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How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game

Chris Matthews

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eBook - ePub


How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game

Chris Matthews

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About This Book

How politics is played by one who knows the game... Chris Matthews has spent a quarter century on the playing field of American politics—from right-hand man of Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill to host of NBC's highest rated cable talk show Hardball. In this revised and updated edition of his political classic, he offers fascinating new stories of raw ambition, brutal rivalry, and exquisite seduction and reveals the inside rules that govern the game of power.

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Free Press




It’s Not Who You Know; It’s Who You Get to Know

They never take the time to think about what really goes on in those one-to-one sessions. They see it as rape instead of seduction; they miss the elaborate preparation that goes on before the act is finally done.
—Lyndon B. Johnson
Bobby Baker was the last fellow you would expect a young idealist of the 1960s to want to meet. An old crony of President Lyndon Johnson, he personified the worst of Washington politics. Had the dictionary contained a picture next to the word “corruption,” it would have been his. Baker had exploited his well-placed friendships and insider’s status as Secretary of the Senate to amass quiet ownership in motels, vending machine companies, housing developments and insurance companies. But by the autumn of ’68, his house of cards fallen on him, the crafty Capitol Hill aide was headed for prison on charges of tax evasion, theft and conspiracy.
True to form, Baker chose to travel first-class. With his days of freedom dwindling, he booked himself that fall on an Atlantic cruise on the luxury liner United States. Once aboard, he and his motley crew of pals and unexplained women commandeered the ship’s bar. There he comfortably assumed the role he had long played for his Senate patrons: director of entertainment.
But Bobby Baker was first and foremost a political wiseguy cynically aware of how things worked, someone who knew, on land or sea, where the bodies were buried.
Nor was he the only passenger on that crossing who valued such moxie. Elsewhere on the ship’s manifest was an impressive list of young Rhodes scholars headed for their first semester at Oxford. All knew Baker by his sordid reputation. Just one wanted to meet him. If his classmates saw Baker as the walking relic of a bygone political era, young Bill Clinton saw that and more. The boy proud to have shaken the hand of President Kennedy in the Rose Garden was by now the adult political practitioner. To the dismay of his future chums, he would spend hours in Baker’s shipboard company. Here was a political buccaneer who could steer him on his way just as Baker had once done for another ambitious young southerner of humble roots.
The story of that earlier man’s rise to power is instructive in how the world works and not just in Washington.
When I arrived in Washington, Capitol Hill was one of the most dangerous places in town. There was a dirty old map hanging in the Capitol police station marked with little X’s for all the corners, sidewalks and alleys where people had been murdered.
Life on the Hill had become so precarious that a fleabag hotel near Union Station offered a special cafeteria price to all local policemen: all they could eat for a dollar. With the constant threat of holdups, the management of the Dodge Hotel liked having the view from its cash register blotted with blue uniforms.
By the spring of ’71, the Dodge had already been targeted by the wrecking ball. It was ending its days as a cheap place for buses to stop, an affordable overnight for the senior-class trip. In the tourist guide, its one remaining star was for location.
As I would come to learn, the Dodge deserved at least one more star for history. What happened there one winter more than half a century ago belongs in the first lesson of any political education.
In the Depression days of 1931, the Dodge had become a boarding hotel, accommodating several U.S. senators and at least one Supreme Court justice. It also housed a less glittering tenantry. Two floors below the lobby level, there stretched a long corridor of cubicles, all sharing a common bath. At night this dank underworld came alive, percolating with the dreams of young bright-eyed men lucky to be working for the Congress of the United States.
One of the subterranean residents was a gawky twenty-two-year-old giant with elephantine ears who had just become secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg, Democrat of Texas. Just two weeks earlier he had been teaching high school in Houston. Now, his first night at the Dodge, he did something strange, something he would admit to biographer and intimate Doris Kearns in the months just before he died. That night, Lyndon Baines Johnson took four showers. Four times he walked towel-draped to the communal bathroom down along the hall. Four times he turned on the water and lathered up. The next morning he got up early to brush his teeth five times, with five-minute intervals in between.
The young man from Texas had a mission. There were seventy-five other congressional secretaries living in the building. He wanted to meet as many of them as possible as fast as possible.
