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As a public interest advocate I always connect anniversaries to events and future actions. Memory, commemoration, reinforcement, next actions each brings us closer to the next objective in civil rights, safety net protection, peace and countless other efforts.
For us 2014 is a year of anniversaries: 40 years since the Nixon resignation, 50 years of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and One Person-One Vote and 60 years since Brown vs Board of Education. They have clear memories for me. I played an active role in achieving three of them.
We are also about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the creation of Politics & Prose. I look forward to being present for the celebration and hope I'm there for the 40th. Politics & Prose thrives as a community bastion of civil discourse, a place that discusses ideas with joy and open minds, where friends meet and new friends are made and you can be serious about books and have fun. My continuing connection with Politics and Prose stands as a source of pride and pleasure under the leadership of Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine and the remarkable staff that is part of the Politics & Prose community.
Each of these anniversaries bring us a bevy of books by authors that have appeared at P&P, authors who provide historical perspective in the liveliest of ways. The books that I'm boosting taught me matters that I couldn't know when I was in the frontlines on civil rights, one person-one vote and Watergate.
Starting with the oldest anniversaries first, I want to recommend six excellent books that are a delight to read even if you lived through these times. You may want to share them with your children and grandchildren.
Brown v. Board of Education
Simple Justice (Vintage, $27.95) by Richard Kluger traces the battle of Brown v. Board of Education. The personalities are complex: the talented lawyers, reflecting the Talented Tenth that W.E.B. Du Bois instilled in African-American elites, the brave plaintiffs, parents and children, in the Deep South and Kansas. The story has complex cultural roots that are as at least as significant as its legal roots.
Simple Justice is the authoritative account of what led to the 1954 decision that held: "Separate education facilities are inherently unequal." Kluger writes gracefully and thereby makes history live.
Sixty years later Sheryl Cashin, a Georgetown Law Professor, who clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, sets forth ways to address racial and social inequality in America. Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America (Beacon, $25.95) gets us past the categories associated with affirmative action to address those people who are disadvantaged by race and class. She has opened up a thought provoking discussion on how to create multi-racial opportunities that challenges the current thinking and helps us navigate a potentially volatile subject.
1964 Civil Rights Act
The 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark in every way, brings us two excellent books: Clay Risen's The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act (Bloomsbury, $28) and Todd Purdum's An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Henry Holt and Co., $30).
Each book recognizes the major work of William McCulloch, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who is one of the heroes, largely unsung, in the bill becoming a law. I believe that. One evening at a P&P event I had a chance to praise McCullloch from the floor. Later that evening a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes to tell me she was Congressman McCulloch's daughter.
Risen's is a textured history that takes us through the Kennedy Administration's initial ambivalence, its impatience with the civil rights advocates and the President at last recognizing that civil rights is a moral issue. Risen takes us through the Birmingham strategies and tragedies and has us in Mississippi when Medgar Evers is assassinated.
Risen richly recognizes the different roles of Senators Humphrey and Mansfield and each necessary to have Senator Dirksen overcome his initial doubts about certain titles and in time persuade many conservatives to support the legislation.
None of this happened in a vacuum. Certainly the religious community—particularly the middle-west Protestant and Catholic communities—made a clear difference in achieving that far reaching goal.
Purdum surrounds his book with a century's unfinished business of racial equality and ends with an epilogue of some of the personal stories, not all happy, with the players as life cycle and organizational events interfere with their late in life endings.
Purdum's book has three parts: The Administration, the House and the Senate. The story is told by a skilled journalist with a historic sensibility. The interplay of Humphrey and his wooing of Dirksen, Mansfield's role, the determination to not yield the floor to the filibusterers, the bi-partisanship which was constant that improved the result, and more importantly led to its acceptance, attested to by Senator Russell leader of the Southern bloc.
President Johnson's contribution was not one of persuading legislators. The evidence suggests he persuaded only one. However, his determination to get a strong bill, reinforced by McCulloch, gave Humphrey the room to negotiate with Dirksen so Dirksen legitimately shared in the credit. The negotiations were accomplished without materially weakening the legislation. In every way LBJ was important, picking up on Martin Luther King's peroration at the March on Washington, Free at Last! Free at Last! Free at Last!
One Person-One Vote
Chief Justice Warren thought that his greatest contribution was the one person-one vote decisions affecting Congress and state legislatures. J. Douglas Smith's On Democracy's Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought One Person, One Vote to the United States (Hill and Wang, $35) takes us behind the scenes in the Executive Branch, gives us an idea of the issues before the Court which and dramatically tells the efforts to undo the decision in the Congress led by our civil rights hero Dirksen with the complicity of the Johnson Justice Department. That effort was derailed by Senators Douglas, Proxmire, Clark and Hart and the decision was preserved. The battle was fought again in 1965 and the same Senators plus the newly elected Joe Tydings warded off the wreckers.
John Gardner, a mentor of mine, said of Elizabeth Drew's Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Nixon's Downfall (Overlook, $29.95) that 40 years after publication it will be the book that lasts.
Drew's work gives the reader a complex and an understandable picture of the passage ways and layers that we have to navigate. Watergate is much more than what did President Nixon know and when did he know it. We are constantly challenged as a people to overcome our penchant for historic amnesia. It is not about the memory of grievance or bitterness but how do we use memory to help us face our current problems and not deny their existence.
Drew's work gives the reader a complex and an understandable picture of the passage ways and layers that we have to navigate to understand the Watergate days. Re-reading it I found myself reading intensively the firing of Archibald Cox and the principled stands of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckleshaus. I stayed riveted on the days of the House Judiciary Committee's working through the Articles of Impeachment and the care with which Members—Republican and Democratic—met their responsibility.
In Washington Journal Drew provides us with original reporting in her Afterword. She gives us new and astonishing material on that part of Richard Nixon's life that has not been examined, his post-Presidency.
Read again Washington Journal stays fresh, written in a time of no 24/7 news cycle, no twitter feeds, no blogs, not even CNN. Her reporting probes and explains, thereby connecting the free floating dots. Its republication, and the Afterword, will keep Washington Journal alive for a new generation and allow the older generation to be reminded of what we must not forget.
These books have a commonality about our past political culture that the current one lacks: a willingness to tackle tough problems, to recognize the country and its democratic systems and processes matter. In Watergate the Judiciary Committee dug in, worked in a non-partisan way to create an agreement based on evidence. In civil rights the branches of government worked in a way that created substantial acceptance after the Supreme Court said segregation was neither constitutional nor acceptable. The race to undo one person, one vote was stopped.
The lesson also shows that problems do not go away. New ones emerge. That's why we work to find ways to address inequality of voting and opportunity. That is our public work that has to continue.