Opinion

Journalists make a living often by shining a light on the behind-the-scenes actions of government officials and other people in power. The role of the press is critical to a healthy society. To promote open government, both the federal and state governments have strong laws that preserve a person’s rights to access government records and meetings. Journalists regularly rely on these laws to do their job, but these rights belong to all people. Anyone can request records and attend the meetings of elected officials.

In last week’s issue, TBR News Media participated in Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The initiative’s goal is to better inform the public of their open government rights to access records and meetings of government entities of all sizes. We focused on New York State’s Freedom of Information Law and found that some local government offices were following antiquated practices.

Since 1978, governments in New York have been required to adopt a record access code consistent with that of New York State. Not every government is up to date. We found that most government offer preprinted FOIL request forms on their website but lacked record access clause in their online code book.

Fortunately, the state’s Department of State Committee on Open Government makes it easy for officials to update their code. Its website provides model regulations that can be easily adopted.

We’re proud to say that in response to our reporting, Port Jefferson Village quickly agreed to review and revise their code as needed. Another village, Head of the Harbor, was more resistant.

It’s important for people to know that since 2006 New York State requires that government entities accept and respond to FOIL requests via email, if they have email. If they use emails internally, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, Robert Freeman, said that it’s hard to imagine why it can’t be used for record access. New York was the first state in the nation to address this problem. In today’s electronic age, there’s little need to physically go to town or village hall to request or receive records.

Transparency in government is imperative, and we encourage all town and village halls, as well as schools, to review their practices to ensure the easiest means for the public to access records. The more resistant a government entity is to follow open government rules, the more critical it is for people to challenge it.

For more information on New York’s Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law, visit www.dos.ny.gov/coog/.

Daniel Dunaief

reader wrote in to request a column about the search for missing items. The following is my attempt to oblige that request.

Right now, someone, somewhere is looking for something. Whatever it is, a birthday card bought three months ago for that special day tomorrow, a scarf that matches an outfit perfectly or a piece of paper from an art store for a critical presentation, will cost less in time and money to purchase anew than the time it takes to search through the house.

And yet most people don’t want to give up the search because they figure they’ll find it, save themselves the trip and prove to their spouses that they aren’t completely hopeless.

The search for stuff can go from the manic “Where’s my hat, where’s my hat, where’s my hat,” to the humorous “Oh, haaat, where are you? Come to me, hat. Wouldn’t you like to share a spring day outside?” to the gritted-teeth angry “I know I put the hat here and it’s not here, which means it either walked away on its own or someone picked it up and put it somewhere else.”

When stuff disappears, we return to the same location over and over, searching the closet, flipping the cushions off the couch repeatedly, only to put them back and throw them off again, hoping that, somehow, the magic that caused the item to disappear will bring it back through our frantic search.

Most of us aren’t like Seinfeld or my super-organized sister-in-law, whose garage is probably better coordinated and arranged than most Home Depots. I recognize, of course, that my wife and I are on the other end of that spectrum. I’m not sure how the people with the organizational gene do it. I look at a pile of stuff and separate out everything into broad categories. There’s junk I might need outside, junk I might need inside, junk I can’t readily identify — and then I stare at it.

At some point, my frustration at my inability to sort through it becomes sufficiently high that I put the pile back together and, lo and behold, the junk makes it almost impossible to find one specific item, even if what I seek is in that pile. My life is filled with figurative haystacks and my ability and my patience to search for the needles is minimal.

When I’m hunting for something, I close my eyes and try to retrieve from my memory the last time I saw it. Aha! I think. It was in the living room. No, maybe the dining room. No, no, I’m sure it was the kitchen.

Sometimes, I break down and buy the stupid item again, knowing that I need a specific type of tape, a matching pair of socks or something that I can’t fake having because something like it —- a Hawaiian shirt versus a button-down Oxford shirt — just won’t do.

