March 9th, 2010

More Rahm: he’s no LBJ, except for the naked intimidation part

Still another piece on Rahm Emanuel, this one by Peter Baker and appearing in the NY Times Magazine.

Reading it made me think once again that it’s a good thing Obama has been too full of himself and his own legendary powers to listen to the advice of Emanuel the gradualist. Obama wanted to make the bigger gestures rather than the incremental ones that probably would have had more chance of achieving his goals, albeit more gradually. In other words, Obama turned up the heat on the boiling frog too quickly, and the frog (the American public) is trying to jump out—although unfortunately it may be too late.

Here’s a nice summary of Rahm’s point of view:

Emanuel counseled the new president as he set out his original agenda more than a year ago to think about moving more strategically and incrementally, according to White House insiders and key Democrats. Bite off what can be done now and keep making forward progress. Obama disagreed and insisted on pushing for a comprehensive plan…

Rahm thinks bipartisanship is a way to get what you want — to fake bipartisanship to get what you want,” a senior administration official told me. “He understands that’s a better way to get things done than to be nakedly partisan.

Many Democrats are angry that Emanuel, the veteran of Congress and noted hard-ball player, hasn’t been the equivalent of an LBJ. An unnamed Democrat is quoted in the Baker article as saying of Rahm:

We need a little less ballerina and a little more L.B.J.. For all the reputation of being able to bust knee caps, we haven’t seen nos turned to yeses.

I’m no Rahm fan, but this comparison and expectation of LBJ-like success seems both unfair and naive. LBJ had an unusually strong Congressional resume. He held lengthy tenures in both House (twelve years) and Senate (twelve years) before becoming VP and then President, and his Senate career featured leadership positions nearly the entire time. He became Senate Majority Whip only two years after he arrived there, and then advanced to Minority Leader for two years and then Majority Leader for six.

Poor Rahm (and most other members or former members of Congress) can’t begin to compare. Emanuel may be a grizzled old legislative veteran compared to Obama (who isn’t?), but not compared to Johnson or even many current members of Congress. Rahm’s entire tenure was in the House, and it lasted a total of six years. His leadership there included only the roles of head of the DCCC and then Democratic Caucus Chairman. It was well-known that he aspired to ultimately replace Pelosi as Speaker, and he was instrumental in the campaign to get more blue dog Democrats into Congress and obtain a majority for the Party, but in terms of knowledge of how House and Senate work, the interrlationships between them, and having the goods on every single member he couldn’t possibly compare to someone like LBJ.

But in one respect they do seem similar, if the wild and wooly Eric Massa’s (D-NY) description can be believed. Here’s Massa on his encounter with a naked Emanuel in the Congressional shower:

I’m sitting there showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me because I wasn’t gonna vote for the president’s budget. Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man? … It’s ridiculous.

If this is true, perhaps Emanuel took to heart all those exhortations that he be more like LBJ—although Johnson outdid him even in the somewhat narrower realm of the naked political discussion. LBJ was well-known (although the stories only came out publicly some time after his presidency was over) for insisting that aides accompany him to the toilet, where he continued to talk to them. It was a sort of test:

Johnson also upset aides with his habit of adjourning a conversation to the bathroom when the need arose. Those who were reluctant to follow him to the toilet were a source of great amusement to him. He frequently recounted a story about “one of the delicate Kennedyites who came into the bathroom with me and then found it utterly impossible to look at me while I sat there on the toilet. You’d think he had never seen those parts of the body before. For there he was, standing as far away from me as he possibly could, keeping his back toward me the whole time, trying to carry on a conversation. I could barely hear a word he said. I kept straining my ears and then finally I asked him to come a little closer to me. Then began the most ludicrous scene I had ever witnessed. Instead of simply turning around and walking over to me, he kept his face away from me and walked backward, one rickety step at a time. For a moment there I thought he was going to run right into me. It certainly made me wonder how that man had made it so far in the world.”

So, which is more intimidating: Rahm in the shower, or LBJ on the toilet? I know who would get my vote.

27 Responses to “More Rahm: he’s no LBJ, except for the naked intimidation part”

  1. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Yes, leadership is hard, especially of other people.

  2. SAB Says:

    Could be Massa was just reciting a fantasy about Rahm confronting him in the shower, the guy strikes me as a wishful thinking loon.

  3. James Says:

    I’ve said this before – but I can’t remember which blog.

    The tide in the country is headed in a conservative direction. Health savings accounts are rearranging medicine to a market oriented direction. Charter schools are doing the same thing in Education. The UAW is losing its power as the Japanese and Germans build cars in the US with non-union labor.

    The only place where liberal power is really uncontested is higher ed and the state governments. But both of those are in real trouble because of the financial crisis. That explains why the stimulus package did nothing but send money to higher ed and state governments.

    Therefore…. Obama really had no choice but to go whole hog. Incremental changes aren’t what they used to be in the 70’s. The whole liberal edifice is being eaten from within. Rahm was maybe right on the politics, but his incremental changes wouldn’t have been enough to turn the tide to the liberal path.

