║ Johnson Assignment Page
║ Modern Presidency - Johnson Links
║ Speeches of Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson and the Legislative Presidency
Russell D. Renka
UI320--The Modern Presidency
March 10, 2003
░ Cooperation between Distant Institutions
░ The Johnson Viewpoint: Skill, Approval, Mandates, Attention, Rhetoric and Agendas
░ Political Skill
░ Presidential Approval
░ Presidential Elections and Party Government
░ Attention to Detail
░ Rhetoric for Special Occasions
░ The Agenda
LBJ knew his presidential mission from its sudden November 1963 start: make history by exceeding Franklin Roosevelt and finishing the passage of the New Deal. He was the fourth to follow Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the first to have an authentic opportunity to duplicate the legislative mastery of his predecessor and former father figure. The Great Society, announced in May 1964 at commencement of the University of Michigan, was Johnson's monument to himself, his primary claim to presidential greatness, and his basis for claiming to have outdone even FDR (Ann Arbor speech). Ever since, Johnson has been held up as the exemplary president as legislative leader. The result is that certain harm is done to accurate insight to how the modern legislative presidency actually works. This essay corrects that by placing Johnson's legislative record into a contemporary framework. I show that legislative skill is only one component in the mix of several key elements that underwrite legislative success for modern presidents. I borrow from Johnson himself the insights to what makes a president successful in dealing with Congress, but recognize that the master often deceived his students on how legislative cooking was done.
Johnson had an ideal political background for a legislative president. He had served in the Congress continually since 1937, first from a Texas Hill Country district until 1948, then two full Senate terms including a renowned stint as the youngest Senate Majority Leader during the 1950s (Caro 2002). The mysterious Johnson accession to the Vice Presidency in 1961 gave him little practice for legislating from the executive branch, for both President Kennedy and his brother Bobby (the Attorney General) saw to his exclusion from true large-scale legislative influence (Shesol 1997, 98-107). However, he had ample time for sharp and bitter observations on Kennedy relations with the barons of Capitol Hill. He saw and absorbed lessons from the many problems suffered by Kennedy legislators as year 1963 wore on. He thought, he knew, he could do better than they.
Cooperation between Distant Institutions Next Down; Top
LBJ differed from Kennedy in that he was a domestic policy president first,
last, and foremost. Legislative politics for any such president is
based on exercising power through persuasion of the Congress. Presidents possess a
plentiful array of direct actions or "powers without persuasion" including
executive orders, presidential proclamations, national security directives, and
executive agreements (Mayer 2001; Howell 2003). Many of these are
circumventions of the Congress--especially on national security.
Others are negotiating tools in Congress such as the
presidential veto (Cameron
2000). But one like LBJ who would become the greatest creator of domestic
policy must get bills in and passed through the two houses of Congress. In general, domestic policy is less amenable
than foreign policy to circumvention of
Congress. Laws must be passed and monies allotted. Such a president must persuade the Congress to act. LBJ devoted himself and his Administration singularly to that task.
The elementary problem in leading Congress is that the U.S. Constitution did not create a parliamentary system. Presidents are instead selected through the Electoral College (directly) by winning state popular vote pluralities (indirectly). Members of the House are elected coincidentally with the President half the time--in presidential election years. The other half they stand for election without the President, in presidential midterms. Senators stand with the President only one-sixth of the time except for instances of interim senatorial elections. This is the root of a certain historical presidential distance from the Congress. A major problem for modern presidents has been to circumvent that limitation.
The primary means of linking the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House to Capitol Hill, is political party. A shared party label in the American two-party system means vastly better cooperation of president and Congress--even though these parties have often been patchwork coalitions with disparate elements such as northern liberals and southern segregationists under one roof. Parliamentary governance is invariably based upon control of a parliamentary majority, but the American system is not. Presidents serve during unified governments and divided ones (opposed party controls Congress). The historical link to unified government is voters' tendency to vote a straight partisan ticket, but since 1933 voters often have used different criteria to select presidents and Hill representation. Midterm elections may shift the status quo from unity to division via seat loss for the president's party, as with Truman in 1946, Eisenhower in 1954, and Clinton in 1994 (Renka, Presidents and Congresses). Political life for presidents is far easier when the same party controls both ends of the avenue.
There are also institutional necessities linking the two institutions. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 was created by Congress after chaotic budgeting during World War I. A resultant Bureau of the Budget (BOB) had its Director appointed by the President and acting as a presidential agent, in presenting the national government's budget to Congress every fiscal year. The start of the institutional presidency is typically dated from 1921 (Ragsdale and Theis 1997, 1285). The Budget Director at first was primarily an agent for "bottom line" budget-balancing considerations, but after 1933 with Roosevelt the Budget Director Harold Smith took on a powerful institutional reviewer status respecting the president's program proposals with Congress. Central clearance procedures to review budgets, proposed legislation, executive orders and enrolled bills (bills passed by Congress and awaiting presidential signature or veto) were established with BOB by or before 1939 (Neustadt 1969, 604-5; Ragsdale and Theis 1997, 1285). Congress and executive alike came to depend upon orderly processing of bills through this institutional arrangement.
