Thursday, August 27, 2009

On LBJ's Senate Career

In the comment thread of my discussion of greatest senators, as well as at LGM, a lot of people have brought up Lyndon Johnson as a legitimate candidate.

I think this is off-base. As Majority Leader, Johnson certainly was powerful. But we've had lots of powerful senators. The question is, did he provide unusual qualities of leadership that got difficult legislation through the body on repeated occasions? Did he change history as a senator? Were his characteristics so exceptional that he is above 99.9% of other senators in the history of the United States?

To me, the answer is clearly no. Johnson's senate career was notable for working with Eisenhower to ensure that nothing of interest happened. OK, I'm being flippant here, but Johnson was an architect of the consensus politics of the 1950s, which is hardly the most noble time in American political history. He did shepherd through the Civil Rights Act of 1957. But we need to look more deeply at that situation to analyze Johnson. This was a case where the American public was clearly demanding something be done about civil rights issues, particularly in the aftermath of Brown, Montgomery and Little Rock. Eisenhower didn't want to deal with it. Neither did Sam Rayburn. Neither did Lyndon Johnson. These were all centrist southern politicians who by all accounts weren't boat rockers when it came to race. So they crafted a weak bill. That doesn't mean that LBJ doesn't deserve some credit--he did have to overcome massive opposition from the fireeaters in the South like James Eastland, Richard Russell, and Strom Thurmond. But this is not the Missouri Compromise here. Fewer blacks were registered to vote in the South in 1960 than in 1956.

I think the support for Johnson comes for two reasons. First, the magisterial Robert Caro biographies. People know more about him than anyone else. But what those books show above all is that Johnson knew how to manage people. That's a pretty great skill for Majority Leader (and one that Harry Reid should learn). But being an effective Majority Leader, as LBJ certainly was, is different than being one of the best senators ever.

Second, and most important, people are projecting Johnson's stance on race during his presidency back upon his senate career. This is a mistake. When Kennedy died in November 1963, King and other civil rights leaders were devastated. Not so much because JFK had been a great leader for their cause; rather, the movement expressed great frustration at his reticence to get involved. They were upset because they thought Kennedy was coming around to their side and now there was a southerner who had shown absolutely no sympathy for civil rights. They had ZERO evidence that LBJ would do a damn thing to help them. And they were shocked to be wrong.

This is why Johnson is one of our greatest presidents. But that's an entirely different matter from his senate career. Here's an equivalent. Let's say that Obama died and Biden was out of the picture or something. Somehow Max Baucus becomes president. Everyone interested in health care reform would be devastated, figuring that any meaningful health care is out the window. Then, President Baucus (!) forces through an American version of the British National Health Plan. Wouldn't we all be absolutely shocked and delighted. That's something approximating how civil rights leaders felt when Johnson slammed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because he was absolutely not a leader on civil rights while in the Senate.