Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


September 28, 2012

Slate: Why we want presidents like LBJ



What has been your greatest negotiating success, and why?

Presidents rarely get their way in a negotiation because of their sharp reasoning, though as historian Richard Neustadt writes, it is common for each president to think that he needs "no power other than the logic of his argument." It takes a lot more than logic. The good ones have a talent for intimidation, flattery and a willingness to disappoint their friends. At this point, we have to let LBJ shamble onto the stage.

Johnson is considered the master at working his will on other lawmakers, but he must be understood in his political time to see what qualities were unique to the man and the moment and which ones might be available to a president today.

Some of Johnson's accomplishments, like the Civil Rights Act, were helped along by the momentum of being part of Kennedy's legacy. Though Johnson helped pass Medicare, sweeping education reform, and a host of other Great Society programs, even his political powers were limited. By the end of his term, the weight of the Vietnam War made him virtually impotent.

Johnson also had unique experience, having served 24 years in Congress. (It's easier to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when you helped pass the one in 1957.) Obama could never match his skill simply by putting on the presidential cuff links.

Still, Johnson had a love of politics that Obama and Romney lack. He approached other politicians like they were prey. He mixed psychoanalysis, cunning and determination. "He had almost no hobby," said Larry Temple, special counsel to President Johnson. "His avocation and his vocation were the same: government and politics."

"I never trust a man unless I've got his pecker in my pocket," was Johnson's crudest articulation of political power. The famous picture of Johnson nearly rubbing chins with Rhode Island Sen. Theodore Green, D, has solidified his reputation for intimidation. In December 1963 he fought conservatives in Congress over a bill regulating grain exports to the Soviet Union that he saw as a threat to his power in foreign affairs. He kept Congress in session until Christmas Eve to show them he had the power to do so and built a devastating majority against the conservatives. "He kept telephoning senator after senator, cajoling, bullying, threatening, charming, long after he had the majority, to make the vote overwhelming enough to ensure the lesson was clear," writes Caro.

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