    To the extent that Obama is dedicated to a progressive utopia, he really had no choice.


  4. LAG Says:

    I think all this talk about Emanuel in this vein is silly and actually serves his purpose. The greatest advantage you can have in a negotiation is to have your opponent nervous or otherwise uncomfortable before the talking even starts. The Rahmbo myth, like the Nixon-is-crazy myth is being constructed.

    This works very like the old cognitive exercise: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant! Nobody is going to be able to get the naked Chief of Staff (careful use of his title) out of their head.

    This silliness has reached mega-proportions on the tee-vee. Fox just finished a piece that included a discussion of locker room etiquette re: where men may look when sent to the showers. Eyes up? Eyes down–but not too far down, please! We’re politicians.

    Let’s get eyes on target again.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    LAG: can’t we have a little silly fun?

  6. USA Says:

    So, which is more intimidating?

    Depends on the circum-stance.

  7. huxley Says:

    I’m still wondering what all this inner circle drama with Emmanuel and Axelrod is doing in the news now.

    It can’t be good for Obama and his crucial last-minute drive to push Obamacare through the House.

    I don’t see any angles on this other than bad times and disarray in the White House.

  8. huxley Says:

    On the fun side, I first heard of LBJ’s bathroom trick on a Seinfeld episode where Mr. Willhelm is instructing George on his next job assignment, walks into the bathroom. George hesitates to follow but after an uneasy wait, he goes in and a few moments later Wilhelm comes out of the stall still talking and assumes that George is fully prepped.

    The rest of the episode is the usual sitcom stuff of George pretending he knows what to do but covertly trying to trick his boss into explaining again.

  9. Promethea Says:

    Rahm is probably planting all these stories so he can run for Senator.

    It will be interesting (in the Chinese curse sort of way) to see how politics in Illinois changes as our state goes bankrupt. Maybe Rahm will be one of those politicians who are tarred and feathered or run out on a rail.

    I like thinking about the olden days. 😉

  10. vanderleun Says:

    Having voted for Johnson, suffered under Johnson, been in the streets chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ….” and having at one point been to the LBJ ranch (He was home but buried.) I think I can say, “Rahm, I knew Lyndon Johnson and you’re no Lyndon Johnson.”

  11. ahem Says:

    neo: It can’t be too late. if it is too late, we have been enslaved.

  12. Tim P Says:

    I once read a hilarious story regarding LBJ and Pierre Salinger. I am unable to confirm it and can’t even Google or Bing it up, but here goes.

    At a dinner in the White House, LBJ noticed that Salinger was not eating his beans. LBJ said, “Pierre, eat your beans.” Salinger responded that he di not really like beans. LBJ repaeted in a more stern voice, “Pierre, eat your beans.” Salinger ate the beans.

    As far as Johnson being a leader, he was as phony as Kerry, from Wikipiedia,

    ” Roosevelt felt information that flowed up the military chain of command needed to be supplemented by a highly trusted political aide. From a suggestion by Forrestal, President Roosevelt assigned Johnson to a three-man survey team of the Southwest Pacific.
    Johnson reported to General Douglas MacArthur in Australia. Johnson and two Army officers went to the 22d Bomb Group base, which was assigned the high risk mission of bombing the Japanese airbase at Lae in New Guinea. A colonel took Johnson’s original seat on one bomber, and it was shot down with no survivors. Reports vary on what happened to the B-26 Marauder carrying Johnson. Some accounts say it was also attacked by Japanese fighters but survived, while others, including other members of the flight crew, claim it turned back due to generator trouble before reaching the objective and before encountering enemy aircraft and never came under fire, which is supported by official flight records. Other airplanes that continued to the target did come under fire near the target at about the same time that Johnson’s plane was recorded as having landed back at the original airbase.
    MacArthur awarded Johnson the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest medal, although it is notable that no other members of the flight crew were awarded medals, and it is unclear what Johnson could have done in his role purely as an “observer” to deserve the medal, even if his aircraft had seen combat. Johnson’s biographer, Robert Caro, stated, “The most you can say about Lyndon Johnson and his Silver Star is that it is surely one of the most undeserved Silver Stars in history, because if you accept everything that he said, he was still in action for no more than 13 minutes and only as an observer. Men who flew many missions, brave men, never got a Silver Star.”

    Massa, Emmanuel and Johnson among others, many others portray the type of scoundrels that we have been electing to Congress. And we wonder why we have problems?

  13. LAG Says:

    Neo, I take your implied criticism like poke in the chest. I’d forgotten in heat of the moment that silliness is a key component of politics.

    Still, there are serious issues here. I want to know where the shower curtains went? Who took them, and who knew they were gone?

    I’ll bet they have shower curtains in the women’s gym.

  14. Army Mom Says:

    Well…. All I can say is EWWWWWWWWW!!! to both Rahm in the shower and LBJ in the can (actually especially LBJ in the can).

