Archive for the ‘Mansfield’ Category

Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

The Speaker of the Whole House

1382122553000-AP-Obit-Tom-Foley-001Thomas P. Foley of Spokane, Washington was the first and still the only Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from west of Texas. He was also the last real “Speaker of the House” as opposed to every speaker since who has really been the Speaker of the Majority Party.

Tom Foley’s death this week at 84 reminds us that the leader of the House of Representatives was once a courtly, civil, decent guy who, as Politico noted, was “a man too gentle for modern Washington.” Stories about Tom Foley more often contain words like compromise and civility rather than adversary and attack.

We can mark the serious decline in the quality of public life to Foley’s defeat in the 1994 Republican sweep that brought Newt Gingrich and his swelled head and bitter partisanship to the center of Washington and American politics. The Gingrich-inspired style – hyper-partisanship, win at any cost, destroy your opponent – is now the norm and those of us who remember Foley can only wonder what might have been had the inconsequential George Nettercutt not defeated Foley in the Fifth District of Washington at a pivotal moment in recent American political history. Nettercutt’s entire legacy in five terms in Congress – he campaigned on serving only three, but changed his mind – is that he defeated Tom Foley. The Gentleman from Spokane will be and is better remembered.

Foley’s defeat was a function of tough votes he made on the budget and taxes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and, after a mass shooting at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base, a ban on assault weapons. It also didn’t help, as Adam Clymer recalled, that Gingrich authorized a smear campaign that scurrilously suggested the married Foley was homosexual.

As Clymer wrote in the New York Times obit of the former Speaker, just days before the 1994 election the Republican National Committee (RNC) and a Gingrich aide “put out a memo labeled ‘Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,’ equating his voting record with that of Barney Frank, the gay representative from Massachusetts, and the Gingrich aide urged reporters to investigate Mr. Foley’s sexuality. Mr. Foley denied he was gay.

“President George Bush said he was ‘disgusted at the memo,’ but he also said he believed the R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater, who had been Mr. Bush’s presidential campaign strategist, when Mr. Atwater said he did not know where the memo had originated. Because of Mr. Atwater’s own reputation for attack-dog politics, the president’s belief was not widely shared.”

Foley’s career touched and influenced national agricultural policy, foreign relations, regional energy issues and tax and budget policy. While Congressional conservatives rail against an out of control federal budget today it is worth remembering that Tom Foley rounded up the votes in the House in 1993 – against unanimous GOP opposition – that made Bill Clinton’s budget and tax policies law. How soon we have forgotten that the Clinton-era yielded a balanced budget, a surplus and a decade of economic growth before George W. Bush’s tax cuts and endless wars left the federal budget in a shambles.

The great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote the foreward to the book – Honor in the House – that Foley and one of his long-time aides Jeff Biggs wrote in 1999. “Tom and I came from Irish immigrant stock,” Mansfield wrote, “which probably meant we were destined to be Democrats. But the legacy also meant we had to see more than one side in any argument. I could feel right at home with former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s comment that Tom Foley could always see ‘three sides in any argument.’”

“He never put politics ahead of country. Never, never, never,” said Tom O’Donnell, a former Democratic leadership aide during Foley’s time. “We would never have seen what we’ve seen in the past few weeks” with Foley in the House.

Asked following his defeat in 1994 what advice he would give the incoming Speaker, Foley responded in typical Foley style – civil, thoughtful and correct. “When one becomes Speaker of the House, you are Speaker of the whole House and not just one party. You have responsibility to be fair and impartial to all members, to enforce the rules without regard to party, and to uphold the traditions and honor of the institution.” Unfortunately no Speaker since has behaved that way.

We should mourn the passing of a good and decent man, a power in the life of the Northwest for many years, and a man who wore the title politician without sullying the word. But at Tom Foley’s passing let us also hope for more of his kind in public life. They cannot come on the stage too soon.

 

What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.

The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.

Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.

“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.

As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.

Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”

Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”

The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950′s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.

Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940′s and 1950′s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.

Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.

Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.

Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations - Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will - suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920′s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970′s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.