Motives, Principles, and Political Leadership

Paul Waldman's post about the uselessness of motives in evaluating politicians reminds me of a question a student asked me this week when assessing the Johnson administration. To paraphrase, my student said that his impression was that while LBJ may have signed two important civil rights bills, his motives for doing so were far from altruistic. My answer was that 1) this is right, but 2) I don't mean that as a criticism of LBJ.

One way of thinking about the importance of motives and principles is to consider Lincoln and slavery. While Lincoln was opposed to slavery in principle, the way he considered and dealt with slavery as a public figure was always intertwined with political considerations and compromises with evil. Injecting slavery into national political discourse was, among other things, a brilliant act of political entrepreneurship by the Republican Party. Lincoln was never an abolitionist, and consistently thought that the federal government should not interfere with slavery in the states. The Emancipation Proclamation was surely motivated in part by antislavery principles, but it was also motivated by the fact that the Union Army needed African American troops and the necessity to keep European countries from siding with the Confederacy. But to say that Lincoln always had political motivations isn't a qualification of his greatness; it was his greatness. He freed the slaves; John Brown, who had much purer antislavery motives, didn't, and dozens of John Browns wouldn't have.

And one can say the same thing about Johnson. Johnson—as Robert Caro's often brilliant ongoing biography makes clear—always believed that it was never a politician's job to stand on principle as an end in itself. But Caro's schematic of a "light" and "dark" LBJ fails him when it comes to evaluating LBJ's civil rights record. The "dark" LBJ, Caro reminds us many times, had a perfect record of voting against civil rights legislation before 1957. But the apparent paradox vanishes if we more usefully amend this to say that LBJ had "a perfect record of casting (politically beneficial) votes against civil rights legislation (that had a 0 percent chance of passing because LBJ wasn't yet a powerful Senate majority leader.)" The LBJ who voted against no-hope anti-lynching legislation was the same LBJ as the one who signed the Voting Rights Act—the Johnson who was never a white supremacist despite growing up in Texas Hill Country in the 1920s. He was a politician who had no use for noble losses, but when he had actual power in the Senate he passed the best civil rights bill that was possible, and as president he did far more for civil rights than could have been expected when he took office (and far more than his martyred predecessor.)

Does this mean that the civil rights record of the "good" LBJ had pure motives? Of course not. Did he ram (largely symbolic) civil rights legislation through as Senate majority leader (and refuse to sign the Southern Manifesto) in part because of his national political ambitions? Sure. Was his remarkable civil rights record as president partly the result of unprincipled motivations such as the importance of the legislation to key Democratic constituencies and his desire to show that he could do things that Jack and Bobby Kennedy were never able to? Absolutely. But is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. When evaluating politicians, as Paul says, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and being a good person has very little to do with being an effective political leader either way.

You may also like