Arizona, Baseball, NEH, Politics

Civilization Requires Civility

LeachA Great Speech…

When I noted a few weeks back that President Obama had made a good and interesting selection – former GOP Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa – to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I did not expect such speedy confirmation of what a good appointment it was. Happily, it sounds like Leach will indeed be a great Chairman of the NEH.

At the National Humanities Conference last week in Omaha, Leach offered a stirring defense of the importance of humanities education and made the case for using the lessons of the humanities to quide us in a better direction with our politics and policy. His speech is well worth reading for any student of American history and politics.

A Leach talk in September about bridging cultures – he was talking about the western world and the Muslim world – was also excellent.

If you have ever wondered whether we need to teach humanities in the public schools – along with math and science – or whether there is a price to pay for a lack of civility in our public discourse, read Leach’s Omaha speech. A couple of excerpts:

On applying the humanities to public policy

“The United States is currently intertwined in two civil wars, both more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. One is in the wake of a terrorist attack on our shores plotted from a mountainous Afghani redoubt. The other was precipitated against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction, a thesis since debunked.

“In making assumptions about the wisdom and manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it have been helpful for policy-makers to have reviewed the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam?

“Would it have been helpful to study comparative religions and observe the historical implications of the Crusades and their relevance to peoples in the Middle East today? And what meaning might be found in our own colonial history—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?”

And this on the often nasty tone of our public discourse:

“In a political system characterized by historic antipathy to extremes, the decibel level of partisan voices is rising. Rancorous, socially divisive ideological assertions are being made with such frequency that few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled ‘fascist’ and ‘communist.’ One Member of Congress has even suggested that colleagues be investigated for ‘un-American activities.’

“Most bizarrely, some in public life have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of ‘secession.’

“Even the most cursory study of history would reveal the gravity and implications of such polarizing language. We fought a war across two oceans to defeat fascism and spent billions and sacrificed thousands to hold communism at bay. And a century and a half ago, over 600,000 Americans were killed in a bloody civil war over the question of secession. That war, we thought, settled two issues: that slavery was incompatible with humanist, democratic values and that these United States are indivisible, inseparable from each other. We are a union, after and above all.”

A Plea for Civility

Chairman Leach indicated he will focus attention on the critical importance of civility and how the humanities can give us a respect – and yes, understanding – for perspectives different from our own.

Jim Leach knows of what he speaks. In some quarters – one blogger calls him “a pro-Obama turncoat” – he has suffered vilification for breaking ranks with the GOP. In our superheated political kitchen, one man’s turncoat is another’s statesman. And, Leach offers the perfect cooling sentiment.

“Bridging cultural divides and developing a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives. Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.

“Civilization requires civility.” Amen.

Baseball, Civil War, Minnick, Politics

A Very Fine Line

health careDoes Idaho’s Blue Dog Risk His Base?

There is a fundamental rule in politics – the first and most important rule, perhaps – that is ignored by any politician at considerable risk. Ask Dede Scozzafava.

Scozzafava was the Republican congressional candidate in a recent special election in upstate New York who could not hold on to a seat that has been in GOP hands since U.S. Grant was in the White House.

Scozzafava ultimately withdrew from the special election and endorsed the Democrat who eventually won. Her demise was sealed thanks to a badly fractured Republican base that thought she had strayed way too far from party orthodoxy. Her political situation was exacerbated – and fate ultimately sealed – by a third party candidate who appealed to the most conservative voters in the heavily Republican-leaning district. In short, the special election in the 23rd District of New York was a real mess, but the wreckage illustrates that fundamental rule.

Secure your base.

Republicans are still beaming over two gubernatorial victories last week in New Jersey and Virginia. In both cases, capable Republican challengers won against damaged Democrats who where unable to excite the party base that carried Barack Obama to victory in both states just a year ago. Most post-election analysis has confirmed that Democrats in both states were not terribly motivated, while the GOP core was very excited. Independents in both states helped closed the deal for the Republicans.