Every President since Roosevelt in 1933 has depended routinely on congressional approvals for a wide variety of presidential actions. Roosevelt in the first Hundred Days quickly submitted emergency relief measures to Congress. He later sought to overhaul the banking system, create unemployment compensation and social security, establish an agency to directly employ four million Americans, alter the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court, create a new Executive Office of the President, approve a peacetime military draft, hastily begin a military preparedness program, and authorize and appropriate monies for the many wartime agencies of the 1940s. Truman relied on the Republican-controlled 80th Congress to authorize $400 million foreign assistance to Greece and Turkey via the Truman Doctrine program. Eisenhower's few major domestic initiatives, including the St. Lawrence Seaway Treaty of 1955 and the start of the interstate highway program in 1956, nearly all required congressional concurrence and action. Most of these actions are authorizations, creating legal authority for a program and setting a ceiling on its funding. There is also annual funding via appropriations. Thirteen distinct budget appropriations were enacted by Congress each year. All modern presidents and Congresses--even the current ones--are obliged to a certain minimum of cooperation.
The institutional linkages and routine cooperation of president and Congress, however, is far short of the common or scholarly meaning inherent in calling the President a true leader of Congress. Very few nineteenth century presidents were active in Congress, and none assumed the modern title of Chief Legislator. That role is reserved for the presidentially directed outbursts of innovative legislation first shown in the early 20th century administrations of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). Leadership meant using the rhetorical bully pulpit as the first Roosevelt and then Wilson did, actively promoting an agenda for Congress to pass and justifying this enterprise by reference to public wishes expressly through the president as the public tribune, the single nationally elected office holder. It meant having an expansive agenda of proposals and actively lobbying Congress to accept them. With Franklin Roosevelt's startling success at leading Congress during the Hundred Days in 1933, it first became part of the standard expectations attached to the presidency. Modern Presidents to this day are expected to be Chief Legislators.
The Johnson Viewpoint: Skill, Approval, Mandates, Attention, Rhetoric and Agendas Next Down; Top
For Lyndon Johnson, the question was how to truly lead the Congress. In accord with his personality and personal history as a legislator, he wanted to dominate Congress, to surpass Roosevelt as author of an unprecedented host of legislative measures with the Johnson stamp firmly fixed upon them. He had the background, being a legislator from 1937 through 1960, and the skills, being Senate Majority Leader from 1955 through 1960 with an extraordinary portfolio to show for it (Caro 2002). Legislation was the sole basis of his claim to be the greatest of presidents. Behind the bravado was a calculating, intense, intelligent student of the legislative presidency. His personal ego was unlimited; he saw all facets of political life through his effect on them and their effects directly upon him. He devoted his whole being to bending others to his will for sake of this legacy. What did Johnson himself think were the keys to success as a legislative president?
Political Skill Next Down; Top
Johnson spent his adult lifetime as a consummate legislative politician. Still in his 20s, he journeyed in 1931 to Washington D.C. as staff aide to Democratic Congressman Richard Kleberg. Once there he immediately plunged into the politics of House staffers while learning the ropes for Members by handling the Congressman's correspondence from the home district. He then left that office to become the starring director of the Texas portion of Roosevelt's National Youth Administration; in that capacity he won direct attention from Roosevelt himself as an up-and-coming New Dealer. In 1937 he won his own seat in the U.S. House of Representatives 10th Congressional District, from Austin and surroundings, still as an ardent New Dealer attached closely to the politics of creating public power and flood control in the Texas Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised (Caro 1982). Eleven active but frustrating years in the House led inevitably to two tries at the U.S. Senate, the second of which narrowly succeeded in 1948 in a deeply disputed cliffhanger Democratic Party primary (Lyndon B. Johnson - 1948 contested election; Baum and Hailey 1994). Senator Johnson took only four years to become the Senate Democrats' appointed leader, and with majority status from the 1954 midterm election he became so memorably dominating as Majority Leader that the current-day Senate website on him is labeled "Master of the Senate" (U.S. Senate Leaders - Lyndon B. Johnson; Caro 2002). This master used a splendorous seven-room Senate office nicknamed the Taj Mahal to study people and the levers of power over them with consuming skill and passion (U.S. Senate - The Senate's Taj Mahal). He cared for little else. He possessed no interests or hobbies outside politics, worked obsessively and sometimes recklessly as if sleep were an annoying necessity, and thought nothing of driving aides to exhaustion as he occasionally did himself. He achieved a major dream, to lead one branch of Congress. But like his first political hero, Franklin Roosevelt, he sought most of all to be President and lead them both.
