NEWS BLOG: Lessons on government’s role from LBJ

BY MARY ANNA TOWLER
I’ve embarked on reading way too many really long books lately, but the one I just started is going to be a treasure, regardless of its 614 pages (plus source notes).
The book is Robert Caro’s highly praised “The Passage of Power,” the fourth in his “Years of Lyndon Johnson” series.
Caro’s a fantastic writer. And Johnson is a fascinating subject. And while this is pretty recent history, Caro fleshes out that history, offering new details and insight.
He also reminds us of some important principles that have been swept aside in the years since the Johnson presidency. Those reminders are good lessons for politicians today, and the lessons start right in the book’s introduction.
For instance, there’s the story of Johnson, less than a week into his presidency after John Kennedy’s assassination, listening to advisers as he discussed a speech he was preparing to give to Congress. Don’t mention civil-rights legislation, they warned, because it will upset the Southerners in Congress, and a civil rights bill had “no chance of passage anyway.”
One adviser “told him to his face that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes,” writes Caro, “no matter how worthy those causes might be.”
Johnson’s response, says Caro: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
In the early part of 1964, still just months into office, he introduced his plan for a War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address. His vision, Caro writes, was literally a crusade, for better schools, health care, housing, jobs, job training – “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it.”
Johnson was a complicated man, to put it mildly, and his disastrous Vietnam policy led many of us to rail against him and literally drive him out of an office he had wanted nearly all his life. But he had a vision of the presidency, and a vision of the role of government and this country’s responsibility to its neediest people, that is missing in much of Washington today. And we badly need to bring that vision back.

4 comments

  1. “But he had a vision of the presidency, and a vision of the role of government and this country’s responsibility to its neediest people, that is missing in much of Washington today. And we badly need to bring that vision back.”

    Don’t hold your breath Ms. Towler. We’re not going to get that vision back. With the domination by Third World states like Iowa and New Hampshire of the process by which we select our presidents, the ability of a qualified, dedicated and experienced individual to become Chief Executuve has fallen to zero. The fact that total non-entities, men who should not have been elected dog catcher, have by and large resided in the White House for the past four decades (at least) can realistically be ascribed to the fact that the average voter has abdicated their obligation to think for themselves and has insteda opted to rubber stamp those smiley-faced empty suits who win a few thousand votes in Des Moines or Nashua, regardless of whether the candidate has a vision for America and the mental horsepower and political sagacity to make that vision a reality.

    with the

  2. Ms. Towler,

    Point taken. I concede that my parents were still in middle school when LBJ took office, but I have to say that my impression of LBJ’s anti-poverty policies is that they resulted in the demolition of 50% of our cities and the concentration of poverty that you decry so often as being the cause of our urban school problems. So, I would be very careful when invoking LBJ’s ghost. His heart may have been in the right place, but, like Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” the execution of the theory was so flawed as to be historically contemptible. Unfortunately, the damage is irreparable – in any of our lifetimes, at least – and until we recognize the problem, we’ll never come up with a solution. Paternalistic colonization of the poor does not work. Fetishizing the poor doesn’t work either. If you want an example of what does work, I suggest you look up “PUSH Buffalo.” There’s no need to invoke LBJ. There are people (only 90 minutes away, in fact) doing things right now that make our cities work for people of all incomes and education levels. (As an aside, if you want to learn something about yourself, read or hear MLK Jr.’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech. You don’t need to read long books about dead presidents to learn relevant things).

  3. Leaving aside my libertarian instincts, the biggest problem with government programs is the ephemeral nature of those programs. For a program to work and work well (providing the vision is sound) there needs to be a stable and committed leadership. The simple fact that the governing party in government can change as often as every 2 years, and that the president only has 8 years (at best), if the policy doesn’t have broad bi-partisan support and a long-term stream-lined committed leadership outside the spoils system it’s not going to work as well as advertised.

    Successful reforms seem to be local efforts put in place by local leaders who then stick around for follow-through and commitment to the original vision. I think of the Harlem Children’s Zone, various individual schools around the country that perform far above their surrounding schools, and numerous charities.

    LBJ had a vision, but one that could not be maintained. It was also quite unrealistic. Simply put, one cannot legislate away poverty. In any community of people larger than a family, there will always be some poorer than others. The vision should have been to make American society egalitarian enough that ANYONE can be successful with the SAME level of effort as any other successful person, and that ANYONE can fail given the lack of will or effort. When the poor actually see the potential for success, a huge percentage of them will make the effort to achieve that success. When the entrenched society seems designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, there seems to be no realistic reason to make the effort.

    Education is the one true (small “d”) democratic institution in America. However, as many college seniors today can attest, just because you get an education, doesn’t mean you can benefit from it.

    I guess my point is that LBJ’s reforms could not have been maintained, could not have achieved what he set out to achieve, and were mis-guided at best. His vision remains sound, but the execution was wildly flawed. This doesn’t mean we should abandon the vision, but it does mean we need to learn from the past and not make those mistakes again.

  4. A president (at least a thinking one, sorry Dubya and Ronny) governs and reforms based on personal experiences within a state and local context. LBJ was born in the era where 6 out of 10 Americans lived on farms or in small communities, where the Poor House was still the way that society dealt with the “needy”, where the family bore the responsibility for supporting parents, and grandparents, and where African-Americans were still being lynched for being “uppity” and were effectually denied even the most basic civil rights. He entered politics at the point when FDR was making America realize that the federal government had a major role to play in bettering the condition of ALL Americans and he quickly grasped the correctness of FDR’s vision.

    Is it any wonder that once he gained the power to implement his own vision of a just America (first as Senate Majotity Leader and then as President) he jumped in with both feet? As with his hero Roosevelt he understood that the key was to try SOMTHING to help society and to keep on trying rather then standing still year after year endlessly weighing options and worrying about the cost.

    Was the Great Society a complete success? No. Did it erradicate the problems that LBJ hoped to erradicate. No. Is it fair to condemn Johnson and his programs because conditions over which he had little or no control arose and the information he used to make his decisions may have been incomplete? Again, no. Is the United States better off because of the Great Society and LBJ’s civil rights initiatives. YES ! The man tried hard and pushed, arm-twisted, horse traded, cut deals and used the full power of the presidency to improve America. That’s a hell of a lot more than can be said for the eight political eunuchs who have followed him into the White House.

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