The room in another city eight hundred miles to the northeast---in Washington, D.C.---was hardly more impressive than the Eufaula County Clerk's Office. It was L-shaped, and the short leg of the L was lined with telephone booths only slightly larger than conventional booths and distinguished from them only by a small light bulb above each one that was lit when the booth was in use. The other leg---the main part of the room---was narrow and drab, its two long walls a pale tan in color and undecorated except for a few black-and-white lithographs and dull green draperies. Aside from a rickety little desk and a small fireplace on the right wall and a pair of swinging doors on the left, both walls were lined with couches and armchairs covered in cracked brown leather, and they were set so close together that their arms almost touched. On the room's far wall, however, was a feature that didn't fit in with the rest of the furnishings: a huge mirror. Twice as tall as a man and wide enough to fill almost the entire wall, bordered in a broad frame of heavy gold leaf, it was a mirror out of another age, a mirror large enough for a man to watch as he swirled a cloak around himself and to check the way it sat on his shoulders---or, having removed the cloak and handed it to a waiting pageboy, to check every detail of his appearance before he pushed open those swinging doors. And when those doors swung open, suddenly, framed between them in the instant before they swung shut again, were long arcs of darkly glowing mahogany, semi-circles of desks whose deep reddish-brown surfaces had been burnished so highly that they gleamed richly with the reflection of lights in the ceiling high above them. There were ninety-six desks. The narrow room, drab though it was, was one of the cloakrooms, the Democratic cloakroom, of the United States Senate.
The cloakroom was generally rather empty, a comfortable, comradely place whose manners as well as furniture resembled those of a men's club (the only woman among the ninety-six senators was a Republican), a place of handshaking and backslapping and bluff camaraderie; a sleepy place---literally sleepy, since among the dozen or so senators present on a typical afternoon, several elderly men might be taking naps in the armchairs. In that August of 1957, however, the cloakroom was often crowded, with senators talking earnestly on sofas and standing in animated little groups, and sometimes the glances between various groups were not comradely at all---sometimes, in fact, they glinted with a barely concealed hostility, and the narrow room simmered with tension, for the main issue before the Senate that summer was civil rights, a proposed law intended to make voting easier for millions of black Americans like Margaret Frost, and the liberals among the Democratic senators were grimly determined to pass that law, and the southerners among the Democrats were grimly determined that it should not be passed.
The liberals in the Democratic cloakroom---the majority cloakroom; there were forty-nine Democratic senators in 1957 and forty-seven Republicans---included some of the great figures of the fight for social justice in America in the middle of the twentieth century. Among them was Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota, who as a crusading young mayor had courageously fought not only underworld gambling interests but the racial and religious bias that had made Minneapolis "the anti-Semitism capital of America"---one of the mightiest orators of his generation, he had, in the face of warnings that he was fatally damaging his career, delivered one of the most memorable convention addresses in the nation's history, a speech that roused the 1948 Democratic National Convention to defy the wishes of its leaders and adopt a tough civil rights plank. Among the other liberals in the cloakroom were white-maned Paul Douglas of Illinois, war hero and renowned professor of economics, who had battled for rights for black Americans on a dozen fronts with the same unwavering independence with which he had taken on Chicago's rapacious public utilities and corrupt political machine, and Estes Kefauver, who had won his Senate seat by defeating Tennessee's notorious, venal---and racist---Crump Machine. Among them, too, was a younger senator who would become a great figure: John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Excerpted from Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro Copyright 2002 by Robert A. Caro. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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