Johnson differed from other presidents in his preoccupation with Congress above other duties of the office. Johnson claimed that Congress was like a hyperactive and unruly child who somehow failed to get anything actually done unless supervised constantly. Thus he told biographer Doris Kearns: "There is only one way for a President to deal with Congress, and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption." (Kearns 1976, 226) This we can accept on its face. Johnson meant that sincerely.
Johnson's professed secret to passing bills was in timing: one must have a sequence of measures lined up as ducks on a row, but must also know exactly when one measure might be put through while another cannot yet make it. It was also based on secrecy, or more specifically, knowing far more than any other participant. His secret was to know more about Members of Congress than they knew about each other. In the contest for influence over votes, constant attention and systematic study made for political advantages in the hands of a political master. In the barter market for votes, elaborate bargains were necessary to accumulate the votes that were otherwise not there to pass a bill. One bill of unpalatable nature could be made edible if tied closely enough to another that Members devoutly sought--and if Lyndon Johnson knew more about location of the votes than did any opponent. William Riker (1986) called this political heresthetics, the art of political manipulation (definition of heresthetics; Heresthetics - Rhetorica review of Riker). Lyndon Johnson won fame as a Senate Majority Leader during 1955 to 1961 for employing exactly these methods (Evans and Novak 1966, Dallek 1991, Caro 2002). He changed very little from that as President.
One can take the measure of that from a special witness. Hubert Humphrey took a Senate seat in 1949, the same year as Johnson. In 1964 he was the majority party's Senate manager of the landmark civil rights bill. His chief task was to shepherd this to passage in strong form without simultaneously alienating the wily and skilled Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Il.). Humphrey's own recollections showed that President Johnson wanted him to manage the bill and to lead the daily negotiations with Dirksen, to which Johnson himself was a fulltime party (Hubert H. Humphrey Oral Histories LBJ Library, Interview III, humphr03, pp. 6-9; Everett McKinley Dirksen Oral Histories LBJ Library, Interview III, dirksen3, pp. 4-5).
The core of this message is about personal skill. Leaders must be persons of a certain political brilliance and a one-track obsession with achieving success, together with the requisite institutional experience to understand how to operate. But Johnson also insisted upon a realistic understanding of how political resources could elevate or lower a President's chances to lead Congress. As Vice President during the three years of the Kennedy term, Johnson personally withdrew from even routine efforts to persuade Texas Congressmen to vote for a Kennedy program on the Hill; and the Kennedy Administration curtailed his powers by never permitting him control of New Frontier domestic policy submissions (Dallek 1998, 10). Johnson became a sullen bystander, citing the nearly vacant powers inherent in the Vice Presidency. Personal qualities could not rescue that office. Only Presidents could truly lead.
Presidential Approval Next Down; Top
So Johnson identified the non-personal assets of the presidency that enabled a president to lead. One was popular approval from the citizenry. First offered in the 1930s, this measure asks a broad-gauged question: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way _______ is handling his job as president?" The Roper Center's Presidential Job Performance profiles this for each modern president. It informs political elites between elections where a president stands in public eyes. It makes intuitive sense that a popular president might sway Members whom an unpopular one cannot move--so long as that popularity holds in the Senator's or Representative's own state and district.
Lyndon Johnson enjoyed very high approval throughout 1964 and most of 1965 (Roper Center, Presidential Job Performance - Johnson). This was before Vietnam and Watts in the fateful summer of 1965, before the full scale of civic upheaval and civil disorder of the 1960s visited the nation. And this was the heyday of producing the Great Society.
Part of converting approval into laws is the framing of an issue. Lyndon Johnson firmly believed that high approval helped produce legislation from Congress. The political science literature has since found mostly modest support for that view in many statistical models (literature review in Gronke and Newman 2000 at apsa2000-gronkeandnewman). One strain of work says the effects are limited, always marginal, and conditioned by the extent of partisanship (Bond, Fleisher, and Wood 2002). Yet partisanship was not particularly high in 1965 and 1966, much lower in fact than the customary deep partisan division of the 1990s and today (Poole, The 89th (1965-66) Congress from The Ideological Structure of Congressional Voting). Presidential approval's effect depends upon both issue complexity, and the issue's salience with the public. That is, approval only helps a president capitalize on an issue if the public becomes attentive to it, where its natural complexity otherwise precludes that. This is framing an issue; a popular president can promote a digestible view of otherwise arcane issues (Canes-Wrone and de Marchi 2002).
