Selma.

Still it is asking too much for one film, even a really fine one, to capture the full story of a tremendous turning point in American political history. If the film succeeds in further explaining and underscoringyoungjohnlewis the role King and his devoted followers – men like Georgia Congressman John Lewis who was nearly killed during the march – played in advancing the cause of civil rights, then that is an artistic accomplishment to be praised and awarded by audiences and by Hollywood.

However, amid the quibbles over historical details and the nit-picks over interpretation it is up to the rest of us to appreciate – and try to recreate in our own time – the enduring political lessons of Selma and the civil rights era. As the historian Julian Zelizer has so ably documented in his terrific new book The Fierce Urgency of Now, many different and sometimes conflicting strands came together in 1964 and 1965 to move the nation and the cause of civil rights forward. King and other civil rights leaders bravely dramatized the racism and hatred afoot in the country and made the cause of civil rights a moral and religious issue. The tragedy of John Kennedy’s assassination gave the cause new power in the hands of a determined new president. Johnson’s stunning landslide win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act passed just before election) gave Johnson a great issue and both greater political and moral authority to create laws. Just as important, the 1964 election created a huge Democratic majority in Congress that LBJ mobilized as a master political strategist. Northern Republicans, particularly Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Representative Charles Halleck of Indiana, embraced civil rights and worked across the partisan divide to pass vital legislation. And organized labor, many in the business community and Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations joined the fight at the grassroots. The world was watching and much of the country did come together at an historic moment.

Our history tells us that political and cultural change happens slowly; sometimes so slowly that painful and tragic events precede the needed change. Change almost always involves work from the bottom up and the top down. And change that bends that arc of history toward justice usually means people and politicians must abandon old ways and grow and change. Once he reached the White House, Lyndon Johnson ceased to become a southern politician trapped by the old ways and attitudes of his region. He grew. Dirksen, Halleck and other Republicans saw beyond narrow, conservative interpretations of what the federal government might do. They grew. One has the sense that Martin Luther King was growing, as well. By the time of his death King’s agenda was still centered on civil rights, but had expanded his moral leadership to oppose misguided U.S. foreign policy and embrace a fairer economic policy.

At its best the film and the history reminds us of the long, twilight struggle for racial equality that has been a fixture of the country since its very beginning and that the struggle goes on. It also reminds us of what brave and determined individuals can do to correct injustice as well as what is possible when the people and their politicians are courageous enough to change. There is also much to celebrate in the fact that such a film was made by a supremely gifted African-American woman.

img_vr_373Selma also reminds us that fifty years on the right to vote in the United States is still a controversial issue. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 gutted key parts of the Voting Rights Act’s “pre-clearance” provision that mandated that states with a history of voting rights abuses receive Justice Department approval before changing their laws. The Congress shows no sign of pushing back on that unfortunate decision.

As the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School recently reported: “Increased single-party control in state capitals has accompanied a renewed push for voting restrictions. There are strong pushes for strict photo ID requirements in some Republican-led states, including in places where laws were struck down by state courts. This year, the courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — are again poised to rule on voter ID and other election laws. Courts failed to block a number of restrictive laws last year, and without clear limits, states appear ready to move forward with harsh new measures.”

The film, our history and our current condition remind us both of where we have been and where we still need to go. Go see Selma.


Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

First Draft

wicker_s160x162My closest personal connection to the events of this day 50 years ago were the few hours I spent more than 30 years ago with the reporter who literally wrote the first draft of history.

Tom Wicker was a southern liberal, born and educated in North Carolina and passionate about civil rights and civil liberties. He also early on developed the ability to write eloquent, piercing, streamlined prose and he just happened to be assigned to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Wicker was 37 that day, a hardworking, but little known backbencher in the New York Times Washington bureau. It fell to him to write a story about an event that is still making news.

Wicker called the copy desk at the Times from a downtown Dallas pay phone – some of you may remember pay phones – and dictated his most famous story from notes scribbled on a copy of the official White House schedule for that fateful Friday. Every reporter wonders if they’ll be up to the task of describing a tragedy and a few find out. His voice breaking with emotion, Wicker dictated his lead:

Dallas, Nov. 22–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.

