Saturday, February 26, 2011

Echoes from the fifties

The first volume of Robert Caro's massive biography of LBJ came out in the early 1980s, covering his career until the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite some irritating aspects--as I recall, it took the better part of 200 pages for LBJ to be born, and Caro as always tended to romanticize some of his characters--it was clearly an historical masterpiece, based mainly on remarkable interviews with men and women who had known LBJ at least since college. LBJ was one of those people, like his successor in the White House, who could not trust almost any other human being, and his associates repaid him after his death with an extraordinary willingness to reveal just about everything they knew about him. Caro's book was the closest thing I had read to a real-life version of All the King's Men, because it illustrated the extraordinary mixture of evil and good motives that go into even the best public policy. The conflict was reflected in the structure of the book. I remember a colleague at Carnegie Mellon remarking that he would have loved to have written a chapter like Caro's "The Sad Irons," which described the wretched lives of Texas farm wives before Johnson managed to help bring electricity to them as part of the New Deal. I replied that I would have gotten more of a kick out of writing another chapter, "The Dam," which told how Johnson, a newly minted Congressman, had arranged illegal federal financing for a dam on the lower Colorado River that had been begun by the firm of Brown and Root, run by two of his major patrons, George and Herman Brown. (Brown and Root, which later won a contract to dredge Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, is now part of Halliburton.) Caro's second volume appeared later in the 1980s and disappointed nearly everyone, including myself. It focused very heavily upon Johnson's theft of his election to the Senate in 1948 and unduly praised his opponent in that race. The third volume, Master of the Senate, took about fifteen years to appear, and took me about eight years to read, but it was worth it. I am not aware of any history of the twentieth century that has gone into a series of key legislative battles as closely as Caro handled those of the years 1949-57. This is the kind of book professional historians used to write, but I am not aware of a single such project being worked on in any university department today.

The main driving force in Johnson's life--as in his two most famous contemporaries', Kennedy and Nixon--was his ambition to become President. Kennedy got to the White House thanks mainly to his personal qualities, something that Johnson and Nixon could not do. They therefore had to focus singlemindedly on cultivating power, usually by winning the hearts and minds of older and more powerful men, but also by tacking with the times (and of the three, Johnson, the oldest, had by far the longest political career.) Caro's first volume showed how Johnson had risen during the New Deal era by cultivating FDR and Sam Rayburn, establishing himself as progressive southerner. But the narrative in this volume begins in 1949, when Roosevelt was four years dead and a conservative reaction was well underway. It also finds LBJ in the Senate, not the House, which was dominated by southern conservatives led by Richard Russell of Georgia. Johnson swung accordingly to the right. His maiden speech in the Senate was a defense of the filibuster, which the southerners intended to invoke to defeat the civil rights measures which Harry Truman had now endorsed. Shortly thereafter, Johnson ingratiated himself with his backers in the oil and gas industry by destroying the career of Leland Olds, a federal power commissioner who had become an advocate for public power and regulated energy rates in the 1930s. To do so Johnson and his allies used the crudest McCarthyism--a full year before McCarthy himself burst upon the national scene. The cultivation of Russell paid off in 1951 when, after the Democratic leader and whip had been defeated, Russell tapped Johnson for the number two spot. Two years later, in 1952, Johnson became the minority leader, and in 1954, when the Democrats regained control of Congress, he became, in Caro's words, the Master of the Senate.