But Johnson cared little about this on most questions. Instead, he believed that most issues were hammered out on the Hill in the old-fashioned manner of internal negotiations, not by "going public" to sell something to the people. However, certain issues were special cases. That one was civil rights, where Johnson recognized the necessity of an all-out national moral crusade--and demonstrated as much with the stirring 15 March 1965 speech to Congress and the nation on the moral necessity of enacting the Voting Rights Act (LBJ and Voting Rights - "We Shall Overcome"). But to Johnson civil rights was a special wild card, anything but a normal issue.
Johnson also believed that presidential approval was fleeting. One had to act fast to use it before it vanished. It was to be spent on legislative achievements, which required election victories for his party in Congress. Therefore approval could not last in any event, because new disputes quickly replaced the temporary glow of recent victory. The irony is that fast-paced legislative efforts (and achievements) would likely promote that very onset of controversy. After all, had Franklin Roosevelt lacked intense legislative ambitions to further the New Deal in 1937, he would have lacked serious reason to invite controversy over packing the Supreme Court. Johnson personally saw and always lamented FDR's rash attempt to sell court packing to the Congress. Yet he also saw approval as an asset to be spent freely rather than hoarded.
The contrast of Johnson to Eisenhower is striking. The General received considerable criticism in the 1960s for husbanding his great popularity while not expending it upon successful promotion of a strong legislative program (or against McCarthy, either). Johnson, a Democrat not sympathetic to the limited domestic political goals of Eisenhower, would constantly fish out the latest evidence of his high approval ratings in his 1964 and 1965 salad years. That was not for personal satisfaction alone, but rather was instrumental, as reminder that he wanted legislation passed, and passed right away. Ego and strategy were inseparable in that campaign.
Presidential Elections and Party Government Next Down; Top
Beyond approval, Johnson saw the president's election itself as part of the toolkit, so long as a certain ambition and rhetorical inclination accompanied it. Johnson believed that election as President created temporary political capital that must be employed to produce favorable legislation. Again, it makes intuitive sense that a freshly elected president possesses a special status. For one thing, the so-called honeymoon period (the first few months of a new presidency) is marked by a suspension of normally hostile press coverage, and a certain wait-and-see perspective expressed in minimal negative public approval ratings (Ragsdale 1998, Chapter 5; Edwards with Gallup 1990). Time itself was the inherent enemy of this asset, as the newness wears off and routines become established. Therefore, presidential ambition should be expressed through a concentrated program of legislative proposals pushed hard at Congress from the very outset of the new Administration (Light 1991). New presidents "hit the ground running" to urge Congress to comply with presidential wishes when it is most inclined to do so (Pfiffner 1988).
Johnson assumed that electoral success was mediated by party-line voting by the public. The reason is that a successful presidential election always helped co-partisans running for congressional offices. The term "coattail effect" refers to beneficial or harmful impact of a party's leading candidate, the presidential nominee, on others sharing the party label down the ticket. In the early 1960s the near-universal experience was that election landslides brought in both presidents and congresses dominated by the same party. Twentieth century presidential election landslides of 1920, 1932, and 1936 had all brought forth large party majorities to Congress. Only the peculiarly "above party" Eisenhower victories of 1952 and 1956 had failed to bring forth easy victories for co-partisans in Congress. Otherwise, divided government (one party controlling the White House, the other the Congress) was confined to brief midterm elections and two-year periods signifying that the president was outbound. To Johnson, the coattail beneficiaries were grateful, but not for very long.
The very best of times for Johnson's legislative co-partisans was November 1964. The repudiation of Republican conservative Barry Goldwater was accompanied by a heavy vote swing away from Republicans everywhere in congressional contests. We can see this with the American National Election Studies indices, which are continuously available from the 1952 presidential election. Its Average Feelings Toward Presidential Candidates index of 1964 showed a high 1.0 rating for Johnson (compared to .4 for Kennedy in 1960) but a dismal -.7 for Goldwater (an extreme drop from Nixon's .9 in 1960). No other candidate since 1952 has registered so low as Goldwater on that scale. The same sample divided 68% to 32% in favor of intent to vote for Johnson--not that far above the true national popular vote division of 61.05% percent for Johnson and only 38.47% percent for Goldwater (Leip, 1964 Presidential Election Results).
