What Hillary Can Learn From LBJ

Can the presumptive Democratic nominee channel the 36th president? And should she want to?

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.

As president, Clinton would almost certainly be matched with a far more polarized Congress than Johnson, but her strong relationships with senior senators in both parties might help her find deals that have eluded Obama. Since the ’90s, Clinton has proved adept at focusing on what’s possible in politics and putting aside what isn’t. But she too has struggled to sense coming shifts in public mood and has paid a political price.

2. Paranoia often springs from legitimate reasons for fear. As Johnson’s presidency began to falter in the summer of 1965, journalists complained about his paranoia and his obsession with secrecy. What they rarely noted was that Johnson had good reasons to be secretive and paranoid: former aides and family members of JFK whispering all sorts of nasty things about him, an Eastern press corps that found his Texas customs disdainfully vulgar. Clinton, too, has legitimate historical grievances with an organized opposition and a press corps that has not always treated her fairly.

But giving into the paranoia and conspiracy hunting only hurt Johnson, leaving him isolated and under siege from the press. In response to past attacks, Clinton has turned to conspiracy-minded loyalists and tried to exert maximum control over her public image. She might do better to follow a rule that Johnson could never grasp: Confident politicians gain power when they give up control.

3. Beware the “toughness” trap. Today, we draw a sharp line between the domestic Johnson presidency, with its shimmering Great Society accomplishments, and the Johnson foreign policy, which produced the war in Vietnam. But in the actual Johnson presidency, no such line existed. His key decisions to fully Americanize the Vietnam conflict coincided with his push for the Great Society in 1965. This was no accident: As a Cold War politician, Johnson believed that a Democratic president who pursued progressive policies at home had no choice but to display maximum toughness in foreign fights.

The Cold War is over, but Clinton is still using the same playbook. Her vote to support the Iraq war in 2003 did not happen in a vacuum—it was part of a multiyear effort to toughen up her liberal image from the 1990s. Clinton now says she’s learned from her mistakes in Iraq, but history speaks to the enduring allure of the cult of toughness in Democratic politics. Johnson had seen how it create disastrous problems for Harry Truman in Korea and for Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, but he nonetheless felt he had no choice but to escalate in Vietnam.

A run for the presidency will no doubt offer more lessons from Johnson, not all of them for the good. 2016, after all, will mark the 50th anniversary not of Johnson’s golden accomplishments but of the tortured year 1966, the year his presidency was overtaken by exploding violence in U.S. cities and Vietnam, the year his progressive coalition collapsed. As she ponders a campaign, Johnson’s most important lesson for Clinton may also be the most obvious: In politics, reality always changes much faster than you think.