Our Views: Making time for Congress

A pertinent reading recommendation to President Barack Obama comes from Charlie Cook.

The native Louisianian and political observer wrote in The National Journal that Obama should emulate President Lyndon B. Johnson, who came into office through an assassination but rapidly deployed his own skills in managing Congress to work behind the agenda of his predecessor, the late John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was, like Obama, a man who rarely enjoyed the company of members of Congress, and had an aloof streak. Further, JFK failed to use LBJ’s talents as a former majority leader of the Senate. One of Johnson’s legacies is how he made Kennedy’s legislative program into law in a way his predecessor could not achieve.

Cook recommended a new book, the fourth volume in Robert Caro’s monumental Johnson biography, that shows the infinite pains that LBJ took to woo members of the Congress. Two entire chapters are devoted to his capture of Virginia ultra-conservative Harry Byrd.

“Johnson didn’t outsource congressional relations to congressional leadership — or, for that matter, to his staff,” Cook noted in his column. “He listened to the concerns, objections, and demands of key members to ascertain what he needed to do to get their support or, failing that, secure a pledge not to actively oppose his agenda.”

That kind of intensity may be more possible now that Obama does not have hundreds of fundraisers to attend. But it would smooth the path toward adoption of Obama’s agenda.

It’s not all about schmoozing.

In Caro’s book, he noted that Johnson often bent on substance. He gave in to budget cuts pushed by Byrd, for example, rather than allowing relatively minor matters to stall the administration’s agenda.

“Whether one approves or disapproves of the substance of Johnson’s actions as president, he was the gold standard in terms of dealing with Congress,” Cook said.

It might also be noted that Johnson’s Republican opponents included both liberal and conservative members, who could be wooed on particular bills. That level of ideological diversity is largely gone from the GOP members in Congress today.

The example of Johnson — whose legacies included the Vietnam War — may be problematic for liberals. But Obama could also profitably consult Arthur Schlesinger’s series of books about the New Deal.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt — in possession of great majorities in House and Senate — nevertheless devoted hours of each day to letters or phone calls or chats with members of Congress. FDR’s assistants marveled that no matter seemed too small for the president’s attention, if a member of Congress was interested in it.

One of the ironies of the Johnson biography is that as vice president, he saw little of Kennedy. Johnson as a young congressional protégé of Roosevelt had spent many hours visiting with the older man in the White House in the 1930s and 1940s.

If there is good advice in this literary canon of the great Democrats, perhaps it should be balanced against an observation of a more-conservative historian, Richard Brookhiser of National Review.

LBJ, embroiled in Vietnam in his term after his election, and FDR, rebuked in his moves to pack the Supreme Court, had miserable terms following Johnson’s first election, and FDR’s second.

“The last successful second term,” cracks Brookhiser, “was James Monroe’s.”

If Obama wants a legacy, breaking that string might be a good one.