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Bill Clinton at the U: From Humphrey and Civil Rights Act to today’s partisan gridlock

Trust, even across party lines, was necessary to get the civil-rights bill through, Clinton said. Without it, nothing in politics can be accomplished, and it’s largely absent in today’s Washington.

After accepting his award, the former president gave the latest in a series of talks marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Former President Bill Clinton thinks the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a very good thing. Without the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he himself could never have become president, he said, nor could Jimmy Carter, nor could Barack Obama.

He thinks Hubert Humphrey (who led the campaign to break a Senate filibuster enabling the Civil Rights Act to pass) did a very good job and Clinton wasn’t shy about telling this to a Minnesota audience last night at the University of Minnesota (where Clinton was also given an award for leadership by Dean Eric Schwartz of the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs).

Clinton good-naturedly embarrassed Schwartz by noting that, as president, he had appointed Schwartz to various important jobs.

After accepting his award, the former president gave the latest in a series of talks marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Clinton spoke for more than an hour (evincing a loquaciousness for which he is well known).

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Did he ramble? Fair-minded observers might say so. Did he have a point? Many, although they seemed to be drawn from all over the solar system. Did he speak from notes? No. Did he have a plan? Hard to say, but if so, it was a plan of great subtlety, not easily grasped.  

Humphrey’s long effort to break the 1964 filibuster looks odd from today’s standpoint, Clinton noted, because Humphrey was a Democrat but so were the leaders of the filibuster. Nowadays, the two-party system has sorted itself out so every issue breaks down along party lines, mostly across the issue of government itself, with Republicans believing that “government can’t do anything for them” so their attitude is “let’s not let government do anything to them.”

The issue of trust

Passage of the Civil Rights Act required trust, compromise and strategic retreats, Clinton said. The original bill included what later became the Voting Rights Act, but Humphrey had to drop that section in order to break the filibuster and get the rest of the bill through. The voting rights stuff was added the following year, by which time Humphrey was vice president.

Lyndon Johnson was, of course, also a large figure in the tale, although he occupied a small place in Clinton’s telling of it. Clinton made joshing reference to the current Broadway hit, “All the Way,” which is about the passage of the Civil Rights Act and for which actor Bryan Cranston, who portrays LBJ, recently won a Tony award. Playing Johnson was “a step up from playing a meth dealer – at least members of my party think so,” Clinton joked. (That’s a reference to Cranston’s long-running role as a drug dealer on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”)

Trust, even across party lines, was necessary to get the civil-rights bill through, Clinton said. Without trust, nothing can be accomplished in politics. This led to a surprising side trip into Clinton’s experience as a Middle East peacemaker during his own presidency, and a crisis over the need for a road around Hebron to link Jericho and the Gaza Strip (the “Gaza-Jericho agreement” of 1994). There wasn’t time before the agreement had to be signed for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to work out a written agreement but Rabin promised Arafat that they had a deal for a road and Arafat said of Rabin (according to Clinton last night), “his word is worth more than a written agreement.”

But I digress. Clinton’s point was that trust is vital and is largely absent in today’s Washington.

Political courage — and a confusing moment

Also political courage is needed. Clinton made no reference to his wife’s likely 2016 run for president. In fact, the only reference I recall hearing to Hillary Clinton last night was an accidental one. Talking about political courage and the passage of his own 1993 budget, by a single vote, Clinton said that “my wife’s mother-in-law” lost her seat in Congress because she voted for that budget. This was supposed to be about political courage, except that it made no sense. Clinton may have noticed confusion in the audience because he stopped himself a moment later. He meant to say his daughter’s mother-in-law, he said, and that is true. Hillary Clinton’s mother-in-law, Clinton said (as he worked out the mat of his slip) would have been Bill Clinton’s own mother, who never served in Congress (although Clinton said it would have been interesting if she had).

After a while, references to Humphrey and the Civil Rights Act receded and Clinton began a long list of issues that our country needs urgently and obviously to deal with but cannot because of partisan and ideological gridlock.

This observation led to a discussion by the former president of Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, “The Big Sort,” about how Americans have sorted themselves out along party lines so that we mostly live in red or blue neighborhoods. Great progress has been made against racial differences since the Civil Rights Act, Clinton said, and in place of race bigotry “our one remaining bigotry is that we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

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Urgent issues and partisan polarization

The list of urgent problems with which American cannot deal because of partisan polarization actually took up the biggest chunk of Clinton’s speech. It included immigration, growing income inequality, the cost of college and the problem of people who start but don’t finish college, the craziness of having half of the states expand Medicaid under the Obamacare law and half refusing to do so.

For each of these, Clinton said, there’s a Republican and a Democratic approach, but neither can be adopted and the chances of compromise seem low. (I’m not sure that that is true on the Medicaid expansion piece.)

Somehow, Clinton came around to the 2012 book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” by biologist E.O. Wilson, which had to do with human similarities to various species of insects, including at least ants and bees, the degree to which their success has to do with social skills, cooperation and stuff like that.

Clinton’s talk was part of a long series marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, sponsored by the Humphrey School in honor of the school’s namesake and his role in the passage of the act. The previous episode in the series that got significant attention was an April talk by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that attracted protests over her role in Bush-era treatment of prisoners. Rice received $150,000 for her talk, which was also controversial, although the university did not pay for it. Clinton spoke for no fee and the proceeds of the event (tickets were $50 apiece) will be used for scholarships to promote diversity at the Humphrey School.