Wednesday, June 27, 2012

the last book I ever read (The Passage of Power, excerpt eleven)

from Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

And Lyndon Johnson's achievements during those seven weeks went far beyond reassurance and continuity, far beyond even what he accomplished during those weeks for his predecessor's tax cut bill and civil rights. For had he striven only for reassurance and continuity, something much more important would have been lost.

The bullets of Dallas had made John F. Kennedy a martyr--and the martyrdom of a leader lends new power to causes he had championed. Lyndon Johnson knew this. "Everything I had ever learned in the history books taught me that martyrs have to die for causes," he explained to Doris Goodwin. "John Kennedy had died. But his 'cause' was not really clear. That was my job. I had to take the dead man's program and turn it into a martyr's cause." He began to do that when, in that first address to Congress on November 27, he said he was trying to finish what Kennedy had started, "to continue the forward thrust of America that he began." He couched his support of legislation in those terms. "No memorial . . . could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." During the transition he was constantly invoking the late President's memory. And the invocations accomplished their purpose. JFK's martyrdom had galvanized support for the causes with which he had identified himself in his eloquent speeches. "Kennedy's assassination touched many people as they had not been touched before," as an historian has written. "Could the murder of so young and promising a leader be redeemed? Must his life be wasted?" The passage of legislation he had introduced was a way of ensuring it wouldn't be wasted. His death generated behind legislation that had seemed dead in congressional waters a tremendous new momentum.

And Johnson knew something else. Momentum can be lost. "A measure must be sent to the Hill at exactly the right moment," he was to explain. "Timing is essential. Momentum is not a mysterious mistress. It is a controllable fact of political life." The time to catch a wave is at its crest. And while the wave of emotion, of affection and adoration, for the martyred young President would roll on for decades--is still rolling on today, almost half a century after Dallas--its crest, the height of the Kennedy tide, came in the weeks immediately following Dallas, in the weeks of Lyndon Johnson's transition. By rushing to push through Kennedy's bills, Johnson caught the crest. The maneuvers by which he made them begin to move through Congress were made easier--in some cases were only made possible--by that wave of emotion. Had he not caught the tide at its absolute height, he might well have lost some of its force, and as the Senate fight of 1964 was to demonstrate, every ounce of that force would be necessary to pass the civil rights bill. By moving as quickly as he did, Johnson caught a tide, seized a moment, that might not have lasted very long.

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