Last week, looking at the darker possibilities that confront us, and speculating that the new Republican House of Representatives was going to plunge us into a deeper crisis, I suggested that Barack Obama was going to be the Herbert Hoover of our current crisis. This week I will focus on the alternative possibility: that we might in the next few years emerge from the crisis and that Obama might realize what appears to be his real dream, that of being Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The news of the day, reporting a serious Congressional effort to forge a budget deal and avoid a shutdown, points in that direction, although we a long way to go.) Caro's book reminded me of what that would mean. Then as now, the average Congressional Republican hated the New Deal and all its works--but also rejected America's new role in the world. Eisenhower, an establishment Republican, had to govern with the help of establishment Democrats like LBJ, and southerners, led by Russell, who were devoted to white supremacy at home but also believed in the essence of the Cold War abroad. And thus, Johnson and Eisenhower worked together to defeat the Bricker Amendment, which would have drastically curtailed the President's treaty-making power; to forestall a potentially divisive investigation of the Yalta agreements; to pass desperately needed housing legislation; and, in 1954, finally to destroy the career of Joe McCarthy, after he had turned his sights on his own Administration. Domestically that era, like this one, was an era of reaction, and the embattled liberals of the Senate, including Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Paul Douglas of Illinois, Herbert Lehman of New York, and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, initially earned nothing but Johnson's contempt. But because he knew he could not become President--still his dream--without some northern support, Johnson eventually began to cultivate Humphrey himself, and he moved further in their direction as the decade wore on and more GI liberals replaced Lost conservatives in the US Senate, most notably in 1958.

The question now is whether Barack Obama can in fact emulate Eisenhower from the other side of the aisle. In one respect he already has. Having passed the Health Care bill, his one major reform--which may or may not survive a Supreme Court challenge--he has now given up on any serious expansion of federal power, just as Eisenhower quickly accepted the changes wrought by the New Deal. Obama does indeed seem to be acting more and more like Eisenhower--his almost complete silence over the last few weeks, in the midst of a series of international and domestic crises, is quite striking, and indeed the conservative accusations that he is weak an indecisive--are quite similar to the charges against Ike that I heard in my childhood. But are there Republicans in Congress of the Johnson-Russell type who are willing to put partisanship aside to allow the government to function and preserve some civility in our politics? That question remains open. Similar questions hang over our second revolutionary front, in Wisconsin, where the motives of Governor Walker, as Paul Krugman pointed out brilliantly yesterday, are becoming more and more suspect. Several other Republican governors are backing away from extreme anti-union positions, and it is possible that the Tea Party movement will in fact have run its course by 2012--though hardly certain.

The long-term prospects for any new leftward shift, however, seem to me just about non-existent, partly for demographic reasons. The New Deal represented a coalition between left-wing members of the Missionary Prophet generation, led by FDR himself, and young GI voters; the Nomad Lost generation generally opposed it. Obama, a Nomad himself, won in 2008 by mobilizing Millennials on his side, but he could not do the same in 2010. Meanwhile, the Congressional elections marked a profound generational shift in the House of Representatives, where Silent and Boomer Democrats gave way, in dozens of districts, to very conservative Gen X Republicans. President Obama is virtually the only elected Generation X Democrat of any significance to emerge to date (although Andrew Cuomo could become another.) We remain very finely balanced at a critical point in American history. If Obama, like Ike, cobbles together some sort of governing coalition, we may move into a High by the end of his term. If exogenous events or Republican policies plunge us deeper into crisis, then anything could happen.

I cannot resist one more story from Caro's book. In early 1956, Johnson was pushing hard for a bill to deregulate the price of natural gas--a bill worth tens of millions of dollars to George and Herman Brown and other Texas oil men. Liberals, including the columnist Drew Pearson, were fighting the bill hard. In the midst of the controversy, a Senator from North Dakota revealed that a lobbyist had handed him an envelope containing $5000 in cash in exchange for his vote. (That was, of course, a lot more money then than it is now, although it's probably fair to say that votes were much cheaper, even adjusting for inflation, then than now.) That incident, Caro shows, was merely the tip of a huge iceberg, and a scandal erupted. Johnson managed, in typical fashion, to appoint a reliable trio of Senators to an ad hoc committee to investigate, and bury, the investigation, and in due time, the bill passed. But in an extraordinary moment in postwar history, Eisenhower--who had staunchly supported the legislation on free market grounds--vetoed it, explaining that he had to avoid giving the impression that powerful interests could buy legislation. I wonder if President Obama could think of a comparable gesture he might make down the road. It could do the country significant good.