When I return with the desired item, I take a moment to try to figure out where best to put it so I can find it again the next day or in a week, if I’m that organized. I walk slowly around the house, examining the piles of stuff that I just searched through, knowing that the piles are seeking recruits to join them. I come across an unusual and little used location, which I’m sure I’ll remember. As I find the perfect place for the redundant item, far from the all-consuming clutter, I sometimes discover that the joke’s on me: The original birthday card or missing sock await in exactly the same location.

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Probably the worst part of the fraud committed by parents to get their children into top colleges is the message it sends to their children. The parents are saying plainly that the children are not capable of succeeding on their own. Regardless of what they may have told their children, actions speak louder than words, and these parents have demonstrated that in order to succeed, one has to lie, cheat, bribe and otherwise con one’s way to the goal. 

And what is the goal here? Just getting into college, not making a million-dollar deal or getting on Easy Street for life. Yes, a college degree usually helps a person to get a better job. It also supposedly helps that person to become a more developed human. But a college graduate is merely on the threshold of the rest of his or her life, with no guarantees of any sort except the number of years one has spent in schools.

There are colleges considered top tier, but they promise nothing more than a sheepskin if one passes all the requisite courses. Are the professors better in a top-tier college? One might think that. Or one might suspect that some of the big name faculty use postgraduate teaching assistants to do the daily teaching with little student contact while they do research, travel to give lectures and win grants, contributing to the university’s standing more than to that of the students’ education. A top college degree might be a good name to drop in social circles, but in a long life performance is ultimately what counts.

Who gets the benefit of that name? Is it the child? Or is it the parents when relating the successes of their offspring? I remember a cartoon in one of the magazines about the time my children were going through that nerve-racking period of receiving acceptances — and rejections. In the center of the cartoon was the back of a car, with a close-up of the rearview window. And at the bottom left corner of the window, proudly displayed, was the sticker of the desired college, followed by the words, “also accepted in” with the other top-tier college stickers paraded across the width of the glass. Exactly whose victory was that touting? Why, that of the parents, of course. Many of the kids probably didn’t have a car or couldn’t even drive yet.

Now let’s be honest here. Some parents have always tried to help their kids succeed, whether by throwing in a hand with the eighth-grade science project or polishing French pronunciation. And those parents who could afford it have sometimes made lavish donations to colleges in the hopes of aiding the admissions process. But those donations, if they build a new room for the library or contribute to the purchase of equipment in the lab, ultimately help many students. Most important, they are visible and not dishonest. And whether we like it or not, people with more money sometimes use their money to their own advantage. Even the ability to pay for tutoring for the SATs divides the students into the haves and the have-nots. But that’s not illegal.

The other truism is this. Whether in college or in life or just inputting on a computer, garbage in means garbage out. If a student is committed and diligent about studying in college, and there are many good colleges in this country, that student will benefit from the college experience. The opposite is also true. It doesn’t so much matter where one goes to college, but rather what one gets from the college in addition to the piece of paper documenting one’s attendance and tuition payments.

My granddaughter is a high school senior this year and waiting to hear where she will go for the next four years. We all are waiting to hear with her. She has already received acceptances so she knows she will be a college student by fall. Wherever she goes, she will get there honestly and because of the exceptional person that she is. We are so proud of her.

 

 

Daniel Dunaief

What better day than today, March 14, to celebrate numbers? In case you haven’t heard, math teachers around the country have been getting in on the calendar action for 31 years, designating the day before Caesar’s dreaded Ides of March as pi day, because the first three numbers of this month and day — 3, 1, 4 — are the same as pi, the Greek letter that is a mathematical constant and makes calculations like the area and circumference of a circle possible.

We can become numb to numbers, but they are everywhere and help define and shape even the non-perfectly circular parts of our lives.

We have a social security number, a birth date, a birth order, height and weight, and a street address, with a latitude and longitude, if we’re especially numerically inclined.