In short, Republicans secured and motivated their base. Democrats did not.

Idaho’s lone congressional Democrat, Walt Minnick, now confronts a similar problem as he walks the very fine line demanded of a western Democrat in a deep red state. Minnick must know that his base is restless.

Minnick’s dilemma – the line he walks – might be reduced to this: in a state like Idaho, he must be an independent with a conservative lean, but at the same time he cannot risk turning his Democratic base – small as it is – against him.

Minnick represents Idaho’s sprawling First District that runs from the west Boise suburbs, south to the Nevada border and north all the way to British Columbia. The district includes the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 named for Frank Church, the last Democrat to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate, as well as the deepest canyon in North America. The University of Idaho, a fine research school, is in the district, as is the plot of ground where the white supremacist Aryan Nation once held forth.

Since the 1950’s, at least, the district has grown increasingly more conservative. Three GOP congressmen who once represented the First District – Jim McClure, Steve Symms and Larry Craig – went to the Senate from this reliably Republican outpost. For a Democrat, the margin of error in the First District is, well, there is no margin for error for a Democrat.

Minnick won the challenging job of representing this huge district a year ago by narrowly defeating a deeply polarizing incumbent, Bill Sali, who ran hard to the right. Before last fall, the district had not sent a Democrat to Washington since 1992.

Minnick won the way Democrats have often won in Idaho, by defeating a weak Republican – Bill Sali – who had his own problems keeping the GOP base together. Church got his start this way and so did Cecil Andrus and each found a way to keep winning with a consistent appeal to the base and a winning message to the middle.

A year ago, Minnick was able to knit together a coalition that included an energized Democratic base that came to like Obama, salted with just enough moderate R’s who couldn’t fancy more Bill Sali, and complemented by independents who typically vote for Republicans unless they find them, as they did Sali, just too far out of the mainstream. This is the very political definition of fragile territory.

To his strategic credit, Minnick also played to the middle, stressing his farm upbringing while touting his business acumen. His campaign also succeeding in showing Idahoans that he not only supports guns, but uses them. It all added up to just enough to eek out a win in a presidential election year when John McCain polled more than 61% of the Idaho vote.

Late last Saturday night, Minnick cast a vote that may go a long way toward securing his political fate. Idaho’s lone Democrat on the national stage joined 38 other conservative Democrats – the so called Blue Dogs – in opposition to the party’s health care legislation that passed the House by the narrowest of margins. For good measure, Minnick also voted against the rule that allowed the Democratic bill to come to a final vote. In other words, he went the distance in opposition to a idea – health care reform – that is as fundamental to many Democrats as FDR’s old campaign song “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

[Long-time Idaho political observer, Randy Stapilus, also suggests that Minnick may have complicated his already delicate dance on the health care legislation by opposing the contentious amendment, backed by many Blue Dogs, to restrict funding for abortion.]

While health care legislation might be the vote that most of his constituents remember the longest, Minnick has also been at odds with party theology over the last few months on the stimulus package, climate change legislation and some aspects of financial services reform. He may well have succeeded in becoming the most independent Democrat in the House, but that label hasn’t kept him from making every list of most vulnerable incumbents in 2010. He and two potential Republican challengers are amassing war chests and this figures to be a dog fight – blue or otherwise – in the months ahead.

For his part, former Congressman Sali continues to flirt with a potential re-run, a situation that could end up being the best case for the current incumbent.

A year out from his re-elect, here are the questions worth pondering: Will Minnick pay a price among hardcore Democratic supporters for his independence on issues like health care? Or, as he must believe, will he be able to thread the electoral needle once again; re-assemble the Democratic base, again add enough moderates from the GOP and pull a sizable majority of independents?

To be sure there are a world of votes ahead, including presumably the ultimate vote in Congress to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a health care reform bill, and Republicans in Idaho’s First District are still months away from selecting Minnick’s challenger. Lots of things can – and probably will – happen.

