09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Barack Can't Do What Lyndon Would Have: An Essay on Living in the Past

In a recent essay, Tom Johnson, a Presidential aide to Lyndon Johnson, seems to suggest that President Obama might have had better luck getting his health bill through Congress if only he followed in President Johnson's footsteps. He then lists 17 specific steps that LBJ would've taken to cajole Congress into passing the bill. I don't think any of them would work anymore.

But there is one thing that LBJ did and Tom Johnson doesn't mention that might've have made a big difference: LBJ presented Congress with a Medicare bill prepared by the administration. The bill had been crafted in 1962 for President Kennedy by Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball, one of the finest "bureaucrats" ever to serve the American public. When JFK tried to bring it to the Senate floor, he was blocked by Bob Kerr, an Oklahoma Democrat, commonly referred to as "the uncrowned king of the Senate." (The Wall Street Journal opined, "Mr. Kennedy asked; Mr. Kerr decided.") It is worth noting that in my time, there were two other Democrats who ruled the Senate with absolute authority, Richard Russell of Georgia and Lyndon Johnson, himself. Johnson was the only one who bore the formal title of "Majority Leader," but it was widely recognized that no bill got through the Senate without their support.

As an illustration of Kerr's power, I was told, in 1961, by a former law school roommate, who was in charge of writing the federal tax bill for the Treasury Department, that he was told by his boss that after the bill had been approved by both the Treasury Secretary, and the President, to take the bill over to Bob Kerr's house where Bob Kerr would tell him what to keep in the bill and what to take out. In those days, Senators, particularly as rich as Bob Kerr (Kerr-McGee), had real power.

Bob Kerr died in January, 1963, and Lyndon Johnson succeeded President Kennedy the following November. As President, LBJ carried most of his Senate clout over to the White House (Senators quivered before him), and he became, once again, the most powerful man in the Senate. His combination of legislative and executive power is unique in our history.

I will offer one example of the fear that LBJ inspired in most Senators: When Senator John Stennis, himself a powerhouse as Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, leaked a story to CBS about Defense Secretary McNamara's plan to build an electronic fence across the Vietnam border, a plan of which he greatly disapproved, he so feared Johnson's wrath that he insisted that the leak be presented in such a way that it could never be attributed to him.

Roger Mudd, who covered the Sentate for CBS, and was the recipient of the leak, took the story and Stennis' concerns to Bill Small, who ran the Washington bureau. Small honored Stennis' request by having Dan Rather, who covered the White House, report it on the air. Johnson, assuming that the leak came from someone in the White House, fired a few Kennedy loyalists, and investigated White House phone records to find out who had been talking to Dan Rather. Obviously, Stennis' fears were not groundless. To suggest that a former one term Senator, like Barack Obama, would have the same ability to scare Senators into voting for a bill that many of their constituents, and more importantly, many lobbyists, are battling, is, to say the least, unrealistic.

All this brings me to my last point: There's been a major power shift in the United States over the past forty years. Power has devolved from the Russells, Kerrs and Johnsons to the lobbyists. Calls, such as the ones Tom Johnson suggested, to this generation of the rich and powerful like Lew Wasserman, Henry Ford, Pierre du Pont and David Rockefeller, don't work anymore. Rich men no longer own Senators. Lobbyists do.

The political world of the sixties no longer exists. It's far more fragmented and complicated now. These days, lobbyists, thanks to Democratic Congressional rule changes of the 1970s, are now permitted to attend every Congressional committee and subcommittee meeting, where the lobbyists keep score on how their bought and owned representatives cast votes. It's a wonder that any legislation is enacted at all unless it carries with it a pay off to everybody on the committee.

In Tom Johnson's day, cufflinks and watches could win votes; in these highly partisan days, it takes a hell of a lot more than that.

[In full disclosure, I know and respect Tom Johnson. He was one of my successors as President of CNN.]