The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

on the World Today

PRESIDENT JOHNSON became aware almost immediately after taking office that with the presidential election less than a year away, his honeymoon with Congress would be short. He knew that if he was to win approval of his basic legislative program he would be required to flight for it with all possible speed. Urgency was the overriding element in the State of the Union message, which, while couched in nonpartisan phrases, was a strongly political document. Republicans and Democrats recognized it at once as the Johnson platform for election.

Despite the President’s appeal to Democrats to put country above party in 1964. Republicans saw the address as a major challenge. In throwing down the challenge, the President himself helped bring about the end of the political honeymoon. However deftly he spoke, it was apparent that he was stealing much of the opposition’s thunder with his war on the budget and that he was offering his own party a positive program with his war on poverty. The message showed how completely the statesman and the politician are merged in Mr. Johnson’s personality.

In a recent discussion of the Johnson and Kennedy personalities. Professor J. Frank Dobie, the admirable Texas storyteller and writer, remarked to a visitor that he believed President Kennedy was always more concerned with the ultimate objectives and with long-term ends than with means. President Johnson, on the other hand, Dobie said, is more interested in means. Once a program is fashioned, Johnson is totally committed to the task of implementing it. He never neglects a single detail. Victory becomes a necessity for him.

The furious drive the President has made to win congressional approval of the tax and civil rights bills reveals him as a master organizer and field commander. He believes, rightly, that energy and stamina are essential ingredients of success. He inherited a program that he wants to put into effect, and he leaves nothing to chance. His patience with opponents, as he constantly demands forward movement, can be exceedingly short, at times perhaps dangerously short.

The face of poverty

All of his driving energy is needed to achieve the aims of his war on poverty, a program which had its inception in his predecessor’s mind but which was not fully developed by November 22. With the President’s full support, we may hope that at last some tangible new steps may be taken to remove a blight no country as rich and productive as ours should tolerate. The pockets of unemployment in the nation and the depressingly high rate of early school-dropouts have made a mockery of our claims to an affluent society.

A visitor to the President’s own home state is shocked by the blemishes side by side with enormous wealth. He is reminded of Margaret BourkeWhite’s book of photographs entitled You Have Seen Their Faces. The faces were those of the poverty-stricken of thirty years ago. But the question always was, Have you seen their faces? Too often we have taken them for granted and hardly noticed.

These blemishes, in whatever state they are found, would be understandable in a poor country. They are “intolerable,” as the President said, in America. Nearly three decades ago he saw what rural electrification could do for Texas farm life and what the National Youth Administration could do for Texas youth. Now he believes that something new can be done to rid the land of paralyzing and degrading poverty. Fortunately, he is the kind of person who can shock the nation into a clearer awareness of the problem and drive it toward a program of action.

Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz and others who helped formulate the President’s proposals are fully aware of the Herculean size of the task. Most discouraging to Wirtz is the problem of the nation’s untrained and undertrained youth. In 1963, while unemployment among adults declined to about 3.1 percent of the labor force, unemployment among those under twenty years of age rocketed from 12 to 17 percent; “a most disheartening rate,” Wirtz said.

The President’s decision to use the facilities of the Selective Service System as one means of attacking the problem is characteristic. It was a tool at hand and he grabbed it. In the past, the Selective Service examined registrants only as it prepared to induct them. The President ordered the Selective Service to examine those not in school as promptly as possible after they register at age eighteen. He wants to find out at an early stage which of the registrants are unacceptable for mental or physical reasons so that they may be referred to the proper community or federal agencies for rehabilitation or retraining assistance. In the past, the Selective Service did not tell a registrant why he was rejected. The President said the youth should be told and should be given guidance in seeking training or health services.

The presidential succession

While Washington observers generally applaud the President’s all-out campaign to whip Congress into action, and recognize the necessity for vigorous executive action, there is concern over the furious pace he follows. Many persons, remembering his heart attack, wish that he would pace himself a little better. They continue to be deeply anxious about the issue of presidential succession, even though Johnson brushed the subject aside and refused to take a hand in developing a more sensible succession law. In view of the suffering the nation has already experienced, it would be a disaster if it lost another President. It would be a double disaster if it lost one at a critical point in the re-election process or before there is a new Vice President. That is why the President should pay attention to the advice of the Secret Service and of his doctors.

It is also the reason why Congress should not further delay rewriting the presidential-succession law. Congress has the power to repeal or amend the 1947 act, which places the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate next in line after the Vice President. There is widespread agreement among students of the problem that the 1947 act should be repealed or amended to place the Secretary of State and other Cabinet members in line of succession as they were before 1947. This is legislative action that is urgently needed.

