What’s Good and Bad About Us All

Lyndon JohnsonJonathan Bernstein wrote a typically insightful article on Friday, The Good, the Bad and the LBJ. His main purpose is to push back against the inevitable calls for Obama to be more Johnson. The idea, I guess, is that if only Obama held conversations while sitting on the toilet, everyone would fall in line behind him. Admittedly, such admonitions are normally phrased in terms of charm or arm twisting. But it’s all the same.

The truth is that there is a sliver of truth to all this business. Early on in his presidency, Obama was a horrible negotiator. Instead of taking a strong stand, he rushed to the conservative side. Like an idiot, he thought that such behavior would show how reasonable he was. But the conservatives just saw it as soft and took advantage of it. Gladly, those days are gone. Obama is a much better negotiator. Now all we have to worry about is his mushy middle ideology.

But it certainly is the case that LBJ’s skills in arm twisting are greatly exaggerated. And such as they were, they were effective then in a way that they would never be today. Now with super-PACs and generally so much money in politics, what leverage does the party have? It doesn’t even have earmarks anymore. I just watched Lincoln again last night. Getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed was all about patronage. If a president did that today, he’d be impeached. (New Jersey governors apparently can still get away with it.)

Bernstein did allow that Johnson had some skills. But he made a really important point:

There’s a tendency among Johnson supporters to see the war as separate from the good parts of his presidency. At its worst, that thinking comes close to a claim that Vietnam was something that happened to Johnson, while historic legislation is something that he made happen. But even if Johnson is assigned proper blame for the war, it’s still separated out. That probably is wrong; the traits that helped Johnson do well in some contexts were poisonous in others, and it’s not clear that one could have the good without the bad.

This isn’t just true in politics; it’s true of everyone in every situation. This is what’s so frustrating about how we treat the rich as though they are oracles. Being rich may or may not indicate that a person understands their own business. But there is no more reason to think that the rich know more about the macro-economy or education or anything else than any man on the street. In my experience, being good at business is about two things: self-promotion and lack of empathy. These “skills” are terrible in many other areas, including life in a general sense.

In a different time, LBJ might have been a great president. Or he might have been a terrible president. As it is, he’s a mixed bag. But what determined his legacy was primarily luck. And that, in all things, can’t be stressed enough. I wrote about this in, Unstable Weirdos and Business Success. People always want others to be everything to everyone. But humans don’t work that way. We already have an LBJ-like politician who might become president. And you will likely be able to vote for him come 2016. But I’m not willing to support a “get things done” candidate at the expense of the rule of law. And with Chris Christie, the things he gets done are, almost without exception, bad things.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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