Leading From Strength: LBJ in Action

DAVID BRINKLEY, who reports from Washington each weekday night to the millions who follow NBC-TV‘s ITLN rLEY-BRINKLEY REPORT, broke into journalism in his hometown, Wilmington, North Carolina, as a seventeenyear-old high school columnist for a relative‘s weekly. Except for an interlude in the U. S. Infantry, Mr. Brinkley, now forty-four, has been reporting ever since. He is one of the relatively few electronic journalists who writes all his own lines. In addition, he is a talented woodworker, a silently dangerous poker player, a sage handicapper of thoroughbreds, and generously inaccurate at pocket billiards.

THE ATLANTIC

BY DAVID BRINKLEY

THE road to the American dream is littered with task force reports that were lightly read, widely ignored, and then as messily discarded on the roadside as empty beer cans. And so it may seem unlikely that anything can be learned about our life in President Johnson’s Great Society from the reports of the task forces he called in to design it. We have all seen reports like these before, and where are they now?

One scholarly group after another has told us what we ought to worry about and why. It was a useful service because it is known that diffuse and formless worrying corrodes the soul and the wit, and because for several post-war years we worried about the wrong things, or worried in the wrong way about the right things, such as turning foreigners away from Communism and into bustling capitalists by filling their bellies and giving them yellow tractors.

Some of these reports were so heavy that they lay like stones in the reader’s hands, and others so liltingly told us how to find happiness that they might have been orchestrated. But what happened to most of them was nothing.

If the beginning of a successful society comes when the people worry about the right things in the right way, anyone who can read should know by now where to begin. How many reports have declared our cities increasingly uninhabitable, our schools starved for money, our family structure disintegrating, our countryside mutilated by signboards, custard stands, and those infamous suburbs? How many have told us that changes in the Communist world call for new initiatives in foreign policy? How many have said that the automobile is ruining our cities? How many have called for improved mass transit and monorails? How many?

Now Lyndon Johnson has the reports of fifteen more presidential task forces, the sum of their ideas constituting a Great Society as they see it, and, as it happens, as he sees it. (There is no evidence that any President was ever surprised at the findings of a task force. Whoever chooses the members of the force and assigns their task can anticipate what their report will say.) These new ones tell us once again in a stiff and official way what we ought to worry about and where we ought to apply our efforts and spend our money.

What will become of them? Are they to go where so many others went before them? That is, are they to be read hurriedly, clucked over, discarded, and eventually pulverized into shirt cardboards?

I think not, and not because of any optimism about the perfectibility of American life, and not because of any illusion that this country has lost its vast capacity to absorb and neutralize events and then to forget anything ever happened. In spite of these doubts and in spite of our failure to take the directions other task forces have given us, I do believe that a fair number of the ideas in Mr. Johnson’s new reports might actually come into reality.

They now lie in the eager hands of a President compulsively and restlessly driven to do something, who has just won a great national victory, who is our most skillful factory-trained political mechanic, and who really believes, as philosophers from Aeschylus to Sartre have not, that it is possible for the mass of mankind to be happy. His uncomplicated faith is that happiness is not, as Jefferson saw it, a state to be pursued and perhaps never caught, the joy mainly to be found in the pursuit, but rather a possession to be acquired and worn around like a pair of warm socks.

Perhaps a not much oversimplified view of Mr. Johnson’s presidential objective can be found in his ad-lib utterance during an October campaign speech in Ohio. Some Goldwater banners appeared in the crowd listening to him in the street; there were angry shouts and a little ruckus. The President looked out from under that creased and mournful brow of his and laid aside his speech text to say, “Now, don‘t pay any attention to all that. You folks come on and be happy.”

He sees the new task force reports not as abstract descriptions of the attractive but unattainable, but as reasonable and possible steps toward the mass happiness, steps gradually to be put through Congress and into action. Most of all he has the time, the means, and the mind to take them seriously, as none of his post-war predecessors did, and perhaps he will.