The Democratic Party reached its zenith in postwar advantage in public party identification; the ANES Party Identification 7-Point Scale shows that 61 percent identified themselves as Democrats to only 31 percent as Republicans. Thus the sample's congressional vote swung violently toward Democrats. The ANES Congressional Vote 2 Major Parties shows 65 percent for Democrats, easily a postwar high for any election. The voting public almost matched that, giving House Democrats across the nation 56.9 percent of the popular vote. That remains the highest of any postwar election (Ornstein, Mann and Malbin 2000, T. 2-2, 50-51). The Democrats had a net gain of 38 seats, giving them a postwar high of 295 seats to only 140 for Republicans, while Senate seats rose to a postwar high of 68 for the Democrats (Presidents and Congresses). These gains were ideologically liberal, loyalist Democrats outside the South, which inched toward Republican support with a six-seat GOP gain in House seats. The effect of this gain is visibly evident in Keith Poole's website display of the ideological division of House and Senate. The red-colored Democrats are "D" for the northern variant, and "S" for the southern. The internal ideological diversity from the 1940s through 1960s is quite evident, with Ds clustered to the left while the S variant clustered rightward, often further so than the blue-colored Republican "R" members (NOMINATE VoteView's Data Download Front Page - bottom of page; other sites per VoteView Program Links; also Poole and Rosenthal 1997). Excluding the Old Confederacy's 11 southern states, the 39-state remainder saw the Great Society Democrats gain dramatic numerical advantages of liberalism over conservatism.
Johnson's prescription for good fortune like the 89th Congress was deceptively simple: full speed ahead, and go straight over any legislative obstacles. He prescribed that the Administration move the largest possible mainstream liberal agenda it could, and with haste (see Lawrence F. O'Brien Oral Histories LBJ Library, especially Interview XI, OBRIEN11, on the push for legislation in 1965). This has been described as reckless behavior derived from the personal Johnson compulsion to bully and dominate. No doubt he possessed those qualities, but that is not why he demanded full-bore agenda promotion. He considered landslide elections as rare and temporary breaches in the American system of separated institutions. Strategically, the opportunity must be exploited immediately and for as long as the window of opportunity remained open. Johnson thought that window was soon shut no matter what he did. And in the 1966 midterm, it did so. Republicans staged a dramatic resurgence with a net gain of 47 seats, 23 of which were taken back from freshman Democrats who were coat-tailed into office from normally Republican districts that promptly reverted to form after Goldwater and 1964 were past. That spelled an end for the Great Society's legislative phase, just as 1938 midterm reversals had put the coda to Franklin Roosevelt's legislative New Deal.
Johnson had another reason for doubting the go-slow approach. He thought civil rights law would probably end the Democratic majorities that dated back to the New Deal. In partisan terms, that proved wrong for the Democratic majority in Congress, but correct for Republican control of the presidency. The Presidents and Congresses file shows that, for the first time in America's history as a two-party system, after 1968 it became routine for the public to vote in a president of one party and a Congressional majority of another. Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush shared a Republican dominance of the White House in a post-Johnson span of 24 years, yet only Reagan ever had a majority of co-partisans lined up in Congress. And even that was in the Senate only. Divided government resumed in 1994, after Clinton's 1992 election produced a scant two years of unified governance. It continued to 2001, as Republicans endured vetoes from a Democratic president while President Clinton endured the near-absence of any prospects for exercising legislative leadership.
Attention to Detail Next Down; Top
Johnson also insisted that no asset was convertible into legislation unless the President paid very close attention to legislative affairs. This is a fundamental problem, for no modern legislative president--including Johnson--can possibly marshal the personal time and attention to follow dozens of concurrently handled measures under treatment by 535 Members of Congress. Even an Eisenhower with a relatively modest agenda before Congress could not attend every detail. Thus questions are raised about the meaning of Johnson telling Kearns that "There is only one way for a President to deal with Congress, and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption." (Kearns 1976, 226) A President cannot be the Majority Leader or the Speaker, let alone both. And even one who would try must find it impossible as competing issues of war and crisis amidst Cold War years take hold.
The solution for Johnson, and Kennedy before him, came via recent institutional developments in the White House. Since its creation in 1939, the White House Office had advanced in fits and starts toward mature institutional form with White House officers taking on well-defined specialties (Ragsdale and Theis 1997). This institutional path included the adoption of White House based political specialties in replacement of jobs once largely done through the national party committee of that president's party. For instance, the White House Personnel Office became well-established as a placement office for political appointments in the period spanning Truman in 1948 to Johnson in 1964 (Weko 1995). The movement toward an increasingly complex and large White House accelerated in the 1960s. One component originated with Eisenhower in the 1953 creation of an Office of Congressional Relations (later and currently called the Office of Legislative Affairs). Kennedy inherited that office and turned its operations over to Lawrence O'Brien, a close Kennedy aide who was instrumental in fashioning the successful 1960 nomination and election organizations. O'Brien in turn hired a small staff of politically experienced men with party politics in their backgrounds to make the OCR into an information gathering and a congressional lobbying organization. For manpower he set up arrangements to bring in the numerous legislative affairs officers of Cabinet and subcabinet-level departments when the occasions warranted (see Lawrence F. O'Brien Oral Histories LBJ Library).
