This is an editorial piece and does not reflect the views or opinions of the Sumner County Democratic Party.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to SCDP Executive Committeewoman Kathy Ebbert for her willingness to share her story. This is an important topic and one that must be addressed, especially here in Sumner County.
We know that peer influence becomes a stronger force in our lives during years 10-18 as we exert more independence from our parents. Generally, in junior high or middle school, we are exposed to a wider variety of people and ideas than in the smaller, cozier community of elementary school. Additionally, both my parents’ political values and, frankly, the political environment in Tennessee, were in transition during that time in my life (1959 – 1968, for the record). In my most recent article, I mentioned the civil rights activities in Tennessee and John F. Kennedy’s candidacy for President that seem to me retrospectively to have been the impetus for my parents’ and other family members’ transition from Democrat to Republicans. There were also other extraordinary events that took place during those years that broadened my perspective and caused me to question my parents’ beliefs — but nevertheless stopped short of causing me to change my own.
Kennedy was elected president by a narrow margin. He was a smart, articulate, charismatic president who recognized his narrow victory was not a mandate for him to push too many progressive changes. He got tax cuts through Congress. All the fear mongering around his Catholic faith did not reflect reality. He supported civil rights and other popular causes. He made reasonable decisions and displayed unheard of transparency in those decisions via leveraging the television medium to share his ideas directly to the American people. He and his wife, Jackie, were young and glamorous. Jackie studiously restored the White House and then personally gave us a televised tour of it. They shared their children with us, and the tragic loss of their prematurely newborn son Patrick. They seemed “normal” even though they were of privileged birth and were very popular. And for me…very difficult not to like and admire. Everyone in my parents’ and my generation remembers where we were at the moment we learned he had been shot in Dallas and was pronounced dead that day.
But for the vast majority of people in my life, the grief and shock was for the violent and senseless loss of a young man and father, not the loss of someone they considered to be a great leader.
Lyndon Johnson was sworn in that evening, with Jackie standing by his side still wearing her blood-stained suit she had worn all day. He pledged to and did carry through with many of the causes Kennedy had championed and that he himself had worked on and progressed during his years in Congress. He successfully pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964 – a monumental accomplishment that was greatly heralded. And yet, later in the evening after he signed that Act to make it the law of the land, one of his young aides spoke to him in his bedroom noting his surprise that Johnson seemed depressed rather than celebrating that huge win for his administration. Johnson famously looked up to his aide and replied, “I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.” During the remainder of Kennedy’s term he also managed to push through the Clean Air Act, the Food Stamp Act and the Economic Opportunity Act — all as he eased into the presidency after Kennedy’s death.
In the 1964 election, Johnson defeated Republican candidate Barry Goldwater to win his own presidency by a healthy margin. During his January 1965 “State of the Union” address, he introduced his vision of the “Great Society,” a series of federal programs which would create social and welfare programs. He was extremely effective in getting Congress to pass multiple components of his vision: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and Medicaid Act, the landmark Voting Rights Act, Higher Education Act, Fair Labor Standards Amendments, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Fair Housing Act and the Consumer Protection Act, in addition to other legislation and international treaties that were not part of his Great Society. The Fair Housing Act (sometimes considered to be the Civil Rights Act of 1967) and the Consumer Protection Act were signed after his announcement that he was not going to run for re-election.
Unfortunately, Johnson was right on target when he made the comment about delivering the South to the Republicans. Between the passage of the Civil Rights Act and all the social and welfare actions that were part of his Great Society, he simply couldn’t win. Oh, the Vietnam War had something to do with his lack of popularity, too. But from the perspective of my family, my peers at the time, and the majority of the South, the Democrats were just one step removed from Communists with all the socialist programs they had pushed through Congress that were going to raise their taxes! There was a great hue and cry in the South that taxpayers shouldn’t bear the cost of taking care of people that weren’t working hard to make it on their own. Government was just growing too big with all these welfare programs.
My family supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election and Richard Nixon in 1968, without question. And here in Tennessee, again with our full support, Howard Baker was elected in 1966 to become the first Republican U.S. Senator in more than 50 years. And in 1970, Republican Bill Brock was elected to join Baker in representing Tennessee in the U.S. Senate and Republican Winfield Dunn was elected to become the first Republican governor in more than 60 years. The conversion was completed…and Tennesseans, including my family, were all in on all the Republican ideologies.
Written by Kathy Ebbert