But there is a larger problem, and it requires a constitutional amendment. As former Vice President Nixon has sensibly argued, the country needs a Vice President at all times. Every Broadway actor and corporation president has an understudy. Certainly the President of the United States should have one. At the moment, Mr. Johnson believes that it would be unwise for him, except in a grave emergency, to leave the United States, because there is no Vice President to act for him in his absence.

Nixon has studied the succession problem as intensively as anyone, and he believes that when a Vice President succeeds to the presidency, he should be empowered to convene the electoral college within a month of his succession to elect a new Vice President. The electoral college would elect as the new Vice President the man the new President sponsored, Nixon believes, just as party conventions normally accept the vice presidential candidate that the presidential nominee proposes. No one has any doubt that the Democratic National Convention meeting in Atlantic City this summer will nominate the vice presidential candidate Mr. Johnson proposes. But the electoral college owes allegiance to no one, and it is composed of unknowns.

A somewhat different proposal, and one that may engender less objection than Nixon’s, has been made by Democratic Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana. He believes that when a Vice President becomes a President, he should be empowered to nominate a Vice President, subject to confirmation by vote of the House and Senate. Even if Congress were dominated by the opposite party, it is unlikely, according to Bayh, that it would reject the new President’s nominee unless there were overpowering objections to him.

Since both the Nixon and Bayh proposals are intended to give the new President virtual power to name a new Vice President, subject only to some recognized forms and restraints, it would seem better to give the power of confirmation to the Senate alone. It is accustomed to the responsibility of confirming Cabinet and other nominations. It knows that it should permit the President latitude in these matters. The House, on the other hand, is a larger and less responsible body, more given to factionalism and petty feuds. In an emergency, it would take longer to win confirmation in two houses than in one. It would be better to place the power of confirmation in the Senate, where it has always been.

Another proposal calls for the election every four years of two Vice Presidents: an executive Vice President, who would have executive responsibilities, and a legislative Vice President, who would preside over the Senate and perform legislative duties for the President. The problem here would be in making the jobs attractive enough and powerful enough to appeal to the leading men of a party.

Since all these proposals require a constitutional amendment and cannot apply to the present situation, it is important that debate on them start at once if we are to be prepared for a future emergency. It is a pity that the President’s powerful leadership is absent in the fight.

Johnson’s running mate?

The newspapers have been filled with speculative stories regarding the President’s choice of a running mate in the 1964 campaign. It is safe to say that he has not made up his mind and that he will not do so until the last possible moment. While he has encouraged boomlets for various persons, including Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver, the President is a wise enough politician not to act in haste on this matter.

There are cynics who believe that the President’s praise of Shriver is no more than an effort to block the possible candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General, or the favorite candidate of the Northern liberals, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota. Whatever the President’s motive, the game is going to be a fascinating one down to the wire.

If one were choosing a Vice President on the basis of service to Democratic liberalism, Humphrey would almost certainly win the award. If one were awarding an administrator for his ability to choose able associates, Robert Kennedy would be a front-runner. He presides with energy over a well-run, well-staffed, and well-organized department. Though no one would claim that he has exceptional legal ability, he has chosen competent people, delegated power to them, and listened attentively to their advice.

The outstanding members of the team are Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who succeeded Byron R. White as Deputy Attorney General; Archibald Cox, the able Solicitor General; Burke Marshall, who has performed superbly in the most difficult assignment as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the civil rights division; Louis B. Oberdorfer, whose responsibilities have been much broader than his title of Assistant Attorney General in charge of the tax division would indicate; and Herbert John Miller, Jr., a Republican, who is Assistant Attorney General in charge of the criminal division.

The late President, both in the Senate and in the White House, was unusually gifted in his ability to select able assistants. President Johnson is being observed closely to see how well he succeeds in retaining and attracting able people.

Mood of the Capital

There is every confidence that Congress will pass a civil rights bill this year, but there is full realization in the White House and on Capitol Hill that the struggle will be a long and a bitter one. The President’s ability to reach an amicable solution will be put to the highest test.

Whatever action is taken to reconcile views or to compromise issues will be subject to the most violent disagreement and to the charge of false motives. The country as well as Congress and the President will be on trial.

Foreign aid also will provoke a long and ugly fight again, but no other issue can tear the country apart or arouse such deep emotions as civil rights. Except for this continuing crisis, Washington would face the year’s problems, including the election, with surprising hope.