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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2010

McCulloch challenged party, risked career

OHIO has changed its mind. In 1887, the state sent William Allen to Congress as one of its representatives in Statuary Hall in Washington. A Jacksonian Democrat who served as a member of the House and the Senate, and as Ohio's governor, he invented the phrase "54-40 or fight." More than 120 years later, he's being recalled from the Old Hall of the House, south of the Rotunda.

Allen is perhaps the last political victim of the Civil War. He was a skeptic of the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, a critic of Lincoln, and one of the Peace Democrats who undermined the Union cause. After the war, when he was known as "Rise Up William Allen," he was celebrated as a careful steward of the state's funds (though with a weakness for greenbacks and inflation), but his views have been roundly discredited.

This spring, Ohio is searching for a replacement for Allen in the collection of statues, two for each state, that stand in a two-story semicircular gallery in the Capitol.

There are several worthy candidates to join Ohio's other entry, James A. Garfield, including an inventor (Thomas Edison), a medical pioneer (Albert Sabin), two daring young men in their flying machines (Orville and Wilbur Wright), an astronaut (Judith Resnik, victim of the Challenger disaster), and a Civil War-era author (Harriet Beecher Stowe).

This statuary controversy has brought to light (and to historical life) a long-forgotten hero of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He is Rep. William M. McCulloch, who played a forgotten but indispensable role in the passage of the landmark legislation.

McCulloch was one of those figures, many of them Republicans from rural districts, who are beloved at home, influential in the tucked-away power centers of the Capitol, and virtually unknown nationally.

On the surface, McCulloch was the unlikeliest of warriors in the cause of civil rights. Born on a farm and an adept campaigner in his red suspenders at the seven county fairs in the Fourth Congressional District of Ohio, he was the prototype of the Republican country lawmaker of the time.

He was deeply skeptical of big government, and proud of husbanding his congressional office allowance and giving some of it back to the government every year. The portion of his district population that was black: 2.7 percent.

But McCulloch "considered himself a constitutional lawyer and felt that the Bill of Rights was meant for all the people, not just the white and the rich," wrote Barbara Whalen and former GOP Rep. Charles Whalen of Ohio, who served with McCulloch, in their legislative history of the 1964 civil-rights bill, The Longest Debate.

And when the strategists of the Kennedy administration went searching for a Republican to help grease the legislative tracks for this most difficult of political gambles, they sent assistant attorney general Burke Marshall to tiny Piqua, Ohio, to meet the small-town country lawyer with the big-time national conscience.

Thus began some of the most consequential and least-known negotiations in the history of American politics. McCulloch would embrace the black cause. The Democrats would not water down the legislation. The Republicans would get credit for their efforts. Along the way many of the principals would abandon their principles. Through all of this, McCulloch stood as the great gyroscope of the legislation.

In passion and in importance, the struggle over civil rights in the back corridors matched the struggle in the streets. There was the inevitable and timeless struggle between doing more and doing less. Despite all the tumult, McCulloch emerged, in John F. Kennedy's words, as "the chief fellow," even though you probably have never heard his name.

"To get Republicans," Kennedy said, "we've got to get McCulloch."

When the Ohio Republican retired in 1973, a pen President Johnson used to sign the 1964 bill and a pile of personal letters were put in a vault that wasn't quite forgotten but wasn't quite at the top of the McCulloch family's mind either.

In the past few months, as supporters conduct McCulloch's final campaign for Capitol Hill, the contents of the vault were examined and a remarkable letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - a letter unknown to the McCulloch family and to Caroline Kennedy, who expressed surprise when a copy was handed to her this month - was discovered.

"You made a personal commitment to President Kennedy in October 1963, against all the interests of your district," the president's widow wrote. "When he was gone, your personal integrity and character were such that you held to that commitment despite enormous pressure and political temptations not to do so."

She went on for three full pages, saying that McCulloch's commitment was "a light of hope in an often dark world, and one I shall raise my children on as they grow older."

Then she concluded: "And as for my dear Jack, it is a precious thought to me that in the last month of his life, when he had so many problems that seemed insoluble, he had the shining gift of your nobility, to give him the hope and faith he needed to carry on."

That gift, from Rep. McCulloch of Piqua, shines on us every day, all the brighter because of the unremitting darkness of partisanship in our own time.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com


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