Transcript: Ride the Galloping Horse of History

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Ride the Galloping Horse of History.
Image: Civil rights leaders meeting with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House following the civil rights march on Washington D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.
Civil rights leaders meeting with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House following the civil rights march on Washington D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. Pictured are (left to right) Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, Congress of Racial Equality leader Floyd McKissick, National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice leader Mathew Ahmann, National Urban League executive director Whitney Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Martin Luther King Jr., Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis, American Jewish Congress Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, Reverend Eugene Carson Blake (partially visible), President John F. Kennedy, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins.Library of Congress / Reuters

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So You Wanna Be Presient? With Chris Matthews

Riding the Galloping Horse of History

Chris Matthews: Okay. So you wanna be president? We've arrived at lesson five.

Archival Recording: Ladies and gentlemen, a big American welcome for the assembled Olympic athletes of all nations. You may applaud. (APPLAUSE)

Matthews: 1960 was the first time Americans could watch the Olympics live (MUSIC) on television. Walt Disney was hired to stage how everything looked for the CBS cameras and international newsreels.

Archival Recording: A full hour of colorful pageantry at Squaw Valley, California opens the eighth Winter Olympics. Vice President Nixon heads the dignitaries before whom pass 740 athletes from 30 nations in the traditional parade.

Matthews: Vice President Richard Nixon was running for president. This was February of 1960, and he'd just announced his campaign a month earlier.

Archival Recording: Russia's 69-member team is clad in somber street clothes, standing out in startling contrast to the colorful sports garb of other nations.

Matthews: The election of 1960 focused heavily on the threat from the Soviet Union. It seemed like communism was threatening to take over the world.

Archival Recording: The Olympic flame carried down the slopes of Little Papoose by Andrea Mead Lawrence will throughout the 11 days of competition shine over a contest in which national achievements will have major propaganda value around the world. Each Olympian gold medal will count as a diplomatic coup.

Matthews: Concerns about the Cold War dominated much of the 1960 election. But lesson five is about how the candidates responded to a different kind of crisis. America was convulsing under the struggle for civil rights. And both Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy had a choice: side with history or ignore it, make history or miss it. This is lesson five: win by jumping on the galloping of history as it flies past. You don't get a second chance. Stay with us.

Matthews: So you wanna be president? Lesson five: Ride the galloping horse of history. My two guests for this episode, Jon Meacham and Donna Edwards. Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

Donna is a former United States congresswoman from Maryland and contributing columnist for the Washington Post. She's also a regular commentator on MSNBC. Welcome to you both. I want to begin with a clip from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's State of the Union address in January of 1960.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: In all our hopes and plans for a better world, we all recognize that provincial and racial prejudices must be combated. In the long perspective of history, the right to vote has been one of the strongest pillars of any free society. Our first duty is to protect this right against all encroachment. In spite of constitutional guarantees and not withstanding much progress of recent years, bias still deprives some persons in this country of equal protection of the laws.

Matthews: In the years prior to that speech, there had been Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown versus Board of Education, and the Little Rock Nine. Why is the president of the United States still talking about what he called "our first duty to protect rights such as voting rights," Jonathan?

Jon Meacham: Well, you had at that point an era of in my native region, in the South, an era and regime of apartheid. And there were incredibly difficult state laws in place to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. It was a living legacy of the Reconstruction Era, which had been a reaction to what many Americans thought after the deaths of three quarters of a million people in the 1860s that with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments we had actually moved into a stronger realization of what Thomas Jefferson had meant when he'd written that we were all created equal.

But the reaction to that through Reconstruction, through Jim Crow as the federal troops were pulled out, as the result of a political deal in 1876, 1877 in the Hayes-Tilden fight, the way Florida went for Hayes was to cut a deal saying that the troops had to leave the South.

That had been an enduring reality. There were Republican pockets of strength in the North, somewhat in the Midwest of African American voters who still had an allegiance to the party of Lincoln. But Southern Democrats, white Southern Democrats, were continuing a reign of almost absolute power in the South.