The strategy worked. Within three months of arriving in Washington, the newcomer got himself elected Speaker of the “Little Congress,” the organization of all House staff assistants.
In this, his Washington debut, Johnson was displaying his basic political method. He was proving that getting ahead is just a matter of getting to know people. In fact, it is the exact same thing.
Before I came to understand the workings of Capitol Hill, I had a hard time comprehending how someone like Lyndon Johnson could rise to such heights. The man was hopeless on TV, sweating and squinting at the TelePrompTer with those ridiculous granddaddy glasses. His notorious personal behavior—flashing his appendectomy scar, picking his beagles up by their ears, conducting business enthroned on the john—did nothing to improve the image. Yet there he was in the turbulent 1960s telling us, his “fellow Americans,” of the grand plans he had for us. Like many a college student of the era, I was stymied by the riddle: How in a functioning democracy could this figure have climbed over dozens of appealing, able and engaging men to make war and shape peace?
In the years ahead I would come to appreciate how Johnson’s mastery of person-to-person dealings, what professionals refer to as retail politics, worked so well in the world of Congress and why it works so well in other organizations.
Lyndon Johnson grabbed and wielded power not in the bright glare of TV lights but in the personal glow of one-to-one communication. We will see later how Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan won power through radio and television. The Texan made his most important sales at the retail level, one customer at a time.
Those who pray for power have no greater role model than the towering, towel-draped figure standing and kibitzing in the Dodge Hotel bathroom back in ’31.
For Lyndon Johnson, Capitol Hill would be a wonderland of retail politics. The critical factor was the small number of people he had to deal with. In this sense it resembled the politics of any institution, whether it be a business corporation or a university faculty. Where FDR made his mark giving “fireside chats” to millions of radio listeners, LBJ worked his magic in the flesh. The smaller the group, the better. Though he spent a decade in the House of Representatives, Johnson did not become a powerhouse until reaching the Senate. It is easier to retail a hundred senators than 435 congressmen.
“From the first day on, it was obvious that it was his place—just the right size,” his longtime aide Walter Jenkins remembered.
To clock Johnson’s political ground speed in that body it is necessary to mark only two dates. He joined the Senate in 1949. He had won the job of top Democratic leader by the end of 1952.
Johnson’s march to power in the Senate began just as it had in the basement shower room back at the Dodge: he went directly to the source. To succeed at staff-level politics, he had checked into the hotel with the biggest block of votes. His grab for Senate leadership began the same way: getting a hard sense of where the power lay. As Theodore White put it, LBJ displayed an instinct for power “as primordial as a salmon’s going upstream to spawn.”
Brains as well as instinct were at work. While the minds of other newly elected senators in 1948 were awhirl with the cosmic issues they would soon be addressing in debate, Lyndon Johnson concentrated on the politics of the place. After all, the Senate was just like any other organization he had joined. There were the “whales” who ran the place, and there were the “minnows” who got swept along in their wake.
One of the lessons Johnson had learned during his apprenticeship years in the House was the importance of party cloakrooms.
The word “cloakroom” is in fact a misnomer. Members have had offices, where they can presumably leave their coats, since the early part of the last century. The contemporary function of the cloakrooms, which are closed to all but members and a few trusted staffers, is that of daytime hangout. In addition to the snack bars and the well-worn couches, the cloakrooms house a vital set of congressional switchboards and the trusty “manager of phones.” Despite his title, this person is far more than a functionary. Better than anyone else, he knows the answer to that relentless question of Capitol life: What’s going on? He knows when the day’s business will end, what’s coming up tomorrow and whether the scheduled Friday session is worth staying in town for. If you want the scuttlebutt, or simply to read the mood of Congress, you know where to go. What gas stations are to small southern towns, cloakrooms are to the Capitol. In every business there are such spots, where people forced to play roles in the workplace stand at ease and discuss the well-recognized realities.
The cloakroom is Congress’s water cooler. Lyndon Johnson, the country boy from Texas, knew the importance of such hideaways. The first thing he did after his election to the Senate was summon to his congressional office the twenty-year-old page who answered the phones in the Senate Democratic cloakroom. His name was Robert G. “Bobby” Baker, and Johnson knew this particular young man’s talent for sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of those who relied so much on him. Baker would know which senators liked to work hard and which ones wanted to get home or somewhere else. He knew the habits, the schedules, the interests, the social demands and the political priorities. That first meeting, which Johnson convened even before he was sworn in as senator, lasted two hours. “I want to know who’s the power over there,” he demanded of the page, “how you get things done, the best committees, the works.”
