Read This Book, Obama!
by David Frum Apr 15, 2012 4:00 PM EDT
Emerging from JFK’s shadow, Lyndon Johnson wielded power ruthlessly—and delivered big results for liberals. In this week’s Newsweek, David Frum on what Obama could learn from Robert Caro’s new biography.
A great work of history is never only about the past.
The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s great biography of Lyndon Johnson—The Passage of Power—tells a story from seemingly long ago. Page after page conjures up a vanished world: a world in which labor unions had clout and lunch counters were segregated. Yet it’s also a world deeply familiar to us: a world in which urgent national problems go unaddressed year after year, and Americans despair over the paralysis of their government.
But no, we don’t. We despair over government acting too much, spending too much money, printing money to create inflation to sustain itself, and we despair over government creating perpetual recipient-class voter blocs. We despair over government that’s run amok, spending and spending and spending with no end in sight. We despair over government’s absurdities, not society’s. And in the 1960s, the labor unions had clout through government power, and the segregated lunch counters were being desegregated not through government force, but by people sitting down and demanding to be served.
This lunch counter isn’t famous because of government, it’s famous because of a sit-in.
For nobody, perhaps, is this turn of history more challenging than for Robert Caro himself. Over more than 2,500 pages of powerful prose, Caro has summoned Lyndon Johnson to vivid, intimate life. We come to know him better, thanks to Caro’s remorseless research, than almost any of Johnson’s contemporaries could have hoped to do. It’s not an attractive picture. Caro’s Johnson is a bully and braggart, a wheedler and manipulator, a man of bad personal morals and worse business ethics.
And it is this, frankly, monstrous character who realized more of Caro’s liberal ideals than any politician in modern times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt very much included—and vastly more than the charming, winning, but domestically ineffectual JFK.
In a story already rich with drama, this tension between author and subject—between Caro’s loathing of Johnson and his reverence for Johnson’s accomplishments—is the tensest drama of all.
How did Johnson do it?
Here is Caro’s disconcerting message: Johnson didn’t do it by inspiring or exhorting. He did it by mobilizing political power, on a scale and with a ruthlessness that arguably surpassed all other presidents, before or since.
The ends justify the means. Hayek had something worth noting on this:
Advancement within a totalitarian group or party depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things. The principle that the end justifies the means, which in individualist ethics is regarded as the denial of all morals, in collectivist ethics becomes necessarily the supreme rule. There is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves “the good of the whole,” because that is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done. Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarianism which horrify us follow of necessity. From the collectivist standpoint intolerance and brutal suppression of dissent, deception and spying, the complete disregard of the life and happiness of the individual are essential and unavoidable. … To be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, therefore, a man must be prepared to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him. In the totalitarian machine there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous.
Meanwhile, LBJ had this to say:
The monstrous character realized leftist, socialist, Modern Liberal ideas through ruthless force. The left has found the moral equivalent of war and ruthless application of force appealing since the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. The end justifies the means. They find the means “monstrous” but choose them because they really want the ends. So why does something “good” have to be achieved at the cost of massive applications of force, corrupt men of “monstrous character”? Because it’s the tyranny, stupid.
The lunch counter sitters and protest marchers were winning the hearts and minds of the public. Civil disobediance won the day. It showed the noble character of the both the mission and the people.
Johnson, by contrast, was the same ruthless monster the left loves to be ashamed of, but emulates and desires to be again and again.
It’s hard not to detect in these pages an unspoken critique of Barack Obama. Yes, certainly, Obama shares Lyndon Johnson’s gift for driving opponents crazy, if it is a gift. But the use of power Caro so vividly describes is not something that comes naturally to our current president. The constant searching for opportunities; the shameless love-bombing of opponents; the endless wooing of supporters; the deft deployment of inducements and threats—these are the low arts that led to Johnson’s high success.
Obama is fundamentally opposed to the success of the nation. He doesn’t “drive opponents crazy”, he infuriates his opponents because they don’t find the US to be a cruel nation in need of “fundamental transformation”. We have been a classic liberal representative republic focused on liberty. What about that needs changing?
LBJ’s successes were ultimately at the cost of the nation. Thomas Sowell often writes of what the black family was like in the 1950s and 1960s, and did a specific piece on black-owned businesses in California which were destroyed by LBJ’s “Great Society”, he often notes that political rhetoric never matches the effects in reality.
LBJ cared about power. He is respected by the left for his use of power. They find it “monstrous” but so appealing. It’s as though they can get something done… their programs always need more money, more regulations, more authority; their campaigns always need more votes – no matter how they cheat to get them; they always need more power, power to control…