Eisenhower was slow, but not as slow as many people have thought, to recognize the moral importance of civil rights. He believed that it had to be more gradual than ultimately it would be in terms of progress. But he saw the franchise in the wake of what you just mentioned, in the wake of Parks, in the wake of the emergence of Dr. King, the two Brown decisions, which were issued by his chief justice, remember, Earl Warren.

You know, Eisenhower was later quoted as having said it was the biggest damn fool mistake he'd ever made, appointing Warren. But that comment was really more about those criminal justice decisions, Miranda and others, than they were about the civil rights.

Matthews: Donna, it seems that a Republican president, a moderate Republican president, was going to the easiest argument to make in his own party, which is the right to vote.

Donna Edwards: Well, I think that's right. I mean, and, you know, I think about my own family and especially my family from the South in North Carolina. And most of them were Republicans because they were part of that party of Lincoln. And so it was an easy argument to make because there was already an allegiance to the Republican Party and there was a trust there, which I think obviously slowly dissipated over the course of that couple of years.

Matthews: And the right to vote was enshrined in the Constitution, I think, in the 15th Amendment. But it wasn't real--

Edwards: Well--

Matthews: --in the deeper South, even in North Carolina.

Edwards: Even in North Carolina, I mean, it wasn't real at all, especially when you had instances where the people who control local elections (just as they do now) were, you know, making requirements of black citizens who showed up to vote that were not placed on white citizens, whether you called it a poll tax or you, you know, asked for a writing test or counting the number of beans or peas in a jar. All these things that were real barriers to the right to vote.

Matthews: And that was part of the culture. You knew all about that growin' up. You'd heard those stories?

Edwards: Well, I'd heard those stories. I mean, I was born in 1958. And so I was actually a child of the post-Brown versus Board of Education. But in our families, those were real stories that were not generations old; they were my mother's generation. And so, you know, we heard them. And so there was a real sensitivity and also a desire to vote. I mean, a strong desire to vote in black families precisely because there were a lot of efforts made to prevent the same voters from showing up at the polls and casting their vote.

Meacham: In our current tribal moment, it's worth remembering that the white Democratic power structure had a vice grip on the old Confederacy. The first Republican elected since Reconstruction--

Matthews: "The solid South."

Meacham: Yeah, exactly. And now it means "solid South" red, but it wasn't then.

Edwards: That's right. I mean, and so it was in all aspects of life, both in, you know, your social life, your work life, and certainly your civic life. And I think that that is why there was such a struggle until Kennedy came along for this allegiance between the Republican Party and black voters that was finally able to be severed.

Matthews: Jon, talk about the Democratic Party. Because as recently as 1952 they had to balance the ticket between Adlai Stevenson, who was a moderate liberal, with John Sparkman from Alabama, who was a seggy. I mean, they had to still keep the deal.

Meacham: Well, 1960. Why was Lyndon Johnson on the ticket? Lyndon Johnson was on the ticket was because he was from Texas. And Kennedy was incredibly worried about keeping the South. There was already some stirrings because of the Brown decision, also because of the Brown enforcement decision.

One of the things about violence in the South in those years is there wasn't so much immediately after May 10th, 1954, which was when the first Brown decision came. But the next spring when Brown II came out, with the "all deliberate speed" enforcement decision.

Because a lot of folks (and I'm from Tennessee) thought, "Well, they don't really mean it," right? "We can wait this out." But it was the second decision. And one of the things Johnson did, being from a segregated state in Texas, more complicated but still segregated, is he was not a force for aggressive civil rights action in the Senate of the 1950s.

The Austin-Boston axis tells you everything you need to know about the Democratic Party in 1960, which President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy wanted to be the great force of modernity, right? He was trying to balance the Eleanor Roosevelt/Adlai Stevenson wing with Southern senators who did not have the slightest interest in giving political power to black folks because the few black folks who could vote were in fact, like Donna's talking about, Republicans.

