November 2, 2015

Lessons from LBJ

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2010 - In trying to describe the difference between Obama's presidency and that of Lyndon Johnson I sometimes tell the story - recorded on tape - of LBJ lying in bed and calling a Texas county Democratic leader at 2 AM eastern time after his major 1964 win to thank him for all his great help in the campaign. LBJ, who was feeling sick at the time, then asks to speak to the Texas Democrat's wife and proceeds to tell her how wonderful her husband is and how important he was to the campaign.

I recently heard another tale of that time. Rep. Jake Pickle, a Texas Democrat, had gotten up the courage to be one of five south members of Congress to vote for the 1964 civil rights act. It was a difficult choice. After the vote he wandered around aimlessly and somewhat miserably, finally ending up in the boarding house where he lived. Earlier, Johnson had called the boarding house and asked to speak to Pickle. Pickle told the clerk who had picked up the phone to tell LBJ that he had gone to bed. Replied the clerk, "President Johnson said you would say that but tell you that he has to speak to you anyway." The purpose: just to say thanks.

LBJ was in many ways no role model. He could beat Obama for narcissism in a minute. But he had enough social intelligence to put his ego aside to help boost that of others whom he badly needed.

That skill has largely disappeared, not only from Washington, but from most places of power in the U.S. Power is no longer seen as a privilege earned from a greater community but primarily the product of individual brilliance and tactical manipulation. The Texas county Democratic leaders and Jake Pickles no longer matter.


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