James MacGregor Burns, Jack Valenti

Means and Ends In American Politics

VTR Date: March 17, 1990

Guests: Burns, James MacGregor; Valenti, Jack


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: James MacGregor Burns and Jack Valenti
Title: “Means and Ends in American Politics”
VTR: 3/17/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…where many times over the past three decades and more, great books, and great men and women, have provided our weekly theme. And as I began one such volume about one such man just the other week, I was touched, moved really more than I can possibly indicate – indeed, moved to tears of wonderment and remembrance and profound appreciation in what seem now to be these comparatively leaderless days of our years – moved by its author’s early evocation of what he himself refers to as the “bright thread” of achievement that gleams through the career of his outsize subject: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

He wrote, “Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of Black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.. he was to call the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 his ‘Greatest Accomplishment.’ And the speech in which he presented that Act to Congress with the ringing words that touched a nation’s conscience was indeed the high-water mark of the tides of social justice in his administration. And there remain other legislative monuments to the accomplishments of the President who figuratively linked his arms with the arms of the civil Rights crusaders and clasped their hands in his: during the five years of the Johnson Presidency, great strides were made toward ending discrimination in public accommodations, and strides, if not great, at least the first, toward ending discrimination in education, employment, even in private housing. Thurgood Marshall, a Black face at last above the black robes of the high court, through appointment by Lyndon Johnson, was speaking not of his own advancement but of that of his people when he said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President. You didn’t wait for the times. You made them.’ In other areas of domestic social welfare as well, Johnson rammed to passage laws of which Liberals had dreamed for decades: sixty separate education laws for the young and the poor; legislation that provided medical care for the aged and the poor. But his very declaration of that war (on poverty) was a reminder –as was his overall concept of a ‘Great Society’ – of government’s responsibility to do more than stand idly by without at least attempting to strike blows against ignorance and disease and want. The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson marked the legislative realization of many of the liberal aspirations of the 20th century: in storming, on behalf of those laws, long-held bastions of Congressional hostility to social-welfare programs, he used the power of the Presidency for purposes as noble as any in American history.”

What an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary American leader! Yet Means of Ascent (its title, of course, playing on the matter of ends justifying means), this totally fascinating second volume of Pulitzer-prize winning, biographer-historian Robert Caro’s account of “the years of Lyndon Johnson,” elicits the opprobrium of many LBJ admirers even more than did Caro’s first book on the President, The Path to Power. Now perhaps that’s because what the author himself considers the “bright threads,” and the dark threads, of his subject’s lifetime quest for, and then use of, power do not run together here in this volume. Indeed, the author notes that “the two threads do not run side by side in this volume. The bright one is missing.”

Well, Robert Caro will soon grace this table himself. But today I’ve asked two other distinguished Americans to discuss LBJ with me…both the bright and the dark threads.

First, my long-time friend and professional colleague Jack Valenti, well-known as the skilled President of the Motion Picture Association of America…but equally remembered as LBJ’s intimately close White House Aide who served his fellow Texan with great skill and unabashed loyalty, as reflected in his own tribute to LBJ, W.W. Norton’s A Very Human President.

And my, too, my longer-time friend and intellectual colleague, Pulitzer-prize winning historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns, whose monumental Alfred Knopf trilogy The American Experiment has, magnificent volume by magnificent volume over the years been the subject of so many richly rewarding OPEN MIND discussions.

When they were here together nearly a decade ago, my guests talked feelingly about the growing power of communications in public as well as private life. And I would ask them now whether this LBJ volume isn’t also about communications, its use (and perhaps its misuse) at a watershed period in American life. Jack?

Valenti: Well, you were reading from the introduction to Caro’s second volume, and when he gets into the actual book itself, I find it a contradiction because as David Broder pointed out in his review of this book in the Washington Post what Caro does is deliberately set up a former Governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson as a deity and then sets Johnson up beside him as the slimiest, Satan that ever walked the earth and Broder says, and I confirm…that this is not an objective biographer’s assumed normalities at play here. But really the animus of a man for Johnson that is, that is the most striking of any I’ve ever seen. My only comment would be “why would this man, Caro, want to spend 15 years of his life writing about a man he so thoroughly despises, and whose reputation he is so passionately bend on destroying?” That is a query that, that maybe psychiatrists’ murky distractions would have to, would have to clear up for us. But I find it, I find it odd.