Matthews: Well, let's talk now about probably the most important non-elected figure in our history, and that's Dr. Martin Luther King. And he was coming up. He's in his early 30s at that point, about 1960. And he was on Meet the Press, which tells you how his stature had grown already. And he was talking in April of 1960 about the civil rights movement. Here he is.

Anthony Lewis: Dr. King, in connection with the sit-in movement and other aspects of the racial question, there has certainly been an increase in tension in various parts of the South. During the last week, the New York Times has run some stories about Birmingham, Alabama, suggesting that a kind of reign of terror is taking place there with the officials on the side of those terrorizing those who believe in racial equality. Now, my question is: What role do you see for the federal government in this situation? Do you think the federal government has a place to play in, say, Birmingham or in connection with your sit-in demonstrations?

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Yes, I do. I think the federal government has the responsibility of protecting our citizens of this nation as they protest against the injustices which they face. I also feel that the executive branch of the government should do more in terms of moral persuasion. The legislative branch should certainly do more in giving the proper legislation so that the transition will be made in a much smoother manner than we are facing now.

Matthews: Donna, you grew up in North Carolina. So that brings to mind the sit-ins in Greensboro in February, just two months before. This is Dr. King speaking on Meet the Press. Two months before he spoke, those people went to the lunch counter at Woolworth's. And every town had a Woolworth's in it. And every Woolworth's had a lunch counter in it. And in the South, those were all-white lunch counters.

Edwards: Well, you know, it's so interesting listening to Dr. King 'cause I think one of the things that we forget is the tension that he was facing within the civil rights movement of, you know, the students and other activists who wanted to be still peaceful and nonviolent but more aggressive in terms of their tactics.

And so he's facing that on the one side and also, you know, trying to have some sway on these presidential candidates who are running to make sure that they injected a civil rights lens in their campaigns. And so he's doing a lotta dancing in here that we can't really see up front.

And I think, you know, he was also at a point where he realized that he needed to be really the leader of the civil rights movement. And so it couldn't be just taken over by these student activists, that they had to be incorporated into the larger movement.

And I think you see that, you hear that tension in what he's saying on Meet the Press but, you know, trying to balance the fact that, you know, you've gotta have an executive who's willing to put the full forces of the federal government behind the changes that need to be made and not just around a simple moral leadership. A moral leadership coupled with government action.

Matthews: Jon, talk about it. Because in terms of national historic theater, just what you saw on television. These young people, men and women, African Americans, had decided they were Gandhian, they were nonviolent, and they were gonna take abuse. Physical abuse. What do you call it? Social abuse.

They sat at those counters, and I'll tell you. I went back and looked at just recently the pictures of what these white people did, these horrible white people I must say, pouring stuff on them, dumping on them everything. Sugar, anything that was within reach. Anything to make them feel small, and dirty, and bad. And they just took it for hours. I mean, they were there for almost whole days. And yet with the police dogs that came later, the American conscience woke up, I guess, and saw who the good guys were.

Meacham: Slowly but surely. And there is no greater example in American history and I would argue in Western history of the power of the Judeo-Christian truth that was embodied in the Leviticus commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself," in the Christian tradition that grew out of the Greek New Testament of the Sermon on the Mount than the civil rights movement.

And Gandhi, as you say, rightly is credited with the tactics. But if you read Dr. King, if you read John Lewis, if you read Jim Lawson, Diane Nash, these folks were fully Christian in that they turned the other cheek. They loved their enemy. It is a breathtaking, and this is not sentimental, and this is not nostalgia, and this is not, you know, a PBS warm bath of, "Oh, couldn't things be greater, you know, in the past?"

This happened in our lifetimes, people who still move among us who were genuinely willing to die for an idea and not raise a hand in self-defense. It is an amazing story. It's an amazing truth. And I believe that without that religious motivation you would not have had the country move forward to that more perfect union.