Only twelve words in the first paragraph of Wicker’s story. In fact four of the first five graphs of Wicker’s story was but a sentence long. Here they are:

He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.

Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.

Mr. Johnson is 55 years old; Mr. Kennedy was 46.

Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, who once defected to the Soviet Union and who has been active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing.

In those five, sparse paragraphs you really have the complete essence of what we remember from Dallas half a century ago. No word is out of place or unnecessary. With so much drama and tragedy and with so little time it would have been easy to overwrite, but Wicker didn’t succumb. That first draft of history from Dallas is simply a first-class piece of reporting created under the most awful and demanding circumstances.

Tom Wicker went on to become one of the most respected and important journalists of the post-war period. He covered presidents, and held them to a high standard, from Kennedy to Carter, wrote 20 books, went inside the prison at Attica, New York during a riot that eventually claimed 39 lives, and made Nixon’s “enemies list.” He never had a bigger story than his story 50 years ago today.

Wicker came to Idaho in the late 1970’s as a guest of the Idaho Press Club. I was an officer in the organization all those years ago, had a drink with him, talked shop, had him sign a couple of books and was too shy – or maybe too naive – to ask him about the Dallas story. Only later did I realize what a masterpiece he crafted on that awful day. With all we know about that day, with all the pictures and books, the conspiracy theories and the what-might-have-beens, Tom Wicker’s first draft remains hauntingly moving and overflowing with sadness. It is a timeless piece of writerly craftsmanship.

Wicker brilliantly chose to end his Dallas story with four paragraphs devoted to the speech John Kennedy was to have delivered, but never did on November 22:

The speech Mr. Kennedy never delivered at the Merchandise Mart luncheon contained a passage commenting on a recent preoccupation of his, and a subject of much interest in this city, where right-wing conservatism is the rule rather than the exception.

Voices are being heard in the land, he said, “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.”

The speech went on: “At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”

For the People

lincoln_abrahamOne reason, I think, so much has been made of the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 is the pervasive sense of political longing for a time when, whether true or not, it seemed almost anything was possible.

Put a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960’s and return him safely to Earth – no problem. Create a Peace Corps and send idealistic young Americans to the world’s poorest nations to deal with hunger, disease and ignorance – done. Reach real arms control agreements that dramatically reduce the threat of nuclear war – possible and likely.

University of Virginia political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato is correct, as his new book The Kennedy Half Century makes clear, that the martyred young president – his style, rhetoric and easy optimism – has had more impact on American politics since his death than anyone else in the last half century. Arguably Kennedy’s 1,000 days lacked enduring accomplishment. His deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis notwithstanding, there is little in JFK’s abbreviated first term to suggest real presidential greatness, yet many Americans regard him as the best president since Franklin Roosevelt. That cannot entirely be written off to the glamour of Camelot.

And before there was November 22, 1963 there was November 19, 1863 – Kennedy’s death and Abraham Lincoln’s great speech at Gettysburg separated by almost exactly 100 years, but at the same time the presidencies of the two great martyred chief executives united in a way by what seems to me a hunger for what we might call a politics of meaning.

A brilliant Washington Post essay by Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust recently asked if our government “by the people and for the people” is truly alive and well in the United States. Faust reminds us that Lincoln used his his taut, elegant and enduring speech 150 years ago tomorrow to call on his constituents to “persevere in the ‘unfinished work’ before them.”

Another fearful year and a half of war lay ahead, with yet again as many deaths to come,” Faust wrote. “But Appomattox would not end the work he envisioned. It was the obligations of freedom and nationhood as well as those of war that he urged upon his audience. Seizing the full meaning of liberty and equality still lay ahead.”

Lincoln knew that the awful war had to result in something better, something greater or else all the blood and treasure lost and never recovered would surely condemn the still youthful American experiment to failure. Lincoln used the rhetoric of his presidency, as John Kennedy did a century leter, to summon the country to something greater, something bigger than mere partisan politics.

