But Johnson wasn't just about a finger to the breast plate. He was a flatterer. "You have to court members of Congress as much as your wife," Johnson would say. That didn't mean just calling members on the phone. It meant studying their needs, their fears, knowing how to flatter them, excite them, or buy them off. At his desk he kept a list of important members of Congress. Next to each name was a small annotation with a pet project they needed or note about what their weak spots were.
As a young politician, Johnson would literally sit at the knee of those he sought to ingratiate himself to. Once in power, he still buttered up those he needed. Once when walking out of the Oval Office with an executive from a steel company, Johnson told him, "It takes a powerful man to convince the president of the United States." He used that same trick with Sen. Harry Byrd. D. "Now you can tell your friends that you forced the president of the United States to reduce the budget before you let him have his tax cut," he told the powerful senator from Virginia. In a conversation with Sen. Albert Gore Sr., D, he cooed: "There's not anybody I'm more interested in than myself and you. . . . Any little thing that we can do here to add to your stature, we sure want to do it." Presidential historian Fred Greenstein writes that Johnson "had an unerring sense of the preoccupations of his colleagues and a genius for linking the provisions of proposed laws to the interests of sufficient numbers of legislators to enact them."
Johnson was successful because he liked to be in the company of politicians. All successful presidents have some share of this love for their own kind. Harry Truman sought out local pols when he hit the road, both to enjoy their company and to get a quick read of the place he was visiting. It's clear that Obama — whose personality is far more insular and inward — doesn't share that appetite, even for those in his own party. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has told colleagues this is because Obama never really had to "climb the greasy poll" of politics to succeed. Obama disdains artifice of any kind, as he told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. "There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing," Obama said. "For example, faking emotion . . . I'm at my best when I believe what I am saying." Obama wouldn't be able to hold down his soup if he had to flatter Eric Cantor, R-Va.