Politics, Presidents, and Making the Wheel Turn

One new David Brooks column on Abraham Lincoln, and a review of Robert Caro’s LBJ books by Thomas Meaney, in “The Nation”, have made for some great Thanksgiving reading. Connected? I think so.

Brooks, in his column, masterfully writes of the inherent contradictions of those who successfully navigate our political system. His focus is Lincoln, and the new Spielberg movie on Lincoln’s life. Brooks talks about the distaste for politics that many feel today, but takes pains to show that much good can come of that craft by showing what a master practitioner can accomplish. I have not yet seen the movie, and have just started reading the Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals” but Brooks hits home some points that need to be made. Brooks talks of the “compromise” our system requires, and he is not speaking of compromising political ideals, but of actually compromising yourself to achieve noble ends. What does he say about Lincoln?

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.

Lincoln, as a President trying to achieve a legislative end, (passage of the 13th Amendment barring slavery), had to get into the legislative weeds to achieve success. The legislative weeds are not for the faint of heart, even back then. Brooks points out all of the necessary, difficult things (low cunning)that are required to achieve that legislative success. Brooks references the “need to deal with other people”, and those other people come to the table with all sorts of different agendas. Brooks has it right. It is one thing to speak in moralistically superior tones about “being above that”, but when you hear that nonsense you can usually count on the person speaking it having no legislative accomplishments or experience. Since Lincoln’s time that aspect of this business has not changed all that much. Legislative accomplishment is as much about people as it is about issues, and requires extraordinary time to be put in to fully “understand” those people. Lincoln’s greatness stemmed from his fundamental understanding of people, and how best to utilize others to promote what we all understand today as a morally superior cause. Quite clearly the consensus in Lincoln’s time was not so clear, and his tactics created much angst. Today he would probably be the recipient of some harsh editorial criticism. The old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same comes to mind.

Proof of that axiom comes by way of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, former Vice President, and President. LBJ was a master legislative craftsman, likely the greatest Majority Leader that has ever walked the halls of the Senate. Robert Caro has spent over 30 years researching LBJ, producing some of the greatest books I have ever read. “The Path to Power”, “Means of Ascent”, “Master of the Senate”, and “The Passage of Power”, with the final volume being worked on as we speak. The best of this great group is, in my opinion, “Master of the Senate”, which shows LBJ turning the Senate from a unmanageable legislative body with little by way of achievement into a body that produced impressive legislative results. Those results, more often than not, came from Johnson’s raw manipulation of people and process. Those manipulations included deceiving both the southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party, as well as the northern liberal bloc. Johnson bent both sides to his will, and moved legislation through the Senate that, without exaggeration, no other man could have done.

The Passage of Power details Johnson’s ascension to the Presidency, and his monumental legislative achievement in moving the Kennedy Civil Rights program through Congress. Caro details how the sausage was made, and while it was not pretty it laid bare the differences in approach to legislating these matters between LBJ and JFK. (I come at this as a JFK man, but the truth is the truth.) Upon assuming the Presidency Johnson quickly identified the timing problems inherent in the Kennedy approach, and swung into action. Timing problem? LBJ had been schooled in the Senate on the knee of the master, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Russell, an arch segregationist, had beaten back civil rights legislation in the Senate for decades by slowing the progress of many other pieces of critical legislation, holding them hostage until he had won his inevitable filibuster of the civil rights bill of the session. Russell’s holding of the other legislation was always invisible, with southern committee chairs finding multitudes of reasons nominally not related to civil rights for holding bills up. LBJ, to his chagrin, found the “traffic buildup” in front of the 1963 Civil Rights Bill to be monumental, including most of the annual Appropriations Bills, as well as the Kennedy Tax Cut bill, and Kennedy Education bills, as well as President Kennedy’s nominations that required Senate approval. These “hostages” would not be released until Richard Russell had beaten back yet another Civil Rights bill. Johnson also faced the fact that the Civil Rights bill had not even passed the House in November of 1963. It was stuck in the House Rules Committee, where the Chairman, in concert with his fellow Southerners, was indicating that no action could be taken until January of 1964. Under that time frame LBJ knew what to expect: From “The Passage of Power”:

“We’re going to have to do it now,” he told Katherine Graham in another call. “If we don’t, they’re going to start quitting here about the eighteenth of December, and they’ll come back about the eighteenth of January. Then they’ll have hearings in the Rules Committee until about the middle of March. And then they’ll pass the bill and it will get over [to the Senate], and Dick Russell will say it’s Easter and Lincoln’s Birthday, and by the time he gets them [the civil rights bill], he will screw them to death because he is so much smarter than they are.”

But LBJ, once schooled by Richard Russell, was now the one giving out the lessons. Despite the legislative backup, despite the fact that the Southern legislative general was Richard Russell, and despite having NO TIME, LBJ got all of the bills, including Civil Rights, passed. Like Lincoln LBJ used tactics that many considered deplorable. But he saw the larger moral imperative, and took actions that provided African-Americans with rights that had always seemed out of legislative reach. Without LBJ that day of reckoning would have been delayed, to the detriment of our nation, for some unknown period of time.

Caro relates a conversation recalled by Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman with Richard Russell in “The Passage of Power”:

“He said that Lyndon Johnson was the most amazingly resourceful fellow, that he was a man who really understood power and how to use it,” Freeman recalls. And then, Freeman recalls, Russell said, “That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it.” “You know,” Russell said, “we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”

The irony of the fact that LBJ rose to power in the Senate largely through the efforts of Richard Russell could not have been lost on Russell.

Legislating is a science, and in Lincoln and LBJ, we see two American giants, flaws and all, achieving great ends by mastering that science. Great ideas and flowing rhetoric win elections. But real progress usually comes through application of that difficult, and compromising, art known as legislating.

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