Heffner: Passing strange. Jim, you’re the biographer of FDR, and of John Kennedy, how’s your…what is your response to what Jack now says?

Burns: Well, I have responded to this volume and now to Jack as a political scientist, in the sense that even though the biographical detail, right or wrong is fascinating, when I read about this whole aspect of American politics, in this case Texas politics, I think much more about the system in which these people are operating than I do about any individual failings. My argument, as you may remember from previous discussions, is that the American political system is so fragmented and so disorganized and so money-oriented, so factional that any person who wants to do good in this world, who wants to get into a position to do good, which is what LBJ wanted, has to go through all kinds of devious and dubious operations to do it. And I wasn’t reflecting just on LBJ, I was thinking of people like FDR. You may remember the book I wrote on FDR, it was called The Lion and the Fox. The fox like aspect of Roosevelt, the deceptions of Roosevelt, the manipulation by Roosevelt. I wrote a biography about Jack Kennedy and again I was thinking much more in terms of the pressures that American politics puts on ambitious men that force them to turn to devices that do not look very good, in themselves, but when you compare, whether it’s Roosevelt or Kennedy or Johnson, when you compare the contributions that they made as President, their failings along the way, their shortcuts, whatever dubious things they did along the way, to my mind, pale beside the great achievements.

Valenti: I, I share Jim Burns’ statement on that. You see, all public men are flawed. I don’t know any that are…whose conscience is preserved against the need for contrition, whose ideals are still fully intact, they don’t exist. And I’m always reminded of a wonderful quote that…from Seneca who served this mad Emperor, Nero, and when Nero said he was divine, Seneca said “Sire, no man is without fault, and the man who declares himself to be innocent does so with reference to a witness and not his conscience.” And…what I quarrel with Caro’s book about is not that he talks about a stolen election in 1948, of course, votes were stolen. What I find reprehensible is the fact that he says Johnson stole and his saintly governor didn’t steal, when everybody in Texas…I was born in Texas, reared there, participated in that ’48 campaign…on the periphery, I wasn’t in the Johnson inner circle at that time, but Stevenson’s men were stealing votes by the bucketful in east Texas, and the Johnson people were stealing them in south Texas, and it just so happens that the Johnson people stole 88 more votes than the Stevenson people. Now I, I’m not for one moment going to condone the stealing of votes, but you shouldn’t judge a man of one age by the standards of another. Although I’m not sure the standards of this age are any more free of sin than they were back then. But I…I just find it…this unamiable aberrations of Caro about trying to focus on Johnson is really, is the slimiest individual that you can imagine. This book is replete with…every page is dipped in curare, every paragraph is swarming with a kind of malevolent fury about Johnson. And, god knows, he had faults, Dick…I knew him intimately and as…there’s nothing that you could say about Johnson that didn’t have some tinge of truth, except one thing, he was never dull.

Heffner, Burns: (laughter)

Valenti: But…to heap it on with huge ladles as Caro does. I think it goes beyond what I think are the assumed boundaries of an objective biographer, and for that I, I find him guilty.

Heffner: Suppose Coke Stevenson had not surfaced in this book as Gary Cooper and every other Western hero you can think of, and the emphasis had been upon simply that aspect of Johnson’s campaign that does surface. What would you have said then?

Valenti: Well, but you would have to, you would have to bring to the surface the fact that this was a hard-fought campaign in which Johnson overcame extraordinary odds to come from way behind to win this election. I will say this to you, as one who was there, if Stevenson hadn’t stolen east Texas, and Johnson hadn’t stolen south Texas, Johnson would have beaten him because the momentum was his. Stevenson ran a fragmented, old-fashioned Conestoga wagon campaign and Johnson was waging one via helicopter and the media. And it was a totally different campaign. But what I’m saying to you is that he did have…he set Stevenson up as the deity, and he sets Johnson up as the Satan. As a matter of fact, the only omission in this book is that Coke Stevenson didn’t rise on the third day after his death.