HARRY TRUMAN never needed task forces to tell him what he had to do, and he used few of them, since his must have been the most abrasively troubled years since Lincoln. While Roosevelt had both depression and war, it was always clear what had to be done: end the depression and win the war. But Truman had a Wagnerian nightmare of dangers new to the American experience, and so the most rancorous disagreements on how to deal with them. There was no time for leisurely and contemplative reports and studies. Truman’s problems were immediate, ugly, and already at the gates. He first had to find out what the atomic bomb was (Roosevelt had never told him) and then decide how to use it. The Russians were rolling toward the English Channel and were about to seize Greece and Turkey. Western Europe was bankrupt. The United Nations had to be created simply because it did not already exist. And while he fought one war in Korea he had to fight another at home against Senator McCarthy.

Truman’s responses were tough, instinctive, and fast, and when Dwight Eisenhower followed, he could soon look about him and see NATO, the Greek-Turkish aid program, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations looking as if it might even last, McCarthy stopped in the Senate, and the shooting stopped in Korea. Now, for the first time since Pearl Harbor, there was a little time to think about and deal with the post-postwar.

Mr. Eisenhower had learned his sums at the Army’s knee and so knew a little less than he might have about the civilian society, but he could see that there were accumulated national shortcomings from the years of depression and war. Even though he listened attentively to George Humphrey’s counsel of small budgets and small plans, the fact that some new work needed to be done was too obvious to be ignored.

Mr. Eisenhower’s response was to order up what he called task forces, both the phrase and the approach appropriately military. Each force was asked to assault a problem area as it might assault a beach, to do the most furious research, to interview all the experts and gravely set down what they said, to consult “the best minds,” as the President liked to call them, and eventually to produce a two-pound report on some problem area and, hopefully, the solution. Their response was to turn out a paper snowfall, accumulating in drifts so heavy they made our bookshelves sag.

Members of each force would stand in a semicircle behind the President’s desk, be photographed handing him his copy, and then return to their campuses, law offices, labor councils, and boardrooms. Jim Hagerty gave reporters their copies crisp from the government printing office and smelling of new ink. Extracts were printed and broadcast, there were editorials for a couple of days, and somehow that was about as far as most of the reports ever got.

It was indeed the post-postwar, and time for tending to works long neglected in the schools and on the farms and in the cities; but regrettably, all of them took money, and the budget was already in deficit, and on the subject of spending, George Humphrey was implacable. The government should do less, not more, while never forgetting the money.

The history of one of Eisenhower’s reports is instructive. It said that some Washington responsibilities should go back to the states to encourage local initiative and deflate the swollen federal bureaucracy and budget.

But the answer came back quickly. It was that the states would take over jobs from Washington only if the money came with them. Since the task forces were dispensing ideas only, not money, nothing happened. Task force reports unfailingly call for spending money, and in Mr. Eisenhower’s years we saw one after another steam grandly outward, only to strike Humphrey’s Rock, take water, and founder, leaving a small band of mourners and an oil slick.

While President Kennedy was receptive to new ideas, he never called up task forces in any way as systematically military as Mr. Eisenhower’s. Perhaps it was because among the campus intellectuals he brought to Washington, each thought he was his own task force, needing no outside experts to think up ideas because he had ideas. There were so many ideas; in fact, they poured out too fast and went to Congress too fast, before a public understanding and acceptance had been generated and before the private politicking and hand-holding and cajoling had been clone. (“He asked Congress to move out forward before the artillery and the air force had been brought up” — Senator McCarthy of Minnesota.) Mr. Johnson as Vice President watched with dismay while Congress was overwhelmed with Kennedy messages and programs to the point of choking confusion.

Mr. Kennedy was a good politician but not a great legislative mechanic, and the congressional response to him was slow and often nonexistent. They remembered him as a junior member who even as President still stood in awe of the congressional elders and vestrymen, with their encrusted seniority and habits of command, and they remembered that he had barely been elected at all.

