For Christmas, my brother-in-law gave me Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson. I started reading it earlier this month, triggered, I think, by the many posts, op-ed pieces, and news stories surrounding the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I have not read any part of the first three volumes of Caro’s series, but starting at the beginning is for rookies. That said, I began reading Passage of Power at Chapter 18, at a point in the narrative shortly after November 1963, where Caro is discussing the Senate and the Southern Strategy whereby the southern Democrats used filibusters and procedural tricks to block civil rights legislation. Mainly, reading this part of Volume IV, with its discussion of tactical maneuverings in the Senate, has made me want to go back and read Volume II (Means of Ascent) and Volume III (Master of the Senate). I’m now also looking forward to Caro’s next volume, which should go into the blow-by-blow account of passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, etc.
One feature of the American constitutional regime is that the independent election of the president means that a politician can rise to the office of chief executive without substantial support in the legislative branch or even experience in the workings of Congress. In parliamentary systems, like the UK and Israel, for example, a prime minister reaches that office through years of working with fellow legislators and gaining the support of a coalition of peers within the parliament. Americans, on the other hand, have a tendency to elect governors and generals who, as a rule, have never served in Congress. Even when we do elect a member of Congress — like Kennedy or Obama — the president-elect tends not to be a legislative leader, like a majority leader or Speaker of the House.
In this, Lyndon Johnson was an exception: a man who rose to the American presidency after extensive time in Congress, including time as Majority Leader of the Senate. (I think that he may be the only Senate Majority Leader to become president.) It is all the more surprising to hear, therefore, that LBJ had a plan to use a career in Congress as a route to the presidency, as Caro maintains (p. 5):
Lyndon Baines Johnson, born August 27, 1908, had mapped out a path to that goal, and he refused to be diverted from it.
The path ran only through Washington–it was paved with national, not state power — and it had only three steps: House of Representatives, Senate, presidency. And after he had fought his way onto it — winning a seat in the House in 1937 is a desperate, seemingly hopeless campaign — he could not be persuaded by anyone, not even Franklin Roosevelt, to turn off it. In 1939, the President offered to appoint him director of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration. The directorship of a nationwide agency, particularly one as fast-growing, and politically important, as the REA, was not the kind of job offered to many men only thirty years old, but Johnson turned the offer down: he was afraid, he said, of being “sidetracked.” in 1946, he was urged by his party to run for the governorship of Texas. If he did, he knew, his election was all but assured, and at the time his path seemed to have reached a dead end in Washington: stuck in the House now for almost a decade, with little chance of any imminent advancement to its hierarchy, he seemed to have no chance of stepping into a Senate seat. In the 435-member House, he was still only one of the crowd… . But he still wouldn’t leave the road he had chosen as the best road to the prize he wanted so badly. The governorship, he explained to aides, could never be more than a “detour” on his “route,” a detour that might turn into a “dead end.” (Some years later, when his longtime assistant John Connally decided to run for the governorship, Johnson told him he was making a mistake in leaving Washington. “Here’s where the power is,” he said.)
In the years since LBJ, as we have seen Governor Carter, Governor Reagan, Governor Clinton, and Governor Bush all rise to the presidency, it is a bit surprising to hear the governorship described as a “detour” from the path to the Oval Office. And LBJ came of age (politically) during the presidency of another former governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In any case, the popular narrative is that Johnson’s experience and skills at working individual senators and the Senate as an institution were key to his many landmark legislative achievements in the mid-1960s — the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid. And there is a fair amount of truth in this popular narrative, I think. Johnson’s skill set was practically ideal for dealing with the US Senate as it was in his particular time. He was legendary for his talents at working his fellow legislators, especially older senators (p. 6):
Watching Lyndon Johnson “play” older men, Thomas G. Corcoran, the New Deal insider and quite a player of older men himself, was to explain that “He was smiling and deferential, but, hell, lots of guys can be smiling and deferential. Lyndon had one of the most incredible capacities for dealing with older men. He could follow someone’s mind around and get where it was going before the other fellow knew where it was going.” These gifts served Lyndon Johnson better in small groups — men marveled at his ability to “make liberals think he was one of them, conservatives think he was one of them” — since that tactic worked best when there was no member of the other side around to hear. It worked best of all when he was alone with one man. “Lyndon was the greatest salesman one on one who ever lived,” George Brown was to say. These gifts had gone largely wasted in the House, whose 435 members “could be dealth with only in bodies and droves,” but the first time Lyndon Johnson walked into the Senate Chamber after his election to that body, he muttered…that the Senate was “the right size.”
Johnson with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Georgia), longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leader of the coalition of conservative Southern Democrats in the Senate.
All that being said, John Dickerson makes a good case that even LBJ would not be as successful today as LBJ was in the 1960s — the political, media, and social climates have changed too much. Even if an LBJ-like figure could get into the White House in this day and age, he (or she) would not be able to “work” Congress the way that Johnson did:
But let’s imagine that someone with Johnson’s skills could sneak into office. He’d have a tough time working his magic. He would find it difficult to engage a willing partner in such a partisan age. Lyndon Johnson had a pool of Republicans who felt a moral pull to pass civil rights legislation. There was no such large group that wanted to pass universal health care so much that they were willing to buck their party. Members of one party who might want to work with the opposite party have to worry about the outside groups—often backed by wealthy donors—that punish collaborators. In Johnson’s day, on most legislation he was working to get 51 votes. The increased use of the filibuster has raised that bar to 60.
In the 24-hour news environment Johnson’s little payoffs and punishments would be exposed immediately. It’s not just that the microscope is more powerful. The public takes a dim view of legislation used for personal reasons rather than the good of the country. Others think the government can never work for the good of the country and see inside dealing as feather-nesting, not a necessary tactic to break a deadlock and produce effective government. When Obama tried to buy the vote of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson on health care, the “Cornhusker kickback” was discovered, publicized, and removed from the bill.
As Scott Lemieux has said, even LBJ wasn’t LBJ.
And even LBJ couldn’t be LBJ today.
Image Credits: (1) Detail of portrait photo of Lyndon Johnson, March 1964. Photo by Arnold Newman, White House Press Office. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Lyndon B. Johnson meeting with Sen. Richard Russell, 17 December 1963. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (Image Serial Number: W98-30) via Wikimedia Commons.