Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quote of the Day: The Need For Gratitude

 

“For someone who needs gratitude, the New Deal is the natural philosophy, because it lets you do things for people, and therefore gives you the greatest opportunity to get gratitude”.

Robert Caro, The Path to Power, quoting an assistant to Lyndon Baines Johnson when LBJ was secretary to a Texas congressman in the early 1930s.

“Ambition was not uncommon among those bright young men [assistants to congressional representatives] . . . but they felt Johnson’s was uncommon – in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs. ‘There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic’, a fellow secretary say. ‘Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition’.”

Robert Caro, The Path to Power, of LBJ during the same period in the 1930s

For LBJ the ability to get gratitude linked to huge ambition unguided by any principles, and an ability to read people, proved a powerful tool. Robert Caro has published four volumes of his LBJ biography since 1982; The Path to Power (1908-41), Means of Ascent (1941-48), Master of the Senate (1948-58), The Passage of Power (1958-64) and is working on the fifth and final volume. It’s an astonishing piece of work, with the first volume being among the best political biographies ever written. Caro has done both a character study and a study of how political power works, how it is accumulated and how it is used. No matter what you think of LBJ personally or of his presidency these volumes are worthwhile reading because their insight into power.

LBJ’s career also raises a more general issue. How important are motivations when measured against actions? For all the disasters of LBJ’s presidency – Vietnam and the Great Society – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the finest achievements in domestic legislation of the 20th century and LBJ was key to their enactment. Many of us know, and it’s come up many times at Ricochet, that LBJ made many conflicting statements about his motivations in pushing these bills through Congress.

But reading Caro’s books you realize that was the essence of LBJ from his start in politics in the 1930s. For 30+ years he said whatever he needed to say to whomever he needed to say it to in order to achieve his goals. Caro has multiple accounts of LBJ telling one politician X and two minutes later telling the next one Y. Reading in Master of the Senate how he manipulated everyone on both sides by telling them what they wanted to hear in order to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (the first civil rights bill since 1875) was eye opening. And it wasn’t just what he said; LBJ had a remarkable ability to read people and figure out what they wanted, and to cultivate useful political connections with powerful older men who would look upon him as a son, like Sam Rayburn (who, unlike LBJ, comes across as an admirable person in the Caro books), Richard Russell, and even FDR.

We can’t take any of LBJ’s statements about the 1964 and 1965 Acts at face value. We simply don’t know what he really thought. Even he may not have known. In the end what counted were the acts.

The era of LBJ is now gone in American politics. It was before the great ideological sorting out of the parties that began in the last quarter of the 20th century. In LBJ’s day both parties were coalitions of very different and otherwise incompatible groups. From Master of the Senate I learned that liberal political science professors in the 1950s urged an ideological sorting out of the parties in order to help government function better. I think it debateable how well that sorting has turned out.

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There are 11 comments.

  1. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Excellent post, Mark. I choose to abhor a man who is so unprincipled that he will do anything to maintain power. Anything.

    • #1
    • August 11, 2019, at 8:10 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  2. GrannyDude Member

    Oh, man. “For someone who needs gratitude…” Major fail, there.

    Gratitude is a grand thing to witness because it is a wonderful thing to experience; inseparable from joy. “Needing gratitude” is a sort of spiritual and ethical oxymoron: If you need it, it’s not gratitude.

     

    • #2
    • August 11, 2019, at 8:17 AM PST
    • 13 likes
  3. Bob Thompson Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…:

    The era of LBJ is now gone in American politics. It was before the great ideological sorting out of the parties that began in the last quarter of the 20th century. In LBJ’s day both parties were coalitions of very different and otherwise incompatible groups. From Master of the Senate I learned that liberal political science professors in the 1950s urged an ideological sorting out of the parties in order to help government function better. I think it debateable how well that sorting has turned out.

    It gave us Trump and one, perhaps final, shot to sort it out.

    • #3
    • August 11, 2019, at 8:17 AM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Vectorman Thatcher

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Caro has multiple accounts of LBJ telling one politician X and two minutes later telling the next one Y.

    Bill Clinton is well known for doing the same thing.


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    • #4
    • August 11, 2019, at 10:28 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Old Bathos Member

    There is a big difference between a living, breathing moment of thanksgiving when you watch you kids at play on a sunny Saturday morning versus having to kiss the ring (or boot) of someone with the power to help or hurt you and whose very ascendency limited your ability to provide for yourself.

    The progressive fantasy of having the power to reorder the world and receive the gratitude and adoration of a nation should have died with the last stale speech Beto delivered from a diner tabletop.

    • #5
    • August 11, 2019, at 11:46 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    GrannyDude (View Comment):

    Oh, man. “For someone who needs gratitude…” Major fail, there.

    Gratitude is a grand thing to witness because it is a wonderful thing to experience; inseparable from joy. “Needing gratitude” is a sort of spiritual and ethical oxymoron: If you need it, it’s not gratitude.

     

    Yes, that’s why it jumped out at me when I read the book. The entire volume contains nuggets like this about LBJ and others, sometimes in their own words, sometimes in Caro’s characterization.

    • #6
    • August 11, 2019, at 3:07 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Titus Techera Contributor

    Well, the Godfather wanted gratitude.

    I guess it’s a very moral thing to do to deplore it, but how could we have any worthwhile politicians otherwise? You cannot just ask men to act honorably–you have also to honor them. 

    • #7
    • August 11, 2019, at 11:16 PM PST
    • Like
  8. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Caro has multiple accounts of LBJ telling one politician X and two minutes later telling the next one Y.

    Bill Clinton is well known for doing the same thing.

    I was thinking the same thing, it’s like LBJ mentored Bill Clinton.

    • #8
    • August 12, 2019, at 8:45 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. Titus Techera Contributor

    Don’t underrate the importance of political work. LBJ had to do a lot of coalition-building, but before that a lot of dealing with personalities & interests in Congress. Political alliances are now unknown, because they’re obviously alien to Americans, but they were very powerful before. Can’t understand the post-FDR Dems without that.

    Amazing man, lots to learn there, although much of it is ugly. Shows you how ambition turns into work, habits, & reliability-

    • #9
    • August 12, 2019, at 10:42 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Texmoor Coolidge

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…:

    “Ambition was not uncommon among those bright young men [assistants to congressional representatives] . . . but they felt Johnson’s was uncommon – in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs. ‘There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic’, a fellow secretary say. ‘Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition’.”

    Robert Caro, The Path to Power, of LBJ during the same period in the 1930s

    I’m not going to defend the policies of LBJ, but my great grandfather was a boyhood mentor to LBJ and described him like this:

    B:
    During those days when you got this impression that he wanted to be in public service, did he show any qualities of leadership among the boys you all ran around with together?
    C:
    Lyndon Johnson was a natural born leader. He has been a leader all of his life and if he couldn’t lead, he didn’t care much about playing. He was always in the thick of it and had his own ideas. That is why he wanted to quit teaching school. He wanted to get in the public life of Congressman Kleberg where he could do something for the people when the Depression was at its worst. He was working for those farmers like some old gray-headed man. He was out there in his early twenties talking to them, patting them on the back and leading the appraisers. The appraisers told me it was a miracle that he can handle those old folks like he can. They were losing their farms and they were furious.

    B:
    You remember any specific instances of how Lyndon showed his leadership quality and wanted to be a top dog among the boys he ran around with?
    C:
    Yes, I can. He was going to college at San Marcos and he hadn’t been there over a year, and I went down to visit with him. He was showing me around the college, and there is one thing I will never forget. Lyndon took me to the College Star newspaper and said, “Ben, I would like to edit this.” The Editor-in-Chief Schnager poked fun at Lyndon making a remark like that Lyndon hadn’t had a haircut in probably two months and called him just a kid. But I thought nothing more about it and went back to California, and it wasn’t but about a year and I got a copy of this College Star. In the right-hand corner was Lyndon B. Johnson Editor-in-Chief.

    This is only a little bit from an oral history my great grandfather did for the LBJ library in 1968. You can find more here:

    https://www.discoverlbj.org/item/oh-criderb-19680801-1-69-84

    • #10
    • August 12, 2019, at 7:48 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. The Reticulator Member

    Texmoor (View Comment):

    his is only a little bit from an oral history my great grandfather did for the LBJ library in 1968. You can find more here:

    https://www.discoverlbj.org/item/oh-criderb-19680801-1-69-84

    Thanks! I read it all. I like oral histories. 

    • #11
    • August 12, 2019, at 8:45 PM PST
    • 2 likes