And the images did it. We got to Bloody Sunday, March 7th, 1965 when John Lewis and Hosea Williams are comin' across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmund Pettus, by the way, was a Confederate general in Selma. Sheriff Jim Clark unleashes his troopers, who were on horseback.

And, as John Lewis remembers, he thought he was gonna die but he had fulfilled his purpose. And that purpose was to remind the rest of us of what we should've been doing. An amazing power. I don't see how the civil rights movement happens without the African American church.

Matthews: So the forces of good and to some extent the religious background of all the people involved on the good side was happening against the same time, simultaneously with a red hot 50/50 election, it couldn't have been closer, between Vice President Richard Nixon, Republican, and young, handsome John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts, Democrat.

And I just want to say I've been studying this for years. And what's totally sadly ironic about the whole thing: Nixon had been brought up a Quaker with all the right values. They used "thee" and "thou," the plain speech at home. He had a good background. He didn't have a bad neighborhood background. (LAUGH)

He grew up in a very good culture, I should say religious background with good values. He had joined the NAACP as a Northern Republican. Northern Republicans were pretty good back then. They all later on voted for the Civil Rights Bill. In 1956 when he was reelected as vice president of the United States, he interrupted the whole process and said, "I'm gonna get rid of the filibuster rule."

He was overruled by a vote by the liberal members of the Senate, who were still in bed politically with the South. They wouldn't let him get rid of the filibuster rule because the Democrats owed that, I guess, politically to their Southern brothers. Okay, that was the deal, ironically.

Kennedy on the other hand had done very well at the '56 Democratic Convention in Chicago for vice president because the Southerners looked at him as, quote, (and this wasn't a nice word to other people) "moderate" on civil rights. In other words, he was not a real civil rights guy.

And so he voted for the jury trial amendment to the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which basically said, "You can have a white jury in the South. So if you're a local sheriff or local mayor who abuses the civil rights of an African American, don't worry about it. You're goin' before a white jury. Home cookin' will be the menu there." (MUSIC)

And so Kennedy came in not so good on civil rights, Nixon pretty good on civil rights. He was friends with Whitney young. He knew Martin Luther King. As I said, he was a member of the NAACP. And then it all went wrong for Nixon and all right for Kennedy for all kinds of moral and political reasons.

Matthews: So you wanna be president? Can't let history pass you by. (MUSIC) Here's a clip of Jack Kennedy on the campaign trail in June of 1960.

John F. Kennedy: In the last three years, in the last three years, three countries formerly on the side of the West have now passed into the area of communist control. This is the kind of foreign policy, this is the kind of image we have presented to a watching world.

The United States looks tired. It looks like our brightest days have been in the past. It looks like the communists are reaching for the future and we sit back and talk about the ideals of the American Revolution. The way to put the ideals of the American Revolution into significance is to act on them, not to talk about them.

Matthews: Well, Jon, it doesn't seem like Jack Kennedy was running a civil rights mission in 1960. (LAUGH) He was talking Cold War politics, trying to out-Cold War Nixon.

Meacham: Yeah. No, it was brilliant. And it's one of the reasons Kennedy's so fascinating. By the way, the best book on any of this (for those of you who may not, there may be two or three of you who haven't read it) is a guy named Chris Matthews wrote called Kennedy and Nixon.

And the Cold War frame enabled the Democrats to some extent to smuggle social consciousness through customs, right? So the argument that was being made was: If buses were being bombed in Alabama when he's on his way to Vienna to talk to Khrushchev, it weakens the position of the West. He was appealing to the hawkish instincts of conservative America and was able, and the hope was to make the argument that doing the right thing at home strengthened us abroad. It's a brilliant argument.

Matthews: And, Donna, that explains why families like yours were still on the other side, because Kennedy had not raised the banner.