There was another factor, not much spoken of, but a factor nevertheless. A high proportion of congressmen are country boys, and even some of those who are not like to say they are, and there was some mild dislike of Mr. Kennedy’s city ways. A country boy congressman from Tennessee told me in 1962, “All that Mozart string music and ballet dancing down there and all that fox hunting and London clothes. He’s too elegant for me. I can’t talk to him.”

He can talk to Lyndon Johnson. In the spring of 1964 the President was trying to settle the railroad dispute and called a meeting of railroad presidents in the White House. The president of the Illinois Central stood up in the back of the room and said, “Mister President, I’m just a contry boy . . . .” Whereupon Johnson jumped to his feet and in a broad and theatrical gesture placed both hands on his own left rear trouser pocket, gripping his wallet, and said. “Hold on, now. I’ve dealt with country boys before, and I’m holding on to my pocketbook. Now what was it you wanted to say?”

Despite the chilliness in Congress, Mr. Kennedy did leave his legislative monuments, most notably the nuclear-test-ban treaty. (“Charles de Gaulle will be remembered in history for one tiling only, his refusal to take that treaty” –John E. Kennedy, in an intimate conversation.) But none of his monuments originated in outside groups brought in to brainstorm around a government-issue table. Had he lived longer and had time to do more, no doubt he would have invited more outside contributions to planning the post-war good life, by now painfully overdue.

MR.JOHNSON in his first months got through Congress Mr. Kennedy’s legacy of civil rights bill and tax cut, helped along by the suggestion that these were Jack Kennedy’s monuments, hard to vote against in the year of his death. But another early maneuver entirely and typically his own was to get the foreign aid money through Congress intact for the first time in ten years, and the way he did it was an early clue to how he worked.

Representative Otto Passman of Louisiana has devoted his legislative career and such talents as he has mainly to cutting foreign aid, always accompanied by his own off-key tromboning about the money saved. He chaired the subcommittee voting the appropriation, and year alter year had his way, routinely cutting about 20 percent. (“The deal was to set the amount we needed and then pad it so Otto could cut it and be a hero and we still got the money,” said a foreign aid administrator.)

Somewhere, and early, Mr. Johnson felt it needful and wise to assert in a decisive but nonexplosive way that a new President was here, that he knew more about Congress than any man in it, and that these skills were going to be used. After some careful thought, foreign aid was chosen as the place to make the assertion.

Padding the appropriation request so that Passman could cut it was silly anyway, and everyone knew it. If the padding was cut out before it went to Congress and the full amount then was approved, there would actually be no money at stake – only a test of the power Passman wore with a noisy arrogance. As for antagonizing him and losing his future support. Passman was over in the right wing of the House, and his vote would seldom be had anyway; so there was nothing to lose there. In all, it seemed an ideal place to have a little test. The White House work of persuasion went forward, mainly in telephone talks with other members of Passman’s subcommittee, in tones so quiet that not even Passman knew anything until one day unsuspectingly he called for the routine subcommittee vote to cut the aid appropriation, only stunningly to find himself outvoted and his modest dukedom collapsed. He went raging out of the room in a burbling and screaming incoherence. One country boy had outslickered another; the money voted was just what would finally have been voted anyway; nobody was hurt but a member who was in opposition already; and the Washington power center had been moved a foot or two further from the Congress and closer to the White House, a movement not unnoticed even by congressmen not on Passman’s subcommittee, and that was the purpose in the whole maneuver.

So the ability to deal with Congress is there. No previous President came from the congressional leadership. Now the election mandate also is there, and so are the bigger Democratic majorities in Congress. There is the compulsive energy and drive to work (“He phoned me at 11:30 Christmas Eve to talk about the budget” – Senator Monroney of Oklahoma); and there is the defensiveness of the Southerner-Westerner from the teachers college who knows he follows an elegant court of Eastern intellectuals and who believes, therefore, that he needs to prove something, for himself and for the region he came from.