Still, as New York, Virginia and New Jersey show most recently, and as successful politicians know instinctively, the party base needs to feel the love. Your friends hate to be taken for granted.

In Minnick’s district, I’m going to peg the dependable Democratic base – it has consistently dwindled since 1990 – at something north of 30%, perhaps even 35%, of the voters. These are the folks that show up at fundraisers, put up yard signs, man phone banks and walk parade routes handing out a candidate’s literature. They also talk to their friends about politics and politicians. You want the base working and voting, not restless and wondering.

There are never numbers enough among the base to elect a Democrat in Idaho, but if these folks decide – even in modest numbers – to sit one out, there are numbers enough to defeat a Democrat.

This is Walt Minnick’s dilemma and it requires walking a very fine line indeed.

Baseball, Politics

The Morning After the Morning After

Election 2009What Are The Lessons From Election ’09?

Are Republicans poised for a comeback? Sure.

We are a two party nation and – with apologies to the 1840’s Whig Party – the party out of power always finds a way to claw back to relevance.

Does the GOP have some challenges? Absolutely.

Former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis sums it up well when he says the party out of power has a chance now to catch a wave of voter anger about the economy and spending: “The challenge for Republicans is to catch that lightening in a bottle and build a coalition that can lead you to huge congressional gains,” Davis said. “But it’s easier said than done.”

Do the elections of Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia signal danger ahead for the Democrats? Perhaps.

I tend to think gubernatorial races normally turn on more local issues – taxes, roads, and schools – but the party in power is due for a gut check. The message from the two statewide races Tuesday may simply be that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Are Democrats listening?

The most interesting races, with potential national implications, took place in New York. The upstate congressional special election illustrates the tensions in the GOP. And the Big Apple’s mayoral contest proves, well, I don’t have any idea what it proves. Money buys happiness, perhaps.

As Governing magazine notes: “The race cost [Michael] Bloomberg an estimated $90 million. In his three races, Bloomberg has spent more of his personal fortune on campaigns than any candidate in U.S. history. Now, Bloomberg and the city face a $5 billion budget deficit.”

So, let the Republican and Democratic message machines spin Tuesday’s results as they will. The election that will tell us more about the longer term direction of the country will take place next November.

As CQ notes: “The governing party almost always loses seats in midterm elections, when the voter turnout is lower and the bulk of the energy and enthusiasm is with the opposition party. With 257 House seats, Democrats are nearing the maximum number of seats they could conceivably control under the current Congressional maps. Surveys show the 2010 elections could be unfriendly to incumbents.”

Many things are in play for both parties, primarily the economy. Will things be a good deal better next summer or fall? Will the GOP be able to unite behind something (or someone) positive as an alternative to Barack Obama? Will Afghanistan be front and center as a kitchen table issue?

Could this be an historical parallel? In the mid-term elections in 1934, Franklin Roosevelt’s party actually expanded its margins in the Congress even as the economy remained in the ditch. Voters concluded that FDR had an optimistic plan and was both trustworthy in carrying out the plan and focused on the concerns of most Americans.

Congressional Republicans in the 1934 mid-term elections were unable to articulate an effective alternative to FDR’s still emerging plans and they simply had no counter to his likable disposition and communication skills. Many shrill voices took to calling the president a dictator, a socialist, or worse, but the vast majority of Americans simply didn’t buy it.

We know Obama has read this history. But knowing history’s lessons and applying them is only part of the challenge of political leadership. My guess is the president can still tap a reservoir of patience among most Americans, but by next summer voters will really be judging him.

Baseball, Politics

Playing the Fatso Card

ChristieNew Jersey Governor’s Race – Off the Scales

The Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey is a big guy. Some might even say he’s, well, chunky. His opponent is alleging that he “throws his weight around.” Subtle.

In the never ending quest to push the envelope on political advertising, Chris Christie’s waist size (girth, fat, fitness) has become an issue in his race against incumbent Democrat John Corzine, a 62 year old jogger.

