After Kennedy’s assassination that November, the bill was left to LBJ, which sounded on my side of town like bad news. As majority leader of the Senate, LBJ, a Texas Democrat, and his Southern segregationist colleagues had helped take the enforcement teeth out of Dwight Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act.
But as president, Johnson rose to a higher moral and historic calling. He rallied enough support from both parties to enact, by many accounts, a stronger civil rights bill than the less-experienced JFK could have achieved.
It is that feat, accomplished with a majority of Republican votes to override the fierce resistance of Southern segregationist Democrats, that leads many to ask today whether the Civil Rights Act would survive today’s Congress.
My first reflex is to answer no. Even such formerly routine matters as an extension of unemployment benefits fall dead in the water these days. But this also is not LBJ’s Congress, LBJ’s times or, in the Oval Office, LBJ’s style of leadership.
As many others point out, LBJ had deep and long-running relationships on Capitol Hill and unrivaled talents for legislative mechanics. As Jonathan Alter so eloquently put it in his book “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” President Obama is missing a similar “Schmooze Gene” to drive him to similarly relentless prodding, cajoling and arm-twisting.
But even if he had it, Obama’s close associates say, he would not have a Congress that would be nearly as cooperative as the one with which Johnson worked in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination.
LBJ enacted a sweeping, landmark civil rights bill on behalf of equal rights for women and minorities. But, in the week of the law’s 50th anniversary, Senate Republicans blocked a much more modest Democratic-backed Paycheck Fairness Act aimed to even the pay gap between men and women.