An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S. Purdum

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
by Todd Purdum
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 0805096728
416 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” relates the convoluted steps leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with the championship and oversight of the bill’s design by the executive branch (namely the Kennedy brothers) and its subsequent evolution through passage in the House and Senate. This political development, rather ‘dry’ in itself, is of course set amid the turbulent social upheavals of the era and that event that both helped propel this ‘project’ forward and led to new difficulties in its realization, namely the Kennedy assassination and the new leadership of Southerner Johnson.

Purdum does a fine job relating the details of the Act’s development and ultimate passage, and after reading about the many failed party compromises of recent years it is interesting to read about one instance where something substantial was achieved. Unlike recent issues, however, this Act had split support and opposition from wings of both Republican and Democratic parties, and thankfully the extreme wings of each party that fought against this Act were each in the minority, unlike today.

The majority of focus in the book is on the executive branch, pervading each step leading to the final passage, and as such the people involved in the legislative branch on either side get relatively less attention. Already less familiar with these people, greater biographical detail on these players and their pasts would have been nice.

While the book does an excellent and fair job of relating the history involved, it spends very little space on any type of analysis. Largely this seems to avoid any kind of bias or opinion, as opposed to just stating the facts or reporting the recorded opinions of those involved in the process at the time. This is not a fault, but if you are looking for something beyond a simple history of passage this may not be of interest. But if you are largely unfamiliar with the details of this period of history, Purdum’s work serves as an excellent primer and education, offering glimpses not just into politics, but the social situation of the United States in the early 60’s and the racial injustices so many citizens endured and fought to overcome.

Four Stars out of Five

The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward

The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1451651112
480 pages, paperback
Published September 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I made it through this book faster than I ever expected given its topic and my own aversion to things involving economics. Detailing the attempted, and mostly failed attempts of the White House to direct negotiations over US economic policy regarding the debt limit and related matters, the book actually proceeds rapidly and easily, though also rather depressingly.

Woodward tells the story with fine detail and coverage, including multiple points of view and accounts of events when they occur. While he occasionally passes a judgment, and gives his overall point of view conclusions at the close (within a new afterward for this addition), he relates the story in a relatively unbiased fashion.

The book certainly informed me on the events leading to the sequester, the government shutdown, and the budget battles that still continue today, and it paints a picture where many tried to get something done, but all failed, largely due to inflexibility, overconfidence, and lack of trust. These sorts of ‘recent history’ books are important, because they give one a more complete look at a complex process, unlike the uninformative and intentionally spun outlets of media soundbites. In general, the events here are horrifying and frightening for many reasons, and show how ineffective the Obama administration has been at leading in this realm, and how dangerously ignorant and stubborn many of the Tea party-elected are. What is interesting is that while the Tea Party affiliated remain in the background of this history, never taking an active role in negotiations or attempts to actually govern, they exist in the background as the ultimate menace, and unspoken source of the Republican leadership’s repeated abandonment of talks at the slightest excuse and a rigid inflexibility on a host of issues.

The limits of this book are perhaps obvious. It is focus on the events of a political process. There is very little information on the actual political issues, or the origin of party positions. These topics are touched on, but not analyzed or reviewed in any great detail as much as the specifics of events involved in trying to come up with legislation. It also avoids the question of how this process can be improved, or if the system in general is now failed and needs a complete overhaul. All of these are beyond the scope of the book though. Finally, the book reads as somewhat incomplete for it is just that. This history, the process of trying to deal with these issues politically, is still in motion as I write this. So by the end of the book, the story still isn’t quite over, an inherent problem with this sort of work.

Three Stars out of Five