The race, in a state with real problems, has become so nasty that the unfavorable poll numbers of both of the major candidates have sunk into the toilet. You wonder how either of these guys can win.

The Associated Press has referred to Christie’s “Henry VIII-like girth” and noted that one of Corzine’s recent ads seemed to delight in featuring a “a clip of a rotund Christie, his extra pounds rolling beneath his shirt, lumbering out of the back seat of an SUV.”

For his part, Corzine, saddled with an awful economy and some of the highest property taxes in the nation, seems just fine with changing the subject to his opponent’s need for Sansabelt slacks. When asked by a reporter if he agreed that the opponent was fat, the governor touched his head and asked, “am I bald?” He is.

Nasty stuff? Probably. Effective? We’ll know next month. Does every New Jersey voter know that candidate Christie is also a candidate for a seat belt extender? Of course.

Given the 30 second nature of politics, and the power of a picture, it is a safe bet that the image many voters will take to the ballot box on election day is that Christie is chunky and Corzine is a chrome dome.

The late 19th Century political humorist Finley Peter Dunne is credited with saying, “politics ain’t beanbag.” He was right it is tough, nasty, unfair and always has been. After this race, politics might be feedbag.

My favorite political analyst has a theory that most elections come down to a decision about which candidate an individual voter will feel most comfortable seeing night after night on the tube. In this race, you got your choice – fatso or the bald guy.

TMI: Nate Silver took a look at all the nation’s governors on the skinny to not so scale, for example – Otter (ID) “skinny”, Schweitzer (MT) “full bodied”, Gregorie (WA) “attenuated.”

Find all his rankings under the headline: “Honey, Does This Governor Make Me Look Fat?” Gotta love politics.

American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Mistrusting the Government

ReaganOne Election Does Not “Change” the Country

Barack Obama has taken some grief, particularly among liberal Democrats, for making the observation (and repeating it) that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House fundamentally “changed the trajectory” of the country in ways that Bill Clinton’s two terms, for example, did not.

Candidate Obama got into one of those pointless (but totally consuming, made for the media) debates with Hillary Clinton last year when he said that Reagan, “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Clinton charged Obama with “admiring Reagan” and wondered how any self respecting Democrat could possibly say something even halfway flattering about the GOP’s favorite icon.

Obama’s obviously accurate analysis – Reagan did change the country – reminds me of the old line that in Washington, D.C. the definition of a gaffe is when a politician speaks the truth.

Writer and historian Matthew Dallek (a former Dick Gephardt speech writer and son of presidential historian Robert Dallek) has a great take at Politico on Obama’s own challenge in “changing the trajectory” of the country and rolling back “the culture of Reaganism” that he sees as “a remarkably resilient political force in late 2009.”

Matthew Dallek is a perceptive and not uncritical student of Reagan. He has written a fine book about Reagan’s first election victory – the California governorship in 1966.

There has long been – and remains – a healthy skepticism in America about government and about the whole notion of “change.” Even the great presidents, widely admired as agents of change – Lincoln, Jackson, FDR, to name three – didn’t find the job to be easy and all encountered tremendous resistence. So it goes with the current occupant of the White House.

Afghanistan, American Presidents, Baseball, Journalism, Obama, Politics

Whoops…the Main Stream Media Falls for it Again

ObamaObama’s School Speech – A Made for Cable TV Story

I’ve often thought that if the occasional Michael Jackson funeral or Mark Sanford hike on the Appalachian Trail didn’t materialize to help fill the “news hole”, the “main stream media” – particularly cable news – would literally need to invent such stories in order to sustain the 24 hour news cycle.

The President’s post-Labor Day speech to American school children was such a story. The “controversy” generated by the mere thought of the Obama speech – the allegation was that he would use the speech to spread liberal (or worse) political propaganda to impressionable students – absolutely dominated the Labor Day weekend news. News organizations spanning the spectrum from Fox to NPR reported the speech controversy as if it were on par with Iranian nuclear weapons development or the worsening situation in Afghanistan. The story kept feeding the cable beast over the long weekend.