Heffner, Burns: (laughter)

Valenti: Now that, I think was a slight lacuna, as the academicians would say. But, that’s not it. The whole business of the radio station and everything else…there is no connection, no smoking gun…it is associative evidence. He doesn’t bring out one time where he says, “yes, we have the evidence that Johnson actually put the pressure on somebody to get this radio station,” and nowhere in that book will you find it, and I read it very carefully. Nowhere will you find it. The same thing in south Texas about trying to associate Johnson, personally, which I think was redolent of Joe McCarthy. I just find that Caro, by the way, does write engagingly. I, I read his literary disembowelment of Robert Moses one time. I never knew Moses…when I got through with that book, I was so…I watched Moses drawn and quartered before my eyes. His engaging prose, like a scalpel jus shredded the skin of Moses and peeled back the skin until he looked like some white-bellied fish flapping about helplessly on every page, and I thought what an evil man, what a bad man. Now I find out that this is one of Mr. Caro’s literary excursions, this is what he does to public men. But I know more about Johnson than I did about my barren observation of Moses.

Heffner: Caro will be here, of course, to respond to, to those notions, but I’m so interested Jim in jack’s observation that there’s a different kind of political campaign and your observation that in a sense you would find these unpleasant aspects…I would say you would make the notion…present the notion throughout American history. Men sought power, they sought power through the means available. Different for Johnson as a new politician?

Burns: Yes, I assume that men seek power. They wouldn’t be in this terrible crucible if they were not terribly ambitious. I’m interested in what they have to do to win office, and the different system in different countries. In Britain it’s very different. As you know. Getting to be a member of the House of Commons is fairly straight forward and simple, and there’s not much money involved. In this country I just talked the other day to a young woman who ran for Congress in Nebraska, didn’t get any help from the men who ran the party, still wants to go into politics, would like to run for Congress and says she has to raise $600,000. She’s a college teacher. Now either she fails to do this, or to raise that $600,000 she has to make arrangements with people that she probably does not want to make and would regret. I ran for Congress once. I can’t say that I was squeaky clean in everything I did. I had to cut corners, exaggerate, do the things that are called for in campaigns and I would agree with Jack…and with really what you’re saying that the price of success in this country politically is some sacrifice of one’s ideals.

Heffner: But you say “what you have to do to win campaigns,” you mean just the matter of raising money? Or…

Burns: From where you get the money and the amount of money above all, that you have to get.

Heffner: Jack, that’s something that you’ve been campaigning…

Valenti: Yes.

Heffner: about for some time now.

Valenti: I’ve said, and on your program, Dick, that I think that the current campaign financing process is a cancer in the belly of our political system, and it’s…unless we excise it by some kind of legislative surgery, it’s going to spread. And a lot of good men in the Senate and the House are trying to do something about it. And I think Lyndon Johnson was one of the first to exploit the use of money in politics in ways that were perfectly legal at that time, I might add. There was no reporting mechanism, you could literally give money to a political candidate, as Jim knows, and you wouldn’t have to report it to anybody, and now you do have some disclosure. But there’s the soft money aspect that’s not subject to disclosure…it’s all…it just reeks of deception and there’s a kind of sourness about it that I think is infecting our political body.

Burns: And I would say, Dick, picking up on that, that if instead of flailing people who did have to corners and so on, and I’m talking about politicians in general, if instead of flailing them years later we could get together on doing something about this money in politics situation…we’d be doing much better than we are now.

Heffner: Yes, but this question of the “means of ascent” I detected a note in what you said before of the means justifying…ah, the ends justifying the means. Now did you…is that what you were saying about Kennedy and about FDR and about Burns running for congress?

Burns: I would say almost that. I would remind you…the question is “what justifies means if not ends” but without getting philosophical…

Heffner, Valenti: (laughter)

Burns: …about this, I don’t think that the ends justify any means, but I think one has to balance the means against the ends, and if the ends are noble, if the ends are the kind of ends you read at the beginning of this program, that, to my mind, would justify a lot of dubious means in the process.

Heffner: You see, Jack, that’s why I read that because whatever you may think of Caro I did find tears in my eyes as I read those first pages. Yes, then I went on to read the 400 more, but there was a statement of what Johnson did for this country, what he did for us all, and in Jim’s terms, so much was, not justified, maybe not even excused, but let’s ignore it, perhaps.

Valenti: Well, I think that…again I’m…

Heffner: And Caro wrote it.

Valenti: …I do share so much of what Jim Burns says and what he writes, but I know that what really counts is not how many tongues wagged about a man while he was in power or leaping to power, but whether or not 25 to 50 years after he lived, it did make a difference that he governed. And I think that’s how historians ought to gauge a man. It was said that Hitler and Churchill were the same kind of people…ambitious, and relentless and ruthless, except Hitler’s ends were ignoble and Churchill’s ends were noble. And that is the primary and supreme difference between those two men in history.

