As President Obama looks ahead to his inauguration, he may ponder the words of a predecessor on the limited shelf life of presidential power. "I've just been re-elected by the overwhelming majority. And I just want to tell you that every day while I'm in office, I'm going to lose votes," President Lyndon Johnson told an aide in 1964. "I'm going to alienate somebody. We've got to get this legislation fast."
President Johnson may have left public office more than four decades ago, but his keen political observations ring true today. And they are now more available to the public than ever. Re-opening on Saturday, after a $10-million renovation, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin sheds 21st-Century light on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Thankfully, LBJ had both a Texas-sized ego and a sense of history, and he secretly recorded hundreds of hours of phone calls with top lawmakers and world leaders. For the first time, visitors to the LBJ Museum can eavesdrop on the White House recordings on handsets. The 60-plus recordings provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of President Johnson as he anguished over the Vietnam War, discussed the assassination of President Kennedy, strategized with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or simply sought homespun advice from Lady Bird.
The calls also feature the master persuader browbeating lawmakers into passing his landmark legislation. Take the Civil Rights Act. In the mid 1960s, Johnson strived to fulfill the elusive promise of civil rights, which necessitated bipartisanship despite the Democratic majorities LBJ enjoyed in the House and Senate. In an effort to outflank the intractable Southern lawmakers in his own party who had stymied any meaningful civil rights reform since Reconstruction, Johnson gained the support of northern Republicans.
One phone conversation, with Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, has Johnson appealing to the Senate minority leader's vanity by insisting that his bold support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would make him worthy of being from the "land of Lincoln," and guaranteeing that he would he would get "proper credit" for it. True to his word, when Johnson signed the bill into law in June of that year, the President presented the first signing pen to Dirksen.
But more to the point for the current fiscal-cliff negotiations - " and bi-partisan compromise - " is another 1964 conversation between Johnson and Senator Dirksen. Their dialogue has Dirksen pressing the president for support of a dam project in Illinois as a receptive Johnson pushes for a quid pro quo on excise taxes:
LBJ: "Now, you're not going to beat me on excise taxes and ruin my budget this year... You can do it if you want to, and you can ruin my budget, but you're hollering "economy" and trying to balance it...
Dirksen: Now - now, look at the pressure I'm under...from the damn trade associations.
LBJ: Well, I know it, but God, you're also for good fiscal prudence, and...you know that the way to do this is through the House committee...They're not going to let y'all write a bill over in the Senate on taxes.
Dirksen: I don't suppose they are.
LBJ: Now, please don't press me on that.
Dirksen: Well, I've got to press it-
LBJ: Well who are you going to take? You're going to take all your Republicans? Give me one or two of them and let them be prudent. You've got people on there that can...
Dirksen: Well, you've got enough votes to beat it.
LBJ: No, I haven't. I haven't ... And you see how I'm-how you're going to let me win by one vote in there, and I'll call you back in a little bit on [the dam]."
In the end, Dirksen got his dam and Johnson got the GOP votes he needed to get his excise taxes.
As President Obama starts his second term and battles with Congress over the budget, and now a new gun control bill, Johnson-style horse trading may be of the essence. An increased sense of urgency might not hurt, either. As President Johnson once told an aide, "I never considered the 1964 election a mandate. I considered it a loophole, and I figured we had to get through it as fast as we could before it closed."
Mark K. Updegrove is the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and the author of "Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency".
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