Numbers save us, as computer codes using numbers keep planes from flying at the same altitude. Numbers tell us what to wear, as the temperature, especially around this time of year, dictates whether we take a sweatshirt, jacket or heavy coat.

We use them when we’re ordering food, paying for a meal in a restaurant and counting calories. They are a part of music as they dictate rhythms and tempos, and of history, allowing us to keep the order of events straight.

We use numbers to keep track of landmarks, like the year of our graduation from high school or college, the year we met or married our partners, or the years our children were born.

Numbers help us track the time of year. Even a warm day in February doesn’t make it July, just as a cold day in June doesn’t turn the calendar to November.

People complain regularly that they aren’t good at math or science, and yet they can calculate the time it takes to get to school to pick up their kids, get them home to do their homework, cook dinner and manage a budget, all of which requires an awareness of the numbers that populate our lives.

We know when to get up because of the numbers flashing on the phone or alarm clock near the side of our bed, which are unfortunately an hour, 60 minutes or 3,600 seconds ahead thanks to daylight savings time. Many of our numbers are in base 10, but not all, as our 24-hour clocks, 24-hour days, 12-month years and seven-day weeks celebrate other calculations.

Numbers start early in our lives, as parents share their children’s height and weight and, if they’re preparing themselves for a lifetime of monitoring their children’s achievements, their Apgar scores.

Children read Dr. Seuss’ “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” We use numbers to connect the dots in a game, drawing lines that form an image of Dumbo or a giraffe.

Numbers progress through our elementary education — “I’m 10 and I’m in fifth grade” — and they follow us in all of our activities: “I got a 94 on my social studies test.”

Imagine life without numbers, just for 60 seconds or so. Would everything be relative? How would we track winners and losers in anything, from the biggest house to the best basketball team? Would we understand how warm or cold the day had become by developing a sliding scale system? Would we have enough ways to capture the difference between 58 degrees Fahrenheit and 71 degrees?

Objects that appear uncountable cause confusion or awe. Look in the sky and try to count the stars, or study a jar of M&Ms and try to calculate the number of candies.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a number tells its own tale — it was a six-alarm fire, I had 37 friends at my birthday party or I walked a mile in a circle, which means the diameter of that circle was about 1,680 feet — thanks to pi.

Leah Dunaief

So, how are those New Year’s resolutions going? Do you even remember what they were? If you are sticking to them, heartfelt congratulations. You are one of few with the discipline and tenacity to hang on. But if you are in the majority for having slipped or temporarily abandoned your resolves, here is some help. It’s called habits.

Habits can be a valuable tool to change your life, both for the better and not. By that I mean, we can slip into some unwelcome behaviors and they become habits almost before we realize it. Or we can consciously take control and set out to break or redefine or make new ones, and as they become part of a routine, they become easier to follow.

This is all far simpler than it sounds, of course. There is a whole branch of science dealing with habits, the unconscious behavioral patterns formed to deal with actions. “We do not so much direct our own actions as become shaped by them,” wrote Jeffrey Kluger in his introductory chapter for a special edition from Time Inc. called “The Power of Habits.”

He points out, by quoting Léon Dumont — the 19th century French psychologist and philosopher — that “a garment, after having been worn a certain amount of time, clings to the shape of the body better than when it was new. There has been a change in the tissue, and this change is a new habit of cohesion.” That is certainly true of the old, comfy pair of slippers that, despite their age, you hate to replace them, and the old pair of pants that have come to fit you like a glove.

Accordingly, the manner of our actions “fashion for themselves in the nervous system more and more appropriate paths.” Kluger here is again quoting Dumont, who studied the science of laughter, of gratitude, of empathy and, for our purposes here, the science of habits.

William James, the American philosopher greatly influenced by Dumont, suggested that people were little more than “bundles of habits.” The point of all this is to build on the idea that if we can shape our brains and the rest of our nervous systems the way we shape a pair of pants, we can control and redirect our lives to follow the actions we wish to take, namely our resolutions to be better.