Burns: let me, if we have a minute, just mention another moral problem that you’re so concerned about, Dick…FDR. And FDR’s, to put it very bluntly, lying to the American people…this is speaking of Hitler, by the way, lying to the American people about how much the US Navy was doing to support Britain in the North Atlantic. He was very deceptive. But we come back to the ends…he, Roosevelt, and all of us were facing the most monstrous evil this world has ever known, in Nazism. To what extent do we condone Roosevelt’s slowly drawing the American people into opposition to Hitler in the light of the evil that Roosevelt faced?

Heffner: You see, in a funny way, I think that’s what Caro did with Moses, and I can’t help but feel those few pages indicate that the message is that in our society…in our politics, this is the level that is necessary. It…I mean…look, Jack, you read about Coke Stevenson here, and you know this is an impossible portrait, no one ever lived who was as good as Coke Stevenson in these pages…you know that.

Valenti: I can testify to that.

Heffner: Okay.

Valenti: I lived in Texas while he was governor.

Heffner: And Caro’s no fool, so isn’t he taking us through the paces that this is the necessary behavior in democratic times of those who would achieve leadership?

Valenti: Well, Dick, I’m not going to try to dig inside Mr. Caro’s mind, but I think his book…he goes beyond that. It is the personal Johnson that he also finds odious, not just his…the political Johnson, and maybe in his next volume suddenly Johnson will be…wear some shining garments…that maybe be riding an ass to Damascus lightning struck him somewhere along the way, I don’t know. But I do know that this book as it is now written is only faintly resembling the man I knew. He had all those flaws, but not in abundance, and not so tilted to one side as Caro makes them to be.

Heffner: Do you think American politics…that victory…achievement, and the ends or the means rather…the ends that you were talking about, Jim, require the cutting of corners, the cutting of moral corners, that in our democracy today, and the last couple of election campaigns would indicate that truthfulness certainly wasn’t…didn’t appear to be the keystone, or the cornerstone of those campaigns. Is this the nature of politics in American democracy?

Valenti: I think all Presidents lie. I think they have to. As a matter of fact, wasn’t it Churchill that also says that the truth must have a bodyguard of lies around it to protect it. I think there are some things that you simply cannot make public at the time that it happens. I saw that in the white House, so…to the extent…yes, Presidents lie. But I also think that Vietnam which was a fungus on the face of the Johnson administration…and his administration…his memory will carry that for many, many a generation, but I believe he was the greatest American president we ever had for the undereducated young, the old and the sick and poor and the black…and those people, I think, would count him to be a great American president. Now, as Jim said what he had to do to get to that spot where…as he said, “now that I got the power, I am to use,” to use it…his purpose, for ends which he thought were in the long-range best interests of this country that he had,, by solemn oath, sworn to serve.

Heffner: Jim?

Burns: I would say that American politics still requires politicians to cut corners, to do things that they don’t really want to do, and we must look at the system and improve the system and pay less attention to the individual peccadilloes.

Heffner: Can you improve the system within the framework of counting noses, and needing to do what you have to do to get the noses to count?

Burns: Well, I don’t think counting the noses at this point is a crucial problem. I think, again, it’s money…it’s the number of offices we have, the number of campaigns, the vicious primary campaigns that are conducted within parties and that destroy parties in the process. I think the whole system is simply old-fashioned in the worst sense and has to be purified, and then we can test the candidates against a purified system.

Valenti: And I think the first purification must come…must come in, in the whole campaign finance reform. That is the first and the primary step to be taken, and if it isn’t taken I fear that what Jim looks to as purification of the system, or at least a minor purification…is never going to come to pass.

Heffner: Half minute left, and I come back to the same question I always ask you when you discuss this, this way. Are we going to make those changes in time?

Valenti: I think we will make those changes. I honestly believe we will, and I think that the people are going to demand it as well as a growing avalanche of opinion within the congress itself.

Burns: I am less optimistic.

Heffner: You’re less optimistic? This is our old Max Lerner/Jim Burns notion. Jack, maybe because you’re into it so, you’ve got to be. As a President of the United States has to be…strong, optimistic, always working at it. We sit back and feel somewhat differently.

Valenti: Well, if I didn’t feel optimistic, I would feel very bleak, indeed.

Heffner: And you’re not a bleak guy, but neither are you. Thank you Jack Valenti and James MacGregor Burns for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of Omaha.