February 16, 2015

If only Barack Obama had the skill and political savvy of Lyndon Johnson, he would have ushered in a new era of liberal dominance.  Throw in some schmoozing with the leaders of the opposition, and we’d be chiseling his face into Mount Rushmore by now. 

 At least that’s what the old LBJ hands would have us believe.

They’re wrong because of what they ignore.

The latest effort at applying the “lessons” of the Johnson era to the Obama era comes from LBJ’s former domestic policy aide, Joseph Califano, Jr.

His view of the landscape is nicely encapsulated in his wish for a President “with the courage to take high wire political risks and the street smarts to succeed.”

Califano relishes the courage of LBJ, the political savvy to buy off members of Congress with projects their states didn’t need, and the political bullying necessary to bend other members to the President’s will.

And this is just fine in Califano’s view because Johnson thought big and for the benefit of the oppressed and marginalized.

There is no doubt that modern civil rights and voting rights are unthinkable without LBJ. But it is impossible to ignore the context that ushered in the LBJ era: the assassination of his predecessor and the extraordinary political moment that singularly horrific act ushered in. It culminated with a political victory in 1964 that allowed Johnson to take advantage of a unique political opportunity.

Context always seems to be missing from those who wish the incumbent President were a bit more like LBJ. It’s as if the political time in which one president governs is indistinguishable from all others.

Another thing missing from the LBJ hagiography is presidential style. To put it mildly, presidents need to govern in a style that best fits their personality and experience, not seek to mimic LBJ.

That doesn’t mean successful models of leadership should be ignored. But they need to be fully tempered by a more holistic view of previous leaders.

And a holistic view is often missing from those who believe that, if only our current leaders could be more like LBJ, bigger and better things would happen in DC.

Take LBJ’s desire to outdo his idol, Franklin Roosevelt. This drove much of LBJ’s ambitions and it lead to hasty, sometimes ill-conceived policy measures. It also lead to a dangerous trend toward executive aggrandizement that would have enormous implications for what Califano refers to as a “monumental blunder,” the Vietnam War.

A luxury tax on yachts is a monumental blunder: taxing luxury goods like yachts rarely achieves estimated revenues because people can stop buying them and those who build yachts lose their jobs.

The Vietnam War was not simply a monumental blunder. LBJ’s view of executive power, his outsized view of his own abilities, what Califano refers to as “relentless, sometimes even ruthless, presidential leadership” resulted in over 200,000 dead and wounded services members in pursuit of questionable goals in Vietnam and a home front bitterly divided.

LBJ's pursuit of victory in Vietnam nearly bankrupted the country, helped to tear it apart at the seams, and created, with the help of his successor, a decades long distrust of government and its leaders. 

If we’re going to continue to suggest that aspirants for the presidency learn the lessons of LBJ’s presidency, we should start by applying all of the lessons.

presidential politics, Joseph Califano, Lyndon Johnson, Barack Obama

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