“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.Published in