Tag Archives: Lyndon Johnson

Obama’s Flyover: The President Should Have Gone to West Virginia

During the blitz of World War II, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill went into the streets of London to stand with his people against the Nazis. But nowadays, our leaders are mostly absent in times of travail. After 9/11, George W. Bush took three full days to make it to New York, waiting until the coast was clear before claiming his photo-op with the firefighters and cops and rescue workers at Ground Zero. And when Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bush opted for his famous flyover, viewing the suffering from a the comfort of Airport One at 2,500 feet. 

Last week, Barack Obama continued the tradition. It seemed the president just couldn’t find the time to take puddle jumper down to Massey Coal’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia  to comfort the families of those who died in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years. Nor did Michelle Obama or even Joe Biden, who is talked about as the the administration’s liaison to working-class whites.

The governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was on hand as the futile rescue attempts took place, but but his state is such a pawn in the hands of the coal industry that it was hard to take him seriously. Today, at least, he did take the step of appointing Davitt McAteer, a longtime reformer who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under Clinton, to oversee an independent investigation into the disaster. As I wrote last week, McAteer, who headed a similar investigation after the 2006 Sago disaster killed 12 miners, is without question the best man for this job. But his work will only have meaning if the government implements–and enforces–the safety improvements he recommends.

Obama, too, has promised launch an investigation into the causes of the mine explosion. But there already have been investigations into Massey Energy’s violation of federal safety laws. This was an especially dreadful disaster because the U.S. government, which had been equipped with mine safety laws at the insistance of  reformers, wouldn’t adequately enforce them, allowing Massey to drag its feet and rack up violations until the inevitable happened. That mine was just waiting to blow up, and the feds effectively stood by and permitted a greedy company put profits ahead of its workers’ lives.

Instead of an investigation, Obama ought to call a federal grand jury to weigh criminal penalties against the owners and top officers of the company. And he ought to have taken the time to personally visit the place where 29 men died because the government–including his own administration, as well as his predecessor’s–failed to do its job.

Obama, like Bush before him, might have taken a lesson from what Lyndon Johnson did in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Betsy back in 1965–as described in this brief passage from the Louisiana Weekly:

On September 10, 1965, the day after Hurricane Betsy plowed through southeastern Louisiana, President Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans.  He went to the people, to shelters where evacuees were gathered, to neighborhoods all over the city.  There was no electricity and, so that people could see and hear him at one shelter, he took a flashlight,  shined it into his face and said into a megaphone, “My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.  I am your president.  I am here to make sure you have the help you need.”
 

Health Care Reform: What Would LBJ Do?

In my last post, I compared the current Democratic leadership to Lyndon Johnson, and speculated that if LBJ were alive today, he might have been able to get a decent health care reform bill through Congress. I suspect he could have done it without at least some of the compromises and concessions to corporate interests, which have now made the Democrats’ legislation—including the public option—so weak that it is getting close to meaningless.

800px-Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Medicare_bill%2C_with_Harry_Truman%2C_30_July%2C_1965

LBJ signs the Medicare Bill in 1965, with Harry Truman by his side

This reminded me of a post about LBJ that I wrote nearly a year ago, as Obama prepared to take office with the promise that health care reform would be among his first priorities. It refers to Johnson’s successful effort to create the Medicare and Medicaid programs–the only single-payer health care this nation has ever known. Like a lot of LBJ’s War on Poverty programs, they were far from perfect. But compared with what today’s Democratic leadership is offering, they were something close to radical, and represented a triumph of political will on Johnson’s part. 

When it came to getting legislation through Congress, LBJ—both as Senate Democratic leader and as president—had skills that make Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel, along with President Obama, look like rank amateurs. But more than this, he had the level of commitment—and the spine—required to stand up to opposing interests when it came to a basic need like health care.

I’m going to run most of that post again here, since its relevance has only increased with each passing month.

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December 2008. An NPR story earlier this week included excerpts from Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes, featuring his behind-the-scenes efforts to pass the bill that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The idea of a Medicare-type program for seniors had been debated for more than 20 years, ever since Harry Truman’s post-World War II calls for a national health care system. But it was Johnson, famous for his arm-twising skills, who finally succeeded in sheparding the legislation through Congress. He did so against the wishes of the American Medical Association and much to the chagrin of conservatives, who saw it as a step down the slippery slope toward socialized medicine.

The Oval Office tapes feature Johnson’s typically colorful language. As NPR describes it, “Just moments after [the] bill…got through a key House committee in March of 1965, Johnson sounds like he’s in no mood to celebrate. He gets on the phone to demand that legislators keep the bill moving”:

“You just tell them not to let it lay around. Do that,” Johnson barks. “They want to, but they might not,” he continues. “Then that gets the doctors organized, then they get the others organized. And that damn near killed my education bill. Letting it lay around. It stinks. It’s just like a dead cat on the door. When a committee reports it you’d better either bury that cat or get some life in it.”

The NPR story is based on an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine by David Blumenthal, who teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and served as an Obama campaign adviser on health care. Blumenthal thinks Johnson’s strategy could be instructive to the new president as he seeks to pass health care reform.

But what Johnson had going for him was not only his skill in dealing with Congress, but his  commitment to expanding Americans’ access to health care, regardless of the cost. In March 1965, he told Vice President Hubert Humphrey:

“I’ll go a 100 million or billion on health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. And education and health, I’ll spend the goddamn money.”

