Robert Caro | on the US Senate, the filibuster, civil and social rights in the late 1940's | Master of the Senate excerpt

    In 1948, President Truman ran against the "Do-Nothing Eightieth Congress" - how deep a chord he hit when on his come-from-behind cross-country whistlestop tour he said it was "run by a bunch of old mossbacks still living back in the 1890s" was demonstrated by the election results (and by the roars of approval when he told audiences, "After a new Congress is chosen, maybe we'll get one that will work in the interests of the people and not the interests of the men who have all the money"). When, before the election, in a political masterstroke, he called Congress into special session, demanding that it pass some of the legislation he had advocated (and that the Republican platform had advocated, too), GOP national campaign manager Herbert Brownell told congressional Republicans that it might be a good idea to make at least a gesture at passing some of that legislation, particularly some relating to civil rights, since the black vote was becoming an important factor in presidential elections.
     But when Truman entered the House to deliver his speech opening the special session, some senators and representatives did not even rise from their seats. "No, we're not going to give that fellow anything," Senator Taft said. What did the Senate care about public opinion? Its opinion about majority rule had boiled over repeatedly during the Truman Administration, an opinion held not only by Senate demagogues like Bilbo (who had taken the floor to say that "a mob is a majority; without the filibuster the minority would be at the mercy of the majority") but by Senate grandees like Tydings, who, asked on the Senate floor whether democracy was not "predicated on the rule of majority," replied, shouting in anger: "The rule of the majority. The rule of votes. Majority to Hades! The rule of the majority! The rule that has brought more bloodshed and turmoil and cruelty on this earth than any other thing I know of!" Liberals, and, most infuriatingly, that liberal Washington press corps, might criticize the filibuster, but the southern senators worshiped it: it was their defense against that despised majority. Any threat to the filibuster they regarded as a threat to the rights of man. To a request to impose cloture, the stately Walter George solemnly intoned: "We are called upon to go Nazi." "It was cloture that crucified Christ on the cross," Tydings cried.
    When emotions rose, the southern senators couldn't even be bothered to conceal the fact that it was not "Nigras" alone whom they despised. Mississippi's Bilbo addressed a letter to a New York Woman of Italian descent, "Dear Dago." The Magnolia State's other senator, James O. Eastland (who would some years later stare coldly down a committee table at Senator Jacob Javits of New York, a Jew, and say, "I don't like you - or your kind"), now said that if the FEPC [kjl note: Fair Employment Practices Committee] bill was constitutional "ten thousand Jewish drygoods merchants represent a discrimination against the Anglo-Saxon branch of the white race" and Congress should therefore "limit the number of Jews in interstate business." It wasn't only Italians and Jews whom the southerners wanted kept in their places. While Jim Dombrowski of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Eastland repeatedly sneered at his "typically old Southern name." And of course there were always the Native Americans. Defending American businessmen who did not want to employ them, Senator Bankhead explained that "There is something peculiar about an Indian which causes the white American not to want to be too closely associated with him."
    "This is the spectacle presented by the United States in the wake of a war against fascism and racism," I. F. Stone wrote caustically in The Nation in 1948. A majority of the American people might endorse Truman's proposals, not merely on civil rights but on a dozen other issues, and in towns and cities across the United States audiences might cheer the President's assault on the Capitol Hill "Do-Nothings" - the Senate didn't care. To many senators the New Deal was nothing more or less than "socialism," and in opposing it, they were simply doing their duty. The majority might call for change - social change, economic change; these senators knew what a majority was: the majority was "the mob." They had been elected to protect America against the mob. Against long odds, a President had just swept all before him. What was a President to them, to these senators who said, "We were here before he came, and we'll be here after he's gone"?
    And, of course, the Senate - particularly these southern senators who dominated it - didn't have to care. The six-year terms and the staggering of those terms decreed by the Founding Fathers had armored the Senate as a whole against public opinion in the nation as a whole; the majority will of the United States could reach the Senate of the United States only in very diluted form - "the Senate, as Senate," could indeed "never be repudiated." And by decreeing that in the Senate each state would have the same two votes regardless of population, the Fathers had further ensured that within the Senate, population wouldn't matter - that the majority wouldn't matter. The right of unlimited debate - a logical outgrowth of the Founders' insistence on protecting minority rights - had bolted around the small states yet another layer of armor against the majority will. Nor could national public opinion touch an individual senator. Each senator was answerable only to the will of the majority of voters in his own state, and of course the stands the southern senators were taking did not hurt but helped them with those voters. And thanks to the seniority rule, once these senators were re-elected, the only thing that mattered was that they had been re-elected: their inexorable progress to the committee chairmanships would continue. The Senate decided who would hold its posts of power - and the Senate decided alone.