Is There More than Partisanship…

There is no doubt that Kennedy was late to the struggle for civil rights for black Americans and only came fully to what he eventually termed “a moral issue” after the protests in Birmingham and elsewhere turned ugly and violence. In his now justly celebrated speech in June of 1963 where Kennedy called on Congress to pass civil rights legislation the young president made the issue bigger than partisanship or even politics.

“This is not a sectional issue,” Kennedy said. “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics…we are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”

Near the end of his nationally televised civil rights speech Kennedy began remarkably to ad lib and in doing so his words became even more urgent, summoning images that still haunt America 50 years later.

“Today, there are Negros unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites,” Kennedy said, “inadequate education, moving into the larger cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or a lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents of Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.”

As he had in his first speech as president, Kennedy was calling the country in 1963 to live out its potential and to not merely be content to act as though it were fulfilling its highest moral and legal obligations. Lincoln repeatedly did the same during the Civil War reminding Americans that in their country they did possess the “best hope” on Earth for a better way to live.

“These are responsibilities that belong to us still,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in the Post. “Yet on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal speech, where is our stewardship of that legacy? After beginning a new fiscal year by shutting down the government, we are far from modeling to the world why our — or any — democracy should be viewed as the ‘best hope’ for humankind. The world sees in the United States the rapid growth of inequality; the erosion of educational opportunity and social mobility that ‘afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life’; the weakening of voting rights hard-won over a century of post-Reconstruction struggle.”

The Politics of the Short-Term…

Where indeed is the high public purpose in the politics of either of today’s major political parties; parties that are almost entirely focused on short-term tactical approaches designed only to address the next election cycle. With President Obama hopelessly bogged down in health care problems largely of his own making and, so far in his second term, failing to call the country to sustained action of anything the not-s0-loyal minority counters by offering, well, nothing.

“What we have done so far this year clearly hasn’t worked,” a GOP aide involved in 2014 planning sessions for House Republicans recently told Politico. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican aide said, “wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”

We remember our martyred presidents not just because awful fate took them at the zenith of their power, poised on the cusp of leading us forward, but because they seemed able to give meaning to a greater cause, while urging a nation and its people to a higher calling.

Aspiration and a call to greatness are largely missing from public life today and therefore it is little wonder so many Americans long for leadership – the leadership of a Lincoln or a Kennedy – that is able to give real meaning to our politics; a kind of meaning where the “better angels of our nature” are summoned to do not for ourselves but for our country.


Who Did It?

john-f-kennedy-portrait-photo-1You would have to be living in a cave (without an Internet connection) in order to miss the avalanche of books, television specials and other commemorations during the run up to the 50th anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

Anyone alive then – I was ten years old – holds their own searing memories of that fateful Friday in November and the awful days that followed. Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the death on CBS, Kennedy’s casket arriving back in Washington, Lyndon Johnson on the tarmac asking for God’s help, the alleged lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed on live television, the riderless horse, the funeral, Jackie and the children and the eternal flame. The images replay as if they are impressed on a hard drive in the brain.

Still, as several news books explore, the question remains – who did it? And why 50 years later do so many Americans reject the unanimous findings of the Warren Commission that the inconsequential Oswald acted alone?

As University of Miami political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, authors of a forthcoming book on the American infatuation with conspiracy theories, pointed out in a recent New York Times essay: “Conspiracy theories ignite when motive meets opportunity.  For reasons we mostly attribute to socialization, some individuals tend to see the world more through a conspiratorial lens than others.  We can think of this predisposition as a strong bias against powerful disliked actors that is not caused by partisanship, stupidity or psychopathology.  In fact, people disposed to see conspiracies are just as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, and appear just as likely to be lauded (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) as reviled (e.g. Joseph McCarthy).”

