Wednesday, December 11, 2013
For my summer reading this year I finally got my hands on Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," a 600-page doorstop of a book that's the fourth volume in what we can only hope is no more than a five-volume biography of our 36th president.
My friend refers to these books as "Harry Potter for adults," and I can see what he means. They both deliver an incredible story of good and evil that comes out in a series of much-anticipated chunks, which their readers consume, putting aside all distractions like food, drink and unrelated conversation until they are done.
They both also focus on magic. In this latest volume, Lyndon Johnson steps out of irrelevance as vice president at a time of national crisis, takes the reins of power and in seven weeks, between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the State of the Union address in January, he has greased the legislative machinery to pass a budget, a tax cut and the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred racial discrimination in all public accommodations.
He also put in motion the War on Poverty program that put the muscle of the federal government into improving health care, education and social services for the nation's needy.
He did this despite a sharply divided Democratic Party, with anti-civil rights southern Democrats in position to block all legislative business and Republicans whose votes he needed gearing up to remove him from office in a presidential election.
Now that's sorcery!
But when the book is over, I had to look back at our own magic-free world, where the U.S. Senate -- allegedly the world's greatest deliberative body -- can't approve the nominations of much-needed federal judges because the Republican minority won't vote on even the non-controversial ones who have bipartisan support. It's an election year, and Republican leaders think if they hold out, a president from their party might fill the slots instead.
Portland attorney William Kayatta is one of the nominees caught in this limbo, and even though he has the support of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, they can't persuade enough of their Republican colleagues to break the filibuster and allow his nomination to come to the floor for a vote.
This should be easy. No wonder Congress won't even try to take on complicated issues like unemployment, climate change or improvements to health-care reform.
You have to wonder if any of the great legislative achievements of the 20th century would have a chance of passing today. Could this group pass Social Security? Medicare? The Civil Rights Act? The Voting Rights Act?
It's tempting to say that we need another LBJ, but someone who was there says that is the stuff of fantasy.
Portland lawyer Harold Pachios worked for Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign and then came over to the White House press office after the election. Johnson was a person who loved power and knew how to use it, but Pachios, who Caro lists among his sources, doubts Johnson would have been able to get things done today.
"Lyndon Johnson would have had a disaster on his hands if he had tried to deal with this Congress," Pachios said. "The Republicans would have been committed to his failure."
It's not that everything was perfect in Johnson's day. Caro spells out in detail how avowed racists controlled key committees in the U.S. House and Senate and could block any legislation they didn't like. Nefarious money moved in the background, and historic elections like the 1960 presidential race may have turned on results that were more than a little suspicious. But in office, they were still able to govern in a way that we can hardly imagine.
"World War II had made patriots out of everybody," Pachios said. "The scorched earth stuff just didn't exist. Now compromise is a dirty word. Achieving compromise was never a bad thing in American politics, but it is now."
Pachios doesn't think Johnson would have been able to pull the levers that he worked to such great effect in today's poisoned environment. Some got flattery. Some got threats. Eating and drinking and favors were involved, and so were appeals to ego and a place in history. He was able to persuade people.
Today, Pachios said, a lawmaker comes to Washington already persuaded and terrified of being exposed back home and to his campaign contributors as a flip-flopper.
For now, deal-making is just something to read about in history books, or as the subject of a summer fantasy.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: