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Lyndon Johnson

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An Editorial By Sam the Eagle.

“When you think about the Great Society and this dream for a better country, Sesame Street fits so neatly into that because it was created for children who weren’t getting read to at night, who didn’t have little record players at home and weren’t listening to music. It was created for those children who didn’t have the preparation at home that other children in other circumstances were getting,” said Michael Davis, the author of ‘Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.'”

Like Sesame Street? Thank LBJ. The WP’s Katie Zezima looks at the show’s debt to the Great Society. “Sesame Street…was looked at as an opportunity to bring together people who worked in fields including social science, children’s literature, psychology, art and other places to build a learning curriculum disguised as a television show.”

A Four-Year House?


“I will ask you to make it possible for members of the House of Representatives to work more effectively in the service of the nation through a constitutional amendment extending the term of a Congressman to four years, concurrent with that of the President.” An interesting recent find by Greg Giroux of Bloomberg News. In the 1966 State of the Union, Lyndon Johnson called for a constitutional amendment to change House terms to four years.

Hrm…there’s one you don’t hear much about these days. So every incoming President (presuming he or she has coattails) would likely have an operational majority in the House for a longer period of time — so long, disasters like 2010 — and House members would have less need for constant campaigning and fund-raising. At the same time, you’re further insulating the House from electoral upheaval (which is kind of the point), and thus aggravating the possibility that a room full of millionaires will be unaccountable to the public. I’ll have to think on it.

The Wisdom of the Elders.

“Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance? Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of a governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism.”

Assessing the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, Mike Konczal makes the case for returning to the old ways. “[T]he Category B grouping, which we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society…creates a universal floor so that individuals don’t experience basic welfare goods as commodities to buy and sell themselves…My man Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not have known about JavaScript and agile programming, but he knew a few things about the public provisioning of social insurance, and he realized the second category, while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.”

Of course, Social Security had rollout problems too. And progressives at the time definitely lamented the concessions that were made as Social Security evolved from bill to law, including the exclusion of agricultural and domestic laborers [re: African-Americans] from the law. (Frances Perkins: “The whole thing has been chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”)

That being said, I think it’s important to keep this in mind every time the right starts complaining about byzantine complexities in the Affordable Care Act: We could’ve avoided many of these issues if this change-bringing administration hadn’t immediately ruled out the obvious progressive solution to the health care problem — a single-payer system of Medicare-for-all, like most other advanced industrialized nations enjoy, perhaps phased in with an immediate voluntary buy-in and a gradual lowering of the coverage age.

Instead, we adopted the Republicans’ proposal, the marketplace/exchanges plan originally conceived by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, without even including a public option to keep the insurers honest. And what’d we get for this ginormous unforced concession to the right? Nothing. Republicans still didn’t support the health care law in 2010, and they’ve screamed holy hell that it’s tyrannical government socialism for the past three-odd years — even though it was their plan to begin with.

Now, they’re deliberately sabotaging implementation of the ACA and trying to pin every misstep, including this rather sad website #fail, as a failure of the liberal project. As Konczal aptly points out, what’s failing here is the NEO-liberal project — the desire to embrace public-private, technocratic conservative ideas of a generation ago (see also: cap & trade), in the hopes that today’s conservatives will somehow be intellectually honest enough to support them too. That is a sucker’s bet every time.

One other important takeaway from this article: “[I]f all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, ‘Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.'”

In other words, here again conservatives are decrying exactly what they ostensibly espouse. Perhaps a better way forward on fundamental pieces of legislation, instead of playing Lucy and the football with the Republicans, is to try to enact our own ideas from now on.

Update: In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Morgan makes much the same argument: “The real source of Obamacare’s current problems lies in the law’s complexity. A straightforward way to assure coverage would have been to extend an existing, well-worn program to more people…In the United States, [due to] political antipathy to government programs…policymakers regularly rig up complex public-private, and often federal-state, arrangements that are opaque to the public, difficult to administer, and inefficient in their operation.”

The Patriot.

As gripping in its own way as a cloak-and-dagger thriller or John Grisham procedural, Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America, by co-directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith and about the famous Rand analyst turned Pentagon Papers whistleblower, is a smart, tautly-made conjuring of recent American history that’s well worth the trip. And, fortunately for me, it’s also a perfect movie to contemplate and write about this President’s Day.

On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)

Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.

But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.

