What Hillary Can Learn From LBJ

Can the presumptive Democratic nominee channel the 36th president? And should she want to?
David Graham/Reuters

Lyndon Baines Johnson is having an awfully good year. Fifty years after he was swept into the White House by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans are remembering Johnson’s presidency with previously unknown fondness and nostalgia. This summer marked the 50th anniversary of his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an achievement which, along with his landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, made Johnson the most consequential crusader for the cause of racial equality to serve in the White House since Lincoln. In All the Way, the popular Broadway play, Bryan Cranston has reincarnated President Johnson in his golden 1964 glory, a larger-than-life master of the legislative process, not yet besieged by Vietnam. In a country ruled by political paralysis and polarization, people are understandably drawn to the image of a leader who could force Washington into action—a modern day LBJ.

Might Hillary Clinton fit the bill? Clinton, some have suggested, possesses many of the Texan president’s greatest strengths and could be the Johnson to Barack Obama’s JFK. Like Johnson, Clinton hopes to follow an inspiring but often ineffective president from her own party, to be the less smooth but more savvy successor, the skilled-operator who skips the stirring speeches and simply gets the big things done.

Clinton has invited comparison with Johnson in the past. When asked in her 2008 primary campaign to comment on her then-opponent Obama’s emphasis on hope, Clinton unwisely made a flattering comment about Johnson at the expense of Martin Luther King Jr. "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," she said. "It took a president to get it done."

Her campaign jumped to clarify her comments—no, no, she wasn’t disparaging King’s accomplishments. But the remark revealed a core Clinton belief: Change doesn’t happen through words. Change comes from savvy pragmatism, hard experience, and backbreaking work. Johnson had that combination, Clinton was saying, and so does she.

Clinton, of course, is hardly an LBJ clone. Johnson rose to prominence practicing an earthy, full-contact politics, working over legislators with the famed “Johnson Treatment.” Clinton excelled at the inside game in the Senate, but her global celebrity status never would have allowed her to massage and manhandle fellow senators in the Johnson manner, even had she been so inclined. Johnson could master policy details but was only interested in doing so in the service of a larger political goal. Clinton tolerates retail politics but only because politicking is necessary for tackling the big policy questions she loves. “Unthinking emotion is pitiful to me,” a college-age Clinton wrote to a friend. Johnson’s intuition for emotion, pitiful or glorious and everything in between, was what made him the greatest legislator of his time.

Still, Clinton does possess some key similarities to Johnson, and not just to the “good” Johnson of 1964. In her career in Washington, she has demonstrated his skillful relationship-building and dogged determination. But at times she has also mirrored some of the worst aspects of Johnson's complex persona: his difficulty being "himself," his preoccupation with loyalty, and his fear of conspiracies he could not see. Some key lesson from Johnson’s presidency may prove relevant to Clinton as she ponders another White House run.

1. Pragmatism isn’t everything. No modern president was better at practical legislative politics than Johnson, the former Senate majority leader. Too much of Johnson’s success is ascribed to his interpersonal gifts. Huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress were the biggest factor in his success, although Johnson’s intimate knowledge of the key figures on Capitol Hill and his sharp sense for what was realistic and achievable helped earn him the most significant legislative record of any president since FDR. But his strong sense of the political realities of Congress did not translate into an intuition for the political reality of the country at large. As he scored his Great Society triumphs, he failed to see how the American electorate was changing. That left him vulnerable to an antigovernment backlash that would bring his string of liberal achievement to an end.

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Jonathan Darman is a former political correspondent for Newsweek. He is the author of the forthcoming Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America.

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