The President & The Negro: The Moment Lost

"The President & The Negro: The Moment Lost," Commentary, February 1967.

Excerpt: For anyone with even a moderate concern for the sources of stability in American government, the results of the 1966 elections will appear on balance a good thing. The Republican party reemerged as a strong and competent force in national life. Republicans now govern half the states of the union, are clearly seen as eligible to assume control of the national government, and increasingly are likely to do so before too many elections have passed.

The liberal Republicans whose successes were most prominent on November 8th do not normally take positions as “advanced” as have recent Democratic Presidents; but then over the years neither have Democratic Congresses, or the nation at large. We have just gone through one of those special periods in the American political cycle of high receptivity to new ideas and new social policies. This period, roughly from November 1963 to November 1966, was a consequence, as James L. Sundquist argues, of two tremendous accidents: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the nomination of Barry Goldwater. Much as we will remember the thousand days of Kennedy as a moment of brilliance in American life, it was nonetheless a time of modest legislative achievement. New ideas were conceived, new programs put forth, but the congressional response was cautious and toward the end hostile. At the time of the President’s death, his legislative program was in trouble. It was only in the period that followed, in a spasm of remorse, guilt, fear, and something like exultation when what looked like disastrous fate was overcome and transformed indeed into triumph, that attention was turned to the unfinished business of the nation. Not long thereafter, the immense Democratic pluralities in Congress brought about by Goldwater’s defeat provided a margin of votes for measures that had been stalemated for years. In three tremendous sessions, Congress cleaned up the agenda of the Roosevelt and Truman eras, while adding a number of important programs conceived in the present era, out of its special problems. The Republican resurgence in part almost certainly reflects a feeling that enough new things are underway for the time being; and there is truth in this. The demand for innovation and experiment has been more than met: a pause is hardly out of order, and with a major war being fought, such a pause was scarcely to be avoided regardless of party balance. In general, the newly elected Republicans are men who have no intention of reversing what progress has been made, nor even of standing still. It is just that the recent period of accelerated, intensive innovation is over.