WHISKEY SOUR: No, Sen. Alexander, and, no, Ruth Marcus, Mitch McConnell Is Not Everett Dirksen. So Sorry.

Everett McKinley Dirksen (January 4, 1896 – September 7, 1969) was an American politician of the Republican Party. He represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives (1933–1949) and U.S. Senate (1951–1969). As Senate Minority Leader for a decade, he played a highly visible and key role in the politics of the 1960s, including helping to write and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Open Housing Act of 1968, both landmarks of civil rights legislation. He was also one of the Senate’s strongest supporters of the Vietnam War and was known as “The Wizard of Ooze” for his oratorical style.

That’s the Wikipedia version of how LBJ was able to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1965.  But it’s inaccurate.  Here’s the accurate version:

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the onus is on the president.

“You can’t do it without presidential leadership and we’re all hopeful he’ll be prepared to provide that leadership,” McConnell said. “The president needs to deliver his side.”
Other senators also cited the leadership meme.

“The point that was consistently made to the president was that in the absence of his leadership, issues that are important to the people of America will not be addressed,” [Sen. Jerry] Moran said. “I really think it was rather a bland conversation. No fireworks on either tone. This wasn’t memorable, it was the opposite of that.”

Alexander brought up meetings between President Lyndon Johnson and GOP Senate leader Everett Dirksen.

“I told him that every great crisis in our history has been solved by presidential leadership or not at all,” he said. “I’ve been around here a long time and this is the kind of thing that used to happen when President Johnson would show up unexpectedly in Dirksen’s office for a drink because Dirksen wouldn’t go down to the White House. As a result the next year they passed the Civil Rights bill.”

—  Obama to Democrats: Chill out, Manu Rafu, Kate Nocera, Jonathan Allen, Politico, yesterday

OK.  I grew up in a household with two liberal Democratic political junkies (my parents), one of them a journalist (horrors!), both of them lifelong Illinoisans, one of whose ancestors on both sides were Illinoisans dating back to not long after the Civil War.  

So I grew up knowing, for example, that the only thing “Jerksen” ever did in his political career, before his surprising aggressive support of the Civil Rights Act and his assistance to LBJ in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in getting it enacted, was to get the Marigold declared the official state flower (when he was a top State legislator, or something).  So all you Illinoisans who didn’t know that your state even has an official flower, and who are reading this post, must be glad you read AB occasionally, because now you know.  (I can also tell you extremely detailed information about, say, Chicago politics dating back to about the early 1900s, but you’ve had your Illinois-political-history fill for the day, I’m sure. And you’ll probably agree, as I do, that the Marigold is a pretty flower.  Even my mother, she of “Jerksen” coinage, agreed; she just didn’t think it was necessary to have an official state flower.)

My point in all this, of course, is that while Sen. Alexander has been around there a long time, that time isn’t quite long enough for him to know that, contrary to what he apparently thinks–or at least what his choice of analogy implies–Lyndon Johnson did not cave to the Republicans and finally agree reluctantly to support the Civil Rights Act.  Johnson himself actually strongly supported enactment of the Act and obtained the assistance of the Republican Senate Minority Leader in bringing along enough members of their respective parties to vote for it.  

That included, on Johnson’s part, persuading some Southern Democrats in the House and Senate to vote for it despite the very substantial risk to their own political careers, and, on Dirksen’s part, doing the same with Republicans from mostly-rural states.  And while he first had to persuade Dirksen himself, Dirksen was not going to be “primaried” by a Tea Party candidate, or by some “out there” equivalent of the 1960s.  Nor did he have to fear, as both McConnell and John Boehner do, the loss of their leadership roles if they, y’know, actually act as leaders.  

Nor is it clear that, had he had to worry about these things, he would have shown the leadership he showed, helping write two really strong, landmark civil rights laws and helping shepherd them through to enactment. There was no “compromise” in the enactment of the 1960s civil rights laws; the nature of those laws were, all or nothing.  Dirksen chose the “all” option.  McConnell and Boehner won’t even choose the “compromise” one, choosing a new  and ludicrous definition of “leadership”–one that they’ve sold to analysis-challenged members of the centrist punditry.  

Such as Ruth Marcus, who writes today in the Washington Post:

Speaking to [George] Stephanopoulos, the president sounded distinctly pessimistic about the prospects for such a bargain and disturbingly unconcerned about failing to reach one. That, he said, would be more missed opportunity than “crisis.”

Perhaps he’s posturing; if the president is seen as coveting a deal too much, he won’t be able to get the kind he wants. Perhaps it’s simple realism; Republicans’ refusal to consider revenue raised by curtailing loopholes is unacceptable, and the president shouldn’t accept a cuts-only deal.

But failure would not only tarnish Republicans; it would also stain Obama’s legacy. Great presidential leadership entails figuring out how to deal with even those who do not like you.

Indeed it does.  Maybe Marcus has in mind the option of dealing with those in Congress who don’t like him by, say, informing the public that federal spending is now at its lowest level in more than 50 years; that the budget deficit had declined substantially since he took office (after initially rising); that the 2011 and 2012 debt ceiling and fiscal cliff agreements included large reductions in spending; that he and the Dems are now proposing further reductions in spending; and that taxes on the wealthy are at historically low levels dating back to pre-WWII, with the single exception being the decade of the 2000s. And that there actually is no good reason at all to have a balanced federal budget, and it’s just being used as a way to gut the federal budget. And that he could even directly inform the public of what the Ryan budget actually proposes.  

But I doubt it. Marcus’s op-ed piece, after all, isn’t titled ”Obama has to be dealmaker in chief,” for nothing.

Great presidential leadership entails figuring out how to deal with even those who do not like you. And certainly Obama hasn’t yet figured out how to deal with even those who do not like him. Or how to deal with even those who themselves are in leadership positions and whose very political careers depend now entirely on being the un-Dirksen.  

Those who, say, wouldn’t engage in actual leadership–as opposed to Leadership–if Everett Dirksen himself reappeared as a ghost in the Capitol and defined it for them.  And who are buttressed in this every single time some “name” pundit claims otherwise.  

The centrist-pundit crowd should not be held harmless in this. They are not harmless.