Gerald Meaders said...

Many thanks for this great capsule.

My comment has to do with this snippet:

"I replied that I would have gotten more of a kick out of writing another chapter, "The Dam," which told how Johnson, a newly minted Congressman, had arranged illegal federal financing for a dam on the lower Colorado River that had been begun by the firm of Brown and Root, run by two of his major patrons, George and Herman Brown."

It shows the kinds of back flips politicians have had to do, in our system, to do, nevertheless, perhaps good (?) projects.

all the best,

Anonymous said...

The recoil in 2010 against the Obama Democrats'
vast expansion of the size and scope of
government seems to have a cultural or a moral
dimension as well. It was a vote, as my Washington
Examiner colleague Timothy P. Carney wrote last
week, expressing "anger at those unfairly getting
rich -- at the taxpayer's expense."

mlsouth said...

Hopefully the Wisconsin Governor's political gambit is as shallow as presumed. A far scarier possibility is that he and other Tea Partiers actually believe this is a solution to our long-term economic malaise and budget deficits. That would indicate no solution for our bigger problems are in sight and the future is bleak indeed.

Anonymous said...

Brown and Nelson introduce 'Taxpayer Receipt Act'

Anonymous said...

Bye bye obamacare!

And after that abomination is struck down -
the current regime and its re-distributors will
have ABSOLUTELY nothing to show and will
be summarily kicked from power.


That's because all of the judges who have weighed in
so far have agreed on one thing: The individual
mandate is a penalty, not a tax. The matter, expected
to land on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket next year,
could hinge on that distinction. Congress has the
power to enact taxes, not penalties, leaving an
opening for the Supremes to strike down the
mandate and fatally wound healthcare reform.

Anonymous said...

Moore On Wealthy People's Money: "That's Not Theirs,
That's A National Resource, It's Ours"


When a deranged man speaks!!

Not a chance in HELL!

Anonymous said...

There will be NO TAX & SPEND anymore!

Live with it Dr. Kaiser!

As obama had said - "Elections have
consequences!" Now someone ELSE will be seated
at the back of the bus - TAX & SPEND CREW !!!

Obama signs spending bill to avoid shutdown
By Michael O'Brien - 03/02/11 04:49 PM ET

President Obama signed legislation Wednesday to
extend funding for the government through
March 18.

Obama signed into law Wednesday afternoon the
two-week continuing resolution that passed the
Senate earlier that day. The House approved it

The move has the effect of preventing a
government shutdown on Friday, March 4, when
funding was set to run out.

This bill funds government for another two weeks
at reduced levels, cutting $4 billion from the

In the meantime, Obama has demanded immediate
meetings between White House Chief of Staff
William Daley, Budget Director Jack Lew and
Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to
hash out a long-term deal before funding runs
out on March 18.

Anonymous said...

Collective bargaining has no place in representative
democracy and public employee unions have an
"insidious relationship" with Democrats, Sen. Jim
DeMint (R-S.C.) said Tuesday.

Anonymous said...

But they aren’t at stake. There is no “fundamental
right’’ to collective bargaining in government jobs.
Indeed, labor leaders themselves used to say so.

Arnold Zander, the Wisconsin union organizer
who became the first president of the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees, wrote in 1940 that AFSCME saw “less
value in the use of contracts and agreements in
public service than . . . in private employment.’’
Instead of collective bargaining, he explained, “our
local unions find promotion and adoption of civil
service legislation . . . the more effective way’’ to
serve the interests of government employees. As
late as the 1950s, AFSCME considered collective
bargaining in the public sector desirable but not
essential, and viewed strong civil-service laws as
the best protection for government workers.

In December 1955, in a New York Times Magazine
essay on “Labor’s Future,’’ no less a union icon
than AFL-CIO president George Meany wrote: “The
main function of American trade unions is collective
bargaining. It is impossible to bargain collectively
with the government.’’

