Lessons from LBJ

Sam Smith

In trying to describe the difference between Obama’s presidency and that of Lyndon Johnson I sometimes tell the story – recorded on tape – of LBJ lying in bed and calling a Texas county Democratic leader at 2 AM eastern time after his major 1964 win to thank him for all his great help in the campaign. LBJ, who was feeling sick at the time, then asks to speak to the Texas Democrat’s wife and proceeds to tell her how wonderful her husband is and how important he was to the campaign.

I recently heard another tale of that time. Rep. Jake Pickle, a Texas Democrat, had gotten up the courage to be one of five south members of Congress to vote for the 1964 civil rights act. It was a difficult choice. After the vote he wandered around aimlessly and somewhat miserably, finally ending up in the boarding house where he lived. Earlier, Johnson had called the boarding house and asked to speak to Pickle. Pickle told the clerk who had picked up the phone to tell LBJ that he had gone to bed. Replied the clerk, “President Johnson said you would say that but tell you that he has to speak to you anyway.” The purpose: just to say thanks.

LBJ was in many ways no role model. He could beat Obama for narcissism in a minute. But he had enough social intelligence to put his ego aside to help boost that of others whom he badly needed.

That skill has largely disappeared, not only from Washington, but from most places of power in the U.S. Power is no longer seen as a privilege earned from a greater community but primarily the product of individual brilliance and tactical manipulation. The Texas county Democratic leaders and Jake Pickles no longer matter.

Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama – primary examples of egos in a vacuum – seemed in the slightest in sharing their political status with others. Thus it wasn’t all that surprising, for example, that the GOP gained about 1200 state legislative seats after Clinton took office.

Worse, they didn’t want anyone around them reaching out, either. Dr. Aaron Schultz wrote an interesting piece in Black Agenda Report about Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign:

||||||||| It is true that both community organizers and Obama’s campaign volunteers learn to act, and to act strategically to achieve their goals. However, all of the campaign action is oriented around voting. There is no training about how to influence people once they are elected. Thus the campaign volunteers acquire no direct skills for actively influencing their candidate after the election except through whatever mechanisms Obama may create for them once he is president. . .

In fact, the only non-Obama activity I have heard Obama volunteers getting involved in was a service activity, not an effort to organize against power. Mike Newall, for example, reported on “a neighborhood sweep-up event organized by Obama Works, a grassroots public service organization inspired by Obama’s community activism background.” This service approach is actually diametrically opposed to the organizing approach, siphoning off energy that might actually generate social change. So there is an extent to which Obama (or his leaders) may, in some cases at least, be mis-educating volunteers about the nature of effective social action in America (maybe because they don’t understand what organizing is). To summarize, Obama’s organization is not training community organizers. It is training what seem to be quite effective campaign workers.”|||||||||

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