First of all, the times are different; second, we have developed a politics that combines toxicity with immobility; and third, Barack Obama’s career ripened before he had a chance to instinctively know the players and the rules.
The immediate reason for reflecting about times past and times present is a slim volume sent to me from an old acquaintance and foundation colleague, Joe Califano, former counsel and chief domestic adviser in the Johnson White House.
Joe’s report centers on the core of the two-party debate: “REVISITING THE GREAT SOCIETY; The Role of Government from FDR & LBJ to Today.”
Before taking up such weighty issues, let’s take time out for an “inside” story that reflects the humor and humanity in the tense world of the West Wing:
On Joe’s first day on the LBJ staff, his secretary put through a call, which she said was from the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Jamie Whitten, a conservative Mississippian.
“Mr. Ca-LIF-anuh,” boomed the voice on the line (his name is pronounced Cal-i-FANO), “What do you know about cotton? You city boys down there don’t know much about issues important to my constituents.”
Joe asked for time to catch up on issues affecting cotton, and the night before the appointment with the chairman, he had staff working urgently to get him briefed. When Joe went down on the appointed day to greet the chairman in the West Wing lobby, Clifford Alexander, a black White House staffer, walked up to Joe and stuck out his hand, “Mornin’, Mr. Cal-LIF-anuh.”
It is remarkable that the Johnson staff had time for practical jokes because those years in that place was a veritable factory of fundamental life-changing legislation: the 1964 Public Accommodations Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, fair housing, immigration reform, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of less far-reaching bills were enacted.
A scene in the Oval Office I can’t imagine being repeated by Obama involved Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, with whom Johnson in his early Senate years developed a father-son relationship.
The old lion Russell had threatened to filibuster the 1964 civil rights bill when Johnson asked for a copy of the Constitution and handed it to Russell, “Read this, Dick.”
Russell responded, “I know and love the Constitution, Mr. President,” to which LBJ replied, “Read it. Tell me where it mentions filibuster. There’s nothing in the Constitution about filibuster, Dick.”
From long and intimate observation, Johnson as majority leader had developed an understanding of what motivated each member, whether it was as simple as a dam or a road or as complex as an individual’s moral conscience.
He knew how to touch those chords in a way Obama had not had an opportunity to learn in his single freshman term in the Senate. LBJ also was buoyed by a wave of national grief over the murder of President Kennedy.
Like FDR, Obama came to office in the midst of an inherited economic crisis, which Obama met in a policy sense that saved the financial industry from total collapse and lessened the pain of the Bush Recession on the economy.
But beyond the arena of public policy, Roosevelt exhibited an uncanny sense of the nation’s psychological needs. In the opening paragraph of his first inaugural address, he spoke directly to the national spirit:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves, which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
In the summer of 2009, when people were still losing their jobs and houses, Obama was hunkered down in Washington on behalf of another policy goal — an historically worthy one — health-care reform.
The political void out in the country was filled by opposition congressmen at rallies in which they exploited public anxiety, whipping constituents’ fears into a frenzy. The Tea Party was born.
That so-called movement was financed and manipulated by wealthy special interests dedicated to blocking everything Obama proposed, creating a do-nothing bloc that stymied any progress, which refused to be led by its own GOP leadership.
Whatever Obama may have lacked in the zest both Roosevelt and Johnson had for politics seems to have been made up by the clarifying effect of an election. The GOP has been seized with a renewed interest in immigration reform.
But do not anticipate or fear legislation in assembly line fashion coming out of this White House. The times are different, and so are its leaders.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.