The Man Who Killed Our Faith in the Presidency

GEORGE F. WILL

October 28, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The president was lecturing a group convened because he was distressed by conditions in nursing homes. ''And when you design toilets. . . .''

Let Joe Califano continue the story: Lyndon Johnson ''leaned on his left rump, put his elbow on the arm of his chair, took his right arm and hand, and strained to twist them as far behind himself as he could, and while grunting and poking his hand out behind his back, he continued, ' . . . make sure that you don't put the toilet paper rack way behind them so they have to wrench their backs out of place or dislocate a shoulder or get a stiff neck in order to get their hands on the toilet paper.' ''

''The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson'' is Mr. Califano's memoir of four years' toil as principal domestic policy aide to the president who worried about placement of toilet-paper dispensers. To read it as today's Democrats campaign tepidly for the office Johnson filled to overflowing is to see how far we have come from the heroic conception of the presidency that Johnson did so much to discredit.

Paradoxically, it is greatly to Johnson's credit as a man that he pushed a political style into disrepute. He seems, in retrospect, an anachronism, at once grotesque and quaint, but also more admirable than many people can comfortably acknowledge.

The adjective ''heroic'' is here descriptive rather than normative, conveying no approval of style or substance, only a scale -- a hugeness of energy and presumption. Johnson was the last president of the Age of Political Confidence, when America's economy and society seemed transparent to the gaze of, and manageable at the hands of, the central government. The

presidential style -- part Caesar, part national nanny -- pioneered by Teddy Roosevelt died at Johnson's hands.

The volcanic energy that drove Johnson to dwell on such details as toilet paper derived from two beliefs, both of which now seem childlike: Government can be as precise as a scalpel, and a president can wield it as a surgeon would.

Return, in Mr. Califano's uncritical company (the prosecution has had more than its share of whacks at Johnson), to those days of yore when a guns-and-butter president tried to wage war abroad while building a Great Society at home, and tried to hold inflation at bay by holding down the price of steel. How? By locking up and hectoring labor and management negotiators until exhaustion did the work of persuasion.

Then aluminum prices: sell government stockpiles. Copper? Dispatch Averell Harriman to Chile to roll back the world price. Shoes costing more? Slap export controls on hides. Lamb? Order the Pentagon to buy New Zealand lamb. Eggs? Johnson && ordered the Pentagon to purchase medium rather than large eggs and directed the surgeon general to talk up the cholesterol problem. Lumber? Order the government to stop buying wooden desks.

Johnson, who understood -- who felt -- the facts of poverty and racial injustice more than any other president, had the generous heart that comes from sensing life's contingencies, and the large role of luck. Seeing a drunk in Johnson City, he held his thumb and forefinger a hair apart and told Mr. Califano, ''Don't ever forget that the difference between him and me and him and you is that much.''

Hence his unsleeping overreaching, which Mr. Califano chronicles. '' . . . Johnson turned to designing a program to rebuild America's slums. . . . Johnson told me he wanted to turn America's cities into gems. . . .'' No Democrat talks like that now.

Many of today's arguments and problems, from racial quotas to entitlement-driven budget deficits, from subsidies for offensive ''art'' to subsidies for failing schools, trace their pedigrees to LBJ's presidency, the most consequential since that of his hero, FDR. The civil-rights acts, the idea of racial preferences, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid for education at all levels, environmental and consumer-protection laws, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and on and on and on -- the list is too long for one column.

The anti-Goldwater landslide of 1964 produced the 89th Congress, 1965-1966, the first since 1938 with a liberal majority sufficient to trounce the alliance of Republicans and southern Democrats. But Mr. Califano's long list of the results of the 89th ignores one: the Reagan presidency.

Mr. Califano regularly went on idea-harvesting trips to universities, foundations, Scientific American. ''We produced a three-inch-thick book of ideas.'' But by the time these liberal ideas had become law, the country had acquired some conservative ideas: that government is a blunt instrument; that it often is the problem to which it pretends to be the solution; that it is partial to the unworthy.

The word ''liberal'' was on the way to becoming an epithet.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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