Posts Tagged ‘LBJ’

Forget Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ’s public service reforms show Labour the way to do more with less

27/01/2014, 05:24:10 PM

by Rich Durber

Ed Balls’ speech over the weekend announcing that Labour will aim to run a surplus by the end of the next parliament raises significant questions about public service reform. No matter whether you viewed the pledge as necessary political positioning or not, to make it a reality the next Labour government will need to significantly reform the state, without more money to spend.

There has been much talk in Labour circles over the past few days of Theodore Roosevelt. Commentators and activists alike have been debating the merits of ‘trust busting’ since Ed Miliband’s speech on banking reform. While the Roosevelt comparisons are certainly a fitting parallel for Ed’s plans to reform the private sector, it is less clear thus far what the party’s plans are for the public sector.

This has not always been the case. When he launched his campaign to be leader of the Labour party Miliband declared: “we need a new way of thinking about the state…We need to show we are the people who can reform the state to make it more accountable and give power away.” After Ed Balls’ speech it is clear that this strand of thinking will need to be revisited.

In doing so perhaps it is a different American president, Lyndon Johnson rather than Roosevelt, from whom Labour should draw inspiration. As fifty years ago this month he showed how the state can extend opportunity, even while reducing spending.

It was January 1964 when Johnson used his first State of the Union address to declare “unconditional war on poverty in America”. The chief weapons in that war, Johnson said, would be “better schools, better health, better homes, better training, and better job opportunities”. Its aim was “to help each and every American citizen fulfil his basic hopes…for a fair chance to make good”.


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The Sunday review: The years of Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power by Robert A Caro

22/07/2012, 08:00:33 AM

by Anthony Painter

The latest volume of Robert A Caro’s genre re-defining biography of Lyndon Johnson is structured around the mortal battle of two political foes. This conflict comprises both dependence and an antipathy that will define their historical legacy. They can never rid themselves of one another. For all their qualities, their weaknesses are plain and revealed in their fraught interaction. Each would love to be free but their fates have become entwined. It consumes the final decades of both men’s lives. The men to which I refer are, of course, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert A Caro.

Whilst the real story lies beneath, the narrative of the book itself is centred on two main characters whose destinies swing around the pivot of John F Kennedy’s assassination. That is Johnson and Robert F Kennedy. Their mutual loathing is seemingly without bound. From the humiliation of the vice-presidency, Johnson emerges, in this volume at least, as a dominant President with a legislative agenda the like of which hadn’t been seen since the New Deal nor since. JFK’s domestic programme was log-jammed and going nowhere. Johnson, the re-emerging master that we saw in volume three, reprises his capacity for institutional transformation and turns the presidency in an active direction. He palpably fails to do the same whilst in vice-presidential office.

John Adams once referred to his position as Vice-President thus, “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” This is the basic premise of the new Armando Iannucci created HBO drama, Veep. Moments of Johnson’s vice-presidency such as when he collapses in a heap while dancing with one of JFK’s mistresses at a socialite-laden Georgetown party might be comedic if they weren’t so painfully tragic. A dominant theme of Caro’s four volumes is the capacity for Johnson to find power in any situation – yet he fails to do this as Vice-President. He physically and emotionally crumbles as a result as he had a tendency to do from time to time.

Johnson’s plight is made all the worse on account of the social clash of cultures as the entitled Kennedys condescend and belittle the man from the Hill Country; JFK refers to him as a bumpkin-esque “Rufus Corpone”. In this, Johnson is frighteningly similar to Richard Nixon – forever burdened by a harsh upbringing, their fathers’ failures, with ferocious energy and drive filling the vacuum where status stood for the New England Harvard crowd. When Johnson and Bobby Kennedy have the opportunity deploy power against the other that is what they do without hesitation while all the time consumed by hate, contempt and fear. At the end of this volume, it is RFK who lies emotionally, physically and politically defeated, drenched in grief. We know he is to rise again – but not yet.

Caro seems clear where his allegiances lie – he’s a JFK man. While wanting to settle the odd historical score with President Kennedy’s biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, he basically appears to be bought into the Kennedy as lost great President narrative. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis later this year and we are likely to hear a great deal about Kennedy’s diplomatic genius. We certainly get a flood of it in the passage of power. Actually, it was Krushchev who achieved far more in strategic terms through the crisis – the protection of Cuba and the removal of Jupiter air missiles from Turkey.


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