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Thursday, May 19, 2005

A little history about the filibuster

Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial Musings and Hindrocket over at Power Line justly mock ABC News for publishing this (since stealth-corrected) history blooper (boldface mine):

The filibuster has been used historically by the minority party, which can't win with a vote count. Democrats have opposed the filibuster before — in the 1960s, they accused Republicans of using it to block civil rights legislation.

According to the Senate Historical Office, the record for the longest individual speech is held by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. To keep the floor, he read some of his wife's recipes and passages from novels out loud.

It's no particular surprise that ABC News' reporters and editors might not be immediately familiar with all the details of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which President Eisenhower signed into law on September 9, 1957. Your gray-bearded host of this weblog was still a little over two months shy of emerging from the womb then, and presumably many of ABC News' staff are younger than I am.

But Hindrocket and Rand are right to express surprise and dismay that even those youngsters — or anyone whose only knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes from history books — would presume, incorrectly, that Republicans have historically been anti-civil rights. Do they presume as well that this bias goes back to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln? Do they remember him as fighting to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery? Was ABC News referencing the 1957 record-setting single-senator filibuster by Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) under the (mis)impression that he was one of those "Republicans [using the filibuster] to block civil rights legislation"? Well, duh.

As it happens, because of the ongoing struggle over judicial nominations and the role of the filibuster in it, I've just re-read the best single book about politics that I've ever read: the third volume (2002) in Robert A. Caro's multipart biography "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," this one aptly entitled "Master of the Senate." At 1040 pages (plus footnotes and sources), this book isn't a casual read. But if you want to know about the history and dynamics of the United States Senate — including the filibuster (and related subjects like Rule XXII on cloture) — you probably couldn't find a better or more fascinating basic textbook.

Caro provides this information as part of his fabulous tale of how LBJ came to be the most brutally powerful and effective Senate majority leader by far in American history. LBJ had decided by 1957 that to ever have a chance of securing the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, he had to shed his (until then well-earned) image as an anti-civil rights southerner. And indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 turned out to be entirely toothless.  The 1957 Act — in contrast to, for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that LBJ later succeeded in passing as President — is only important in historical context because it marked the first civil rights legislation to be successfully passed into law in 82 years.

The sole reason for that shameful 82-year gap in American civil rights history was the consistently effective use of the filibuster by southern Senate Democrats. Literally for decades, their number one priority had been to block anti-lynching and similar legislation favored by a substantial majority of Americans, and to preserve their unfettered "right" to filibuster in order to maintain that blocking ability.

Caro's book — lively and very readable despite its length — explains how LBJ achieved the seemingly impossible task of preventing a sustained filibuster by racist southern Democrats that would certainly have killed the 1957 Act too. LBJ did so in large part by deliberately gutting every meaningful provision from the version of the 1957 Act that had originally been drafted by the (Republican) Eisenhower Administration and supported on a bipartisan basis by Republicans and non-southern Democrats. This — plus LBJ's canny manipulation of the southern Democrats' fear that they might finally lose a cloture fight if they didn't let some kind of civil rights legislation through, and of their desire to help LBJ burnish his own presidential credentials — is why nobody other than Strom Thurmond tried to filibuster the 1957 Act. And indeed, it required all of LBJ's political genius — cynical and duplicitous and effective as it was — to keep pro-civil rights forces (i.e., Republicans and non-southern Democrats) from themselves blocking the watered-down version of the 1957 Act as being "worse than nothing."

So brilliant was Johnson's political manuevering, in fact, that Thurmond's lonely, long, and ultimately ineffective attempt to mount a solo filibuster against the 1957 Act was scorned by the other southern Democratic senators. As Caro tells the story (at pp. 997-98):

"When, however, Thurmond attempted to persuade the Southern Caucus to filibuster, [LBJ's senate mentor] Dick Russell [D-GA] countered with the same reasoning he had been using all year [as LBJ's ally] to deflect one. The southerners could use that reasoning to deflect the anger of constituents over their failure to filibuster — and they did.... And in the end, all of the southerners but one agreed, as usual, to accept their general's [i.e., Russell's] decision. When the bill returned to the Senate [from a joint Senate-House conference committee], Strom Thurmond held the floor for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes — the longest one-man filibuster in the Senate's history — drawling out the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington's Farewell Address — but that scene from the Senate's past was a solo performance; none of his fellow southerners would join him, and they were furious at him because they felt he was showing them up for not filibustering themselves .... "Oh, God, the venomous hatred of [Thurmond's] southern colleagues," [LBJ aide] George Reedy was to recall. "I'll never forget Herman Talmadge [D-GA]'s eyes when he walked in on the floor of the Senate that day and saw Strom carrying on that performance." Even Russell, faced with what the Atlanta Constitution called "rumblings of criticism [that] are being heard" in Georgia, felt a need to justify his strategy, telling the Constitution that the South had "nothing to gain and everything to lose" by filibustering, and declaring, "Under the circumstances we faced, if I had undertaken a filibuster for personal aggrandizement, I would have forever have reproached myself for being guilty of a form of treason against the South." ...

If you can listen to the present-day liberal Democrats lauding the filibuster — insisting upon its value to "protect minority interests," and thereby deliberately conflating their own status as the present political minority with the status of racial minorities whom the Democratic Party's southern senators historically used the filibuster to disenfranchise and persecute — without laughing out loud at the incredible irony ...

Well, then, you're probably exactly well-schooled enough in American history to work for ABC News. Congratulations.

Posted by Beldar at 07:51 PM in Books, Current Affairs, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to A little history about the filibuster and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» The filibuster issue for dummies from Mark in Mexico

Tracked on May 19, 2005 8:38:59 PM


(1) Palindrome made the following comment | May 19, 2005 10:33:40 PM | Permalink

I was a junior in high school when Thurmond droned on and on about nothing. It was very weird to a Republican born and raised in the deep South. Thinking back, Thurmond probably had a lot to do with that. Thanks for the analysis and the attempt at keeping the ABC News people straight.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | May 19, 2005 10:41:05 PM | Permalink

Media Lies was kind enough to link and send a trackback ping to my post. Unfortunately, the squib of text that Typepad's trackback function quotes included an open blockquote HTML command that inadvertantly whacks the rest of my page's graphics. Since I can't edit that, I've reluctantly deleted the trackback altogether in lieu of this comment.

(3) Carol Johnson made the following comment | May 20, 2005 4:25:11 PM | Permalink


Glad to read your posts again...they're VERY informative and extremely interesting. Today, while glued to C-Span, I heard a "GEM" of a speech by Arlen Specter! Did you happen to catch it? I have been really alarmed at this so-called compromise being worked out. It is a TERRIBLE idea!!! To basically give over the control of the Senate to a dozen Senators in lieu of "forcing" the whole Senate to deal with this problem is dangerous. If this compromise contains the dumping of any of the judicial nominees by a committee of pompous, self-righteous politicians who should know better, then they have indeed lost their minds. I would suspect and expect Democrats to try something like this but for ANY Republicans to participate and agree to it is INEXCUSABLE!!!

The ONLY viable compromise(if there is to be one) in my view, is that the Democrats cease their hostile filabusters on ALL these nominees immediately and then MAYBE, they may be able to salvage their "right" to "limited" filabuster in the future. I must say, I don't much like that option either, but it is an alternative... especially since Republicans aren't exactly innocent of any "shenanigans" in the past. While it may only be postponing the inevitable (i.e. a showdown) cooler heads may yet prevail. As it stands now...who knows...and THAT'S scary!!!

To make a long story short...I like the Specter Option much better than anything I have heard in the past week.

Carol Johnson

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