And the speech itself? Well, when all was said and done, Idaho’s conservative Republican State School Superintendent Tom Luna pronounced it, according to the always reliable Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review, as “appropriate and timely” and Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich weighed in with an actual endorsement of the president’s talk.

Turns out the speech wasn’t about socialism after all, but more like the talk my dad used to deliver on the first day of school – “work hard, don’t get discouraged, be responsible, school is important.”

If you missed the talk here is the full text.

On the other hand, if you miss the next (or the last) 24 hours of cable news will you have missed anything at all? Debatable.

Here is a general rule: if an instant political controversy seems just a little to contrived, a little too “made for television,” it probably is. The “editorial function” – independent judgment applied by journalists to verifiable facts – used to operate to reduce the impact and intensity of contrived controversy. No more. These days we frequently need to be our own editors.

Baseball, Politics

Second Acts

KitzhaberOregon’s Kitzhaber Starts the Comeback

“There are no second acts in American lives,” may be one of the most quoted – and most incorrect – things F. Scott Fitzgerald ever said.

There most certainly are second acts in American lives and even in American political lives. Ted Kennedy had one. Newt Gingrich is trying to have one. Richard Nixon had one and lost it. John Kitzhaber, Oregon’s governor from 1995-2003, said recently he will try for his own second act.

Most everyone concedes the M.D. turned governor starts as the favorite, but as the Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes points out, a political heavyweight like Kitzhaber ignites as well as inflames and it is a long way until November 2010.

Kitzhaber’s announcement got me thinking about other second acts. The one I’m most familiar with, of course, is Idaho’s Cecil Andrus. After two gubernatorial election victories in the 1970’s, Andrus went to Washington to run the Interior Department under Jimmy Carter, returned to Idaho in 1981 and ran again for governor when the seat opened up in 1986. (I served as press secretary during that hard fought campaign.)

Andrus had been away from the Idaho ballot for 12 years when he made his comeback and, as I remember the research, even as a two-term former governor and Interior Secretary, fully a third of the potential voters had never heard of him.

Bill Clinton had a second act in Arkansas and a third act in the White House. Clinton lost re-election in 1980 and came back, seeking forgiveness for raising automobile registration fees, to win again in 1982.

Michael Dukakis’ second act followed his loss in the Democratic primary in Massachusetts in 1978.

In the Northwest, back in the 1930’s, Idaho very popular New Deal-era Governor C. Ben Ross won three straight races for governor, lost a U.S. Senate race and lost again trying to regain the governor’s office. Robert Smylie also won the Idaho governor’s office three times in the 1950’s and ’60’s then lost in a primary and tried and failed to earn a second act in the U.S. Senate. Oregon’s maverick governor, Tom McCall, failed in his 1978 comeback attempt after two terms. Maverick Oregon Senator Wayne Morse had many political lives, but no real second act after losing his seat in 1968.

There have been some very successful second acts in American politics, but they are never a sure thing. When Cece Andrus was trying out for his second act in Idaho in 1986, he often appropriated a great line from the late Arizona Congressman Morris Udall.

Udall, a great wit, used to joke that while campaigning for president in 1976 in advance of the Iowa caucus he strolled into a barber shop and announced to the assembled, “I’m Mo Udall and I’m running for president.”

“Yea, we know,” the barber deadpanned, “we were just laughing about that this morning.”

Baseball, Basques. Books, Guest Post, Politics

What I Did On The Summer Vacation

Shea AndersenA Guest Blog – The August Recess

A Guest Writer today – Shea Andersen – freelance writer and former newspaper editor.

Time and again, August proves to be the best month for political junkies to hit the road. With Congress in recess and the Obama family gadding about Martha’s Vineyard, there’s no better time to decamp from daily life and poke around a bit.

Just ask Tim Egan, the New York Times writer, whose unsuccessful attempt to escape the news was documented in this essay.

