Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hey Barry: Johnson would be a better mentor for you than Lincoln

I was not particularly aware of LBJ when he was president, 1963-1969. I was only 11 when he was elected, and politics just wasn't something that was a part of my childhood world. However, today I am a big fan of Robert Caro, a Johnson biographer. For my money, Caro's 3-volume biog of LBJ is one of the best-written biographies I've ever read. The thing about biographies is this: the subject doesn't much matter if the biog is well-written; and the converse is true--if a biography is badly written, the life story of the most interesting person alive will not overcome the bad writing. But I digress.

Robert Caro's third volume of the LBJ biography, published in 2002, is titled Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Johnson is remembered, if at all, by most people for his years as President. What he ought to be remembered for, in my opinion, were his years in the Senate, from 1949-1960. Caro's book is fascinating for anyone who is interested in how the Senate works, and he details how Johnson mastered the Senate as no political leader has ever done, before or since. Caro tells how Johnson became Majority Leader in only one term--the youngest and greatest Senate Leader in our history. Under his leadership, the Senate became a legislative machine that responded to Johnson's tight-fisted control.

It was Johnson's political genius that allowed him to achieve the impossible: to retain the support of the Southerners who controlled the Senate while earning the cooperation of liberals, as well as to convince his Southern constituents that, although he was firmly in their camp, it was essential that they allow him to make progress toward civil rights.

Our most recent example of Senator-turned-President is a much different political animal. Neophyte Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., unlike Lyndon Baines Johnson, chose to use his time in the Senate (all 145 days or so of it), not to learn the ins and outs of legislative power, but instead to use that office as a stepping-stone to something larger: the power, wealth, and fame of the Presidency. No wonder Obama "repeatedly" (one of the favored, overworked words in his lexicon) steps in it, making the mistakes of a rookie, including his most recent health care debacle, where he has inexplicably managed to enrage not only people on the Right, but also his base on the far Left.

Instead of misappropriating some dubious claim of a Lincolnesque comparison with himself (which, frankly, I don't see how that works on any level), Obama would do well to press the "Reset" button, made famous by his hapless Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and do a little reading up on the career of Lyndon Johnson, himself a pragmatic, ruthless, and ambitious politician, but who, unlike beginner Barack Obama, understood and played the political game with a master's consummmate skill. Johnson was his own Rahm Emmanuel. He wouldn't have needed anyone to do his dirty work for him, and he never voted "present." --Now there's a scary thought: Narcissist-in-Chief Obama with a full kit of political tools.

Seriously, if you're interested in legislative power and how the Senate works, if you enjoy biographies and like a good read, then get Robert Caro's biographies of LBJ, particularly volume 3, Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate.

No comments: