You can guess what the fate of Lyndon Johnson would have been today. Just flip through Robert Caro’s masterful trilogy about the Texas behemoth – the final instalment, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 3 came out last summer – and you will see why he would probably have been quite unelectable.
As a senator, he would bend his more milquetoast peers to his purpose through sheer intimidation.
“Reporters in the press gallery above would see Johnson bending closer and talking in a very low voice – and they would see the other senator’s face change, as the threat was pounded in, along with Johnson’s determination to carry it out,” Caro writes. He was a serial fondler of women, peed in his office basin and bossed his aides while sitting on the toilet.
A one-time aide, George Reedy, said in a book of his own, Lyndon B Johnson: A Memoir (1982): “There was no sense in which he could be described as a pleasant man. His manners were atrocious – not just slovenly... He was a bully who would exercise merciless sarcasm on people who could not fight back but could only take it.”
Scandal-ensnared Chris Christie has none of those coarser attributes. Yet it is because he too is now being called a bully that his own White House hopes are suddenly in jeopardy. Just watch those clips of him humiliating voters in town hall meetings or calling one reporter an “idiot”. But today LBJ is a revered figure because of all he accomplished particularly on civil rights for blacks and tackling poverty.
It makes you wonder: should being a blowhard with sharp elbows and a loud mouth disqualify you from the highest office in the land or the other way about?
Brit Hume, political commentator for Fox News, had an interesting take on Christie’s current troubles, born of the revelation last week that two lanes from Fort Lee onto the George Washington Bridge were deliberately throttled last September to punish its Democrat mayor because he had refused to endorse the Governor for re-election. Politics, he said, had gone all girly.
“In this sort of feminised atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that in their private conduct, kind of old-fashioned tough guys, run some risk,” he offered. “This guy is very much an old fashioned masculine, muscular guy.”
Fox-haters pounced. When was feminised ever a bad thing? Wasn’t it the women of the US Senate who corralled the menfolk into a truce that ended the stand-off that forced a government shut-down last October?
Hume surely wasn’t suggesting political women can’t be tough. Think Thatcher’s handbag. Nancy Pelosi hasn’t survived as Minority Leader by being a soft touch.
But perhaps there is something wimpy about America’s current crop of political leaders. John Boehner, the leader of the House Republicans, blubs at the slightest provocation while his record of keeping his Tea Party wing in line is, shall we say, patchy. That he is no Frank Urquhart, the scheming House speaker in The House Cards, is a good thing of course. It’s best to stay legal. And yet.
Unfavourably comparing Barack Obama to LBJ is in some ways be facile, precisely because today is not fifty years ago. When he found himself in the White House, Johnson had the luxury of large Democrat majorities in both chambers of Congress and was propelled by a national mood of solidarity after JFK’s assassination. But many have gone there anyway griping that Mr Obama has shown himself reluctant to sully himself in the sewage of Washington politicking, grinding his foes into submission with calibrated doses of flattery and arm-twisting. This is a man who famously finds schmoozing distasteful and is deeply reluctant to fire people when they mess up. How many White House heads have rolled since the spectacular meltdown of his new healthcare web site? None yet.
You know Christie is struggling when even one of New Jersey’s best loved sons joins the stone-throwing. This was Bruce Springsteen alongside comedian Jimmy Fallon on his late night show on Tuesday with a cruelly rejigged version of his classic Born to Run. “Governor let me in, I want to be your friend, there’ll be no partisan divisions,” Springsteen sang. “Let me wrap my legs ’round your mighty ribs, relieve your stressful condition... Man I really gotta take a leak, but I can’t…I’m stuck in Governor Chris Christie’s Fort Lee, New Jersey traffic jam.”
The bridge stunt was stupid, but it arose from an attempt by Christie to gather as many endorsements for re-election as he could to ensure himself the most convincing margin of victory possible last November. His methods may on occasion have been crude, even LBJ-like, but that’s what politicians do. And in an age when America is more ungovernable than ever – and his party more fractured - might they not be just what’s needed right now?
I hope he survives this. Even if you don’t buy that he would be right for the top job just consider the sport we will have in 2016 if he wins the Republican nomination, especially if his Democrat rival turns out to be that other person who knows a thing or two about accumulating and wielding power (and happens to be a woman), Hillary Clinton.