This year, my family took a massive van we purchased in Ketchum and pointed it west, to Oregon and California. Instead of the minivan that new parents are supposed to pilot, we found ourselves a megavan, a towering, jacked-up behemoth with a bed, sink, stove and even a shower tucked inside. So much for roughing it.

For Congress, August is for seeing the district a little bit more than usual. When I was a journalist in the Ketchum area, this might mean we’d see U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson arriving for a backpack trip into the Boulder-White Cloud mountains, dragging along a few reporters or aides. At the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum, we received a greeting card from Simpson, the cover of which was a drawing he’d done of the mountain ranges while on one of his trips. His bill to establish wilderness in that area, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, or CIEDRA, may not be advancing much in Congress, but he still made the trip, a staffer told me.

“He wouldn’t miss it,” said John Revier, a Simpson spokesman. “I don’t think we’ll ever have an August recess without him making that trip.”

For U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, the recess period looks a little rougher. His appearance on the News Hour With Jim Lehrer had its high points, but also a few toe-curling awkward moments. Witness Minnick, trying to press the flesh at the Caldwell Night Rodeo, getting caught on camera not recognizing a major donor, who later told the reporter he was having a tough time supporting Minnick after watching his votes on the economy, the environment, and now health care reform.

Back on the road, then. Minnick’s sprawling district offers lots of opportunities to make new friends. He’ll need them when he faces the Republican challengers hoping to make his first term an anomaly in Idaho political history, as the Spokane Spokesman-Review notes.

Ultimately, I feel a longing for the fall and the pickup of news traffic. I respect Egan’s news blackout attempt, even if I didn’t try as hard. Cold turkey is a dish best left to more dangerous addicts. I say, bring on the fall.

(Shea Andersen is the former editor of the Idaho Mountain Express and the Boise Weekly. He lives in Boise.)

Baseball, Basques, Media, Politics

Lessons From Obama Online

Obama“Propelled by Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency”Wired, November 4, 2009

A fascinating new report from two environmentally oriented foundations – Brainerd and Wilberforce – slices and dices the Obama For America online campaign of last year and offers some interesting conclusions not entirely in keeping with the media hype.

You can access the report – Online Tactics & Success – An examination of the Obama For America New Media Campaignhere.

The 42-page analysis concludes that, while the Obama team did a remarkable job utilizing email and the web in the 2008 campaign, the online success had more to do with the candidate than the technology. “The energy and enthusiasm of Obama supporters was unprecedented in modern elections,” the report says, allowing the new media team the daily – or hourly – ability to push a great “product.”

The foundations commissioned the analysis in order to learn what lessons non-profits should take away from the Obama campaign, but there is something here for everyone interested in how the Internet is remaking communication.

Like much of the rest of Obama’s historic march to the White House, the brilliance of the online campaign was in the quality of its execution. The report’s authors highlight seven key findings.

  1. Discipline: Develop best practices and stick with them. “ONLY send content that you know your supports will value.” And, have the discipline “to stay ON message.”
  2. The Right People: Obama campaign manager David Plouffe saw to it that the new media effort wasn’t organized as part of communications or finance, but as a stand alone part of the campaign. He then recruited top people from CNN, Google and Madison Avenue to staff what became an 81 person unit.
  3. Spotlight on Supporters: “The campaign made a concerted and deliberate effort to keep the spotlight on the people who supported Obama, and not just on the candidate.”
  4. Nimbleness: “The campaign was able to turn on a dime and launch a fundraising email within hours of [Sarah] Palin’s speech” criticizing “community organizers.” The email generated $11 million in contributions in a single day.
  5. Authenticity: “OFA managed to do something unique – share real, inside campaign information with its supporters, while making that information accessible and meaningful. Plouffe said: “Nothing is more important than authenticity. People have very sensitive bullshit-o-meters.”
  6. Content Matters: “From top notch emails, to 1,800 videos, to amazing graphic design, the new media team demonstrated a serious focus on content.”
  7. Data-Driven Culture: “More than any campaign in history, OFA was a data-driven operation.” The campaign created a six-person analytics team and tested and measured every aspect of the online program. “Entire projects were scrapped because the data showed they were not effective.”