There is a President who is an activist, not a philosopher, and who knows it. Even when John Kennedy quoted Kant and Mill straight out of Bartlett, as he did, the style and authority were there. But Johnson has quoted in his own behalf no authorities more obscure than Jefferson and the Bible, and so he may not know of Abd-el-Raham’s tenth-century plaint that as King of Spain enjoying the love of his subjects and the respect of his enemies and having every luxury and pleasure await his call, in fifty years he counted his days of genuine happiness and found them to number fourteen. The President persists in believing that mass happiness truly is possible, that it is economic in origin, that if a society is prosperous and just, there is no reason why it should escape any man’s pursuit, no reason at all why the folks should not come on and be happy.

Given all that — our post-war presidential history, the circumstances surrounding Mr. Johnson now — and given his skills and shortcomings, energies and powers, what might we expect from his promise to lead us up the slopes to see a splendid vision of his Great Society?

IN CONVERSATIONS at the White House it is clear that one thing we can expect is to climb at the most deliberate speed. The President will try to hold the broad support he won in the election, believing that if he lost it, he would lose some of his own effectiveness along with it. One way he sees to hold most of it is to continue a public dedication to economy with suitable rightward bows toward balancing the budget, and so his earliest moves will be toward somehow building a society that is great but not too expensive.

His view simply is that hell-for-leather galloping up the slopes now would make good theater and delight the liberals, but would destroy the thrust and force of a mandate unique in our generation and too precious to be dissipated quickly. Critics calling for overdue action say a lot of his support was deceptive, that it was not pro-Democratic but merely anti-Goldwater, and that it will soon be dissipated anyway and so should be used boldly while it is still there. But the President believes that he can hold most of it by picking a careful way down the center, reasoning that the far left is too small to matter and has nowhere else to go, and although the right is larger, a center course can hold much of it, and the far right voted for Goldwater anyway.

Not only that; deliberateness suits his own preference and style. It will be recalled that Otto Passman never knew his throat had been cut until he tried to turn his head. Further, the President feels that a lot of what he wants to do in his tenure (he is already planning for two full terms) cannot be done in a hurry in any case.

Another reason for the deliberateness is that the Great Society is as yet more than a phrase but less than a finished package of legislation ready for ceremonious presentation to Congress, and it will not all be ready in the first session or even the second or third. But its general outlines and a few specifics are there now to be examined.

One of the President’s fondest hopes is to move a little of the way up the slopes by applying to the government‘s social and economic programs the same brisk, computerized efficiency forced on the Pentagon by Secretary McNamara, a man he extravagantly admires. Ideally, Mr. Johnson would like to grasp every office in the executive agencies and cram it through a computer to find out if it is doing anything useful or simply spending money, and unless it is useful, to abolish it out of hand.

He sees no reason why the new ideas and programs he wants need merely be heaped on top of all those now running, or why a new program cannot replace an old one, using the same money for new ideas, hopefully better.

But an old-line government agency is a hissing, clanking machine without an off switch. It has a comfortable sense of its own permanence, knowing it was here before the President arrived and will be here when he is gone, still doing precisely what it was doing before he came. If any one of its jobs is questioned, it will throw up a damp and blindingfog of statistics and papers proving that nothing can possibly be changed. Most of the lineup of agencies was set in the nineteenth century, has never changed, and without a major bulldozing, never will. If the bulldozer comes, they will react like irate citizens holed up in their houses, defying the sheriff come to condemn their land for a highway, waving shotguns out the windows, shouting hoarsely, and quoting the Constitution.

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all lamented bitterly in private and mutedly in public their inability to get any changes in the executive agencies. (“I thought I was President but I couldn‘t make them do a damned thing,” said Mr. Truman in 1955.) Orders for change and reform simply got lost somewhere down a line of file cabinets disappearing into a surrealistic horizon; nothing ever happened, and nobody could find out why.

