There is reason to believe that we may be experiencing the first wave of a tsunami of nostalgia and sentimentality washing over the designated heavy hitters of Washington journalism. First up was Chris Matthews, he of ubiquitous television celebrity, whose “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” published last fall, waxed euphoric over the bipartisan cooperation manifested from time to time in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, speaker of the House and a Democrat. Now comes Todd S. Purdum, he of Vanity Fair, to wax equally euphoric over the bipartisan cooperation that was essential to passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, with the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965, added up to perhaps the greatest American legislative achievement of the 20th century.

Members of this particular journalistic club see assiduously to each other’s needs, so “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” is lavishly blurbed by Matthews along with other promiscuous blurbers, among them Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley. Their enthusiasm surely pleases Purdum and his publisher, but the encomia heaped upon this book are disproportionate to what is achieved therein. Many journalists are writing history these days, and some of them are doing it supremely well, indeed better than most professional historians: Antony Beevor, Max Hastings, David McCullough, Anne Applebaum, Rick Atkinson and a few others. But “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” is seriously lacking in historical depth, is written in garden-variety journalese and is far too uncritical in its evaluations of many of those — all of them men and most of them white, as Purdum is quick to point out — who parade through its pages.

This is not to fault Purdum for the sincerity of his admiration for some of these people, but to point out that there is more naiveté than sophistication here. The point is underscored by his shopworn title, taken from Victor Hugo by way of Everett McKinley Dirksen, minority leader of the Senate; the complete version is: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” Well, the idea to which Dirksen was referring — equality under the law of all people, no matter the color of their skin or other characteristics — wasn’t exactly new when he got around to embracing it in 1964. It lurks there in the founding documents of this country, however reluctant the founding fathers may have been to make good on it for all the people living here, so what is remarkable is not that white America and its leaders reluctantly and half-heartedly embraced it in the mid-1960s, but that it took nearly two centuries for this to come to pass.

Obviously Purdum (and Matthews) long for the days when Republicans and Democrats talked to each other, drank with each other and probably slept with each other. I share more than a little of that sentiment in light of the dysfunctional Congress with which we are now afflicted. My own journalistic career had been under way only three years when the debate over the Civil Rights Act took place, and I was working in the upper South, so I followed its unfolding with intense, anxious interest and was often impressed by the bipartisanship that made the law possible. Still, it struck me then, as it strikes me now, that Dirksen and his counterpart in the House, minority leader Charles Halleck, were considerably less principled than Purdum would have us believe; ditto for two prominent Democrats, Emanuel Celler in the House and George Smathers in the Senate. I for one am strewing no rosebuds in the paths of these four or many of the others we meet here.

Probably “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” will be of most use to readers who were too young to appreciate what happened in Washington in 1964 (as indeed was Purdum, who was born in 1959) or who came along well after it had receded into dim memory, which is what most American historical memory tends to do anyway. The book provides a competent background in describing the unsuccessful and initially half-hearted effort by President John F. Kennedy to push civil rights legislation through a Congress whose most powerful members were the racist barons from the South; the vigorous (and in many eyes wholly unexpected) championing of the cause by Lyndon Johnson upon assuming the presidency; the apathy of most white Americans toward African American aspirations; the brutal opposition to those aspirations in much of the South; and the determined, relentless emergence of a civil rights movement that simply would not abide further delay and evasion.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson reaches to shake hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after presenting the civil rights leader with one of the 72 pens used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (AP)

Purdum provides brief thumbnail portraits of the major and minor figures in the debate in the once-over-lightly style that used to appear in the weekly newsmagazines; it seems most unlikely that many of these portraits will stick in the minds of many readers, as they tend to dissolve into an indistinguishable blur. He also tries valiantly to explain the evolution of the bill as it worked its tortuous way through the House and into the Senate, but this, too, tends to dissolve into a blur, less from any fault of Purdum’s than because such matters are by their nature complex and often arcane. I cannot say that it gives me much pleasure to renew acquaintances with the likes of Howard W. Smith, chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Harry F. Byrd and Richard Russell in the Senate, all of them prominent among the Southern Democrats who fought bitterly against ceding an inch to black Americans but ultimately were undone, largely because of the supreme political gifts of Johnson but also thanks to the efforts of William McCulloch, a long-forgotten representative from Ohio, who “was a conventionally conservative Republican” (which meant something quite different then from what it means now) yet “had also been an avid supporter of civil rights.” It is most likely that without McCulloch, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, the bill would not have passed.

Dirksen’s role in passage of the bill also was critical — “The bill can’t pass unless you get Ev,” Johnson told Hubert Humphrey, who was then a senator from Minnesota and floor manager for the bill in the Senate. “You and I are going to get Ev. It’s going to take time” — but he required assiduous wooing, not merely because he had genuine reservations about enforcement of the bill’s guarantee of access for all to public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels, but because he enjoyed the spotlight and putting on a show in its glare. Like almost everyone involved in the debate over the bill, Dirksen is now known primarily to students of political science and American history, but he was a considerable figure in his day, if an enigmatic one, and the recognition Purdum gives him is deserved, if a tad on the sunny side.

Today’s reader will be startled, if not astonished, by how the bill made its way through Congress. When the Senate voted on cloture to end debate and bring the bill up for a vote, it passed by 71 to 29, with Republicans providing the votes to put it past the two-thirds then required and Southern Democrats providing most of the opposition. Final passage in the Senate was by 73 to 27: “All but six of the Senate’s thirty-three Republicans had voted for it, compared with just forty-six of its sixty-seven Democrats.” In the House the final vote was 289 to 126, with Republicans again pushing it over the top.

As the thus far fruitless struggle over immigration reform makes clear, that kind of bipartisan support seems almost impossible to organize in today’s Congress. The Democratic hard left and the Republican hard right are deeply entrenched and mutually uninterested in compromise or even in civil conversation. “Come, let us reason together” was the mantra of Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mentor, and that is what members of both parties did in 1964, to the everlasting credit of all. Those may not have been the good old days, but on Capitol Hill at least they certainly were better ones. Today they seem even further in the past than they really are.


Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964

By Todd S. Purdum

Henry Holt. 398 pp. $30