At The LBJ Ranch

1b521bd9-3bda-4d9a-9e3f-7ba03d6115d8Kish is down in San Antonio to visit Richard.  Today they visited the nearby LBJ Ranch as well as Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood home.  While at the ranch Kish snapped this picture — proving that Johnson was definitely not all hat and no cattle.

It’s interesting to reflect on people like Johnson.  He was a legendary Senate Majority Leader, was thrust into the presidency when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, ushered in the “Great Society” programs, and then was knocked out of the White House by the Vietnam War, riots in the cities, student protests, and general unrest in the country.  Now LBJ is largely an overlooked historical figure, overshadowed by JFK and Camelot as his predecessor and Richard Nixon and Watergate as his successor.

As Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

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The Final Table

Last night Kish and I and the Unkempt Guy and his lovely wife caught The Final Table at the Studio Theater 2 at the Riffe Center.  In the interests of full and fair disclosure, I should note at the outset that I know and like Herb Brown, the author of the play, so you can take my comments with an appropriate grain of salt — but we had a great evening and I’d recommend the play to anybody who likes politics and is willing to see 20th century American historical figures presented from a unique, unvarnished perspective.

IMG_5204First, a quick nod to the theater.  Last night was the first time I’ve  been to a show at Studio Theater 2, and it is a wonderful, intimate venue.  The theater is in the round and seats less than 200 people.  We sat in the very last row and still we were close enough to see the actors and their facial expressions and hear the dialogue clearly.  It’s a perfect setting for a play like this, where the ultimate goal is get the audience thinking about the characters and the humanity behind their historical reputations.

The plot is that five American presidents — in order of appearance, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon — arrive from their own individual purgatorial settings to a room furnished only with a poker table and a dealer/protaganist who happens to be the Muse of History.  They are there to play poker for their immortal souls, at the whim of God and the Angel Gabriel, with the loser to be cast into the fiery pits of hell.  Obviously, it is a tantalizing and thought-provoking premise.

If you like history, as I do, you can’t help but be drawn in by the concept of the play, and Herb Brown does a good job of drawing out the issues based on the historical record.  Why would Dwight Eisenhower be put into a purgatorial cell that has a racial element?  How would Harry Truman interact with the man who defeated him?  Who would ultimately take a leadership role in this cast of Presidents and position them for an ultimate resolution?  And — perhaps most tantalizing at all — how would Richard Nixon play poker?

I won’t spoil the show, but suffice it to say that the play is funny, interesting, and far more vulgar than you would expect if your notion of American presidents is limited to the sanitized and marbleized versions you get in American history class.  The acting is quite good across the board, but I must give special kudos to Jon Putnam, who made Nixon a funny and curiously sympathetic and pathetic figure — not an easy assignment by any measure — and Ralph Scott, who was a titanic and appalling Lyndon Johnson.

The Final Table has drawn such good crowds that it’s run has been extended though May 2.  Catch it if you can!

Nixon At 101

Yesterday was Richard Nixon’s birthday. “Tricky Dick,” who was the only American President ever to resign from office, would have been 101.

It’s interesting that Nixon, much more so than many other of his political contemporaries, remains a relevant, well-known figure today. Nobody talks much about Hubert Humphrey, or Barry Goldwater, or even Lyndon Johnson or Dwight Eisenhower, but Nixon always finds his way into political conversations. For example, some people are comparing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s long press conference yesterday to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, in which Nixon adeptly defused allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct. The “Checkers” speech was the first real evidence of the power of TV in dealing with a political scandal, and it remains a touchstone even today.

Nixon isn’t remembered for his political positions. There isn’t a Nixon wing of the Republican party, and it’s hard to think of any current politician who is even remotely comparable to him. Instead, Nixon’s existence as a significant political figure at the dawn of the TV and mass media age, his demonstrations of how TV can have a positive and negative impact, and the fact that he endured the worst scandal in the nation’s history and resigned in disgrace will always make him a point of comparison.

And for every positive juxtaposition — Will Christie’s press conference be as effective as the “Checkers” speech? Is President X’s new global initiative the boldest foreign policy gambit since Nixon’s China strategy? — there will be thousands of uses of Nixon as a negative marker. The worst debate appearance since Nixon seemed to have a five o’clock shadow in his debate with Kennedy. The worst self-pitying press conference since Nixon said “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” after he lost a race for California Governor in 1962. The most self-revealing comment since Nixon said “I am not a crook.” And, of course, the worst scandal since Watergate. The fact that, 40 years later, people still try to put “gate” on every scandal is powerful testimony to Nixon’s lasting place in the American political firmament.