A sample of what may be in store lies in one task force report saying that the Veterans Administration should be absorbed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare since the VA handles pensions and welfare for veterans, HEW does exactly the same jobs for others, and there is no sense in two separate and expensive agencies doing the same work. However logical that may be, you can hear the outcries from the veterans’ lobbies already.

Other reports call for assembling the scattered, disconnected, and even competing government programs dealing with education (they are in ten places now) under one roof and one control, and to do the same with transportation, economic development, and natural resources. It is impossible to count the agencies and programs working in these areas now, but one educated guess in the White House was “damn near a hundred.”

Changing the agency establishment is made even more difficult by the steely rigidity of the civil service rules, the private interests accustomed to regular government checks and opposing any change, and the powerful congressmen determined to keep their own pet programs intact and their patronage appointees on the payroll. To ponder these buried rocks is to boggle at the massive bulldozing to be attempted and to doubt that it can succeed. But a White House staff member says, “He may be a very bloody President, but he’s going to do it.”

Aside from the money, Mr. Johnson wants to give the agencies a bone-rattling shake-up, to force in some fresh air and modern techniques, and to push them into moving ahead of the onrushing American society rather than hanging leadenly behind, shuffling papers. A government agency should itself innovate and invent, not just mail the forms to be filled out by those who do.

WTH a broad consensus supporting him and the agencies contributing thrust and momentum rather than delay, the President would like somehow to find a few years of quiet in world affairs and devote himself to our disarray at home.

It is notable that in twenty years we have applied far more thought, expertise, and imagination to foreign affairs than to our own. Such post-war inventions as NATO, the UN, the Marshall Plan, and the Peace Corps have not been matched by comparable innovation in this country. And so our post-war society, unlike Europe‘s, differs from the pre-war mainly in size. Prosperity is greater, and unemployment is smaller, but there are more slums and crime and welfare clients, more polluted air and dirty water, more urban crowding and inconvenience, more children leaving school in helpless ignorance, and across the landscape more waste and ugliness. We have helped other countries deal with their post-war problems more successfully than we have dealt with our own.

Foreign policy never has been Mr. Johnson’s first interest, and a member of his staff says, “He knows he’s got to prove himself in that area because they don’t know anything about him and most of what they do know is wrong.” It can be expected that his proving himself will be careful and deliberate, and innovations few, the objectives mainly unguent in nature and always pursued in the conviction that reason can be as sweet in foreign capitals as in the congressional dukedoms of our own. Indeed, the smoke signals sent up in the weeks after the election were done in soothing pastels, and their message was that we wanted to reason, not dictate. As an abstract principle surely there is nothing in that to argue about. But in foreign power centers, as in our own, one bent on good works is likely to encounter all the enduring sins of pride, avarice, sloth, envy, anger, gluttony, and lust – sins the reasoning of centuries has occasionally abated but never abolished.

Just how Mr. Johnson might now get an abatement sufficient to free him to do our homework nobody knows. He does not know himself. But we do know he covets the chance to attend to our own problems in employment, education, and environment and to see if he can induce us to be happy by using the opportunity and the methods now uniquely his.

Any man, President or not, turns in hour of need to the methods he uses with most facility. We have had political leaders with forensic gifts who felt that when they made a speech describing a problem and suggesting a solution they had finished their work, and that their listeners should be so captivated by their eloquence as to fall eagerly to work on the grubby details. Mr. Johnson in private, informal discourse is articulate and effective, but in public speeches his eloquence is not overwhelming.