Johnson as Vice President observed and approved of the Kennedy OCR's increasing expertise with legislative affairs. As a Texas legislator, he knew the inherent difficulties of pushing an activist liberal domestic policy agenda derived from the national wing of the party upon a congressional party with nearly 100 of the 260-odd House Democrats coming from the South. He knew better than to believe the media complaints that the Kennedy legislative agenda was hopelessly jammed in latter 1963. Upon inheriting the presidency himself, he kept the organization intact while bulldozing O'Brien into agreeing to stay as its Director (see O'Brien Oral History Interview X, OBRIEN10 and Interview XI, OBRIEN11, pp. 14-17). Unlike Kennedy, who was personally detached from the daily OCR business but willing to step in when O'Brien called for it, Johnson demanded greatly detailed informational reports from OCR on a regular basis. He reduced the autonomy O'Brien had enjoyed under Kennedy, and in the first months often interfered with OCR protocols by directly getting on the telephone to make deals with legislators. He also closely directed strategy such as the crafting of an elaborate 1964 vote trade of southern-favored farm commodity price supports for a food stamps welfare measure sought by northern urban interests. In other words, he adapted the OCR to suit his leadership style, as Kennedy had used it to allow himself to concentrate on other matters.
The Kennedy-Johnson Office of Congressional Relations gave the President a hefty informational advantage over legislative rivals. The congressional parties in the 1960s had very weak whip operations. Southern Democrats still dominated the ranks of chairmen and senior membership in the majority Democratic Party, while minority Republicans depended largely upon alliance with those southerners to turn back liberal legislation from the national wing of the Democrats. Organizationally, these Democrats prevented their own leadership from operating an effective whip system to count votes in advance on major legislation down to the individual level. The Republicans did do careful whip counts on key bills, but had then to rely on a separate grouping of outside votes for both strategic and tactical judgments on what action to take. Only with the 1968 Johnson abdication and the subsequent election of Republican Richard Nixon, did mainstream liberal Democrats set up their own congressional whip system to carefully count votes and conduct bargains to ensure success for the party caucus and its leadership.
Rhetoric for Special Occasions Next Down; Top
The White House Office of Congressional Relations did not handle presidential rhetoric. Nearly all elite observers in the early 1960s considered rhetorical appeals by a president for outside help to move legislation as a sign of desperation and likely imminent defeat. Cases were cited to show as much: FDR in 1937 could not move Congress to pack the Court despite a Fireside Chat devoted to it, and Kennedy in 1962 suffered a major defeat to the AMA and congressional opponents over expanding the social security system to incorporate what later became Medicare. Kennedy called for public support of the bill with his customary eloquence, but it moved not one congressional vote in favor of the Administration's bill.
This was not particularly insightful political science by political practitioners of the time. Every anecdote against speaking can easily be countered with a contrary case. FDR's many rhetorical efforts did have substantial impacts on reception to his legislative entreaties, even though they never altered a fundamental opposition of the conservative coalition to labor issues or racial liberalism. Truman's 1947 exhortation for the Truman Doctrine aid to Greece and Turkey did move the Congress.
The point here is that Johnson accepted the received wisdom of the day, but there was an exception. He reserved it for the civil rights issue. This issue was unique for its time in several respects. It relied almost wholly upon a rare cross-party coalition of Northern Democrats and Republicans for passage. Nearly every other controversial bill fared by stitching together a much-practiced North and South coalition among Democrats alone. Civil rights also evoked a special intensity of both support and opposition. This is the "issue salience" addressed earlier. Intensity of opinion is at least as important to legislators as the direction of opinion. Intense supporters will shed the rest of a legislative agenda just to pass their bill; opponents will declare war and do likewise just to kill it.
Highly intense issues cause potential chaos on other issue deliberations. In Clinton and Bush years, injection of abortion issues can wreck an otherwise-passable foreign assistance measure. In Kennedy and Johnson years, there was the Powell amendment that entangled federal aid to education (or other measures) with a threat to exclude the segregationist states from any federal assistance. When black Representative Adam Clayton Powell did not personally offer this amendment, strategic Republicans did. That let them jointly pose as civil rights champions while prompting Southern Democrats to join them to defeat liberal measures that would otherwise have passed. Civil rights was the rare "party wrecker" issue that might provoke a major partisan realignment that could end the New Deal-originated Democratic congressional majority.