The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)

And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.

I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.

Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)

But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.

Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.

Backing into a Quagmire.

“I will tell you the more I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell it looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea […] I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.” Also via Greenwald today and in light of Obama’s upcoming decision on Afghanistan, former LBJ aide Bill Moyers painstakingly pieces together how his old boss made the decision to escalate in Vietnam. “We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.

To the Promised Land.

“‘The world is a tough place,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘You’re never going to get out of it alive.‘” A damn dirty ape no longer, Charlton Heston, 1923-2008. (Between this and Buckley, it’s been a bad year so far for the patriarchs of conservatism.)

Update: Hmmm. After reading up on him further, it seems Heston (nee John Carter!) was a late-comer to the conservative movement, and even to the NRA philosophy: “In his earlier years, Heston was a liberal Democrat, campaigning for Presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. A civil rights activist, he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights march held in Washington, D.C. in 1963…In 1968, following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Heston…called for public support for President Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968…He was also an opponent of McCarthyism and racial segregation, which he saw as only helping the cause of Communism worldwide. He opposed the Vietnam War and considered Richard Nixon a disaster for America. He turned down John Wayne’s offer of a role in The Alamo, because the film was a right-wing allegory for the Cold War.

Edwards Steps In.

“‘As someone who grew up in the segregated South, I feel an enormous amount of pride when I see the success that Senator Barack Obama is having in this campaign,’ said Edwards. He then added, with a laugh: ‘Some days I wish he was having a little less success.” In South Carolina, John Edwards gives his take on recent events. ““I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that…Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long and are living a fairy tale.

Permission to Come Aboard.

Since the birth of our nation change has been won by young presidents and young leaders who have shown that experience is not defined by time in Washington and years in office. It is defined by wisdom and instinct and vision…The only charge that rings false is the one that tells you not to hope for a better America. Don’t let anyone tell you to accept the downsizing of the American dream.” Barack Obama picks up a few more endorsements in Sen. John Kerry (and more importantly, his voter list and organization), South Dakota Senators Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, and Congressman George Miller (which some see as a nod from Speaker Pelosi, although Pelosi clarified again today that she plans not to endorse anyone.) In the meantime, while a new poll has Obama up 12 in South Carolina (not that polls mean much anymore, of course), South Carolina’s leading Democrat (and my old congressman) Jim Clyburn still hasn’t officially picked his candidate. “Clyburn, continuing to be coy about his endorsement, often tells reporters that he’s made up his mind, but never offers a name. Most signs, though, point to Obama.

Update: “To call that dream [of an Obama presidency] a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us.” No official word yet, but Clyburn suggests again he’s leaning Obama now, in part because of the Clintons’ dismaying behavior in New Hampshire. Speaking of Senator Clinton’s enthronement of LBJ as the civil rights ideal: “‘We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,’ said Mr. Clyburn, who was shaped by his searing experiences as a youth in the segregated South and his own activism in those days. ‘It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.‘”

Update 2: I posted more about Clyburn’s remarks — and Clinton’s view of history — here.

“False Hopes” before the Jury of History.

“‘What does that mean, false hopes?’ he said at Claremont, the start of a 720-word summation about ‘false hope’ he repeated almost word for word during the day. ‘How have we made progress in this country? Look, did John F. Kennedy look at the moon and say, ‘Ah, it’s too far?’ We can’t do that. We need a reality check. Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘You know, this dream thing, it’s a false hope. We can’t expect equality.’ ‘False hopes. Let me tell you something about hope. I do talk about hope quite a bit. Out of necessity. There is no oddsmaker who would have said that I would be standing here when I was born in 1961.’” Invoking JFK and MLK, Obama turns Clinton’s dismaying “false hopes” barb into campaign music. (And, hey, Al Smith is in there too: “We are happy warriors for change,” Obama cried at a rally in Lebanon.“)

For her part, Senator Clinton also went to the historical analogy well of late and came back with…Lyndon Johnson? “‘Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,’ Clinton said. ‘It took a president to get it done.’” (One of her introducers took it all a bit far and brought up Kennedy’s murder: “‘Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually’ passed the civil rights legislation.” As my sister-in-law Lotta also noted recently, Not Cool.) At any rate, Clinton’s factual grasp of history is basically sound, if dismayingly top-heavy. In the inspiration department, however, LBJ probably isn’t going to get it done.

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