The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

on the World Today

ON JANUARY 8, 1953, when Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the leadership of his party in the Senate, he expressed his philosophy in a statement to the Senate Democratic Conference. “We are now in the minority,” he said. “I have never agreed with the statement [attributed to Senator Taft] that it is ‘the business of the opposition to oppose.’ I do not believe that the American people have sent us here merely to obstruct,” Throughout the Eisenhower years many liberal Democrats thought that Johnson did not oppose enough, did not draw the lines between the two parties clearly enough.

At the end of the eighty-fifth Congress, Johnson replied to these critics in saying good-bye to the Senate as it wound up its business just before daybreak on a Sunday morning in August, 1958. “I suppose there are two ways in which a Congress can conduct itself,” he said. “One is to look at the next election as the objective of legislation. The other is to regard the last election as the expression of the will of the American people on what should be done. The first view would create issues; the second view would resolve issues. By any test, I believe that this is a Senate which has tried to resolve issues rather than to create them.”

That summed up Johnson’s philosophy as a legislative leader, and it sums up his attitude now as he tries to carry out the Kennedy program. He believes that the job of creating issues is the function of local political groups, of the political conventions, and of the press, farm, labor, business, and other special groups. The function of Congress, he believes, is to resolve national issues. President Johnson is thus peculiarly suited to take over the direction of a going Administration and to continue its programs, both foreign and domestic. He knows how to find a consensus and to bring opposing factions together as well as any leader in recent times.

Although he is a product of the South and in the first instance was chosen by the Southern oligarchy in the Senate, he maintained his independence from the beginning. The civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960 could not have been passed without his leadership, an ironic twist to the fact that it was Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, leader of the Southern standpatters, who proposed Johnson as party leader.

The new President’s strength

As the President seeks a consensus today, he is able to talk to the powerful Southern committee chairmen with ease and with power on his side. While there is mutual understanding, the President has his goals clearly in view. At times he may be forced to compromise more than he or some of his supporters might like, but he will compromise only to achieve an objective. And the major current objectives were clearly outlined by his predecessor.

With Johnson’s passion for getting things done and with his enormous capacity for work, he is always several steps ahead of those whose only interest is to obstruct. Even an accomplished obstructionist like Chairman Harry F. Byrd of the Senate Finance Committee or Chairman Howard W. Smith of the House Rules Committee cannot long withstand the withering fire of a Johnson assault, which begins with warm and friendly words and ends with pressure being applied from every point.

Southerners like Russell understand Johnson and his need as a national leader to hold the Democratic coalition together. They will continue to vote against him on most of the critical issues, but they will hardly dare make him, at least at first, the object of their attack, as they did Kennedy. After all, Johnson is the first true son of the South to occupy the White House in a century. At the same time, his commitment to civil rights is as dedicated as Kennedy’s, if not more so, because of his necessity to remove all doubt.

The confidence of business

The President began with substantial backing from the business community, which he is being careful to preserve. While he is a genuine New Dealer in the humanitarian sense and in his support of welfare and constructive work programs, he is neither a free spender nor one who would punish or harass business. As a successful politician, he has worked with business leaders and sought their support. He is an ardent believer in saving money wherever possible and in limiting the size of the bureaucracy.

One of Mr. Kennedy’s last major speeches, delivered before the Florida State Chamber of Commerce in Tampa four days before he died, was an earnest attempt to assure businessmen that he was not antibusiness. Like many of his speeches to critical audiences, it was one of his best. It was always difficult for him to understand why businessmen distrusted him, and he marshaled all his powers of persuasion in talking to his Florida audience and answering their questions.

The new President begins without so many handicaps in his relations with business. But he has a serious problem. Significant elements of his party have lingering doubts about his devotion to liberal causes. He can hardly be elected in November if he does not convince labor and minority groups of his full support. He will thus be tempted to assert his liberalism in terms that will offend his business friends. How well he can hold the one group without alienating the other will be a major test of his political dexterity in the coming months.

The isolation of De Gaulle

Mr. Johnson entered the White House without the reservoir of confidence in him abroad that he enjoyed from the business community. While he has visited a large number of countries, he was relatively unknown overseas. That is one reason why he immediately decided that he must hold personal meetings with as many leading heads of government as possible and address the United Nations.

Within a few weeks of assuming office, he had scheduled meetings with West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Italian President Antonio Segni. Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos, and British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The President wanted not only to get acquainted but also to discuss important matters of substance. No one in Washington would be surprised if a meeting also were scheduled with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev.