Still Uscinski and Parent note that Kennedy conspiracies are different, principally because so many people disbelieve the Warren Commission’s findings. “Polls find that between 60 and 80 percent of Americans reject the idea that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone,” they write. “In fact, more Americans believe that a shadowy conspiracy was behind a president’s death 50 years ago than know who Joe Biden is.  Why are Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories so popular?  The distinguishing feature of a successful conspiracy theory is power, and the Kennedy assassination has that in spades. The victim was an American president and the potential villains include actors of immense reach and influence.  There are so many accused conspirators that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, can find a detested powerful actor to blame. For those on the right there is Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union; for the left there is Lyndon Johnson, defense contractors  and the military. And this is only a partial list.”

On the far left is filmmaker Oliver Stone whose 1991 film JFK is truly the conspiracy film of all conspiracy films. Stone’s movie – a rich broth of conspiracy details for many and a messy jumble for the rest of us – focuses on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison whose life’s work became his own investigation of the assassination. I listened to a recent interview with Stone and then read the transcript of that interview and couldn’t make sense of who he ultimately believes engaged in the vast conspiracy to assassinate an American president. Let’s just say, from his point of view, that “people high up in the government did it.” For his part Garrison thought right wing elements in the CIA were responsible.

Oliver Stone strikes me as right out of central casting as the chief proponent of a conspiracy – very articulate, with a wide command of facts, at least his facts, and the ability to tease out one little bit of information and weave it into a vast garment of unthinkable conspiracy. He is, of course, not alone. Just Google “JFK murder theories” and you’ll generate more than 700,000 hits.

Typically I can be as cynical as the next guy about much that any government is capable of doing, but I confess to having long ago concluded that the otherwise completely distinguished former Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, a future president of the United States Gerald Ford, a fine and respected Congressman Hale Boggs and two United States Senators – Richard Russell and John Sherman Cooper – both known for their independence, simply could not have cooked up a massive cover-up.

To be certain the Warren Commission acted quickly and left much to second guess, but the question of who killed JFK comes down, for me at least, to an Occam’s Razor calculation, the ancient theory that is sometimes boiled down to “the simplest explanation is usually correct.” Sir Isaac Newton said it a bit more eloquently: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

Oswald had the weapon, the opportunity and the motive. All of that was well documented by the Warren Commission and others. Oswald also seems to fit well into the American gallery of losers who have historically perpetrated, or attempted, political murder. He is of a type with the outcasts and malcontents who killed Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley and tried to assassinate Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Given evidence of the means, the motive and the opportunity Perry Mason could close this case in one episode, but the real problem I suspect for many of us with John Kennedy’s murder is the issue highlighted by historian Robert Dallek in what is still the best and most definitive biography of JFK.

“The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people,” Dallek wrote in An Unfinished Life his 2003 biography of Kennedy. “The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential – as powerful and well guarded – as Kennedy. To accept that an act of random violence by an obscure malcontent could bring down a president of the United States is to acknowledge a chaotic, disorderly world that frightens most Americans. Believing that Oswald killed Kennedy is to concede, as New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said, ‘that in this life there is often tragedy without reason.'”

The Kennedy tragedy is, of course, the senseless murder of a young and promising man in the prime of his life, a young man with big plans, but our collective tragedy is also the 50 years of what might have been. Given a second term would John Kennedy have become a great president and not merely a popular one? Would Vietnam, arms control, civil rights and a sense of national purpose been different had he lived? These are the imponderable questions we still ponder after half a century. In an odd way, given the imponderables, a conspiracy seems a more satisfying explanation for such a tragedy rather than placing blame for all the lost possibility at the feet of the little man who grandly told Dallas police he wasn’t just a Communist, but a Marxist. If John Kennedy had to die in such a way, so many of us seem to think, it must have been part of some grand and ugly plot and not the lonely, awful work of a loser like Lee Oswald.

“He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” Jackie Kennedy said of her husband. “It had to be some silly little Communist.” In life there is often tragedy without reason. And 50 years on we still wonder.

So Much and So Little Has Changed

march-on-washingtonThere must be some cosmic significance (or perhaps the gods of politics are just into irony) that the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington in August of 1963 is being celebrated at the same time that the United States Justice Department is suing the great state of Texas over changes in voting rules that could well prevent minority voters from casting ballots.

