March 31, 2016

Lessons from Lyndon Johnson

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.

Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama - primary examples of egos in a vacuum - seemed in the slightest interested in sharing their political status with others. Thus it wasn't all that surprising, for example, that the GOP gained about 1200 state legislative seats after Clinton took office.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LBJ's utter genius makes him a prime suspect for questioning in that era's political murders. Shakespeare would have fitted him beside Othello King Lear and MacBeth. Here's somebody who came through the missile crisis as a believer in hot wars and then came through the assassination as a believer in whatever the assassins wanted, and got his domestic revolution in the bargain. But MLK saw, as Shakespeare would have, the immense tragedy in throwing away the great society on an unwinnable war. On LBJ's watch but after he has eliminated himself like Lear, MLK is eliminated at the hands of Jowers, and RFK at the hands of a pretended security guard. His protege Humphrey who he had locked up for three years in the tower, he releases only to see him fail against Nixon and Agnew, and the nation falls into chaos and ruin from which it would not emerge. Some say the answers to the Shakespearan questions are locked up in LBJ's psychiatric records.