Edwards: Kennedy was not running a civil rights campaign. I mean, think about what he needed. He needed to hold the white Southern Democrats. He needed to get just enough black voters in order to win that election. And so that meant, you know, raising up the specter of, you know, the Soviet Union and communism and doing just enough to keep those Southern Democrats.

And what's interesting is by the time you get to October, of course, is the famous phone call that he made to Coretta Scott King. And I think that that, I mean, coming a couple of weeks before the election, was as much a turning point for him in terms of being able to divide that black vote away from Nixon to give him just the sliver of what was needed to win that election.

Matthews: And here's the voice of a man who was not gonna let his schedule be held up by Kennedy's. Here's Dr. King.

King: We can't afford to slow up. We love America too much to slow up. We know tonight (APPLAUSE) as we struggle today we do not struggle for ourselves alone. We struggle to save the soul of America.

Matthews: Well, Jon, that's the moral call, and then we have the political expediency of both candidates. From what I've been able to figure it out, Nixon thought because he had a tougher struggle, he had a much smaller political party, Kennedy had the solid South historically going back to the Civil War because the Republicans basically won the Civil War at their expense. So there wasn't much love down there.

Nixon's struggle was to try to find some more votes. He put Henry Cabot Lodge on the ticket to enforce his Cold War stature, but he needed some Southern states. He needed to poach some from the South. And I remember a story where he was driving through Atlanta at lunchtime.

And, you know, big cities at lunchtime have all the whites from the suburbs. They're out in the street having lunch. Women are shopping, or men are shopping. And it's a different look than the actual demographics of these big cities, especially in the South.

And so he got the idea, "I can carry the white South because the blacks can't vote. I'm gonna sweep away. Maybe I could pick up Georgia or another couple states." And so he wasn't in the right mood when Dr. King was arrested and then sent to a penitentiary deep in the Georgia back country. He was not set up politically, whereas Kennedy was. Your thoughts about that, Donna?

Edwards: Yeah. I mean, I think that for Nixon it was just trying to figure out a way to thread the needle. And Dr. King was not gonna let up the public pressure in order for either of these candidates to just kinda slide through.

Matthews: We're all moving toward and we're racing ahead to that momentous occasion in October of 1960 right really before the election, which many believe was the most important event of the election, more important than all the debates about who's gonna be the strongest in facing down the Soviet Union.

It began, of course, when there was a sit-in. We've been talking about sit-ins. And this one was at Rich's Department Store in downtown Atlanta, a big department store that everybody went to but blacks couldn't sit at the lunch counter. It was still going on by that point in 1960.

But let's talk, and it was Kennedy's sort of charismatic moment when he said, "I'm gonna make a call to Mrs. King 'cause her husband's been arrested, and denied bail, and sent off to some hell of a prison in the back country of Georgia." And she was pregnant at the time. And she was afraid her husband would be killed. And it was not an unreasonable fear. But let's talk about some of the rhetoric of the two presidential candidates going up to that momentous moment in October of 1960. Here's Jack Kennedy appealing to the liberal sentiment up in Maine.

Kennedy: Well, we have problems in the South, and I suppose you have problems in all sections of the United States. The Democratic Party is a national party. It's the oldest party in the world. There are farmers in it, working people, businessmen, ranchers, fishermen from Maine, miners. Covers the whole United States.

And I think the problem that any candidates have for the Democratic Party is to rally all the multi-groups that have maintained the Democratic Party and put the national interest first. I think finally we're going to be successful in November, but it's going to be a hard campaign and it'll be a hard campaign in the South as well as in Maine.

Matthews: Donna, you're a politician. You've been a politician. How would you describe that answer to a tough question about civil rights? (LAUGHTER)

Edwards: Well, one: it's not a civil rights answer. But, you know, I mean, it does remind you that whether it's at the presidential level or at a local level, politicians are always trying to thread the needle. They're always trying to balance interest. And, you know, I listened to that and I thought, "Wow, listen to Jack Kennedy trying to appeal to every single part of the Democratic coalition as though it's one coalition."

