No, Barack Obama Should Not Be More Like LBJ

Pundits longingly cite the 36th president's persuasive power. But his intimidation of the press shows the darker side of that arm-twisting.

President Lyndon Johnson gives Senator Richard Russell "the Treatment." (Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives)

The lament has become all too familiar: Barack Obama should be more like Lyndon Johnson, arm-twisting and cajoling his way to legislative success through the sheer force of his personality.

But there is at least one way in which we should be grateful that the current occupant of the Oval Office is nothing like his predecessor: Johnson used the machinery of government to threaten and co-opt news organizations into doing his bidding, a brazen exercise in misconduct that these days could well be deemed an impeachable offense.

Yes, Obama has allowed his Justice Department to hound news organizations by obtaining their phone records and, in the case of Fox News, calling reporter James Rosen a potential criminal. And it is equally true that the IRS has abused its authority by selectively scrutinizing conservative groups. But there is no evidence that the president knew about this harassment, let alone ordered it.

By contrast, Johnson's shakedown of a media company that employed a pesky reporter who was investigating him makes today's scandals look like child's play. In late 1963, as recounted by Robert Caro in The Passage of Power, Dallas Times-Herald reporter Margaret Mayer was digging into the business practices of Johnson's Texas television station. After she sent the company a letter with routine questions, Johnson called the paper's managing editor, Albert Jackson, who supinely responded that Mayer shouldn't be doing such reporting and added, "I can assure you that it'll be stopped."

But LBJ didn't stop there. He threatened to sic the Federal Communications Commission on the television and radio stations the Times-Herald owned.

"Tell them ... that you don't want to be picking a fight with somebody like this," Johnson said in a secretly taped conversation. "We might want to ask [for] some of you-all's records up there. I imagine I could get that done."

The independent agency has the power to yank television licenses, and Johnson said he could ask the stations' president "how much commercial he is" -- a reference to the FCC requirement that stations carry a certain amount of non-commercial, public service fare. He said Jackson should tell whoever was running the station, "Listen, this guy [Johnson] might ask for some of yours, or some of our, records." But don't tell the reporter, Johnson cautioned, because "a president oughtn't be calling about chickenshit stuff like this."

Precisely. But Jackson agreed, and the reporter's probe abruptly ended.

In his masterful biography, Caro describes an even more flagrant abuse of presidential power during the same period. Johnson was so determined to obtain the editorial backing of the Houston Chronicle -- this in an era when newspapers really mattered -- that he threatened the paper's president, John Jones Jr. Jones was also president of Houston's National Bank of Commerce, which was attempting to merge with another Houston bank, a move the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve both opposed. Only a presidential go-ahead could save the merger.

Johnson told an intermediary that he wanted a letter from Jones vowing that the Chronicle would "support your administration as long as you're there." Otherwise, Johnson told another intermediary, his confidant Jack Valenti, "I ain't going to do it" -- approve the lucrative merger.

When Jones, after a visit to the LBJ Ranch, sent word that he was reluctant to put the quid pro quo in writing, Johnson told the Houston tycoon acting as an intermediary: "They don't have to be mentioning the goddamned bank .... It ain't going to hurt me to have it in writing [from] any goddamned editor in the United States [to] say they're going to support me."

Jones coughed up the letter -- "While you have your capable hands on the reins of this administration, the Chronicle will do everything it properly can to help keep the Democratic Party in office" -- and LBJ personally approved the bank merger. It was a blatant and potentially illegal case of trading a government action for political support.

For all of Johnson's domestic achievements, this sort of blackmail, unreported at the time, was a harbinger of what was to unfold in the next administration. While Watergate -- which included Richard Nixon using the FCC against the Washington Post Co. -- erupted on a far grander scale, it gives Johnson too much of a pass to say he simply reflected his era.

The former Senate majority leader is better remembered for his ability to work his will on Congress. Obama has proven remarkably powerless to get Congress to do much of anything since Republicans captured the House, or even to court the press in a way that was second nature to the 36th president.

But while Obama has failed to live up to his own promises about transparency in government, he has at least avoided the sort of heavy-handed retaliation that marked the start of Johnson's presidency.