Health bill path mirrors Ike on civil rights

March 31, 2010


President Obama gets it. So did President Eisenhower half a century ago. When you are breaking a decades-long legislative logjam, you take what you can get so you can do better later.

Critics deplore the compromises Obama made on healthcare. And it’s true that the bill he signed last week doesn’t accomplish everything reform advocates had hoped for.

But give Obama credit for historical perspective. Covering the millions without health insurance is the civil rights issue of our time. And Obama walked a path analogous to the one Ike walked on civil rights in 1957.

Eisenhower proposed a strong bill that year. It seemed a fool’s errand — no civil rights legislation had been passed for 82 years. The proposal included protection for voting rights and authority for the attorney general to enforce an array of civil rights, including school desegregation.

The latter provision, known as “Part III,” quickly ran into political trouble. Southern Democrats at the time were the “party of no,” and they presented a united front. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia charged that Eisenhower’s bill was “cunningly designed” to authorize the attorney general “to destroy the system of separation of the races in the Southern states at the point of a bayonet.” That allegation was the 1950s equivalent of last year’s allegations by Republicans that healthcare reform would set up government-run “death panels.”

Finally, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson told Ike he had the votes to kill the bill if Part III remained in the legislation. Eisenhower dropped it to salvage voting rights.

Even that part of the legislation proved difficult. Southern senators gutted the remaining reform by persuading the Senate to require a jury trial for anyone prosecuted for violating voting rights, something that would make convictions extremely difficult. In private, Ike stormed: “Hell of a thing. Here are 18 Southern senators who can bamboozle (the) entire Senate.”

In public, Eisenhower lamented that “many fellow Americans will continue, in effect, to be disenfranchised.” Obama’s declaration while campaigning for passage of healthcare reform echoed that principle: “We can’t have a system that works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people.”

Like Obama, Eisenhower was urged to give up or, in effect, “start over” on drafting a bill that would have wider acceptance. Civil rights leaders implored Eisenhower to veto any bill that didn’t make meaningful change.

Instead, Eisenhower took what one columnist called “a bold and perhaps dangerous gamble.” He prolonged the exhausting debate, holding firm and threatening to resubmit Part III if he didn’t get an agreement. The condition for avoiding that fight was removal of the jury trial roadblock to the protection of voting rights.

Obama took a not dissimilar path. He refused to start over and instead used the reconciliation process to push forward.

Ike won his gamble. LBJ accepted a workable compromise and, on Aug. 29, 1957, the Senate passed the final version of a bill that included significant new civil rights. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina conducted a 24-hour filibuster but gave up at 9:12 p.m.

Many liberals denigrated the 1957 act. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., however, supported it. He acknowledged that “many sincere leaders, both Negro and white, feel that no bill is better than the present bill.” But, King concluded, “I have come to the conclusion that the present bill is far better than no bill at all.”

The 1957 Civil Rights Act was a weak reed, but the logjam had been broken. The debate laid the groundwork for the landmark civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins called the 1957 Civil Rights Act “a small crumb from Congress.” But it was the first crumb in 82 years.

In early March, Obama posed a series of questions to the nation: “When is the right time? If not now, when? If not us, who?”

He was right to press forward. As Eisenhower demonstrated, the first order of business is to break the logjam. Then we can do something better.


cato_the_elder 8 years, 2 months ago

"Then we can do something better." Like repeal it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 2 months ago

The comparison here is probably apt.

The bill as passed is badly flawed, but given the bribery by Big Health, Big Pharma and the insurance industry of a large percentage of Democratic and nearly all Republican lawmakers, plus the obstructionism of Republicans, it's as good as could have been accomplished.

snoozey 8 years, 2 months ago

No kidding, insurance conglomerates owned our politicians and were allowed to suck out of our healthcare dollars with civil rights legislation? I was unaware of that. I also thought that civil rights actually brought change to a fundamental problem rather than simply whitewashing the issue.

independant1 8 years, 2 months ago

Healthcare a Civil Right? Is it? From Walter Williams/conservative Economist - "To argue that people have a right that imposes obligations on another is an absurd concept. A better term for new-fangled rights to health care, decent housing and food is wishes. If we called them wishes, I would be in agreement with most other Americans for I, too, wish that everyone had adequate health care, decent housing and nutritious meals. However, if we called them human wishes, instead of human rights, there would be confusion and cognitive dissonance. The average American would cringe at the thought of government punishing one person because he refused to be pressed into making someone else's wish come true.

None of my argument is to argue against charity. Reaching into one's own pockets to assist his fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else's pockets to do so is despicable and deserves condemnation."

independant1 8 years, 2 months ago

An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's. (Will Rogers)

independant1 8 years, 2 months ago

History ain’t what it is. It’s what some writer wanted it to be. (Will Rogers)

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