The great theme in all the coverage leading up to the actual anniversary of the March and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarkable “I Have a Dream Speech” has been the phrase, “we have come so far and we still have work to do.”

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was with King that day 50 years ago, told an Atlanta television station, “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we must continue to go forward and we must never ever become bitter or hostile, we must continue to walk with peace, love and nonviolence to create a truly multiracial democratic society. Our country is a better country and we are a better people. The signs that I saw before making it to Washington, they’re gone and they will not return, and the only places our children will see those signs will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. So when people say nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis said.

The Congressman then adds that Dr. King would tell us we still have work to do. Indeed, America, we still have work to do.

Losing Ground

The Pew Research Center’s recent study on “Race in America” helps measure just how much work remains. Among the findings in the Pew study: Fewer than 50% of Americans believe the country has made substantial progress in the direction of racial equality since Dr. King envisioned the day when his “four little children” would live in nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” About half of those surveyed said a “lot more needs to be done” to create a truly color blind society.

What is perhaps most discouraging in the Pew study is the retreat – not the forward progress – that has taken place on key measures over the last 20-plus years. For example, the gaps between whites and blacks on measures like median income and total household income have actually grown in that period when measured in 2012 dollars. Put another way, there is work to be done to get back to where the country stood in 1980. There’s more. Black Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in poverty and black home ownership is 60% of that for whites. Black rates of marriage are lower and out-of-wedlock births higher than for whites.

It is hard to look at all these numbers and wonder why John Lewis maintains his optimism until one remembers that he was nearly killed marching for voting rights in Alabama in 1965. He’s the first to say that such politically motivated violence has – mostly – disappeared in America. What hasn’t disappeared, it would seem, are efforts to make it more difficult for people of color, poor people and the elderly to vote and participate in a meaningful way in our politics. Texas is currently ground zero in this debate since the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out the requirement that Texas and other mostly southern states need to gain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before changing election laws.

Texas hardly waited until the ink was dry on Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion wiping out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before implementing a new voter ID law that many observers believe will make it more difficult for some folks – minorities, the poor and the elderly – to vote. Texas is also going forward with a redistricting plan that many believe is stacked against minority voters.

In announcing the Texas lawsuit Attorney General Eric Holder said: “The Department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs. We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. We are determined to use all available authorities, including remaining sections of the Voting Rights Act, to guard against discrimination and, where appropriate, to ask federal courts to require preclearance of new voting changes. This represents the Department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”

The political reaction in Texas was predictable as Politico reported. “The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama,” said Gov. Rick Perry. “We will continue to defend the integrity of our elections against this administration’s blatant disregard for the 10th Amendment.”

“Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas and a lame-duck administration trying to turn our state blue,” Sen. John Cornyn said. “As Texans we reject the notion that the federal government knows what’s best for us. We deserve the freedom to make our own laws and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points.”

Consider this tidbit from the earlier mentioned Pew survey. “Participation rates for blacks in presidential elections has lagged behind those of whites for most of the past half century but has been rising since 1996. Buoyed by the historic candidacies of Barack Obama, blacks nearly caught up with whites in 2008 and surpassed them in 2012, when 67% of eligible blacks cast ballots, compared with 64% of eligible whites.” We know, of course, that blacks tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The black vote was critical in both Obama’s elections for the White House and helped turn once solidly Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina competitive for a Democratic presidential candidate. Many experts think Texas is next, but only if the fast growing African-American and Latino voters in Texas have a chance to vote in growing numbers.

The More Things Change

In 1949, a young United States Senator from Texas made his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate defending the southern use of the filibuster to turn back all manner of civil rights legislation. In that maiden speech the young senator talked about federal legislation to outlaw the poll tax, which was of course in an earlier day designed to keep blacks from voting, when he said such heavy handed government intrusion was “wholly unconstitutional and violate[s] the rights of the States.” The south, the senator said, certainly didn’t discriminate, these things were being handled and whats more the south really didn’t appreciate the federal government interfering with its business. State’s rights and all that.

