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An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents,…
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An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle…

by Todd S. Purdum

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I received a free advanced reader’s copy through GoodReads.

The book covers the complicated history of the Civil Rights Act, from the plans of the legislative branch through the debates in the House and Senate. Purdum works well with a wide cast of actors, drawing their character and their history to give context to their political and social views. He’s at his best when he focuses on a principle actor, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Ev Dirkson, and LBJ, but it’s very clear that the Civil Rights Act is not the brainchild of a single person. This was definitely a group effort, with lots of opinions and conflicts.

The topic is fascinating and culturally important, particularly when you compare it to the current workings of our government. It’s amazing that anything ever gets done when so many people with such different opinions are involved.

But for all the importance of the subject, there are times that the book drags. Purdum drills down into minutiae, which is not always enlightening. I don’t need to know where a Senator when on vacation, only that he wasn’t present for a vote. Also, I wanted more analysis and less narrative description, e.g., the Senate did this on this day, and on the next day did something else. Probably Purdum does a good job describing the machinery of government, but I confess I couldn’t always follow the process.

There were a few quirks in the writing that may be corrected by the time the book is in print. Purdum occasionally referred to Martin Luther King as Martin King, and he alternated using Robert and Bobby when referring to Kennedy.

Overall, an important topic that I’m glad I got to learn more about.

( )
  louis.arata | Jul 31, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, probably the signature government action of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th Century. The extensive law would provide federal protections for voting rights, require equal access to restaurants and hotels, offer more robust encouragement for the desegregation of public schools, and which prohibit discrimination in hiring by employers not only on the basis of race, but also religion, nationality, or sex. However, it faced solid opposition from Congressmen from the South, including senators who promised to filibuster the proposed legislation.

In hindsight, the law seems inevitable, but at the time it faced nearly insurmountable obstacles. In “An Idea Whose Times Has Come,” Todd Perdum, longtime correspondent for The New York Times who is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and writer for Politico, offers a dramatic and engaging account of how certain key people maneuvered the important legislation through Congress, where opponents used a myriad of procedural rules in efforts to stall, gut, and derail the proposed law.

In previous years, several efforts to pass civil rights legislation had failed, stymied by the determined opposition. Despite the support of a majority of Congressional representatives for some form of civil rights law, there was little cohesion in the effort and proponents of civil rights could never muster anything approaching the same passion and unanimity as the opposition. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, and the often appalling violent backlash against it, created a general sense that something needed to be done to solve the problem of unequal treatment and to prevent a dramatic increase in violence.

Perdum rightly focuses on the certain key personalities who ultimately shepherded the bill through Congress, beginning with Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. As pressure increased in 1963, Kennedy finally agreed to support such legislation, asking his brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to take the lead in crafting and defending a bill with congressional leaders. After the president's assassination, Johnson picked up the martyred president's mantle, promising to push the bill through Congress in honor of Kennedy. True to his word, the former Texas senator consistently supported the effort publicly and systematically worked behind closed doors to overcome the coordinated opposition of Southern senators.

Overcoming the sectional opposition required bipartisan coordination in both the House and Senate, and Perdum recounts the role of several individuals, such as Hubert Humphery, Everett Dirksen, and Charles Halleck. Clearly, Perdum is most fascinated by the role of Bill McCulloch, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who seems to have ultimately provided the means of working through the key stalling tactic – in return for delivering key Republican support, he refused to support any amendments to the bill in either the House or Senate, which forced the key leaders to develop and support one bill.

At times frustrating for the short-sightedness of some of those involved, the account also is filled with profiles of Congressional courage, where many people worked tirelessly to pass a law, not out of debts to supporters or the promise of future political votes, but because it was necessary and another step in defending the rights and opportunities for all citizens promised in America's founding documents. Perdum offers a well reported, extensive, and readable account of this effort. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Mar 16, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This year, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Todd Purdum’s book “An Idea Whose Time has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964” examines the efforts made by the White House and congress to pass, and to stop, the bill. Journalist Purdum’s work is strong support for the argument that the best training for writing history is to write the news.

Knowing some of the history can add to the narrative. A Republican Congressman, working with Kennedy on the early stages of the Civil Rights Bill, tells a friend that he plans to ask Kennedy for help acquiring a NASA electronics research facility for Purdue. He says “My inclination is to talk to the president personally, but he left Washington this morning for a trip to Texas”. While not every line in the book gives the punch to the stomach that one does it is overflowing with evidence that “The past is a foreign country”. Fiscal conservatives opposing a tax cut because it is too expensive? Democrats and Republicans working together for the good of the nation? Politicians voting their conscious? It tempts the reader into nostalgia for the “good old days” until Purdum points out that as the Senate debated the bill the FBI dispatched hundreds of agents to search for three missing Freedom Summer volunteers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.

