The One Piece of Advice Obama Aides Hate Hearing

White House aides are tired of the comparison to LBJ but Johnson aides say his actions made Obama’s election possible.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers a speech 28 July 1965 in the White House in Washington, D.C., about US policy in the Vietnam war, ordering more US troops to Vietnam. 29 June American troops have gone onto the offensive for the first time in Vietnam. In a joint operation with South Vietnamese forces they overran a network of trenches and tunnels in a Vietcong stronghold 30 miles east of Saigon.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 7, 2014, 4:24 p.m.

Few things have an­noyed Pres­id­ent Obama’s top aides more than the fre­quent re­gal­ing of Lyn­don B. John­son’s le­gis­lat­ive suc­cesses and his mas­tery of con­gres­sion­al deal-mak­ing. The sug­ges­tion is that Obama’s prob­lems with Con­gress could be eased if he would just be more like LBJ.

And few things have privately hurt vet­er­ans of the John­son White House more than hav­ing the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent ig­nore his Demo­crat­ic pre­de­cessor whose ac­tions, they be­lieve, made his elec­tion pos­sible.

That is the back­drop for this week’s dra­mat­ic gath­er­ing in Texas, where Obama will join three former pres­id­ents to pay trib­ute to John­son’s suc­cess 50 years ago in push­ing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Con­gress. Obama will give the key­note ad­dress Thursday morn­ing at what is be­ing called a Civil Rights Sum­mit at the LBJ Pres­id­en­tial Lib­rary in Aus­tin. Jimmy Carter will speak Tues­day; Bill Clin­ton goes Wed­nes­day; and George W. Bush is sched­uled to talk Thursday even­ing.

The event comes at a time of re­as­sess­ment of both John­son and his Great So­ci­ety leg­acy. His­tor­i­an Robert Caro’s four-volume ex­am­in­a­tion of John­son’s life (with a fifth volume on the way) has proved pop­u­lar, prompt­ing a fresh look at his pres­id­ency. There is even a Broad­way show about him — All the Way, star­ring Bry­an Cran­ston of Break­ing Bad fame.

Caro, like many his­tor­i­ans, of­fers a con­flic­ted view. He has doc­u­mented many of LBJ’s flaws but also be­lieves that his pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act and the Vot­ing Rights Act in 1965 push him high­er in com­par­is­on to oth­er pres­id­ents. “Lyn­don John­son passes the act and changes Amer­ica,” Caro told Smith­so­ni­an Magazine in 2012. “Yeah, I do think he de­serves com­par­is­on with Lin­coln.”

When C-SPAN sur­veyed 65 his­tor­i­ans in 2009, they ranked Lin­coln, Wash­ing­ton, and Frank­lin Roosevelt as the top three pres­id­ents, with John­son just out of the top 10 at No. 11. In a Si­ena Col­lege Re­search In­sti­tute sur­vey this year, he was 13th. But the sur­vey noted the dif­fi­culty in as­sess­ing his time in of­fice. Si­ena found LBJ to be the top pres­id­ent in his­tory in work­ing with Con­gress, but the low­est-ranked in for­eign policy ac­com­plish­ments, re­flect­ing the im­pact of the Vi­et­nam War on any as­sess­ment of John­son.

Some of the cur­rent re­as­sess­ment comes be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans are de­term­ined to dis­mantle John­son’s Great So­ci­ety pro­grams. To do that, they must chal­lenge their ef­fic­acy, as they did re­cently on the 50th an­niversary of LBJ’s de­clar­a­tion of the “war on poverty.” And some comes be­cause of the con­trast favored by Obama’s crit­ics between the way Obama and John­son dealt with Con­gress.

Al­most from the day of his in­aug­ur­a­tion, the 44th pres­id­ent has been urged to be more like the 36th, to schmooze more with law­makers, to play golf with them, to drink with them, to make more deals, to reach more across the aisle. Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Richard Co­hen lec­tured Obama in 2012, opin­ing that if he were to study John­son, “it will teach him how to be pres­id­ent.”