It’s almost as if Lyndon Johnson in 1949 could have been writing Rick Perry’s press releases in 2013. Johnson, famously and historically, changed over time and signed the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Still, from 1949 to 2013, the similarity of the political rhetoric from the young Lyndon to the blow-dried Rick Perry is stunning. Neither one talks about race, but it is all about race.

Under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” There is nothing in that amendment about “sovereign states” or that states “deserve the freedom to make” their own laws. The amendment is not ambiguous. It doesn’t require a lot of analysis. The words speak for themselves. The Voting Rights Act was the means Congress chose in 1965 to enforce the amendment until the Court’s recent ruling. So much has changed and yet so little has changed.

For much longer than a century the basic act of citizenship – the right to vote – was systematically denied millions of citizens. If we consider nothing else as we mark the anniversary of that historic March on a hot August day 50 years ago, we would be wise to consider, with all the work that remains to be done to “perfect” our Union, that we cannot tolerate policies and politics that actually cause black Americans to lose hard fought ground; ground we should all be proud we have gained since that great March.


Judicial Radicals

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhen Lyndon Johnson finally decided to double-down on civil rights legislation in 1965 and push for a federal voting rights act he began the political effort by delivering one of his most eloquent and important speeches.

Having already conceded that passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would cause his Democratic Party to lose the south for a generation – a prediction that has turned out to be way too modest – Johnson, the former Congressman and Senator from Texas, did what politicians too rarely do. He appealed to Americans to live up to their proud ideals and then he put the power of his presidency behind voting rights for all Americans.

“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult,” Johnson said in a television speech on the evening of March 15, 1965. “But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Congress debated Johnson’s proposed legislation throughout the summer of ’65 with both the president and the Democratic leaders of Congress knowing that Republican votes were essential to passage since southern Democrats were almost to a man opposed to a federal voting rights act (VRA). Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois is a political hero for his role in securing passage of the historic legislation. In a striking parallel to the dilemma national Republicans face today over immigration legislation, Dirksen realized in 1965 that the stakes were enormous for the GOP if it failed to secure passage of a law to help African-Americans gain full citizenship.

“This involves more than you,” Dirksen told one of his colleagues, as recounted in Neil MacNeil’s wonderful biography. “It’s the party,” Dirksen pleaded. “Don’t’ drop me in the mud.”

Dirksen eventually rounded up the GOP votes necessary to end a filibuster and the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a vote of 77-19. The House vote was equally lopsided – 333-85 – with virtually all Representatives and Senators from the south voting “no.” When Johnson went before Congress to press for his legislation – here’s a segment – you can catch a glimpse of southern members, like North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, refusing to applaud some of LBJ’s strongest lines.

(Here is one other historical footnote: Then-Idaho Congressman George Hansen, an ultra-conservative Republican, was alone among Pacific Northwest members and one of  just 85 House votes against the Voting Rights Act. Most who voted “no” contended the law was unconstitutional because it intruded on state’s rights to establish voting procedures.)

In 1970, again in 1975 and then in 1982 and again in 2006 four Republican presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush – signed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. In each case Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep the Act in place, including the controversial “preclearance” provision that was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled the law invalid.

So extensive was the Congressional work on the Voting Rights Act extension back in 2006 that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the record in her recent dissent in the court’s 5-4 decision.

 “The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings, heard from scores of witnesses, received a number of investigative reports and other written documentation of continuing discrimina­tion in covered jurisdictions. In all, the legislative record Congress compiled filled more than 15,000 pages,” Ginsberg wrote. “The compilation presents countless ‘examples of fla­grant racial discrimination’ since the last re-authoriza­tion; Congress also brought to light systematic evidence that ‘intentional racial discrimination in voting remains so serious and widespread in covered jurisdictions that section 5 preclearance is still needed.’”

Ginsberg also noted pointedly that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870 in the wake of our bloody Civil War, specifically grants to Congress “the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Voting Rights Act was that “appropriate legislation” in 1965 and remained so until Chief Justice John Roberts and the other conservatives on the Court substituted their judgment for that of the U.S. Congress.