Think about how many of our daily moves are just programmed in. We get up in the morning and automatically brush our teeth, take a shower, dress, put up the coffee, get our keys, slide behind the wheel of the car, place the coffee cup in the holder, drive to work, all probably while thinking of something else. Occasionally we are surprised to find we have arrived at our destination without consciously paying attention to the route. Almost all of that execution was the result of habit.

Well, suppose you built another step in there, like running 20 minutes on that treadmill or stationary bike collecting dust in your basement before you got into the shower. You like to watch the morning TV shows? Jog along with them as you watch. If you repeat that action for awhile, it could become a habit and presto! You are doing the recommended minutes of exercise a week without the ironclad discipline seemingly required each day.

It just becomes as much a habit as brushing your teeth. If you are forever locked into dipping into the candy jar in the evenings, and you find you are gaining weight, substitute chilled blueberries or red grapes from a cut-glass bowl within reach of your fingers. Of course you have to remember to buy the blueberries or grapes beforehand, wash them and keep them in the refrigerator at the ready.

Complex habits, like procrastination or chronic lateness or smoking are harder to unlearn — but not impossible. We can rewire ourselves, using substitutions or rewards, splinting a bad habit onto a good one for support or hanging out with those whose actions we would like to emulate.

Here’s the bottom line: We can do it. It will just take time for a new behavior to feel part of our routine, an average of two weeks or so. To become a habit will average 66 days.

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The phrase has become oxymoronic. It’s like a bad riddle: What is something everyone needs, but fewer people on Long Island can have?

They call it affordable housing. The real question is, affordable to whom?

Smithtown just recently hosted its second housing lotto in a year for affordable housing developments March 11. Another lotto is coming up to bat March 26 for three one-bedroom units with a total monthly gross rent of $2,300; and one two-bedroom unit with a total monthly gross rent of $3,200.

The Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission, which advises the Legislature on issues related to poverty in the county, released a report in 2018 that detailed the holes in affordable housing and government programs.

Country Pointe Woods in Smithtown

The report describes that if a family wants to rent, only 18 percent of available housing is rental, compared to the national average of 37 percent. Market rate for monthly apartment rentals in Suffolk was $1,589 in 2017, according to census data, meaning families in that market would have to earn $57,204 — 52 percent of the area median income — a year if they spent 30 percent of their income on the apartment costs. In Smithtown, average rental costs are upward of $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment, according to online rent tracker RENTCafé.

It’s hard to call such options such as the lottos in Smithtown truly “cheap,” mostly because each is only cheap by comparison.

The Town of Huntington hosted a lotto for Harborfields Estates March 5 with 608 first-time home-buyer applicants entered in that drawing. It’s a staggering number of people all bidding on the hope of owning a four-bedroom home valued $350,125. Real estate taxes on the unit are estimated to be $9,700 annually and estimated HOA fees will be approximately $460 annually.

The county report noted the 2017 Suffolk yearly median income was $110,800, while the median price of a home in 2017 was $376,000, according to census data. If an individual or family spent 30 percent of income on housing costs, the national and suggested average, they would have to earn $125,000 a year to afford the median home price.

These lotteries are an opportunity for the average person looking for a home on Long Island to have the chance to start a life here, but there’s also something dystopian about the entire idea of gambling a chance to be able to afford something as basic as a residence, whether that means renting or owning. Not to mention, anybody who is making less than the area median income knows just how tough it is to find truly affordable living anywhere along the North Shore.

It’s not to say these lotteries aren’t helping those whose names are drawn, but one wonders at the state of some of the hundreds of people who apply for these lottos who then walk away empty handed. While certainly a few of those applying may already own homes or rent apartments and are just looking for a cheaper option, the very nature of a lottery draws upon the desperate.

