Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Six, The Salesman Who Couldn't Convince Himself

There may never have been a better horse-trader in politics than Lyndon B. Johnson.

Politics itself, when done right, is all about deals.  Deals between parties, deals between pols, deals to get one pork barrel program in exchange for a key vote on a policy treaty.  Like it or not, there's a Quid Pro Quo nature to American governance, as long as the quids are as legal as the quos.  And as long as the deals happen, the government functions (SEE The Long October and the modern GOP obstructionism for how government collapses without compromises).

Johnson was a master at deal-making.  Stories abound about how he would work out a fellow congressman's position, figure out a proper arrangement to get his vote, and do the deal.  For the ones he couldn't convince, he'd find a way to get those elected officials out of town on "fact-finding missions" before he changed a vote's schedule to take advantage of the absence.  And for the ones he couldn't convince and yet needed to get a vote from, he would apply The Treatment, a form of psychological warfare under which friends and enemies alike would wilt:

...(It was) supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless... (Robert Dallek, PBS.org link)

The most famous moment of Johnson's method was when he met Alabama Governor George Wallace, an at-the-time fervent segregationist whose state was Ground Zero of the Civil Rights movement in 1965.  The brutal assault on protesters at Selma had just happened and LBJ wanted to send in federal troops to secure the peace (from that Brian Sweany's Texas Monthly article):

...the President directed Wallace to a soft couch. Nearly a foot shorter than Johnson, he promptly sank into its cushions. The president pulled up a rocking chair and leaned in close. The Johnson Treatment had begun...
Over the next three hours, LBJ pressed Wallace on the issue of race. Careful not to let the governor play the martyr for states' rights, he cajoled and flattered him. When the president asked him why he wouldn't integrate the schools and let black residents register to vote, Wallace said that he didn't have the power. Johnson thundered in response, "George, don't you shit me as to who runs Alabama." In the end Johnson questioned Wallace's place in history: "George, you and I shouldn't be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985... Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama... a lot of people who need jobs, a lot of people who need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says 'George Wallace: He Built'? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that harsh caliche soil that says 'George Wallace: He Hated'?"...
Shortly after the meeting, Wallace agreed to ask the president to send in federal troops. The governor, who just two years before had declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," would later say, "Hell, if I'd stayed in there much longer, he'd have had me coming out for civil rights." 

Within two days, Johnson would push for his signature 1965 Voting Rights Act that alongside the 1964 Civil Rights Act killed off Jim Crow Era in Southern (and national) politics.  Achievements not even the active civil rights Presidents like Truman, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, or Grant could claim.

Johnson was obsessed with the idea of being the best: achievement above all others gnawed at him.  He chafed as Vice President under Kennedy, and when Kennedy was assassinated Johnson used the moment - and borrowed the legacy - to take over the Presidency on his terms and pass historic legislation on civil rights and voting rights that JFK never could.

And yet... and yet.  For all his efforts, for all his successes, he didn't last very long as President, and left the office hated more than loved or feared.  All because of one thing:

Lyndon B. Johnson could never really sell the idea of Lyndon B. Johnson as President to the people... and never could sell it to himself.

Oh, he could still make deals from the White House same as he could from the Senate backrooms.  He could cajole and brow-beat the Beltway media to his whim.  But there was something lacking.  All that ambition to get things done and yet almost no ability to dial back that intensity, no ability to inspire like Kennedy or FDR, no humility or ability to take the body blows of losing fights the way Active-Positive Presidents could.

At heart, Johnson was an Active-Negative, compelled to do things because "I Must" (much like Hoover before him) drove his deal-makings rather than "I Can" that could have allowed for compromise and adaptability.  As Professor Barber notes in his book Presidential Character, Johnson was obsessed with it being about him and what he had to do:

Lyndon Johnson took his tragedy personally.  His initial commitment to the war was made in personal terms: "I am not going to lose Vietnam.  I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went"... Not only did he talk that way, but he invested his energies as intensely as his words.  He had always been a fantastically active politician, driving himself well beyond what those around him could do... (p.42-3)

Like A-Ns before him, Johnson's Driven character could not allow him to see the objections of his opponents, which he came to view quickly as enemies:

...He had an answer to that question (of why bad things kept happening to his tenure): his miseries came from "knee-jerk liberals," "crackpots," and "trouble-makers"... the prime villain... became Robert F. Kennedy, the rival he had always called "Sonny Boy"... Even at the height of his success... Johnson complained bitterly asking "What do they want?  What do they really want?  I am giving them boom times and more good legislation than anybody else did, and what do they do - attack and sneer!  Could FDR do better? Could anybody do better? What do they want?" (p.44-6)  

And when confronted with enemies, the A-N's response to is to be Uncompromising, even in the face of facts:

In the course of his crusade, Johnson slowly whittled his advisors down to those ready to back his course.  George Ball had opposed the war from the early days, but Johnson had managed to plug him so firmly into the role of official dissenter that his views were listened to and then easily dismissed.  One by one his aides resigned... (p.45)

This self-inflicted damage was nowhere more apparent than LBJ's harshest failure: managing the Vietnam War.  What had been a small sideshow in the Cold War in 1963 - where Kennedy was hedging his bets between commitment and withdrawal - Johnson turned into a hotspot as he saw it as another domino in the Communist Takeover of Asia.  Maneuvering legislation and military backing for South Vietnam to create a favorable situation, Johnson took the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to deploy fully committed troops to defend the South against the North Viet Cong.

Johnson's main objective in committing to a war effort was to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiation table.  After all, deal-making was exactly LBJ's forte.  Problem was, the Viet Cong were not interested in any deals: the U.S. misread Vietnam as a Communist takeover when it was more a nationalistic effort to unify Vietnam into one.  The North Vietnamese quickly realized one thing: Johnson was not committed to open war, just holding patterns and bullying tactics.  And that they didn't have to beat the U.S. army on the battlelines: they had to beat Johnson.

Johnson's nature as a salesman betrayed him the longer the Vietnam effort strayed.  What was supposed to have been a quick mission turned into a quagmire.  Johnson obsessed over winning battles, which meant winning the body count statistics, which meant an overemphasis on numbers rather than qualitative results.  Above all, nothing was happening to get the other side to a negotiating table, and it drove Johnson to escalate.  Each troop draw-up exposed more of the lies his administration were claiming about "winning the war."  By 1968 he was losing home support, and the nation became more divided between pro-War and anti-War factions.

When the Tet Offensive - a massive blitz by the VC and their guerrilla forces throughout South Vietnam - occurred in late January 1968, it ruined Johnson's Presidency.  While in real terms the North Vietnamese lost far too much manpower to the attacks, it exposed Johnson as a liar about the "war ending any day now."  By March of 1968 Johnson pulled back on his war effort - and announced he would not seek a second term (the 25th Amendment did not apply to his brief tenure finishing JFK's) - as a show of faith to bring North Vietnam to the table at last.

That proved to be one of the nation's worst years: violent and tumultuous and unhappy.  It left a massive stain on LBJ's legacy, one that would have been remembered for its striking civil rights victories instead of the bloodshed at home and abroad.

And it left us with an Active-Negative more driven and self-destructive than LBJ ever was.

Next Up: I quoted from Lord Jim when this one died... and yes, after all he was one of us...

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