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Leading In Crisis: Lessons From Lyndon Johnson

Host Rachel Martin talks with historian Robert Caro, who has studied the use of power and how presidents leverage power in crisis. He draws some comparisons between his famous subject, Lyndon B. Johnson, and President Obama's second-term challenges.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Making a deal to avert the fiscal cliff is going to take more than mere consensus on spending and taxes. It'll take political skill on the part of the president; the ability to leverage the power of his office to find new strategies and pressure points to break the gridlock. In short, he'll need to do what appears to be impossible.

ROBERT CARO: Part of the nature of political genius is that you can come along and do something where no one else can do it.

MARTIN: That's historian Robert Caro. He's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and he's talking about the political genius of Lyndon Baines Johnson. I spoke to Caro at a live event here in Washington, D.C. about what made Johnson's deal-making skills so legendary.

He began by telling me a story, one that also dealt with the familiar political tussle between taxes and spending. When Johnson wanted to pass a big tax cut he believed would spur economic growth, he knew there was one person who mattered in the Senate, Southern conservative Senator Harry Byrd, who simply wouldn't budge on taxes without a budget cut. Johnson explained to his top economic advisors why Byrd was the key.

CARO: There're 17 members of the Finance Committee and Harry Byrd has no nine votes. They say how do you know Harry Byrd has nine votes. And Lyndon Johnson says, because Harry Byrd always has nine votes.

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: He knew these people backwards and forwards. And it's not always threatened. It's knowing exactly how to play on them.

MARTIN: I know you're not an expert on President Obama. But, as a historian, do you have thoughts about how this president - is he comfortable with power and wielding it to get an agenda through?

CARO: Well, the only honest thing I can say to you is that I believe that he has gotten major. He's wound down two wars. You know, the health insurance bill, people say it's not a good bill. I say it's not a good bill. When Lyndon Johnson sets out to pass the first Civil Rights Bill since Reconstruction - that's a 1957when he's in the Senate - he's not president yet, no civil rights bill has been passed for 82 years.

He sets out to do it and it's fantastic to watch him do it vote by vote, to get 67 votes so the South knows it can't filibuster. But he knows it's not a good bill. And you know what he says? He says, you know, once you pass it you could always go back and fix it. It's easier to fix it than to pass it the first time.

I myself think this health insurance bill has a lot of major flaws in its. But I think it's going to be a lot easier to go back and fix it now that we started with that major bill. So I think that, you know, when you talk about presidential power, perhaps President Obama started more slowly than some people would like. He didn't have the knowledge that Lyndon Johnson had of all the people in the Senate and all the people in Congress, you know. But I feel optimistic. I think the way he took control - you know, you talk about moments that a president has to rise to.

We just had this hurricane in New York and only now are people realizing the magnitude of what happened in New York. And I thought Governor Christie's feeling that Obama was really helping, and Mayor Bloomberg in New York. These were two people who were not for President Obama. I think I'm not unhappy about President Obama and power.

MARTIN: I wonder if you think Lyndon Baines Johnson would have been a successful politician today. He was so reliant on the backroom deal. He needed close doors in order to push people to negotiate the deal. And we live in a world where doors are not closed. You know, there's a Twitter feed in every room. There's a video camera somewhere.

CARO: Well, you're certainly right that the times are different. But Johnson, you know, wasn't only backroom deals because when he had to rise to something - you know, in 1965 there's a Voting Rights Act. You know, and that also seems like it's Martin Luther King is marching in Selma for voting rights. And Lyndon Johnson, you know, goes before a session of Congress and uses the phrase: We shall overcome, which was the anthem of the civil rights marches down in Selma.

You know, Martin Luther King was watching that TV broadcast of Johnson's speech in the living room of an aide in Selma. And one of his assistants says when Martin Luther King heard Lyndon Johnson say and we shall overcome, he started to cry. He said that was the only time he ever saw Martin Luther King cry. That's half of Lyndon Johnson, that he could rally people when he had to.

The other half is he comes down from the dais after making that speech and, you know, the president walks up the aisle and everyone's trying to get into the picture with him. And one of the people started getting into the picture with him is the really ancient chairman - all these committee chairmen are ancient...

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: Yeah, named Emmanuel Celler of New York, and he said: That was a great speech, Mr. President. I'm going to start hearings on this bill tomorrow. And you can see Johnson jabs the Celler in the chest and says: Start them tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

CARO: So...

MARTIN: So it wasn't like he needed the backroom. He wasn't afraid to be that person in public either.

CARO: No. You know, one of the great things about that to me is the first speech and why he made the first speech after President Kennedy died the way he did it. You know, his advisers are sitting around the kitchen table. He's not even in the Oval Office yet. He still working in the Executive Office Building. And around his kitchen table, four or five speechwriters are writing his speech. And they're all saying to him: Don't concentrate on civil rights; don't make civil rights your first priority, don't waste your political capital on civil rights. It's too hard a cause.

And you know what Johnson says to them? He says: Well, what the hell is the presidency for then? You know? And to me, he's not afraid to take the hardest courses.

MARTIN: I wonder if you think there are any lessons that President Obama could learn from LBJ.

CARO: You know, I have to say, I'm of the opinion that President Obama doesn't get nearly enough credit for what he's done. I mean, I think I writing about - you know, you've asked me questions, you know, about domestic policy. But, of course, Lyndon Johnson is also the president who gave us Vietnam. And this last book which I'm working on now has a very different tone.

I mean, President Obama has wound down two wars. So I'm not sure that he needs any lessons from Lyndon Johnson. I mean, I do feel that Johnson's determination to use the presidency for great causes - what the hell is the presidency for - is something that anybody can learn from.

MARTIN: That's historian Robert Caro, speaking to me at an event here in Washington. The fourth book in this series on Lyndon B. Johnson is called "The Passage of Power."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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