Municipalities at every end of the Island are complaining about brain drain, of Long Islanders fleeing to seek cheaper housing options elsewhere. Their governments need to look at the issue holistically and take an approach that affects communities as a whole, rather than give it to select individuals.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

When my daughter drives to a crosswalk and a pedestrian is crossing, she feels terrible if the person on foot starts to jog or sprint, pushing him or herself to move more quickly so my daughter can continue on her way.

My daughter also gets annoyed if the person suddenly slows down.

Life is full of those “just right” moments. If our hot chocolate is too hot, we risk burning the roofs of our mouths. If it’s too cold, it doesn’t have the desired effect of warming us up. 

It’s what makes the Goldilocks story so relatable. The father’s bed is too hard, the mother’s is too soft, but the baby’s bed is just right.

When my family searched for new beds, we collapsed into one mattress after another, imagining a good night’s sleep, just the right book or a good movie with perfectly balanced sound.

Most salespeople spend their careers trying to find the right fit for someone, whether it’s a shoe, bed, car, house or any of the myriad items that fill my email box overnight while I sleep.

Life involves the constant search for just right. If we won every game we played, the competition wouldn’t be strong enough and we wouldn’t push ourselves to get better. A movie with absolutely no adversity can be charming, but it can also wear thin quickly, as the lack of suspense can lead us to wonder whether a dystopian conflict is pending.

Even in the world of friendships, we search for just-right friends. We generally don’t seek friends who want to talk to us all the time, or who can barely make time for us. We also don’t want friends who agree with everything we say. A few people, public figures and otherwise, seem eager to find people who reinforce their brilliance regularly. I would prefer to find people with viewpoints that differ from my own, which force me to defend my ideas and allow me incorporate new perspectives into my thinking or behavioral patterns.

Just right for any one person can and often is different from just right for someone else, which enhances the notion that we can find someone who is a great match or complement for us.

Ideally, the non-just-right shoes, weather, girlfriends, boyfriends or jobs teach us more about ourselves. Why, we wonder, didn’t that work? Once we figure that out, we have a better chance at understanding what does.

Sometimes, like the bed that doesn’t feel comfortable at first but eventually becomes the only one that affords us a quality sleep, we grow into a role and find that the previous tasks or conversations, which had seemed so odious initially, are a much better fit than we originally thought, as a result of the changes in ourselves.

And, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There’s the rub.” The pursuit of just right in any context can change as we age. Our high school tastes in music, clothing, cars, houses, jobs or any other choices can and do change with each landmark reunion, making it more difficult to know what we want or what we’re searching for.

While I share my daughter’s guilt when a pedestrian rushes across the crosswalk to let me go or prevents me from running down that person, I’m not as frustrated by someone who slows down. I try to determine, watching that person pause in the middle of the street, how this might be a “just right” moment for the pedestrian.

Mayor Jeanne Garant Harborfront Park in Port Jefferson on March 5. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This is the time of mixed seasonal emotions. On the one hand, the deep cabin fever that sets in with February is still with us. Winter is upon the land, the trees are skeletons, the bushes just sticks and the lawns an anemic greenish brown. Even the evergreens, instead of being a lusty hunter green, are more like a drab olive, branches hanging dutifully but limply, to remind us that all color has not entirely disappeared from view.

That’s probably also an apt description of our souls, suffering from winter’s darkness and yearning for color and warmth. Patches of snow, remnants of the recent storm, have also lost their luster and serve only to nudge us that winter still has us in its grip. So do the ever widening potholes.

But — and this is only a tiny “but” — March is here. That means we have made it through the coldest, darkest months. This weekend, we will switch to daylight savings time, so those who work past 6 o’clock in the evening will not be stumbling out from their stores and offices into the darkness. There will still be evidence of some day left. Remember, though, to drive with extra care during the week following the change, for statistics tell us there are more car incidents after losing even one hour on one’s biological clock.

Mill Creek in Port Jefferson on March 5. Photo by Kyle Barr

With the advent of March, if we hold on three weeks, comes the official start of spring. Now we know that Mother Nature doesn’t check the calendar, and we can get wicked snowstorms after spring officially begins. But that likelihood is less and would be a grand finale rather than the beginning of a long siege. So there is the smallest whiff of hope for the return of better weather. Also if you look closely at the bushes, you can see buds. Buds! That means flowers will be coming, and leaves, the bright green leaves of early spring. If we really want to get delirious about color, we can trek to Philadelphia to drink in the world’s oldest and largest indoor flower show, now happening at the Pennsylvania Convention Center until Sunday, March 10. This year’s theme is Flower Power, celebrating the contribution of flowers to our lives.

Sometimes on a winter day when the sun is shining, the sky is cloudless and intensely blue and the air, with its low humidity, crisp and invigorating. For those who ski downhill or through the woods, snowshoe or ice skate or even take a walk on a country road, the scene is poetic, an artist’s dream. To come inside after such activity and be greeted with the scent of hearty soup or freshly baked chocolate chip cookies is a treat most keenly appreciated when the temperature is low.

As the season turns, and we think about putting away the shovels and salt — not yet though! — we can also cheer ourselves on a bit by conjuring up the benefits of winter. What are they, you ask? Well, no mosquitoes for one. And the ticks have disappeared. No lawn to mow, although we do sometimes have to shovel snow, so that’s probably only a trade-off at best. We can gain a few pounds and hide beneath our tunics and sweaters until the change in wardrobe forces us to acknowledge the slothful truth. There are no emergency calls to fix the air conditioner in winter. But the boiler is no angel either. It always seems to give way on the coldest nights. A dark and cold winter night can be cheered with a crackling fire, as we sit before the fireplace sipping a favorite beverage and exchanging deep thoughts with a loved one. Even the dog seems to enjoy the warmth and glow, curling up at our feet.

But we are willing to cast all that away for the excitement of spring, with its birdsong, flowers and warmth. The return of light, longer with each day, is a magical salve for our moods. Just for a little while longer, dear friends, hang in there.

Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Honor of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016.

March is Women’s History Month, a time to honor the feminine icons who have left their mark on the world. However, when it comes to learning about accomplished women, in many ways, people need to educate themselves.

Hillary Clinton

A recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine cited a report from the virtual National Women’s History Museum released in 2017 titled “Where Are the Women?” The study examined the status of women’s history in state-level social studies standards seen in the K-12 curriculum and found only 178 women. This find was compared to 559 men found in the same scholastic standards.

Fortunately, while school systems catch up with including the countless impressive women in history missing in their curricula, many libraries and museums offer programs dedicated to Women’s History Month offering information about the lives of so many amazing and impactful women who may not be included in a high school textbook.

Of course, there are options to increase your knowledge, such as digging a little deeper on the library shelves or the internet to find out information beyond the frequently told stories of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, civil rights activist Rosa Parks or 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Those women are out there and are not as hidden as one may think.

We’ve come up with just a few powerful women who may not be referenced enough, or not at all, in the history books.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham in 1895

Elizabeth Jennings Graham was an African-American teacher who in 1854, when Manhattan streetcars were mostly segregated, fought for the right to ride in any car. She won her case in New York courts in 1855, and by 1865 all New York City transit systems were desegregated.

Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer for NASA’s Apollo program. Along with her team, she wrote the code algorithms for the spacecraft’s in-flight software. Apollo 11 went on to become the first mission to successfully land humans on the moon.

Sonia Maria Sotomayor, born in the Bronx, become the first Latina and Hispanic justice in the Supreme Court of the U.S. when President Barack Obama (D) appointed her to associate justice in 2009.

Ching Shih

Digging even further into history and across the sea, there is Ching Shih, a female pirate leader, who lived in the late 1700s to early 1800s. History has remembered Shih as a fierce warrior who commanded more than 300 Chinese sailing ships, defeating Qing dynasty Chinese officials and Portuguese and British bounty hunters. She was so successful she managed to force the Chinese government to grant her a pardon. Unlike the careers of other famous pirates in the Caribbean, she died peacefully in her bed.