Matthews: Yeah. It was certainly, Jon, not a bugle call for civil rights, (LAUGHTER) I wouldn't think.

Meacham: No. And it's a reminder, too, (and I think this is important in our own time) not to over-sentimentalize the past. I think we all kinda like to live in a world where we go from the cataclysm of World War II to some of the pictures, Chris, you've described. The powerful pictures of milkshakes and jars of sugar being dumped on the heads of these young kids. Kids, they were leading us to the promised land. But they were incredibly young.

And then we'd want the march on Washington speech. And then we'd want to live in kind of a Obama-like world. But we know, all of us know in our bones that that's not the way history works. It's a battle of compromise. It's a battle of deeply held principles and prejudices.

And the battle between American principles and everyday prejudices is something that we managed by and large to win over the last years or so, but we confront anew every day in a different century the persistence of that reaction to fulfilling the genuine verdict of the Civil War, which is what Dr. King called us to do, and eventually what President Kennedy called us to, and eventually what President Johnson called us to do. But a lot of history is captured in that adverb "eventually."

Matthews: You know, so much of the nineteen, and I do remember it. I'm older than you, but I do remember being young. I was interested in politics long before I got paid for it. I can tell you that. (LAUGHTER) And I remember that so much of good national policy had to be driven by national defense. But here's Nixon, for example, making a case to his party for civil rights against the backdrop of the Cold War. "We need to be good to black people," basically, "so it will look good overseas."

Richard Nixon: Why do I talk every time I'm in the South on civil rights? It's not because I am preaching to the people of the South, because this isn't just a Southern problem. It's a Northern problem and a Western problem. It's a problem for all of us. I do it because it's the responsibility of leadership.

I do it because we have to solve this problem together. I do it right at this time particularly because when we have Khrushchev in this country, a man who has enslaved millions, a man who has slaughtered thousands, we cannot continue to have a situation where he can point the finger at the United States of America and say that we are denying rights to our citizens.

Matthews: And so heading into October in an election which if you look at the Gallup poll was always within inches. Even after the first debate where Kennedy won, looked so good, Nixon looked so bad, always within three points. It must have driven these two guys crazy 'cause any bad move, any smart move could change everything. It was that close.

And here we are with the event that occurred, like had been occurring all year, the sit-in demonstrations, always the same. Young African Americans (and Dr. King was one of them) would go in and sit. They'd plan it ahead of times. They'd call the press on the way there, to make sure it gets covered. And also, they'd get some protection by the exposure.

They'd go sit at a counter and order up a grilled cheese or whatever and a Coke and sit there. And they knew they weren't gonna be saved even by the African American wait staff. They know what their bosses want them not to do. So they'd sit there. So this happened at this big department store in downtown Atlanta before all the cameras and all the world attention really. Richest department store in Georgia.

Dr. King was among those who were arrested. In his case, however, he had an outstanding traffic citation, and they used that as an excuse to deny him bail. And then a couple hours later or a couple days later, they were sending him off to a penitentiary. It was really scary for Mrs. King.

And at that point, Mrs. King got a hole of Harris Wofford, who was Jack Kennedy's designated civil rights liaison. And Harris Wofford is a good guy. Really a good guy. Very moral man. He got together with a friend of his who was a friend of mine, Louie Martin, who was a big African American guy who was a publisher, a big business guy in Chicago.

And those two together said, "Let's get to Sargent Shriver, who was the president's brother-in-law. They know he would be soft part of the Kennedy campaign 'cause he was a moral man, later started the Peace Corps. He wasn't a tough character like these Irish mafia around the president. It wasn't all about winning the next vote. He had some larger purpose.

He gets to Jack Kennedy alone. Kenny O'Donnell and Bobby Kennedy aren't around. He says, "Come on. Make a call. It would be nice if you could make a call." Because he said, "You know, they don't expect a lot, the black community. They don't expect much. They've been beaten up so much. But if you just make a call as a human being to another human being."

