The Perils of Greatness
The thing about Lyndon Johnson—and you may be sure I kept a close adolescent eye on him while he was one of my two U.S. senators—was that he knew what he was doing.
There was more to it even than that. He knew how to get things done.
The faint breezes from the '50s and '60s rustling the page of Robert Caro's super biography of Johnson—the brand-new volume, titled The Passage of Power, is fourth and penultimate in the series—stirs memories of times when politicians sort of, a lot of the time, understood their job. They were not nearly as busy as their modern heirs. Their role in our affairs was smaller, less intrusive. That could be part of the reason that "legislative success" was not yet an oxymoron. The larger and more complex the thing you're trying to do in government, the fainter the chances of actually getting it done in a way that contributes to the general good and brings credit to the political artisans.
In our era of mega government, hardly anything goes right when lawmakers attack a problem. It was somewhat otherwise when Johnson led the Senate's Democratic majority and later, ran the White House. The new volume, which I haven't yet read, though naturally I will do so (what adventure story fan wouldn't?), is the tale of LBJ's presidential quest, the failure of that quest in 1960, the miserable years spent as vice president, and then his takeover of power upon John Kennedy's assassination. On from there, in volume 5, to the Great Society and the War in Vietnam. And then ... the end, the legacy.
There's the tricky part—the legacy. We all know Johnson's capacity to "do." What we forget, sometimes, is that there are times to do and times not to do. Don't just do something; stand there, is the right witticism for the occasion. Lyndon Johnson never got the drift. He was all about action—about getting things done and assuming that, in the process (because he was smart and had smart people working for him), they were getting done right. A lot of the time, the good of the order—the good of the nation—means doing the least you can get by with.
The comparison of Medicare—a keystone of the Johnson Great Society program—with Obamacare seems irresistible. The former started small—a hardly noticeable $7.7 billion in 1970. It grew and grew as new beneficiaries and programs were added. By the turn of the century, the program cost $224 billion. What a pittance that now seems. A recent report by Medicare's trustees shows the system becoming insolvent in 2024, with long-term debt presently calculated at $26.9 trillion. The Congress through which Lyndon Johnson cajoled and flogged the Medicare bill dwelled only sporadically, it seems, on the principle of "One Thing Leads to Another."
The last thing to which the principle led was, of course, Obamacare, the scripted takeover by government of one-sixth of the American economy. Maybe the U. S. Supreme Court will grasp the constitutional irony of allowing a government of supposedly limited powers to operate with no limits.
Thus with other elements of the Great Society, the federal takeover of public education began with passage, at Johnson's instance, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The government's latest education gig is the quest for a set of national standards. Creation of the Job Corps, for training of unemployed workers, created no lasting new jobs but lots of new government dependents, eager for government grants to multiply.
Lyndon Johnson got things done. To a monumental extent, he got the wrong things done while borrowing heavily against the future. That he probably thought he was doing good isn't the main point. The point is an ancient one: Beware power; it corrupts, undermines liberty, and empties treasuries. Save us from dynamic politicians, as well as from egotistical by barely competent ones, is a prayer that makes sense. Maybe the dull, middling kind is the kind that best serves people who love liberty.
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