Many of the names were familiar to me because the players were active well into the 1970s, a few into the 80s. Even though their actions were unfamiliar, their names were not. I was seven when the events took place. Purdum includes background on the major players which was helpful in understanding the beliefs and experiences that they brought with them to the debate. He also spent time explaining how they fared after the bill passed. These details were both helpful and informative to me and I suspect that any reader younger than me will feel the same.

Purdum’s book covers important events in our nation's history and manages to make the story as readable as a novel. If you believe politics never changes you must read this book and see just how much change the last half century has brought. ( )
  TLCrawford | Jul 7, 2014 |
I was excited to read this book after hearing an interview with the author on the radio. The dynamic turn around in the civil rights reputations of the two major American political parties is one of the odder bits of history. This is a fascinating (and detailed) account of what went into the passing of the not just the '64 Act, but the other (later) major acts as well. Sadly, the fears of Republican leaders that the books does so well at documenting proved true (ie, by cooperating with a party and President so long opposed to civil rights they would reap all the pain and none of the glory) -- and I can't help but wondering if that isn't a foundation for the state of impasse and deadlock in our current affairs.

(2014 Review #9) ( )
  bohannon | Apr 28, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” presents a comprehensive but highly readable history of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Historians have long debated whether JFK, had he lived, been successful in passage of his administration’s bill or did it require the former “master of the Senate” to secure passage after Kennedy’s assassination. This book doesn’t dwell on this that much and I’m not sure how important that is (other than to presidential historians). What matters is how the bill originated and how tumultuous the early 60s were in the civil rights movement. The Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, the killing of Medgar Evers and other civil rights activists, the death of three girls in a church bombing as well as the March on Washington all transpired in a period of three to four years. It may be, as noted in the book, the best advocate for the civil rights bill was one who so vehemently opposed civil rights – Bull Conner of Birmingham, Alabama who had let dogs and high pressure hoses injure peaceful demonstrators. While the book aptly describes the initial reluctance of the Kennedy administration to push for a civil rights bill, the most interesting stories are those about whom little is remembered but had a major influence on the passage of the bill. The fact that several of these individuals were Republicans is even more remarkable today and how the “party of Lincoln” has deviated from its commitment to civil rights. This is a fascinating study of politics and the power of individuals – both those that opposed civil rights and those that secured passage of the bill. ( )
  sherman1951 | Apr 13, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805096728, Hardcover)

A top Washington journalist recounts the dramatic political battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that created modern America, on the fiftieth anniversary of its passage

It was a turbulent time in America—a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, a March on Washington and a governor standing in the schoolhouse door—when John F. Kennedy sent Congress a bill to bar racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. Countless civil rights measures had died on Capitol Hill in the past. But this one was different because, as one influential senator put it, it was “an idea whose time has come.”

In a powerful narrative layered with revealing detail, Todd S. Purdum tells the story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recreating the legislative maneuvering and the larger-than-life characters who made its passage possible. From the Kennedy brothers to Lyndon Johnson, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen, Purdum shows how these all-too-human figures managed, in just over a year, to create a bill that prompted the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate yet was ultimately adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support. He evokes the high purpose and low dealings that marked the creation of this monumental law, drawing on extensive archival research and dozens of new interviews that bring to life this signal achievement in American history.

Often hailed as the most important law of the past century, the Civil Rights Act stands as a lesson for our own troubled times about what is possible when patience, bipartisanship, and decency rule the day.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:34 -0400)

"A top Washington journalist recounts the dramatic political battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that created modern America, on the fiftieth anniversary of its passage. It was a turbulent time in America--a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, a March on Washington and a governor standing in the schoolhouse door--when John F. Kennedy sent Congress a bill to bar racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. Countless civil rights measures had died on Capitol Hill in the past. But this one was different because, as one influential senator put it, it was "an idea whose time has come." In a powerful narrative layered with revealing detail, Todd S. Purdum tells the story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recreating the legislative maneuvering and the larger-than-life characters who made its passage possible. From the Kennedy brothers to Lyndon Johnson, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen, Purdum shows how these all-too-human figures managed, in just over a year, to create a bill that prompted the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate yet was ultimately adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support. He evokes the high purpose and low dealings that marked the creation of this monumental law, drawing on extensive archival research and dozens of new interviews that bring to life this signal achievement in American history. Often hailed as the most important law of the past century, the Civil Rights Act stands as a lesson for our own troubled times about what is possible when patience, bipartisanship, and decency rule the day. "--… (more)

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