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How the nation once worked

Fifty years ago this month Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Fifty years ago next year, Congress enacted Medicare.

Both the measures faced furious opposition and even violence over the bitter course of enactment.

In 1964, a filibuster — a real one, during which senators talked endlessly — was mounted by southern senators to stop the civil rights bill, which would outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, ending racial segregation in workplaces, schools and places of public accommodation. (Sex was included as something of a joke by a white supremacist in the U.S. House, Howard Smith, who thought it would help kill the bill. Instead, the House took him up on it, 168 to 133, years before the women’s rights movement of the late 1960s.)

Day after day, senators talked on. The Senate worked seven Saturdays. One indication of the drama was that as the weeks passed, television reporters covering the filibuster, notably Roger Mudd, became famous.

Finally it ended. The Senate had debated the bill for 60 days, the filibuster had lasted for 54 of those days. The filibuster ended June 10.

The temper of the time was reflected in some quarters in the late hours of June 21 or the early morning hours of June 22 when Klan members and law enforcement officers in Mississippi murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner and buried their bodies in an earthen dam.

The House voted final passage of the measure on July 2.

The next year, Medicare was approved. This drama had been longer reaching its climax. Medical care for the aged had been proposed by President Truman. The American Medical Association had led a long, bitter battle against what it called “socialized medicine,” which it said would undercut basic values. Late in his term, President Eisenhower had approved a partial program under which federal money was made available to states to aid the elderly in getting health care.

In one of his most effective speeches, nationally televised before a huge crowd in Madison Square Garden on May 21, 1962, President Kennedy made the case for the program: “And then I read that this bill will sap the individual self-reliance of Americans. I can’t imagine anything worse – or anything better — to sap someone’s self-reliance, than to be sick, alone, broke, or to have saved for a lifetime and put it out in a week, two weeks, a month, two months.” (The speech can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/l574zk7).

The next night two AMA spokespeople also appeared from the Garden, alone in the empty hall, to respond to Kennedy. Dr. Edward Annis said, “Our fees are not involved. Our practice of quality medicine is. Your health is. … [Medicare] will lower the quality and availability of hospital services throughout our country. It will stand between the patient and his doctor.”

The reaction to Kennedy’s assassination helped elect Democrats, Lyndon Johnson among them, and the new 1965 Congress overcame AMA opposition to enact Medicare.

What happened to those two national laws then?

No state governments refused to cooperate with them.

The Republican Party did not, for years afterward, tie repeal of those two laws to approval of other, unrelated measures.

The Republicans did not threaten to shut down the government in order to repeal those laws.

Some doctors had said they would refuse to practice under Medicare, but few did.

No one tried to kill the laws by de-funding them.

No one tried to delay putting the laws into operation.

Instead, slowly, the nation came together. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is now considered one of the landmark measures in U.S. history. Medicare has given the elderly a much improved quality of life.

If the United States is so polarized that it can no longer act by consensus and respect majority rule, what does that tell us?

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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