    The 1948 elections proved the point. Infuriated by the liberalism of their party's President and their party's platform, which actually included a fairly strong civil rights plank, a States Rights Party was formed, with its own presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who denounced the FEPC as "Communistic," Truman's proposed integration of the armed services as "un-American," and said, "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our churches." But despite all the furor engendered by the new party, it carried a mere four states. Not only had President Truman won, he had won by turning the election into a referendum on Congress. In terms of majority rule, the South had been thoroughly repudiated. Although Truman had won, however, the southern senators hadn't lost. A liberal tide had washed over the rest of the country, as it had washed over the country in 1904 and 1912 and 1936. But while it had swept a liberal majority into the Senate, not a single southerner standing for re-election had been defeated. The majority party - in both houses of Congress - would be Democratic, not Republican. But in both House and Senate, the committee chairmanships would again be held by southerners. If anything, southern power on Capitol Hill would be stronger, not weaker; the attribute which in the Senate meant power was seniority, and seniority was inexorable and cumulative; the senators who would return in January would return with more - not less - of that asset. The South's point of view might have been repudiated; its "position of entrenched minority" in the Senate was untouched.
    Although Truman had won on the basis of his "Fair Deal" program, that program's fate would still be controlled by anti-Fair Deal southerns. And in the unlikely event that Truman's proposals somehow emerged from committee, there was still the filibuster in the Senate. What was the legislation that had been defeated in the Senate in 1948? Legislation for civil rights, for aid to education, for aid to housing, for a fairer minimum wage, for better health care. An entire agenda of social justice - to a considerable extent endorsed by the nation - had been blocked in the Senate. Similar legislation had been blocked in the Senate for a decade and more. There was no reason, despite Truman's victory, to think it would pass now.
    The Senate's Golden Age had ended almost a century before. During the ensuing decades, the institution had been subtly altered, decade by decade, into something significantly different from the body that had been envisioned by the Founding Fathers. They had wanted it to be independent, a place of wisdom and deliberation armored against outside forces. But the rise inside the Senate itself of forces they had not sufficiently foreseen - the rise of parties and party caucuses, and of party discipline; the transformation of America's infant industries into gigantic economic entities which had representatives sitting in the Senate itself - had undermined the Senate's independence from within, and the impact of these new forces on the Senate had been heightened because the armor against outside forces remained in place. Still protected against the people and the President, both of which wanted social progress, and that were indeed making it much less a place of wisdom and deliberation. Other internal developments - most importantly, seniority and the filibuster - had further distorted the Founders' dream. They had envisioned the Senate as the moderating force in government, as the cooler of the popular will; cool had become cold, had become ice, ice in which, for decades, with only a few brief exceptions, the popular desire for social change had become frozen. Designed as the deliberative power, the Senate had become instead the negative power, the selfish power. The "necessary fence" against executive and popular tyranny had been transformed, by party rule and by the seniority rule, into something thicker and higher - into an impenetrable wall against the democratic impulses it had originally been supposed only to "refine" and "filter," into a dam against which waves of social reform, attempts to ameliorate the human condition, dashed themselves in vain. Except for brief moments - the beginning of Wilson's presidency, for example, and the Hundred Days of Roosevelt's - when the floodgates in the dam suddenly swung wide and the tides swept through, cleansing the great Republic, the Founders' armor had resisted every attempt by others to force them open; the Senate had been designed as the "firm" body; it had become too firm - too firm to allow the reforms the Republic needed.
    Never had the dam been more firm than during the last decade, the decade since the conservative coalition had learned its strength. During that decade, despite the mandate of three presidential elections, it had stood across and blocked the rising demand for social justice, had stood so solidly that it seemed too strong ever to be breached.
    In January, 1949, when Lyndon Johnson arrived in it, it was still standing.

Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Vintage Books, 2003, pp. 100-105, ISBN: 0-394-72095-4
Original edition published by Random House, New York, © 2002 by Robert A. Caro

Caro's sources for this excerpt:
"Run by": McCullough, David G. Truman, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 661.

"No, we're": Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974, p. 459

"A mob"; Majority to Hades!"; "we are"; "Dear Dago"; "It was cloture": I. F. Stone, "Swastika over the Senate," The Nation, Feb. 9, 1946.

"This is": I. F. Stone, The Nation, 1948.

"Communistic; "un-American": McCullough, Truman, p. 667.

"There's not": Bass, Jack, and Marilyn W. Thompson. Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond. Atlanta: Longstreet, 1998, p. 188.