WASHINGTON – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s recent scandals won’t impress anyone who has read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In the fourth volume of Caro’s biography, he tells the story of Margaret Mayer, a Dallas Times Herald reporter who was investigating the television station LBJ owned. Johnson had his aides call Mayer’s bosses and let slip that if Mayer kept investigating Johnson’s business, Johnson might sic the Federal Communications Commission on the Dallas Times Herald’s businesses — which included TV and radio stations. Mayer’s bosses got the message. Her investigation was quickly terminated.
That, however, was an example of LBJ’s lighter touch. According to another story Caro recounts, Johnson had long been irritated by the coverage of Bascom Timmons, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s chief Washington correspondent.
So he called the paper’s owner, Amon Carter Jr., and told him that it’d be a shame — just a shame — if the Fort Worth Army Depot ended up getting closed. Even worse, what if the Carswell Air Force Base were shuttered, too? Then there was the Trinity River Navigation Project, which would make the river navigable from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All these projects meant jobs, development and, ultimately, readers and advertisers for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“You all ought to get the best damn fellow you can for the Star-Telegram,” LBJ instructed, “and I’d have a man there, when he speaks up, he doesn’t say ‘I’m Bascom Timmons.’ ” Carter did as he was told.
President Barack Obama so often seems powerless before an intransigent Congress that it’s become common to hear people yearn for an LBJ-like executive — one who knows how to get things done.
“LBJ-nostalgia is a reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency,” wrote the Economist. That nostalgia, however, is focused more on LBJ’s victories than on his methods. If the president tried to wield power in a similar fashion today, he would be driven from office.
Christie has been a beneficiary of LBJ nostalgia. He’s a tough Republican governor in a blue state facing a Democratic legislature. He yells at people who oppose him. He swaggers across the national stage. He gets things done — including big things, such as pension reform — which encourages people to believe that maybe, just maybe, he’s a political leader who could make Washington work again.
Christie has exulted in his reputation for ruthless efficiency. “I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved,” he told the 2012 Republican National Convention. The unstated corollary, of course, is that Christie, unlike Obama, knows how to be feared. And every student of Machiavelli knows that in politics, it’s better to be feared than loved.
There have long been rumors about how Christie goes about achieving that effect. A December New York Times article tallied examples of the governor’s penchant for retribution. Alleged targets included “a former governor who was stripped of police security at public events; a Rutgers professor who lost state financing for cherished programs; a state senator whose candidate for a judgeship suddenly stalled; another senator who was disinvited from an event with the governor in his own district.” As one reporter said, Christie’s reputation for payback has been useful “in scaring off others who might dare to cross him.”
Then came revelations about lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and, more recently, allegations that Christie aides threatened to withhold hurricane relief funds from Hoboken in order to pressure the city’s mayor to expedite a development project.
Christie’s reputation for inspiring fear has turned from an asset into a liability. It once impressed the news media. Now it points the way toward future scandals. The public, too, finds these tactics noxious — and Christie has so far stayed afloat by disavowing them.
The conflict between means and ends exposes a deep tension in American political life. The public admires bullying leaders who get things done while loathing the tactics that make their achievements possible.
“A lot of the things we’ve made Lyndon Johnson a hero for are the kinds of things that if we were watching them right now we’d say are highly corrupt,” said Julian Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University. “Lyndon Johnson makes what Chris Christie did look like child’s play.”
That tension is built into the structure of our government. Americans didn’t want a king, and they didn’t want an executive who would become a king, so they created a weak presidency with few formal tools to influence Congress. Many state executive offices are similarly constructed. But because the American public still expects the executive to lead effectively and aggressively, ambitious leaders resort to informal sources of power: the ability to investigate — or at least threaten to investigate — a radio license, or withholding funds from a wayward mayor. (Snarling their traffic appears to be a very Jersey twist.)
“Lyndon Johnson understood the powers of the president are limited, so he looked to other ways of influencing people,” said Zelizer. “That meant turning to these informal tools to lean on them, intimidate them, make them believe there would be retribution.”
Christie, it seems, did some of that, too. As long as the methods were hidden and only the results public, he was applauded for it. Now that the methods are being exposed, criticism is mounting.
None of this should surprise us. We like our elected leaders to be stronger than the formal powers we give them. So they are tempted to exert power through informal means that we don’t always approve of when they’re exposed. The alternative is a disappointed electorate — and more LBJ nostalgia.
Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist.