Lyndon Johnson was an enormously driven man.
I’m doing the Robert Caro biography of LBJ, just finishing the third of four published volumes and Johnson’s enormous will power is always on show.
After he panders to his conservative financial backers by overseeing a public lynching of Leland Olds, a brilliant economist who worked to regulate power utilities in a way that helped both consumers and the companies, tarring him with old and manipulative charges of communism, Johnson ran into Olds.
“We’re still friends, right?” he asked Olds. “After all, that was just politics.”
Johnson was sure that in politics, the ends always justified the means. What counted was getting the power so you could keep playing, so you could do some good things. What you did for power, well, that always came with a cost but it was always worth it.
After he coaxed his black driver into admitting he was hurt when people called him dehumanizing names, Johnson pounded out advice.
“You need to let that all roll off your back. You need to be like a piece of furniture.”
That sounds extremely harsh indeed until you realize it’s just a statement of the rules Johnson himself lived by. He drove all his staff incredibly hard, demanding “loyalty,” but the person he always drove hardest was himself. He did everything, everything possible to win, often beyond what we would see as the limits of human endurance.
Johnson was who his audience needed him to be. He figured out the beliefs of the person he was talking to and reflected those back, so much so that he rarely put himself on the public record in a way that would trap and bind him.
Long hours, days and years of servitude were the basis of his grasp for power. He served constituents with quick and effective responses, served other politicians by knowing the system so well that he could make it work, and served his backers by being their man, whatever he felt or believed.
What he believed, it seems to me, is that political power was a goal in itself, so whatever you did to achieve, keep and expand that power was good and justified, whatever the cost.
For a biographer, the Johnson who exists in the introspective moments, calling himself to will, is almost invisible in the sea of contradictory and amazing things he did with that will.
The real Johnson, though, was also opaque to Johnson, because, like every good salesman, he bought into his stories, believing whatever yarn he spun in a way that made his telling of it appear sincere, deep and heartfelt. If you don’t buy into the bullshit, aren’t first convinced by it, don’t pump it out with intense & heartfelt conviction, how can you possibly convince anyone else?
LBJ was my first president, and I liked him. I hated Richard Nixon; his appearance on TV scared me, but Johnson was compelling. I believed that he had a good heart, good intentions.
While Johnson took his quest to extremes, I always knew that politics is a slippery business, full of compromises, game playing, ass kissing and façades.
In high school I wanted to be a hack and I helped run my town for a congressional candidate who won against a Saltonstall, becoming the first Democrat to take the district in almost 100 years. I was offered a ride home by Senator Edward Brooke and I dated the babysitter of Michael Dukakis’ kids. Elbridge Gerry was even in my high school class, a direct descendent of the signer of the man who invented Gerrymandering.
I had visions of being PM, of being a pol myself, though those ambitions were gone by the time I entered college. By that time, I knew that I didn’t have the pure drive to be effective in politics, didn’t have the social skill and family support.
To be political in the world is always an act of will. You have to set your sights on a goal and then do whatever it takes for however long it takes to strive towards that end. Persistence and intensity are required, the ability to let attacks roll off your back and to be as solid & reliable as a piece of furniture.
It’s only politics, but for true hacks that is both a dismissal & minimizing of the everyday costs of being political and an intense article of faith about the divine calling of being political.
To be a good activist takes a strong and abiding political will. While I admire people who master that will, those who merge dreams and pragmatism enough to take the risks required to lead, my political will is not that strong.
I have seen too many people who want to engage in the politics of fear & division to want to fight with them everyday.
When I was young, I was a manipulator, using those political flackery techniques to try and get what I wanted and needed. As I matured, though, trying to find a kind of actualized authenticity, it was important for me to understand the morals of manipulation.
The line for me was honesty. When you are explicit and open about the goals you hold, the intention of your manipulation, then manipulation is powerful and legitimate. When, on the other hand, you have secret, hidden intentions, are willing to lie and defraud people to get your way, manipulation is corrupt and illicit.
Telling someone you want to convince them of their worth and then using tricks to help them see their possibilities in a new way is healthy manipulation.
Telling them you want to help them and then acting only in your own interests, sabotaging them while smiling at them is sick manipulation.
To have political will, though, on some level you need to be willing to fight fire with fire. engaging in the tit-for-tat battles to win hearts and minds. I did that for my first 15 years as an out transperson, joining in arguments and being effective as a pol.
For the last 15 years, though, I have moved to a different kind of expression. Instead of engaging in the battle-du-jour, I have decided to speak my own piece, to get out of the game and speak my own truth. While this is less valued by people who want political tools they can use in their own battle to change opinions around them, it allows me to go deeper, to not be trapped by instant effectiveness.
Activists are doing a valiant job, using their political will to barrack for change. They can often see that I own those skills, have those tools, and wonder why I don’t use them more to achieve what they tell me should be our shared goals.
For me, though, my political will just isn’t there. Instead, my discipline is focused on my spiritual will, on thinking outside the battles, having a vision of something larger and more connected.
I have seen many, many, many transpeople who tried to be political burn out in the process, their political will failing them as they realized how determined they had to be, how armoured and persistent they had to be to make real change.
There are times when I wished I had that political will, but I knew that wasn’t where my strength was. I just wasn’t willing to take dictation from someone sitting on the crapper to prove my commitment and fealty, to make one more small step towards getting a bit of power.
I am pol enough to enjoy Caro’s master work about the master politician Johnson, a man who, in the end, brought brilliant civil rights and anti-poverty programmes while being trampled by a war he could neither win or lose. The Vietnam exit strategy Johnson planned, though, was sabotaged by Richard Nixon, who convinced the corrupt South Vietnamese government to hold out for his presidency, which lined their pockets but continued a war based on political will, showing the USSR that he & Kissinger would violate US & international laws to expand an impossible to win imperialistic aggression.
Still, I never had the political will to jump into the battle for power. I was always just too liminal, too much a doubter to have the faith required.