Thursday, May 5, 2011

LBJ, Senatorial Statesman

A year ago, I visited the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene. As I reported in a piece I did soon after:

Eisenhower was a unifier, a consensus-builder. A Republican, he viewed Democrats as collaborators rather than political enemies. This was a skill he acquired as Supreme Commander of the allied armies during World War II, where dealing with the likes of de Gaulle and Montgomery often proved far more problematic than fighting Rommel’s Germans.

Fortunately, Ike served in an era of consensus-builders - political statesmen who put the public good above their own partisan interests. In today's political and media climate, he might have trouble finding a single political partner to collaborate with. Instead, with a little help from his friends (including Democratic Senate Majority Leader LBJ), he presided over a decade that people now look back upon (often erroneously) with a sense of nostalgia.

The book I happen to be reading right now is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 1976 “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.” In Chapter Five, “The Senate Leader,” (the pic is from his Senate days) Goodwin reports:

“With few rare exceptions,” Johnson contended, “the great political leaders of our country have been men of reconciliation - men who could hold their parties together. Lincoln never permitted the radical Republicans to drive more moderate elements out of the party. .... A true leader is a man who can get people to work on the points on which they agree and who can persuade others that when they disagree there are peaceful methods to settle their differences.”

The liberals within his own party attacked LBJ for being entirely too accommodating of Ike. LBJ’s answer was that “a party that is overly partisan, overly quarrelsome and obsessed solely with politics will lose.”

Thanks in large part to Johnson, Ike was able to enjoy a highly successful Presidency, leaving office as one of the most beloved US leaders of all time. But the 1960 Presidential election vindicated LBJ when voters elected a Democrat as his successor.

As the President who assumed office following the assassination of JFK, Johnson carried out what his predecessor had started and appeared on the verge of the type of greatness we reserve for the likes of FDR. Ultimately, his personal failings would bring him down, and he left office a broken man, with a deeply fragmented nation he never possibly could have imagined.

I recall a Time cover story from the era portraying a beleaguered LBJ as Lear, having lost control of his once-happy and loyal political family. The Democratic party could not save itself from its own partisan in-fighting. The ironic benefactor turned out to be the consummate partisan Richard Nixon, the loser in 1960.

LBJ’s failures as President continue to haunt us, but his service as both Senate Minority and Majority leader stands supreme as one of the great displays of statesmanship ever. Give Ike equal credit, too. Both men put country way ahead of party or ideology. Johnson may have been the leader of the loyal opposition, but the emphasis was on loyal, not opposition, certainly not oppositionally defiant.

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