The problem with Barack Obama, people are always telling me these days, is that he just doesn't love the full contact sport of politics. He has no capacity for the inside machinations or tactical brutality we associate with a more sophisticated and celebrated president like Lyndon Johnson.
What we really need, I guess, is an executive in the mold of a Chris Christie or an Andrew Cuomo or a Rick Perry, all of whom are more extroverted and more brazen about wielding their power as governors than Obama is — and all of whom, not incidentally, are now fending off prosecutors and investigations while scrambling to keep their national ambitions afloat.
And this illustrates an interesting paradox of modern politics: We love this idea of the ruthless and effective political operator, right up until the moment we're confronted by the reality.
There are differences, of course, among the governors I just mentioned and the controversies in which they find themselves tangled. Christie's closest aides rained down havoc on the good, unsuspecting people of Fort Lee, N.J., just to prove a point about the perils of crossing the governor (though Christie has maintained he didn't know about the infamous bridge closure, and no one has yet turned up evidence to the contrary). Cuomo unceremoniously closed the doors of an anti-corruption commission he himself created less than a year earlier, arrogantly proclaiming that it was his commission and he could do what he wanted with it.
And then there's Perry, whose macho mug shot ricocheted around Twitter this week. He'll soon be indicted on charges that he tried to bully a Democratic district attorney from office after she was picked up for drunken driving, first by vetoing her state funds and then by offering to restore them only if she quit. Apparently, obnoxiousness is now a crime in Texas, albeit one of the few that can't get you executed.
But there's a common theme in all of this, which is that all three governors were doing exactly the thing Obama's Democratic detractors and sympathetic commentators so often pound him for not doing — stretching the boundaries of your authority in order to outmaneuver adversaries and ultimately get your way. (Ironically, it's also the thing Republicans insist Obama actually does too often, which is why they're suing him, but that's another story.)
You want the kind of elected executive who's going to make the machine work the way he wants it to, even if he has to grab a sledgehammer and bang a few parts into place? Well, this is what it looks like. It's not especially ennobling, and it never was.
Lately there's a lot of admiration for Johnson, who's often portrayed, in this age of entrenched dysfunction and colorless politicians, as a charismatic, needy rogue who knew how to make Washington work. The truth is that the things Johnson did for the purpose of amassing power would make Rick Perry quiver like a little girl.
Take it from Robert Caro, who is Johnson's foremost biographer and probably our greatest living authority on the use of power, period. "Johnson's life is filled with incidents of cruelty — savagery, really — that go beyond any specific relationship to a noble cause," Caro told me this week, taking a short break from writing his fifth volume on the Johnsonian era. "There are things Johnson does that you would just recoil at, no matter how used to ruthless politics you think you are."
Caro reminded me of the example of Leland Olds, on whom he spent three chapters in "Master of the Senate," his third installment. A passionate New Dealer, Olds was up for another term as federal power commissioner in 1949. The oil companies loathed him, in part because he advocated price controls on the growing supply of natural gas.
Johnson was a brand-new senator who felt the need to prove himself to the Texas-based oilmen. So even while soothingly reassuring liberals that he would protect Olds, Johnson schemed to disgrace him publicly by airing old and bogus claims of communism — something he did with such cunning and efficiency that the man, his family and his reputation were irreparably destroyed in a matter of days.
"I hope you understand there's nothing personal in this," Johnson told Olds during a break in the hearings, according to Caro. "It's only politics, you know."
Yet somehow Johnson is the president we'd like Obama to be. And Perry is just a perp.
There are reasons we mythologize one kind of bully while disdaining the other. Caro makes the critical point that Johnson manifested his ugliness — or at least the evidence of it we tend to remember — in the service of "some of the noblest advancements in government in the 20th century." When a guy uses brute force to enact civil rights, Medicaid and Medicare, and a war on poverty, maybe you tend to look the other way.
Today's embattled governors, too, have done their share of intimidating in the service of significant accomplishments; Christie won bipartisan compromise of a controversial plan to reform public pensions, and Cuomo did the same on gay marriage. But what gets the most attention are the petty transgressions that come with no higher purpose.
What we want, apparently, is a swaggering politician who can be maniacally manipulative when it comes to the big and noble stuff, but who can simply switch it off when the stakes aren't as grand. Good luck with that.
But there's another explanation for why we're so much less tolerant now of exactly the kind of politics we extol in long-dead leaders. And that has a lot to do with what came after the Great Society.
Caro is just getting around to exploring Johnson's cataclysmic role in Vietnam in his work, but as he points out, that period of Johnson's presidency marked an outright perversion of power more than a righteous wielding of it. And thus began the long unraveling of our trust in public officials. Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, dramatically accelerated the process.
At this point, 40 years after Nixon resigned, our distrust for politicians and our political institutions is so profound and ingrained in the culture that it's hard to imagine our giving any elected leader the license to scheme that Johnson enjoyed. And in this moment of the 60-second news cycle, when every backroom confrontation seems to spill into public view instantaneously, the sordid means of politics almost always overwhelm the end.
If our idealized version of Johnson himself suddenly came back to life and reappeared on the scene today, we wouldn't admire him as roguishly competent. We'd probably refer him to a grand jury.
It may be, as Caro suggests, that lesser politicians simply get less latitude. "Real political genius doesn't come along very often," he told me. "How long has it been since we had a leader who not only enunciated what government should do and laid our specific ends that people could unite behind, but also had the tactics and the determination to achieve those ends?"
But it might also be that if Obama really were this type of political genius, we'd reject and revile him. Such is the contradiction in our politics. We pine for leaders who strong-arm the system, just as long as they don't get caught.