Johnson saw public rhetoric by a President as part of the way out of the dilemma. There was no way to keep civil rights amendments off presidential social measures until civil rights itself had been legislated. On 3 June 1963 the Vice-President called Kennedy's chief speechwriter, Theodore Sorenson, to divulge what was necessary for passing the civil rights bill. It had to be a strong, stand-alone measure backed by "a national crusade" of public speaking throughout the nation. A weaker bill would only encourage Republican strategists to continue playing the civil rights card to wreck Democratic social welfare planks in Kennedy's New Freedom list. And it had to be passed soon, for once accomplished, then and only then was the Powell amendment neutralized.
The Civil Rights Act did pass after Kennedy was gone, amidst the 1964 election year, with absolutely intense pressure and national focus on every move of almost every Member of Congress who straddled the fence. Johnson did not personally crusade rhetorically for the issue. He did not need to. Ministers across the nation did it for him. Television coverage was unremitting. Senate Southerners filibustered, but each day's passage made life more difficult for Republicans facing this onslaught outside the safe South. In July 1964 the filibuster was overcome and the measure passed with Senator Goldwater among the few Republicans voting against it.
Johnson did not want another major civil rights bill right after that, but he never counted on the confrontations in Selma over the winter months of 1965. It threatened to derail rapid passage of Great Society legislation. So the White House moved the bill to the front end of the calendar, which in those days was basically March 1. On 15 March 1965, Johnson's personally delivered "We Shall Overcome" speech (LBJ and Voting Rights - "We Shall Overcome") in the well of the House reached a national audience that saw the brutalities on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma on television. This speech is widely regarded as the president's finest. It helped take the steam out of another southern filibuster and resulted in a cross-party enacting coalition of almost exactly the same persons as in 1964.
On should remember that Lyndon Johnson was a poor speaker on most formal public occasions such as this. His true communications forte was the telephone and in person, one on one with a target. He used that method, too, with friend and opponent of civil rights alike. But that was nothing new, as he employed this famous "Treatment" to legislators on all legislation. An example of personal treatment is from George Tames's famous 1957 photographs at New York Times, The Johnson Treatment - Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore F. Green. Some similar photographs show LBJ as president standing over a target, even his senatorial mentor Richard Russell (American RadioWorks - The President Calling).
The telephone was an extension of the Treatment. Telephone harangues and wheedling came in cascades from the Johnson White House. The Miller Center's Programs - Presidential Recordings Program - Samples include two such instances with normally supportive senators who occasionally fell under delaying influences of private lobbyists. Johnson would not brook delay.
The Treatment was a constant for Johnson. Only "going public" was for the special occasion.
The Agenda Next Down; Top
Some may be surprised by Johnson's intense displeasure that civil rights came up at all in early 1965. To understand why, we address the last item on Johnson's checklist. That item is agenda. Agenda consists of "the set of bills readied for active lobbying for early passage" by the Congress currently in session. The congressional policy agenda is a highly competitive place with many participants fighting to get their issues to the front (Kingdon 1995). Each item in the White House legislative agenda is costly, in time taken to pass it, in manpower from the OCR and the president and legislative allies, in the general reservoir of good will held by fulltime or part-time allies toward the White House, and in scarce time allotted by Congress to that issue. The longer the list and larger the agenda, the greater the problem of cost.
This is precisely why Johnson insisted that timing was crucial to success. The president has to make clear which measures are true priorities. A randomly scrambled fifty-item list of wishes offered to Santa Claus will not win a child a pony she truly cherishes; thus every child seems to know to state just one or two truly important wishes. For Lyndon Johnson, a personal commitment of long standing made very clear which issue was truly first. That was public education. He was a product of a teacher's college, and a school teacher in Cotulla near the Mexican border before journeying to Capitol Hill in 1931. He sought what became the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as the crown jewel of the Great Society.
What vexed Johnson about the Voting Rights Act was that it barged in front of this education bill. As we have seen, it got the President's full and special attention. But meanwhile Johnson turned full heat on for the education bill, even helping to instigate a revolt inside the House Education and Labor Committee against its Chairman Adam Clayton Powell for the chairman's interminable delays in action combined with blackmail demands on the congressional leadership for more committee staff and funding. Johnson could and did harass, bully, cajole, plead, barter with, and sweet-talk legislators into passing this bill. He brooked no second guessing. Powell himself was a direct target of intense telephone Treatment. Johnson telephone calls in 1965 show one call on March 1 at 9:30 p.m. after Powell had disappeared for most of February, leaving the bill in early limbo while the Committee chair demanded $400,000 for his projects as the price of his return (Conversation 7007 at C-SPAN LBJ WHITE HOUSE TAPES via search; Beschloss 2001, 197-199). Johnson's unmistakable intent was to get it passed, and passed quickly.