And he called Mrs. King. Perfect gentleman. 'Cause she recounted the whole phone call. It was a perfect gentleman's call. "I heard that you're having a baby, and that's wonderful. And I hope you're not concerned. We're gonna do what we can." And then, of course, Kennedy went out and called the governor.

He's such a smart politician. He called the Democratic governor, and the governor said, "Here's how you have to wire this thing. You gotta go through a couple people to get to the judge. You can't go through me." The Democratic governor did not want his fingerprints on this. And then he goes, and then Bobby makes the call to the judge.

So all this is going on. After Bobby had exploded, Bobby (as he did so many times in his life) stopped being the red hot, you know, the Irish kid who always wants to fight, he began, "Wait a minute. This judge is an SOB. Why did this judge deny this guy bail in a sit-in demonstration?" So that's how it worked. But let's listen to Andrew Young, who's a young fellow then, of course, on public television.

Andrew Young: They put him in chains, and put him in the back of a paddy wagon, and drove him 300 miles south to Reidsville Penitentiary in the middle of the night. And nobody knew where he was.

Archival Recording: We'd like to know that during your recent encounter in Georgia, did President-elect Kennedy have any influence, or did he influence your release? Or just how did he fit into the picture? Did he have any connection with your being released?

King: Well, I would say first that many forces worked together to bring about my release. I don't think that any one force brought it about. But you had a plurality of forces working together. I'm sure that the interests of the public in general all over America had a great deal to do with it.

Now, it is true that Senator Kennedy did take a specific step. He was in contact with officials in Georgia during my arrest. And he called my wife, made a personal call, and expressed his concern, and said to her that he was working and trying to do something to make my release possible.

His brother, who at that time was his campaign manager, also made contact with officials and even the judge in Georgia so that the Kennedy family did have some part. At least they expressed a concern and they did have some part in the release.

Matthews: Boy, is that political. He walked through so many landmines there. He wasn't gonna have a white savior. He wasn't gonna let that happen. Am I being cynical here, or is he really just a really brilliant politician as well as everything else?

Edwards: It's such a fascinating interview. Dr. King continues to walk that line of wanting to give enough credit but not too much to Jack Kennedy. And I think that in part that keeps the pressure on Kennedy to win over a black vote on a civil rights agenda.

And so it was, I mean, look, smart politics by Jack Kennedy to both, you know, engineer and make the call and then, you know, Bobby Kennedy to kinda work the process but a really smart move by Dr. King to say, "You know what? Let's just give him just enough (LAUGHTER) but not too much--"

Matthews: You you are a good pol, too. Jon, I do think there's something in politics though that is what Dr. King later, he said this so well afterwards, as he often did on everything. "There are moments when the politically expedient can be morally wise."

Meacham: Yeah. And that's the golden spot of public life, isn't it? I'm reminded of, remember the Bonus Army that had met in protest in the depths of the Depression in 1932. And MacArthur, who's the Army chief of staff, had gone out to Anacostia and launched an attack on the protesting veterans who just wanted their pensions so they could eat.

And Roosevelt wins, and he sends Mrs. Roosevelt out to see them. And it was remarked at the time that Hoover sent the Army and FDR sent his wife. And that sent the same kind of signal, that in fact this was someone who cared. And you talk and write about this all the time.

People, in the powerful, they want some sense that there is a capacity for empathy, there is a capacity to be seen by that person in power as whole and complex. And what President Kennedy did there with Wofford, with Shriver, and ultimately with his brother was signal that for all the tough guy talk, for all the ward healing and the money flying around West Virginia, and god knows what happened in Chicago, for all of that, there was a reason this machine was working. And it wasn't simply about the acquisition of power. It was about that, but they were gonna use that power for a purpose.

