Prince Otto von Bismarck is famously but inaccurately quoted as saying that "laws are like sausages; it is best not to see them being made." A half-century ago, the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, monumental legislation, intended to begin to rectify a disgraceful history of racial discrimination. In An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, published in April of this year, author Todd Purdum provides a detailed and interesting account of the sausage-making process which brought about this important legislation. Purdum traces the history of the bill from its genesis, including the civil rights struggles of the early sixties, and the epic March on Washington. He describes the evolution in the thinking of President John F. Kennedy, whose observations of the deplorable treatment of African-Americans and their supporters in southern states strengthened his resolve to bring about meaningful civil rights legislation.
Purdum traces the history of the legislation, including the efforts made by Deputy Attorney-General Nicholas Katzenbach to orchestrate bipartisan support for the bill. He describes the momentum that the legislation gained following the assassination of President Kennedy, and the pressure from President Lyndon Johnson, the former "master of the Senate" on various congressional leaders to deliver a bill that would bring about real change in the area of civil rights. The least interesting part of the book for me was the parts about the the legislative sausage-making processes: the various Congressional committees, the stages of the bill, the various amendments proposed, and the mechanics of cloture.
The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about the various personalities who orchestrated the passage of the legislation, some more famous, and others virtually unknown practitioners of a humble efficiency. Purdum tells us about Senators Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield and Representatives Bill McCulloch and Emmanuel Cellar (who supported the legislation), as well as Senator Richard Russell and Representative Howard Smith (who opposed it.) All are interesting and colorful characters in their own way. Most are principled leaders who served at a time when congressmen genuinely believed and acted in the belief that their job was not simply to take the pulse of their constituents and vote in the direction of the prevailing winds, but to follow their own conscience, even when doing so may run contrary to popular opinion. There are others who are ruled by their ugly prejudices and motivated by political expediency rather than moral considerations.
The author also tells us about those who worked behind the scenes including leaders in the African-American community, lobbyists (at a time when that word wasn't necessarily synonymous with negative connotations), hard-working congressional staffers and lawyers in the Justice Department. He also puts the role of President Lyndon Johnson in perspective. While Johnson was certainly the driving force behind the legislation (or "the shotgun behind the door" as one contemporary describes him), we learn that it was really persons like Humphrey, Dirksen, Mansfield and McCulloch who did most of the heavy lifting in bringing about a positive result.
In an excellent epilogue, Purdum follows the paths of those involved, and traces the significance of this legislation to its modern day impact, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions on what progress has actually been made in the achieving equal rights for African-Americans. This book balances intelligent analysis with an understanding of the human element of its subject. There is much to appreciate about this book, including its exposure of the achievements of many dedicated legislators who have gotten little credit for their noble efforts, and its thought-provoking analysis of a subject that is as much a part of our present as our past. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in this important and interesting aspect of American history.