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LBJ might ask: Where's our passion?

Posted by John McDonough  June 14, 2012 11:55 PM

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I just finished reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro's extraordinary biographical series on  Lyndon Johnson. Until this, I had thought volume three, Master of the Senate, was the best political biography I had ever read. This new volume, The Passage of Power, beats it.

Six hundred plus pages covering 1959 to early 1964. Three phases are covered: first, as the most effective Senate Majority Leader ever trying to decide whether to run for President and later as the Vice Presidential nominee; second, as the weak and humiliated Vice President to Pres. John Kennedy; and third, as the President in the wake of Kennedy's assassination.

LBJ.jpgIn the first two volumes, Caro makes no secret of his loathing of Johnson; in Master of the Senate, he shows grudging admiration; in this new volume, during the presidential transition, he recognizes the full emergence of a political genius:


"...by overcoming forces within him that were very difficult to overcome, he not only had held the country steady during that difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice. In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life's finest moment, as a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic."

It is an awesome and powerful narrative Caro weaves. One of the most dramatic elements is the fate of the 1964 civil rights law, all but finished by the time of Dallas on November 23, and literally brought back to life and guided to the President's desk thanks to LBJ's strategic and political genius.

I marked this passage on page 565 about the political mobilization for the civil rights act:

"In Washington, meanwhile, Students Speak for Civil Rights were holding daily rallies near the base of the Washington Monument. Making what they called a 'pilgrimage' to Washington, students from seventy-five religious seminaries from around the country divided into three-member teams (a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew) to begin a twenty-four-hour-day vigil at the Lincoln Memorial to pray for the bill's passage -- a vigil they pledged wouldn't end until it passed. Clergymen were playing a larger and larger role. Meeting on April 1, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights arranged for a daily prayer service, led by a rabbi or a minister or a priest, to be held in the Lutheran church on Capitol Hill one hour before the Senate convened each day. On April 28, a National Interreligious Convocation in support of civil rights began at Georgetown University. More than six thousand people attended. Ministers, priests and rabbis fanned out to Capitol Hill. They crammed the galleries, next to the observers, like Joseph Rauh and Clarence Mitchell, who had been there for years. 'You couldn't turn around where there wasn't a clerical collar next to you,' Rauh recalls. And they visited -- delegation after delegation -- the offices of the senators who votes were needed to cloture."

I have to wonder -- why haven't we seen that degree and kind of passion and activism on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court while the justices mull the fate of the Affordable Care Act?

Current U.S. Cong. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) called the ACA the "civil rights act of the 21st century."  I totally concur. And I wonder, where is the passion that drove our parents and grandparents to DC in the early 1960s?

Looks at though we will hear the SCOTUS decision on the ACA on June 18, 21 or 25. Your pick is as good as mine.

Win, lose, or draw -- where's OUR passion at this critical moment?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »

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