Knowing that, he has no hope of winning his way with eloquence. Instead, he will rely on the methods he has used with greatest facility while he has held power in Washington, in his yeais as Senate Majority Leader and his months as President — the application of power heavily disguised as persuasion, and applied only when the outriders have reported in that the time is right. Sometimes, when this power-persuasion fails, there is power alone. (The President first talked with Otto Passman and tried to persuade him. When that failed, the next move was as described.) These methods are most unspectacular, and they are slow, but they have often proved effective, and it is reasonable to believe that they will again, and that the results will appear, not in flashes of flame and headlines, but that one day they will just be there.

The federal establishment might be visualized as a money-handling machine, a few of its motors and gears devoted to bringing it in, even fewer devoted to counting it and storing it, and all the rest either spending it themselves or deciding where and how much is to be spent by the others. This last section of the machine is almost totally operated by congressmen, and it is the stage where hammerings, wrenchings, and occasional squirts of oil can most effectively speed, slow, move, and change the policies of the government. And it is precisely the part of the machine where Johnson as a politician spent his formative years and learned mechanical skills unmatched in Washington, and where it can be expected he will most often be found at work.

He thinks a time of relative quiet in foreign affairs could release a little money from defense for other uses. Abolishing some no doubt hallowed but useless domestic programs would release more, and a continued prosperity would bring in the rest. This obviously is a delicate balancing of the probabilities, but every President has to do that, to make opportunities where he can and play the odds where he cannot. Mr. Johnson’s chances to have them fall his way seem to be at least as good as any President has had lately.

Again, not all the details of his great and happy society are filled in yet and will not be for three or four years. But if with some luck he can get the free time and some money to spend, his foremost, if not the first, intention is to improve our schools. A man conscious of his own lack of academic honors may put excessive faith in the curative powers of more education, but he is convinced it is the best way eventually to eliminate unemployment, race friction, crime, and creeping ugliness. If anyone doubts that and has a better idea, he has not come forward with it.

It is time, high time, to take education seriously — an attitude defined by Dr. James B. Conant as being concerned about the education of children other than our own.

Mr. Johnson certainly will call for general federal aid to the schools, but how is the argument over money for parochial schools to be met? One early idea passed around but not settled on was to avoid fighting that one in Congress again. It was fought out there once before, and the only results were bitterness and religious rancor and no money for anybody’s schools, public or private. Instead, it might go to Congress next time with no mention of what schools may benefit, but saying the money goes to the states under some formula, based on population and need, allowing the states to give it to any schools they choose. The Supreme Court would settle the religious disputes later, as ultimately it must in any case. It is a way of passing a decision that probably cannot be made in Congress over to the judiciary, where it can be made. And however the courts may rule, the aid program would then be on the books and that issue would be settled as far as it can be settled with money.

There will remain the fact that in the depth and quality of public education the states are sovereign and the federal government cannot take over, and that we have not one educational system and philosophy but fifty, and the more backward ones cannot be brought upward to meet the national need simply by sending them money. The only answer anyone has for that is first to send the money and then to send encouragement, example, and proof of the urgent necessity for concern about the education of children other than our own.

Other visions of the Great Society are a vast urban and rural beautification (the President even wants landscaping of the new interstate highway system) and turning the cities back into brightly habitable centers of commerce and art and society and hiding the junkyards and extinguishing some of the neon hideousness.

Planning in these fields is too far from maturity for any useful discussion, and it may sound more like the work of fifty or a hundred years than four or eight; in fact, the task forces were asked to push their thinking forward to the year 2000, which somehow sounds farther away than just thirty-five years. But it can be said with certainty that the President wants to do, or at least start doing, all this, as his post-war predecessors would not or could not. He is not only willing but compulsively driven to do the tedious and gritty work of persuading and organizing, using his own methods often proved effective, even if lacking the flashiness and speed alien to his style.

Whether he knows it or not, his is a Cyrenaic philosophy: in the three possible conditions of life — violent change, gentle change, and stability — the first is accompanied by pain, the second by happiness, and the third by neither.

Given his methods and his outlook and given this point in our history, there is reason to hope that all this is more than just another lovely dream to be forgotten when it is time to get up and shave.