The President was under the distinct impression that French President Charles de Gaulle would keep a promise he had made to President Kennedy to visit Washington early in 1964. In fact, after talking with De Gaulle at the late President’s funeral, Mr. Johnson said that the French leader would visit Washington early in the year. But when the haughty Frenchman returned to Paris, he made it clear his commitment was to the late President, not to the new one. If the new arrival on the world scene wished a meeting, it could be arranged in Paris, not in Washington. Even this much of an invitation was conveyed in a manner insulting to President Johnson. It was not a specific invitation, but a statement that if the President made a journey to Europe he might wish to stop in Paris.

Mr. Johnson may put his feelings aside and arrange a meeting. But some of his official advisers feel strongly that little would be accomplished by a meeting with De Gaulle. Many of these officials doubted that much would have been accomplished by a Kennedy—De Gaulle meeting. They are convinced, as Jean Monnet is convinced, that the only proper course is to try to build an Atlantic community as if De Gaulle were not on the scene.

Already he has shown signs of being uncomfortable in his isolation. He could never be persuaded, it was argued, except when confronted by the fact that the rest of Europe was determined to continue its movement toward unity and toward cooperation with North America. President Kennedy’s trip to Europe last summer had helped to clarify the issues and to isolate De Gaulle.

Other officials argued that only by meeting De Gaulle and working with him would it be possible to break down his opposition and to save the European movement. The new President is the kind of man who believes that his powers of persuasion are equal to De Gaulle’s, and he may want to make the try. On some issues it is clear that no one can move the French President. But the trade negotiations are so important, and have so much support everywhere in Europe, including parts of France, that a sympathetic talk with De Gaulle might persuade him not to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. If even that could be accomplished, a JohnsonDe Gaulle meeting would be worth the effort.

Nearly all of the NATO countries have been through crises of one sort or another in the last year, and all except France looked to the United States and the Kennedy Administration for leadership in what clearly was a transition period. While no great progress can be expected in the Atlantic community in the next year, it is of the utmost importance to keep clearly in mind the objective of Atlantic cooperation.

It is President Johnson’s major opportunity and major challenge to provide the necessary leadership. No one else can give it. The task is doubly complicated because of uncertainties here and abroad. In less than a year, ten of the fifteen NATO governments have had a change of government or of governmental leadership the United States, Canada, West Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Turkey, and Iceland. And within a few months there must be a national election in Britain.

The presidential campaign

Even before President Kennedy’s assassination the 1964 election campaign was under way in this country. The paralysis that a presidential campaign always brings about was becoming apparent in the conduct of domestic as well as of foreign policy. Our friends abroad knew that Washington would be unable to make important new decisions or to embark on major new courses of action until after the election.

It is not easy to suggest how this great nation, now the leader of the free world, can avoid giving up one year in every four to political campaigning. Yet a shorter campaign is something that is desirable and should be possible in this age of television and jet travel. President Kennedy’s tragic death should shock us into a critical examination of the creaky machinery we have for solving many of our political problems. In the few short weeks that Mr. Johnson has been President he has had to give enormous thought to his own problem of re-election, and in the months ahead he will be preoc, cupied with this problem.

Is it too much to hope that our political scientists, acting somewhat as the economists did in the 1930s, might find an answer to a few of the practical problems of American politics that have become so disturbing in recent months? The problem of lengthy presidential campaigning is one. The problem of presidential succession is another. We are now captive to the congressional seniority system, which should be the last way of determining succession to the presidency. There must be some way of making Congress less subject to the obstructionist tactics of a few aging, powerful men, less the victim of the seniority system.

Every President has been confronted with the necessity of doing battle with entrenched congressmen in his own party. For some Presidents these have been the hardest battles and the most unnecessary ones. Yet they were unavoidable. Such intolerable conditions at times have made a mockery of democratic government. It is time for agreement on practical proposals that can be adopted.

Mood of the Capital

President Johnson, who was called a “can-do" Senate leader, has given the country hope that Congress will act in response to his leadership. As the new year began, the President was confident that the Senate would approve the tax bill. Although he knew that the civil rights bill would require a bruising and lengthy battle, he believed it could be passed and signed well before the middle of the year.

Yet the same men remain in power in Congress, and the same rules and procedures which thwart progress remain in force. Johnson was moving forward by the sheer force of his own power without effecting the necessary reforms that some day will be required if we are to achieve any sense of party responsibility on Capitol Hill. Despite the underlying problems and the potentialities for new trouble, the President breathed life into a stunned and saddened people during what may have been the smoothest political transition in American history.