Alongside voting rights and education, the other top-priority measure was passage of Medicare. This measure had the longest standing of any major item on the Democratic Party to-do list, dating as it did from President Truman's unsuccessful attempt to bring this about in the conservative coalition dominated 81st Congress in 1949. Kennedy suffered a celebrated failure in 1962, reaffirming the myth that this bill could never get past the conservatives in Congress and the American Medical Association's firm opposition. And indeed, in 1964 Johnson tried mightily but failed to move House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills to move this bill, but to no avail. But Mills read 1964 election returns as well as any professional, and so in 1965 proceeded to create an innovative combination of hospital and doctors' bill coverage for older Americans under Social Security (Oral History--Wilbur Mills -- Interview II, mills2, pp. 1-3; also Interview I, mills1). On the Senate side, the highly conservative but aged Harry Byrd sat in the Senate Finance Committee chair. He was not at this point a habitual telephone user. Nonetheless, he came under special attention of the president, who demonstrated that part of The Treatment was a form of public ambush. Byrd allowed himself to come to the White House to confer with the President about moving the bill, made some half-hearted assents to not blocking it on committee, and suddenly found himself before a combined assemblage of White House and other national reporters as LBJ repeated the question, got affirmation, pounded the table, and said "Good!" OCR Director Lawrence O'Brien recounts that Senator Byrd "did arrive without any knowledge that he was going to be involved in a Medicare discussion. ... You had advocates ... and Senator Byrd walking into this trap, stunned to discover the subject matter and further stunned when he recognized that he was going to be on public record as a participant in the discussion. ... I was a little stunned myself the way the President handled this. There was a record of the President indicating that Senator Byrd has agreed to have prompt hearings, to which Senator Byrd had no alternative but to acquiesce in front of witnesses." (OBRIEN Interview 11, p. 24 of transcript). Entrapment could be done in public as well as private with Lyndon Johnson at the helm.
Once these major bills--education, higher education, voting rights, Medicare--were enacted in 1965, Johnson relentlessly kept the pressure on for more. OCR Director O'Brien had a list of 88 bills they sought, of which 84 were enacted in this Congress. Some, like highway beautification (a personal priority of Lady Bird Johnson) were secondary items that eventually proved to have enduring impact. Every aspect of the once-leisurely daily life in Congress was altered during this onslaught. The number of days the 89th Congress remained in session expanded far beyond any previous congress. Late in 1966, freshman Democrats desperate to return home to campaign, were harassed into staying on hand to pass one more bill, and once done, again for still another. Johnson was accused, quite rightly, of callous indifference on their political futures. Johnson was guilty, in part because he doubted they would return anyway. Many of them did not. The Republicans won a sweeping set of gains in the 1966 midterm. But when the 90th Congress began in January 1967, the Great Society was already largely on the law books--and much of it remains there today.
Conclusion Next Down; Top
Political skill was but one component of the groundwork attributes for a president to enjoy a successful legislative presidency. It is often given first or even exclusive billing. That is grievously wrong, as a historical and political judgment. Johnson, who devoutly wanted to have political history written to suit himself, knew as much.
The other, more impersonal qualities--public approval, the president's election in a unified government context, the attention to detail that gave the Kennedy/Johnson White House a temporary informational advantage, the selective use of rhetoric to promote major bills, and the strategic use of agenda control--all define the real possibilities and limits on presidential leadership in Congress. All or practically all of these factors worked temporarily to great advantage for Lyndon Johnson's presidency, in 1964 and even more in 1965-66. Then they were all or nearly all reversed. And the same President, still following the example of Franklin Roosevelt, got a hard confirmation of his own view on how the American separation of powers doctrine worked.
I once personally thought the Johnson model of passing legislation would be revisited as a working model for other presidents. It has not happened that way. Johnson's Treatment was as unique to him as Dwight Eisenhower's hidden hand technique had been to that leader. But the Kennedy-Johnson institutional method of handling congressional business survived by jumping across the Pennsylvania Avenue institutional divide, returning to the Congress. The House Democrats after Johnson's retirement created their own internal vote-counting and whip system with considerable success. Both parties now routinely do this inside the Congress, leaving all post-Johnson presidents with far less informational advantage than Johnson once had. A restoration of the Johnson legislative system in the White House is highly unlikely.
Johnson's unusual preoccupation with the Congress and with
domestic policy, his use of a congressional relations informational apparatus at
a time when the Congress lacked it own working whip systems, his exceptional
good election luck, even his tragic start upon Kennedy's death, all combined to
make the Great Society a very rare opportunity for liberalism. When a
comparable future burst of legislative productivity under presidential direction
finally occurs, the Great Society will be invoked as its precursor. But by
then, a long time will have passed.
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Copyrightę2001-2010, Russell D. Renka
March 10, 2010 10:22 AM