    I’m sure for both that it was no big deal. Ok, ok…bad joke. 😉

    They share an exhibitionist gene or something. I guess they never figured that no one really wants to see their junk.

  15. kevino Says:

    President Johnson had many advantages over Rahm Emanuel:
    1. As you correctly stated, LBJ was around much longer and was a keen observer. Over time, LBJ learned what made people tic and where the bodies were buried.
    2. LBJ was an imposing man who knew how to negotiate and intimidate. Rahm is just a weasel who believes his own inflated resume.
    3. When you talked to LBJ, he was the President. Rahm is just a spokesperson for a President who will renege on any deal or throw him under the bus a any moment.
    4. LBJ was a gifted politician. If Rahm knew anything about politics, he’d still be in office.

  16. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    LBJ was, as you pointed out Kevino, a man who knew where the bodies were buried and at what price people were willing to sell out. It served him well in pushing legislation through the Congress.

    It was his undoing (and the Nation’s) when it came to fighting the war in Vietnam. He believed there was an amount of pressure that could be applied to Ho Chi Minh that would bring him to the negotiation table. Ho turned out to have a much higher threshold of pressure than the average pol in Congress. Much to LBJ’s consternation.

    That he seems a giant compared to the grifters that are now serving, gives us some insight into how far we have fallen.

  17. Tatyana Says:

    Promethea, thanks for the laugh. Best comment I read today!

  18. Michael Says:

    “I want to know where the shower curtains went? Who took them, and who knew they were gone?”

    Bush, of course.

  19. Don Says:


    It seems that LBJ’s skills applied well domestically, but poorly against the Vietnamese communists.

  20. anna Says:

    I was not alive when LBJ was prez but from what I have read it appears that LBJ was fricken weird… this post reinforces that.

  21. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    Saw Massa on Beck today and he was just dancing around, named no names, and was—I though—pretty unconvincing, except when he talked about members of Congress spending 5-7 hours a day on the phone asking for contributions to pay for their next run for Congress (and, obviously, offering something in return); that I believe.

    The problem for me is that I believe that, with the coming of Obama & Co. and the Chicago way, they have absolutely no compunction or hesitation about doing whatever it takes, no matter how immoral or unethical or even illegal, to get their way, and that they would stop at nothing to get rid of one more vote against health care reform—if Massa was truly going to vote against health care reform. Did they orchestrate all this? Given what they have done so far, my guess is yes, because I believe that they could do it and would do it if it was to their benefit.

    So, do I believe Obama & Co. would take something that was perhaps stupid, immature and not the best behavior and twist it into immoral and perhaps even criminal behavior? Sure they would. Would Raum Emanuel routinely try to intimidate Congressmen? You betcha.

    What I find most telling is all the leaks about Massa from Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Leadership, from the laughably titled “Ethics Committee” and from the MSM, especially when contrasted with how closed mouthed those same sources have been about Charley Rangel’s many ethics violations. If I recall correctly, it was only just a few days ago that we learned even a few details about just what one of the investigations of Rangel was all about.

  22. Julia NYC Says:

    yes, that Rahm is a sly fox. Incremental change would be the way to go, that would be the best way to handle the people. He understands this because he’s actually American, and understands the public more than his boss. Thank God Obama is blowing it and scaring everyone to death. They’re finally taking notice of this guy, and are not too happy about it.

  23. Wm Lawrence Says:

    I’m amazed at how homophobic the democrats in congress have become (selectively of course). There are a number of Dems whose ethics records are worse than what we’ve heard about Massa, but if you vote the right way…

    As for the shower scene, a quick flick with the back of the hand will usually encourage a more modest demeanor. Its tough to be macho with a welt on your willy.

  24. betsybounds Says:

    Neo says, “. . . if the wild and wooly Eric Massa’s (D-NY) description can be believed.”

    What’s that old line, again? . . . Oh yeah–“You can’t make this stuff up.”

  25. CV Says:

    Agree with betsybounds…the Massa story is almost too crazy to make up. Plus, it is consistent with Rahm’s “workstyle,” shall we say.

    Massa is not exactly a paragon of rectitude himself, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as the saying goes.

    I was watching Morning Joe today when they aired a clip from Glenn Beck regarding the shower story. Every one dismissed it out of hand, heaping scorn on both Massa and Beck.

    I think Massa probably deserves plenty of scorn, but I still find this story totally credible.

  26. huxley Says:

    “America, I have to shoot straight with you, I think I have wasted your time.”

    — Glenn Beck about his interview with Eric Massa

    That’s refreshing. Would that more talk show hosts were that candid.

  27. huxley Says:

    …Obama & Co. and the Chicago way, they have absolutely no compunction or hesitation about doing whatever it takes, no matter how immoral or unethical or even illegal, to get their way, and that they would stop at nothing to get rid of one more vote against health care reform

    Seems to me that going Full Chicago would involve a healthy enforcer component of beatings, gunplay and cement water wear.

    I can get pretty cynical about the ways of American politicians, but apparently there are some limits.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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