Matthews: So what happened is the denouement of the story, the finale was Louie Martin (the publisher from Chicago, African American guy, a business guy) and Harris Wofford, who was just a good guy, put out a pamphlet about Jack Kennedy, the guy who cares, against the no-comment Nixon. The no-comment Nixon.

They printed out 2 million copies of this thing called The Blue Bomb because it was on blue paper and distributed it, guess where, into the windshields of every African American churchgoer that Sunday. And so the whites and the white establishment had no idea this was going on, Donna. And it worked.

Edwards: Well, and when you think about the results then of the election, it's by a hair's breadth. And something like that, I mean, this is how campaigns can change, right? Because they can change on a dime. And something as smart as that and going at where black voters are, and they're in church on Sunday, is what changed that election, I think--

Matthews: And in those days, Democrats today say they don't like the Electoral College, Jon. They liked the Electoral College (LAUGHTER) back in '60 because Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, these big states with large African American population in the big cities, went Democrat largely or at least marginally because of this event, Jon.

Meacham: Yeah, people are always against executive power until they have it. (LAUGHTER) That tends to be a perennial reality. You know, this period, really '54 'cause of the Brown decision, '55 the enforcement decision, through '64, '65, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, that's the decade that created the America we live in for good and for ill.

On the one hand, the legislation and the beginning in the shift in attitudes created that more perfect union. But it also immediately created the backlash. And the person who would become if not the architect of the backlash, certainly the avatar of it, was Richard Nixon--

Matthews: Yeah.

Meacham: --because of what happened in 1968.

Matthews: I think what we're getting to is a moment of history that not only matters at the polls a month later, but it seems to have, Donna, it did. It changed history with those two men and the two parties.

Edwards: Well, it did. And I think that, you know, it actually reinforced Kennedy, who really then decided, "I'm gonna be the civil rights guy." Even though there were still those tensions, and if you read back in history and think about the tensions between MLK Jr., and the larger civil rights movement, and Kennedy, it was a healthy push-me/pull-you, but it really changed history.

And it is an indication of where it is that we are now and why we're where we are, where we have, you know, Republicans clearly standing on the other side of history and Democrats, you know, sort of part of the core value of the Democratic Party is this notion of justice, and equal rights, and civil rights. It's a core value set of the Democratic Party.

Matthews: And I think it shows that you learn through action. Sitting on the sidelines, which I've spent too much time in my life doing, you don't learn as much as the actors, the people who play. And I think Bobby Kennedy has always been the sort of example of that. He learned.

He got really angry at Harris Wofford and the Louie Martins who he thought were goo-goos, they're too soft, they were gonna blow the election. And then he realized that SOB judge that, you know, throws the book at this guy, young African American protester, he's not a bad person. He's protesting, you know, wrong stuff. And yet he learned in that to be the good guy. It took him a while. Jon, your last thought for the program?

Meacham: Yeah. I think that we can celebrate moments like this without being overly nostalgic. These were imperfect people trying to win elections, trying to amass power. And yet here we are, 60 years later, talking about the good they did. And the argument I make unsuccessfully to Donna's former colleagues is: What do you want us to talk about and think about when we talk about and think about you?

And we're talking about a controversial outreach that was not in Kennedy's immediate political interest, was full of risk. And yet here we are, 60 years later, celebrating a guy for doing the right thing. Even if you don't want to do the right thing because it's the right thing, you might just do it out of vanity and self-interest (MUSIC) because they're not gonna be talking in 60 years about people who took no stand.

Matthews: And when the galloping horse of history rides by, get on that baby.

Meacham: Yep.

Matthews: Thank you, Donna, and thank you, Jon.

Edwards: Thank you.

Matthews: So you wanna be president? We've got one more lesson from campaigns that win: Go negative.

Archival Recording: When in doubt, it's like any kind of fight. If you get the first deadly punch in, you're in control of the situation, which is where you wanna be.

Matthews: So you wanna be president? I'm Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC. Thanks for listening. (HOOFS)