From the days of Earl Warren’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, through every presidency from Johnson’s to Bill Clinton’s, conservatives have railed against the scourge of “activist judges,” who “legislate from the bench.” Countless speeches have made from the local Rotary Club to the floor of the Senate condemning “liberal” judges who did not merely interpret the law, but “make the law.” It was good political rhetoric and arguably, at least once in a while, it was true. But the recent split decision on the Voting Rights Act should once and forever put the lie to the charge that  it is only liberal judicial activists who wear the black robes.

Chief Justice Roberts opines in the case Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder that America “has changed” since 1965 and that continuing to apply the same standards to evaluate voting fairness for African Americans in the states of the old Confederacy (and a couple of others) fails to take into account those changes. What the very conservative Chief Justice does not confront is the political process, the hearings, the testimony, the reports and first-hand experience that informed the Congress first in 1965 then in four subsequent sessions to keep the landmark law – and the precleareance provision on the books.

There is no nice way to say what Mr. Justice Roberts did other than to admit that he, and his four like-minded conservative colleagues, substituted their judgment for that of the Congress and a conservative Republican president. That action should forever re-write the definition of “judicial activism.”

“When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination,” Justice Ginsberg wrote, “and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” An eloquent way of saying – leave the lawmaking to the lawmakers.

Regardless of how individual members of Congress feel about the Voting Rights Act, and we can assume based upon the legislative history that the vast majority of members support the Act, any Congressman or Senator should be taken aback by the level of  judicial activism of the Roberts Court. (One wonders what Idaho’s two lawyer-senators think of this ruling both on political and Constitutional grounds. I have yet to see them questioned on the subject.)

Rare in modern times has the expressed will of Congress been so manhandled as in Shelby County decision. In light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama’s recent remarks on race in America and the fact that several once-covered jurisdictions – Texas, for example – have already moved to change voting requirements in a way that many experts believe will make it more difficult for many Americans to vote, it is worth remembering more words from Lyndon Johnson on that night in 1965 when he spoke so profoundly about the right to vote.

“There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem,” Johnson said. “And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.” Progress has been made, but we have more distance to go to solve that problem and again, as in 1965, Congress must act.


It Is Never Easy…

lbjWhen Congress created the Medicare health insurance program in 1965 and President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation – that’s LBJ handing one of his pens to Harry Truman who had long advocated for the program – the law gave the Johnson Administration less than a year to implement the vast new groundbreaking program. More than 19 million elderly Americans were immediately eligible for Medicare coverage in the summer of 1966 when the law went into effect, but there was widespread concern that the program wouldn’t work.

As Sarah Kliff wrote recently in the Washington Post “nobody knew whether the new program would provide benefits to millions or fail completely.”

“What will happen then, on that summer day when the federally insured system of paying hospital bills becomes reality?” Nona Brown, a New York Times reporter, wondered in a story published in April 1966. “Will there be lines of old folks at hospital doors, with no rooms to put them in, too few doctors and nurses and technicians to care for them?”

Many of the same questions are being asked now about the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), particularly in light of the news dump in the middle of the July 4 holiday period that one of the most controversial portions of the law, the employer mandate, will be postponed for a year. Obama and those charged with implementing the ACA should hope they fare as well as those uncertain bureaucrats did back in 1966. By the time Medicare took effect 47 summers ago more than 93% of eligible seniors had enrolled, but it required an extraordinary effort to properly launch the program that was once labeled by the American Medical Association as the “beginning of socialized medicine.” Today, of course, politicians mess with Medicare at their peril – ask Paul Ryan – doctors most often now complain about reimbursement levels and the program that many once thought couldn’t be made to work is one of the most popular government programs ever.

How did LBJ and his administration pull it off? And are there lessons in that history of almost 50 years ago for those struggling to implement Obamacare amid predictions that a “train wreck” in coming?