Stories like these and others of women’s impact on the world and our everyday lives are out there waiting to be discovered. We encourage our readers to go out and find those stories or perhaps even make history themselves.

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Before February’s Black History Month moves away for another year, I would like to share with you the exciting story I read in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” with lessons from four presidents as leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Now you might be thinking that’s not the sexiest subject to be writing or reading about, but in her storytelling hands, it is a page turner. 

We all know too well that Johnson, the Democratic vice president, became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. At that time, Kennedy’s progressive legislation was totally bogged down in Congress, going nowhere. What might not be so well known is that LBJ, as he was fondly known, was a “master mechanic” of the legislative process for he had come of age in politics in Congress. “It was his fierce resolve not simply to dislodge Kennedy’s stalled agenda but to realize a society built on racial and economic justice far beyond the [FDR’s] New Deal and [Kennedy’s] New Frontier,” Goodwin wrote.

Taking advantage of the short burst of sympathy and support that he expected to realize from the nation, Johnson, a Texan, wanted to get the contentious civil rights bill, designed to end segregation in the South, enacted. “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law,” he told Congress in his address to the nation on Nov. 27, 1963. 

But first he needed some congressional momentum to oil the rails and cleverly called for Kennedy’s tax cut to pass. Less divisive than the issue of civil rights, the bill had passed in the House after 13 months but was opposed by Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd, a conservative Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Conservatives then adamantly believed in a balanced budget. The idea of tax cuts came from liberals.

Johnson was able to work out a deal with Byrd. If he could get the proposed budget down below $100 billion in 1965, Byrd would bring the bill to the floor for a vote. With great effort, Johnson did, the bill was voted on and the Revenue Act of 1964 was passed into law on Feb. 26, barely three short months after the assassination. 

Now came the bigger challenge: civil rights.

Once the tax cut bill passed, promising more revenue from increased business that could be spent on social services, Lyndon Johnson focused his
attention and his legislative expertise on securing the mandate of law for civil rights. 

To say the least, Southern Congressional Republicans, many of them Johnson’s friends, adamantly opposed his effort. He liked to tell them his personal story about his longtime black employees, his housemaid and butler, Helen and Gene Williams, and his cook, Zephyr Wright.  

Each year Johnson asked them to drive his extra car from Washington, D.C., back to Texas, a three-day journey. One year Johnson asked Gene to take along his affectionate beagle as well. It was then that Johnson learned how difficult such a trip was for those of color: almost no places on the road to stop and eat, almost no bathrooms in which they were allowed, few places to sleep. “A colored man’s got enough trouble getting across the South on his own, without having a dog along,” Gene explained. Now, all these years later, the winner of the best picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards, “Green Book,” tells us the same story about traveling through the South in the 1960s with its unjust system of segregation.

Johnson knew his passionate advocacy for this bill would separate him from the South and from his Southern friends and colleagues. 

Johnson confronted those in Congress with how wrong segregation was and tirelessly worked the legislative system for passage of his bill. He challenged Virginia’s defiant Judge Howard Smith, a Democratic congressman and chair of the House Rules Committee by resorting to the discharge petition, a rarely used procedure, to blast the bill out of committee with the help of a majority of representatives. He rallied those outside the House to pressure their elected representatives to free the bill. The strategy worked, as leaders all over the country organized to do just that. 

Once out of committee, the House passed the strongest civil rights bill since Reconstruction. 

Next came the Senate. Johnson took on Richard Russell (D-Georgia), Senate leader of the Southern opposition, in a pitched battle that proved history is the result of individuals in the right place at the right time. Only a son of the South could have persevered at that juncture. Johnson managed, with the help of Republicans, and especially Senate minority leader, Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), to break the Southern-led Senate filibuster. The bill then passed in the Senate. 

On July 2, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. He ended by saying, “To the extent Negroes were free, really free, so was I. And so was my country.”

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