It left an impression. I’ve been fascinated with politics ever since.
American president Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) averaged only 4 to 5 hours of sleep a day and worked most of the rest; his wife once said, “Lyndon acts as if there is never going to be a tomorrow.” He might sleep from about 2 am to 5 am, work until lunch, then take a nap around 2 pm, before working until the early hours of the morning. These “double days” were exhausting for everyone who worked with him but the man signed a lot of legislation.
He once called a congressman at 3 a.m. to discuss a piece of pending legislation. When Johnson asked, “Were you asleep?” the congressman responded, “No, Mr. President. I was just lying here hoping you’d call.”
One of the things he liked to do, at the start of formal meetings, is ask where the folks present had gone to university. As you may imagine in a meeting at the White House, he would hear answers like Yale, Princeton, Harvard - the usual suspects. Then he would pause and say "It looks like I'm the lone representative of Southwest Texas State Teachers College."
He was colorful. Once asked whether he might force J. Edgar Hoover out of the FBI (Hoover had abused his power more than once) LBJ quipped, “I’d rather have him in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
LBJ described himself as a protégé of FDR. His Great Society was a continuation of FDR’s initiatives that focused on labor – that is, on people - more than capital.
A video at the Johnson Library in Austin includes LBJ explaining a new bit of legislation that he’d signed to fund free school lunches. He recounted how as he watched the poor kids come into his classroom, unable to afford lunch – early in his career he taught in a part of Texas with a lot of poor Mexican-American kids – he vowed that if he ever had the power to change this fact of hungry kids at school he would. “Well,” he said, “I now have that power and I intend to use it.”
He also tasked Sargent Shriver – JFK’s brother-in-law – to lead the war on poverty. Shriver said that he had asked for data on who in America was poor and was shocked when he saw a pie chart: 50% of America’s poor in the mid-1960s were children. One of the programs that Shriver quickly scaled up was Head Start, funding and drafting volunteers to go into the country’s poorest neighborhoods to give these kids a head start with summer school and healthy food.
LBJ also got universal healthcare (at least for those over 65 in the form of Medicare).
His most defining legislation might have been his Civil Rights legislation that forbade discrimination in jobs and public services and then – after his overwhelming victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964 – the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that protected minority registration and voting, ending a century of denying Blacks access to the ballot. The courage of Martin Luther King, John Lewis and others had helped to shift American opinion; after peaceful protests in Birmingham, Alabama were made violent by local authorities, LBJ accelerated his agenda for Civil Rights. When he signed the Voting Rights Act Bill, he reportedly said, “We have lost the south for a generation.” As it turns out, the south that once reliably voted against the Republican Party that freed the slaves still reliably votes Republican two generations later. And counting. It is now the Republican base.
One of the rarely reported on reasons that presidents in the 1900s fought for and gave so many rights to women and minorities? If the US only invested in white, non-Hispanic males – only allowed these men to realize their potential and have full access to the institutions that are key to success - it would only let 30% of its adults realize their potential. Again, if a society is caught up in win-lose thinking and thinks that one person’s prosperity comes at the expense of another (a mostly accurate description of reality in an economy based on land), this matter of only 30% of adults being able to realize their potential is not a big deal. In fact, even 30% might be too many to compete with for scarce resources.
But once the limit to economic progress shifted to labor, progress became dependent on having more people solving more problems and creating more new possibilities. The economy grew as the portion of people fully engaged in it grew.
Only 30% of adults are white males. Add in all the minority men and we’re now engaging 49% of adults. Add in all the women and we’re now engaging 100%. The community that engaged and gave opportunity to 100% of its adults is obviously going to do better than a community that only engages 30%.
Slavery had always been bad morality; after the automation of manual work brought on by the industrial revolution and its machinery, slavery became bad economics. It was then that policy made slavery illegal.
Discrimination against women and minorities had always been bad morality; after labor – and particularly knowledge work – became the limit to progress, discrimination became bad economics. It was then that policy made discrimination illegal. It was then that men like FDR and LBJ could win by overwhelming margins and sign legislation that changed reality for millions.
And lest you think that discrimination doesn’t make a difference, it is worth pointing out that the Deep South that voted for segregationists into the 1960s still lags the nation in income. Average income in those states is 20% lower than the national average. There is a penalty for failing to invest in and include as many people in your community as you can.
The great thing about labor as the limit to progress is that a community intent on realizing its potential is going to be intent on investing in as many of its members as it can – regardless of their accents, eyelids, pigment, hair, genitalia or with whom they use it. By our standards, LBJ was racist, sexist and homophobic. He was – as a four-year-old in a tree once pointed out - an SOB. And yet he lived at a point in history in which progress meant investing in everyone because with labor as the limit, a community could not afford to exclude anyone and he was smart enough to know this and champion the policies that changed it.
We’re bigger for LBJ’s policies. “We” literally encompasses all of us now instead of just a portion of us. And we’re better for it.