Anonymous said...

'Where's Waldo?' Presidency...

Anonymous said...

Ida Mae Fuller was the first recipient of Social
Security. The Vermont native retired in November
1939 at the age of 65, and began collecting
benefits in January 1940. She had worked for 3
years to pay into the Social Security system, the
total in taxes taken out of her paychecks to
support Social Security over that 3 years was
$24.75. Her initial monthly check was $22.54.
Sounds great, doesn't it?

Now the rest of the story. She continued to receive
monthly benefits until she died in 1975 at the age
of 100. She collected a total of $22,888.92 in
benefits in her lifetime. That means she received
over 92,000% more than she paid in to the system.
Who paid for her benefits? Later investors, who
were promised that if they pay in, when they reach
retirement age they will also be paid off with money
that even later investors put in. Those investors are
told they need to pay in so that when they get the idea.

There is no question that Social Security is a Ponzi

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea why smug libertads never bother
to have such a meeting in the previous two years+?

Obama proposes budget meeting

There will be cuts Dr. Kaiser - PERIOD.
Arrogant TAX&SPEND crew will learn that voters


Krugman and your types can continue to
advocate TAX&SPEND, and unions and all such


The only thing left to do is get rid of that abomination called obamacare.

The the rest of libertads are NEXT!!!

Anonymous said...

Bill Gates On States' Accounting: 'The Guys At
Enron Never Would Have Done This'

The Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist said
state budgets have received a puzzling lack of
scrutiny and have been "riddled with gimmicks"
aimed at deferring or disguising the true costs of
public employees' health care and pension
obligations, citing California's ongoing budget
crisis as an example of creative deficit spending
and the subsequent cuts to education spending as
an unacceptable cost.

Jum said...

Investigating your site I enjoyed your description of Caro's massive work on LBJ, remembering my own sense of amazement, on being introduced to the first volume through the series of excerpts in the New Yorker, that any historian could have made the minutiae of LBJ's life and times so fascinating. I recall as well my gratitude that Caro had such a damn-the-torpedoes regard for the truth that he laid bare the essential corruption of a politician who was revealed to have such contempt for the rule of law that he without doubt stole at least one Senate election, and provided vital assistance in what was almost certainly the theft of a Presidential election.

But I was less enamored of what appear to be a few of your socio/political views, as when I came across some sniffery directed at The Great Unwashed House Republicans Who Simply Don't Know How Members Of The Club Are Expected To Behave. I noted as well a call for House Republicans to exercise bipartisanship, a concept which in the 40-plus years I've been paying attention is never important until Democrats can be outvoted. At that point the media magically fill with tortured cries about how the base, vile partisanship of the GOP has put the Republic teetering over the abyss. Funny how that "bipartisanship" rap seems to work in one direction only. Having just been treated to two years of a Democrat exercise of partidsanship so grotesque, extreme and destrucvtive that it has truly moved our country to the brink, and having noted yet again a silence on the subkect by the media so near-total as to be virtual acquiescence, I am unmoved by your appeal to Republicans to play nicely and share their toys.

I was pretty close, but I was prepared to hang in there, so I read on. And then came the quote that turned the trick: " Paul Krugman pointed out brilliantly yesterday...".

Wow. I just don't think there are that many lovers of limited government, maximized individual liberty and even a sort-of-free market who could ever in good faith link "Krugman" and "brilliantly". Dear me, I fear we have another cosmopolite disciple of that most rare hybrid, non-conservative conservatism. But fear not, for you should be very comfortable with The Davids, Frum and Brooks; although the D Boys seem motivated more by the same adolsecent imperative to shock the old folks that compels bored teens to start a food fight at the country club than by deeply felt political philosophy.

Amyway, Doctor K., you may bask in Krugman's brilliance to your heart's content. You'll just have to do it without me, for this once-potential-reader has read enough.