Richard Nixon resigned 40 years ago and died 20 years ago, but the references to him are still fresh and constant. He will always be a significant historical figure and an instant measuring stick when something bad happens to a politician who aspires to the presidency or who already occupies the Oval Office.

Making Hard Budget Choices: Time To Finish Head Start

There may be no federal program that was begun with better intentions than Head Start.  It was a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and had an ambitious social engineering goal:  to help impoverished kids better prepare themselves for school and a useful life by providing them with preschool.

It is now 45 years later, and the Department of Health and Human Services has released its Head Start Impact Study.  The Study results are clear — Head Start does not work.  The Study found that the positive effects of the Head Start program are minimal and vanish entirely after children reach first grade.  Graduates of Head Start perform about the same as students of the same income and social status who did not participate in Head Start.  In short, we pay $7 billion a year for a program that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.

In any rational world, the next step would be obvious.  We would end the program and save the $7 billion.  This is modern America, however, so of course that hasn’t happened.  Instead, the defenders of Head Start argue that even if it doesn’t work, it provides money and employment in depressed areas and should be maintained as a jobs program.  The Obama Administration says it is going to funnel the money to more effective programs rather than ending it outright.

Our budget problems are enormous and can only be addressed if every program, tax break, subsidy, and government job is potentially on the chopping block.  If a government program isn’t working, it should be ended, period.  We shouldn’t hesitate to cut defense weapons systems that aren’t performing as designed, or to end subsidies that no longer make rational economic or policy sense.

If we really were serious about tackling our budget problems, Congress would already have digested the Head Start Impact Study and decided to end the program.  Usually there is at least grounds for disagreement about the effectiveness of a federal program, but in this case a government-commissioned study is conclusive about the program’s failure.  What are we waiting for?

Making Hard Budget Choices:  A No Doubt Boring Look At NHTSA

Obama: Be More Like LBJ

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece comparing President Obama to Lyndon Johnson (“Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?”). The article speculated that Obama’s ambitious domestic programs could end up being derailed by an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, just as LBJ’s Great Society was by the Vietnam War. According to the article, President Obama himself has compared his situation to LBJ’s.

LBJ

LBJ

I doubt Afghanistan will ever become as big a pain in the ass for Obama as Vietnam was for LBJ, but the article made me think. I just read an excellent presidential biography of Lyndon Johnson by Doris Kearns Goodwin that led me to reconsider the former president. Despite his horrible handling of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant, good-hearted man whom Obama could take a few lessons from.

Everyone’s talking about how Obama’s poll numbers are slipping as a result of the current Healthcare debate. What’s really hurting him, however, isn’t the debate itself but his mismanagement of it. President Obama has lost control over the national dialogue over healthcare reforms, despite calling numerous town halls and press conferences to dispel rumors and clarify his goals. He seems to have even less control over Congress, as Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and left-wing Democrats seek out their own policy goals, showing little willingness to compromise.

President Obama should consult the playbook of LBJ, perhaps the most skillful manipulator of Congress in American history. In her biography of LBJ, Goodwin notes that, contrary to popular belief,  his handling of Congress consisted of more than strong-arming. LBJ had a genius for reading people, discovering in the course of a conversation their fears and desires, and responding to them. To reward members of Congress for “good behavior” he promised them positions of importance, mustered up the support they felt they needed to vote a certain way (from newspaper editors, organizations, other members of Congress, etc.), or allowed them access to his personal popularity as president (which was, like Obama’s, originally quite considerable). To punish them, LBJ would withdraw his affection to make them feel isolated from his circle of power. Of course, strong-arming could be a component of LBJ’s “treatment”, but only when it was the most effective way, which LBJ somehow knew instinctively.

Instead of giving control of healthcare reform to Congress, I wish Obama would put himself in a position like LBJ. While LBJ’s legislation responded to the needs of Congress, it was always under his ultimate control. Like LBJ, Obama should also set clear objectives for his domestic programs, instead of adding or removing vital parts of legislation when passage appears uncertain, such as in the case of the public policy option in the current healthcare bill. Most of all, Obama should use his personal popularity to manipulate congressmen, while it still lasts.

Also like LBJ, President Obama should never forget the human element of his programs. While in action on the floor of Congress, LBJ might have seemed like a political machine, but behind all his machinations was a desire to spread the American dream to as many as possible. I’m sure Obama has the same desire, but he hasn’t been talking much about it lately. Obama needs to remind the American people that healthcare reform isn’t about politics or socialism or health insurance companies – it’s about spreading happiness, health and opportunity to as many Americans as possible.