The Brainerd/Wilberforce report offers this observation underscoring the essential requirement of any successful campaign – skillful execution:

“Fundamentally, the most successful elements of OFA’s new media program were not new. OFA’s new media team simply executed the same core strategies than many nonprofits have used for years – but they did so flawlessly.”

 

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Politics

The Johnson Treatment

What Would Lyndon Do…

Before Vietnam defined his as “a failed presidency,” Lyndon Johnson assembled an historic record of legislative accomplishment. He got civil rights and voting rights legislation passed, created Medicare, federally guaranteed student loans and the national endowments for arts and the humanities. And that is certainly a partial list.

Of course, the bigger than life Texan – the flawed giant in biographer Robert Dallek’s words – had lots of help with all that legislation, but Johnson was the catalyst, the cajoler in chief. History records him as the nation’s greatest legislative politician.

In a great piece on the Daily Beast website, LBJ aide Tom Johnson, writes about how his old boss would have gotten a health care reform bill through the current congress. It’s worth reading to understand the full impact of the “Johnson treatment” and how effective LBJ could be in winning votes for his legislation.

Like every good politician, Johnson kept lists and he settled scores. The great Idaho Senator Frank Church was victim of Johnson’s attempt to make sure that the press and other Vietnam critics knew that the president can always have the last word.

As American involvement in Vietnam continued to divide the country with dimming prospects that the conflict could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, Church became more and more outspoken in his opposition to the war. It was a principled and courageous stand at odds with many of his Idaho constituents and certainly at odds with President Johnson.

After a White House dinner, LBJ cornered Church to work him over for his stand on the war. According to the story, recounted in LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer’s fine biography of Church, the senator allegedly told the president that he had come more and more to agree with the celebrated Washington columnist Walter Lippman, who had turned sharply against LBJ’s Southeast Asia policy.

Only later did Church come to believe that Johnson himself was the source of a story making the rounds among reporters and cocktail party goers in Washington that LBJ had responded by telling the Idahoan, “Next time you need a dam out in Idaho – go talk to Walter Lippman.”

Makes you wonder what LBJ would be saying to Max Baucus or Chuck Grassley about health care reform right now.

Only two presidents in the past 50 years – Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan – have been able to consistently and effectively work the levers of presidential power to fundamentally reshape the American political landscape. We know Barack Obama is a student of history. The next few weeks may tell whether he can begin to work the levers as well as Lyndon and Ronnie did.

Books worth considering:

  • Ashby and Gramer’s Church biography is Fighting the Odds. It is the complete life and offers great insight into Idaho politics in from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.

 

  • Among the newest LBJ biographies is a fine book by Randall Woods called LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. Not exactly a favorable treatment of LBJ, but a fully nuanced take on his remarkable accomplishments and equally remarkable failures.

 

  • Bob Dallek’s two volume bio of LBJ – Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant – helped redeem, to a degree, Johnson’s reputation as a great legislative tactician.

 

  • Robert Caro’s monumental four-volume Johnson biography is still in progress. Give Caro his due – he knows more about LBJ and had written more than anyone – but he lacks either Woods’ or Dallek’s sense of nuance or balance. Anything Caro produces is a must read for political junkies and his emphasis is always on the exercise of power, but count on heavy emphasis of the darkest of the dark side of Lyndon Johnson.

 

  • Finally, when it came out in 2005, William E. Leuchtenburg’s The White House Looks South received less – much less – attention than it deserved. Leuchtenburg focuses on FDR, Harry Truman and LBJ as he weaves a great narrative about how those three Democratic presidents had “one foot below the Mason-Dixon Line, one foot above.” His treatment of Johnson’s presidency is particularly good reading.

What would Lyndon do with a Congress coming back from an August recess all spun up about what to do with health care reform? You can bet LBJ would have had an aggressive plan and he would have worked himself into a lather trying to make it succeed.