One fundamental difference between 1966 and 2014 (when the ACA goes into effect) is the personality and style of the men occupying the Oval Office. Lyndon Johnson possessed an almost obsessive love of pulling the levers of presidential power. With his White House micro-managing almost everything the U.S. Forest Service actually sent its personnel out into the woods to find “hermits” and sign them up for Medicare. The government hired thousands of temporary workers, opened hundreds of new offices and literally sent people door-to-door campaign style to find eligible elderly folks. It helped that no one sued the Johnson Administration over the implementation of Medicare and that both the government and the country were smaller in 1966. It also didn’t hurt Medicare implementation that the White House and both houses of Congress were controlled by the party that had for a generation or more pushed for its passage. LBJ had no John Boehner to contend with.

Still with many doctors and hospitals skeptical of Medicare the Johnson Administration faced major hurdles in the implementation effort, including the obvious need to get providers suited up for the launch. Government workers enlisted the American Hospital Association to educate hospital administrators and, believe it or not, the television networks donated time to promote the program. Private insurers were contracted to serve as intermediaries with program participants. When Social Security Administrator Robert Ball briefed the Johnson Cabinet in May of 1966 he confidently predicted that there would be some rough spots, but that the implementation would come off on time and it did.

One issue Johnson’s bureaucrats had to contend with that thankfully doesn’t exist today was a provision in the Medicare act that required hospitals to be certified in advance as being in full compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In other words hospitals could not participate in the new program unless they supplied services equally to whites and blacks. Some southern hospitals held out for a time, but eventually came around when it became apparent that elderly whites as well as African-Americans were being denied coverage.

On July 25, 1966 the New York Times reported that “M-Day” had come and gone with civil rights compliance the only major problem. The fears of vast overcrowding of hospitals or that elderly would resist signing up and paying a $3 per month fee simply didn’t materialize.

Obama has his own sticky issues, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threatening the heads of major professional sports leagues if they even think about helping spread the word on the ACA and the House of Representatives still voting regularly to repeal the law.  Once Medicare passed LBJ had little overt opposition to contend with. In truth the Republican Party of the 1960’s was sharply split over Medicare. High profile conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan warned against the evils of socialism, with Goldwater asking what was next after free health care for the elderly, a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink.”

Still four of the eight Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee supported the bill in committee in 1965. In the House 68 Republicans opposed the bill on final passage – including Representatives Bob Dole of Kansas and George H.W. Bush of Texas – but 70 House Republicans voted in favor. A sizable number of conservative Democrats, many from the south – the parties in those days actually had liberal and conservative wings – also opposed Medicare.

So will implementation of the Affordable Care Act crumble under the weight of the complexity of the law and the still fierce Republican opposition? Barack Obama certainly faces obstacles to implementing his signature accomplishment that Johnson didn’t, including a hectoring House Speaker and at least a minority of the country that remains deeply skeptical of the new law. And, as he has before, Obama may find that he has to step up, become more visible and employ his considerable oratorical skills to save the day and define what success and failure would look like.

After ceding almost all of the decision making about crafting the ACA to Congress the president has done a consistently awful job of communicating about the finished product leaving many Americans to ponder, or more likely not, the “eyes glazes over” complexity of the legislation. The naysayers have largely won the battle to define the ACA, just as LBJ refused to allow Goldwater and others to define Medicare as a “communist plot,” and they now seem ready to try to win the battle over its implementation. But wishing Obama were more like Johnson in his willingness to use the power of his position is a little like damning the cat for not being a dog. Yet, it is unmistakably true that forceful, engaged executive leadership is most needed when policy and politics get the most difficult. That is a lesson for the ages.

Let’s give the last word to former federal Budget Director Alice Rivlin who could give the communicator-in-chief a few lessons in discussing complexity and politics. Rivlin wrote at the Brookings Center’s website: “In the polarized politics of our time, the opponents of the ACA have attacked it both as a federal government power grab—described as “socialism” by people who have forgotten what socialism is—and as overly complicated. But if it really were a federal power grab it wouldn’t be so complicated. The complexity is created by our two traditions of relying on private markets whenever possible and preserving diversity at the state level. These traditions are part of our political DNA, and if we value them—and most of us do–we should not complain that they make governance complicated.”

A Democratic administration once implemented a groundbreaking new law amid much skepticism and against considerable opposition. Times have changed, but it should be possible again. We’ll see.