Separation of Powers: All Eyes Are on Obama, But It’s Congress That Needs to Sieze the Day

Now that the euphoria of the election and inauguration are over, we will soon be reminded of the messy realities that come with having three branches of government. As much as the nation is pinning its desperate hope on Obama, the new president’s success or failure at advancing new policies and changing the way government works depends first and foremost on Congress.

The burning questions of the moment have to do with money–how much to spend, and when, and for what. The president will present his stimulus package to Congess, but it is just a recommendation: All spending measures must originate in the House through the Ways and Means Committee. While they receive none of the attention given to cabinet members, the leaders of this powerful committee are no less  important than the secretary of the Treasury, or the other members of the administration who must go to it pleading for funds.

Right now Ways and Means Committee is chaired by New York’s Charles Rangel, still a forbidable figure despite a growing collection of ethics scandals. In the front tier are Pete Stark of California, Sander Levin of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington, and John Lewis of Georgia. It’s a solidly liberal lineup (most are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) that is likely to support big public works projects as well as improvements to the social safety net for the poor and the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly.

On the other side is the group of conservative Democrats in the House that calls itself the Blue Dogs. Their numbers and influence have increased in the last two elections, and they have already made it clear that in exchange for gritting their teeth and accepting a big stimulus package funded through Keynesian deficit spending, they’ll be looking for concessions over the long  term in other areas, including old-age entitlements. With 51 members, the Blue Dogs have could monkey-wrench some of Obama’s plans if they choose to vote with Republicans.

We learned just how far an uncooperative Congress can go to undermine a president back in 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution emerged from the back benches and dedicated itself to opposing (and eventually impeaching) Bill Clinton. But it’s been such a long time since we’ve had a strong, popular Democratic president along with a solid Democratic majority in Congress, it’s hard to envision what it might be like.

Those of us old enough to remember them might harken back to the early LBJ years. On the day of Obama’s inauguration, Saul Friedman, the long time reporter for major dailies who now writes about the politics of aging, recalled that time, and the vital part played by a strong, committed Congress.

The murder of John F. Kennedy had given Johnson great power and new stature when I arrived in Washington in 1965 to cover the Congress for the Knight Newspapers and the Detroit Free Press….They were an odd couple; Johnson the southerner who grew up with segregation and Humphrey, the northern liberal who had driven Strom Thurmond out of the Democratic Party on the issue of race. But together, they gave the country activist, liberal government the like of which had not been seen since the New Deal.

But…they did it with the help of a Congress, especially the Senate, filled with people who I believe were deeply committed to politics as public service. Many of them had come from service in World War II into reform politics. And like several of the Vietnam and Iraq veterans now serving, they came to make a difference.

The “names who personified what was best in American politics at that time were in the U.S. Senate,” Friedman writes. These included Humphrey’s fellow Minnesotans Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy; Michigan’s Philip A. Hart, who was called “the conscience of the Senate’; Wayne Morse, William Fulbright, and George McGovern, who all stood up against the Vietnam War; Frank Church, who would expose the abuses of the FBI and CIA; and Sam Ervin, who would help expose Watergate; as well as Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.

The Republicans, Friedman notes, “also included people of stature who believed in politics as public service.” There were also some “louts and know-nothings,” and some rabid segregationists. Nonetheless, he writes,

When the time came, and Johnson wheeled and dealed and appealed to their better nature, Republicans helped Democrats break southern filibusters and to pass a series of landmark civil rights bills, as well as the gems of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which stand today.

Friedman wonders how the new president will fare with a Congress that seems, by comparison, weak-willed and churlish. (In this light, the tragedy of Ted Kennedy’s illness becomes all the more profound.) Will Congressional Democrats, who have accomplished little since winning their majorities in 2006, heed the call to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and “begin the work of remaking America”? We’ll know soon enough.

Reviving a Dead Cat: LBJ and the Creation of Medicare

An NPR story earlier this week included excerpts from Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes, featuring his behind-the-scenes efforts to pass the bill that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The idea of a Medicare-type program for seniors had been debated for more than 20 years, ever since Harry Truman’s post-World War II calls for a national health care system. But it was Johnson, famous for his arm-twising skills, who finally succeeded in sheparding the legislation through Congress. He did so against the wishes of the American Medical Association and much to the chagrin of conservatives, who saw it as a step down the slippery slope toward socialized medicine.

The Oval Office tapes feature Johnson’s typically colorful language. As NPR describes it, “Just moments after [the] bill…got through a key House committee in March of 1965, Johnson sounds like he’s in no mood to celebrate. He gets on the phone to demand that legislators keep the bill moving”:

“You just tell them not to let it lay around. Do that,” Johnson barks. “They want to, but they might not,” he continues. “Then that gets the doctors organized, then they get the others organized. And that damn near killed my education bill. Letting it lay around. It stinks. It’s just like a dead cat on the door. When a committee reports it you’d better either bury that cat or get some life in it.”

The NPR story is based on an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine by David Blumenthal, who teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and served as an Obama campaign adviser on health care. Blumenthal thinks Johnson’s strategy–which included letting Congress take most of the credit–can be instructive to the new president as he seeks to pass health care reform.

But what Johnson had going for him was not only his skill in dealing with Congress, but his  commitment to expanding Americans’ access to health care, regardless of the cost. In March 1965, he told Vice President Hubert Humphrey:

“I’ll go a 100 million or billion on health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. And education and health, I’ll spend the goddamn money.”