The ad­vice in­furi­ated White House aides. Even the pres­id­ent has re­acted to the of­ten-voiced cri­ti­cism. In an in­ter­view with Dav­id Rem­nick of The New York­er in Janu­ary, Obama offered his own his­tory les­son, not­ing that John­son didn’t have to deal with a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House. “When he lost that his­tor­ic ma­jor­ity, and the glow of that land­slide vic­tory [in 1964] faded, he had the same prob­lems with Con­gress that most pres­id­ents at one point or an­oth­er have,” Obama said.

Re­mark­ably, that com­ment to The New York­er is one of the few state­ments Obama has made as pres­id­ent about John­son. LBJ loy­al­ists had been hope­ful that Obama would men­tion their man when he ac­cep­ted the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion in 2008 — the same day as the 100th an­niversary of John­son’s birth. But Obama’s people, in tight con­trol of the con­ven­tion, made sure the only men­tion of the an­niversary came in a five-minute video aired out­side prime time. And even though it is routine for nom­in­ees to men­tion re­cent pres­id­ents in their party, Obama ig­nored John­son in 2008 and 2012.

The slight still rankles some LBJ loy­al­ists. “I was stunned,” said Joseph Cal­i­fano Jr., 82, who was John­son’s top do­mest­ic policy ad­viser. Cal­i­fano views it as es­pe­cially strik­ing be­cause Obama per­son­ally be­nefited from so many John­son pro­grams.

“I was stunned par­tic­u­larly when you real­ize that John­son is the reas­on Obama got elec­ted — in the sense that if there hadn’t been a Civil Rights Act of ‘64, if there hadn’t been the Vot­ing Rights Act of ‘65, he wouldn’t have had a chance,” Cal­i­fano said, adding: “Think about the fact that his moth­er was on food stamps, and he and his wife went through col­lege and law school on the High­er Edu­ca­tion Act we passed in ‘65. So, yes, I was up­set.”

Obama is not alone among re­cent Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ees in ig­nor­ing John­son’s leg­acy. In the 11 ac­cept­ance speeches since John­son left of­fice, he has been men­tioned only three times: by Carter in 1976 and 1980, and by Mi­chael Duka­kis in 1988. That is less than the eight in­voc­a­tions of John F. Kennedy and the four men­tions each of Frank­lin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Tru­man.

But Obama’s fail­ure to re­cog­nize John­son saddened those who served with LBJ. Former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lee Hamilton of In­di­ana said that without John­son, “Obama would nev­er have ris­en to prom­in­ence. He is a product of that peri­od.”

Hamilton was swept in­to of­fice in the LBJ land­slide in 1964 and worked closely with John­son even as a ju­ni­or mem­ber of the House. Today, he is de­lighted to see his­tor­i­ans tak­ing a fresh look at those years. “It is cer­tainly time to re­as­sess his pres­id­ency and re­store his leg­acy and to not let his leg­acy be over­whelmed by Vi­et­nam, which it has been in the past,” he said. “What you are see­ing now is a re­bal­an­cing of his leg­acy and a great­er ap­pre­ci­ation of what he did and the fun­da­ment­al im­pact he had on the coun­try.”

Hamilton ar­gues that John­son “brought about more fun­da­ment­al changes in Amer­ic­an life” than any pres­id­ent since Roosevelt. “If you look back at Medi­care, Medi­caid, the War on Poverty, de­vel­op­ment pro­grams of all kind, civil rights — they pro­foundly im­pacted life in this coun­try. Amer­ica today re­flects the im­print of Lyn­don John­son as it does very, very few oth­er pres­id­ents.”

Cal­i­fano adds to that list the Im­mig­ra­tion Act and the Na­tion­al En­dow­ment for the Arts, both en­acted in 1965. “The war is over, but the Great So­ci­ety pro­grams con­tin­ue to this day,” he said. “And they have changed the coun­try.”

So Hamilton sees it as fit­ting that Obama and three oth­er pres­id­ents will travel to Aus­tin. He also laughed when talk­ing about how LBJ would re­act if he could see four pres­id­ents troop to his lib­rary. “He had a big ego,” said Hamilton. “You bet he would be pleased to see them com­ing.” And he’d prob­ably be curi­ous to see if the 44th pres­id­ent pub­licly thanks the 36th for mak­ing his elec­tion pos­sible.


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