Christie, LBJ, and the bully pulpit

Do we want our politicians to be bullies? For five years, the passive legislative dithering of President Obama has made some folks -- especially liberals -- openly pine for the arm-twisting style of Lyndon Johnson, who enacted Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and other reforms of his Great Society in part through strong-arming of lawmakers.

Ezra Klein is here to ponder if voters really know what they're asking for here:

In the fourth volume of Caro’s biography, he tells the story of Margaret Mayer, a Dallas Times Herald reporter who was investigating the television station LBJ owned. Johnson had his aides call Mayer’s bosses and let slip that if Mayer kept investigating Johnson’s business, Johnson might sic the Federal Communications Commission on the Dallas Times Herald’s businesses -- which included TV and radio stations. Mayer’s bosses got the message. Her investigation was quickly terminated.

That, however, was an example of LBJ’s lighter touch. According to another story Caro recounts, Johnson had long been irritated by the coverage of Bascom Timmons, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s chief Washington correspondent. So he called the paper’s owner, Amon Carter Jr., and told him that it’d be a shame -- just a shame -- if the Fort Worth Army Depot ended up getting closed. Even worse, what if the Carswell Air Force Base were shuttered, too? Then there was the Trinity River Navigation Project, which would make the river navigable from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All these projects meant jobs, development, and, ultimately, readers and advertisers for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“You all ought to get the best damn fellow you can for the Star-Telegram,” LBJ instructed, “and I’d have a man there, when he speaks up, he doesn’t say ‘I’m Bascom Timmons.’” Carter did as he was told.

So the moral of the story is that while arms surely can be twisted for good, politicians with that magically harsh touch tend to use their powers for evil. LBJ's tactics flourished because he could get away with it, before the more independent press of the Watergate era and the every-man-for-himself journalism of the Internet age. Klein notes all this because over in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has portrayed himself as a more ethical Republican LBJ, who gets things done.

Before it  all started to become undone.

Look, I think even goo-goo types -- like me -- who want clean politicians also want to see things get done, and in the real world nothing gets done with people making deals. But there are deals and there are deals. The popular image of the "good LBJ" is calling in a congressman and telling him he won't get a new dam or a dredging project in his district unless he supports civil rights legislation. I don't know anyone who has a big problem with that type of thing.

It's important to remember that Christie did not do that. I think if he were telling lawmakers in Trenton that supporters of his brand of education reform would get more roads repaved in their districts, we'd shrug and go, "Sigh...politics," Maybe Christie has done some of that -- but that's not we're talking about today.

The New Jersey governor and his people stand accused, most recently, of telling a mayor that her suffering constituents wouldn't get storm relief dollars unless she supported a politically connected developer. And this all came out because Christie's staff is also accused of a punitive move against Fort Lee politicians -- presumably the mayor -- that instead punished thousands of innocent citizens by sticking them in a traffic jam.

LBJ may have had his evil side (The Vietnam War...have you heard of it?) but he never would have done anything that stupid. This will not end well for Chris Chrstie, and deservedly so. I don't think the public minds the painful twisting of benefit the public. But giving in to the temptation to tist arms -- and maybe break a few legs -- to benefit yourself and your cronies is unpardonable.