Years later, by then an aide to Johnson, “Bobby” Baker would make a name for himself as the premier Washington wheeler-dealer. Though scandal would later lead Johnson to disown him, Baker—a man who knew the good, the bad and the ugly in senators’ lives—was a huge and valued asset on LBJ’s rise to the top.
What Johnson learned from his new young friend was not far from what he expected: that all senators are not created equal, that within the world’s most exclusive club there existed an “Inner Club” of southern senators led indisputably by Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Jealous of its influence, this Inner Club would smash anyone or any group that challenged it. Lyndon Johnson decided then and there to “marry” Richard Russell.
He could not, of course, be too obvious in his courtship; there were other men of ambition who had tried that and learned the pain of unrequited love. Johnson would be more discreet. His first move was to get appointed to Russell’s committee, Armed Services. This would give him the excuse he needed to spend a lot of time around the senior senator without appearing to be currying favor.
That first gambit proved to be enormously successful. He soon managed to make a name for himself on Russell’s committee by going after waste and inefficiency in the Pentagon. He had found a way to be both a supporter of a strong national defense and a critic of the military establishment.
Johnson pursued his relationship with the powerful Georgian beyond the professional level. Russell, a bachelor, would have both breakfast and supper at the Capitol dining room. “I made sure that there was always one companion, one senator, who worked as hard and as long as he, and that was me, Lyndon Johnson,” he reminisced at the end. “On Sundays the House and Senate were empty, quiet and still, the streets outside were bare. It’s a tough day for a politician, especially if, like Russell, he’s all alone. I knew how he felt, for I, too, counted the hours till Monday would come again, and, knowing that, I made sure to invite Russell over for breakfast, lunch, brunch or just to read the Sunday papers. He was my mentor and I wanted to take care of him.”
It was not merely a friendship of utility. Johnson came to develop a tremendous respect for his patron. Years later he would say that the Senator from Georgia should have been president.
But Johnson clearly had his own agenda. While still a freshman senator, he was perfecting a brand of politics still celebrated among political veterans as the “Johnson treatment.”
Where the modern, wholesale politician has a tendency to broadcast to those he is addressing, as if each human being were a particle of some great undifferentiated mass, Johnson kept close track of the differences among people. He always made a point to know exactly whom he was talking to. Like the future Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and others of the old breed, he tried to be a kind of political traffic controller, always aware of the direction not only of his own vector but of all the other little dots on the screen. It may seem all the more surprising that a man with his towering ego should have climbed to such heights by studying the inner as well as the outer needs of others. Yet it was his willingness to focus on other people and their concerns, no matter how small, that contributed to the near total communication Johnson enjoyed with those he sought to influence.
Jack Brooks, a Texas congressman who had been a close friend of LBJ and knew the “Johnson treatment” firsthand, told me that it came down to an extraordinary ability to concentrate the entire mind on his target’s immediate situation. “Lyndon Johnson would convince you that your concern, no matter how small it might seem to other people, was the most important thing in the world to Lyndon Johnson.”
Playwright Larry King, author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, remembers his own experience with Johnson in 1959. At the time, King was working as an aide to Texas Congressman J. T. “Slick” Rutherford, who was very much in LBJ’s sphere of influence. One night Johnson came through the Congressman’s district as part of a tour to lock up the state for his reelection to the Senate in 1960. He planned to run for president that year and he didn’t want to have any distractions at home.
King was less than exultant when assigned to care for the visiting dignitary, and Johnson himself quickly lived up to his reputation as a demanding s.o.b. Standing over a hotel toilet, with the door wide open, the Senate Majority Leader barked out against a background of biological noises a long list of people around the country whom he wanted King to telephone “in the order I’m giving them to you!”
But King had already had his fill of the care and feeding of Lyndon B. Johnson. He left the phone list sitting on a table near the bathroom door. When Johnson reemerged, King, his Congressman and others in the local political party came to attention before a Johnson enraged by the neglected calls.
“Who did I tell to make those calls?” Johnson demanded.
King, equally wrought up, replied, “Look, Senator, the list is on the table. I’m busy enough being lackey to one member of Congress, I’m not going to be lackey to two.”
King’s boss, stricken with fear, hustled his aide out of the room, mumbling excuses about “the boy” being “tired and overworked.” “Go out and get a drink, go anywhere,” he said to King once they were safely out in the hall. “Just stay out of sight till he leaves town early tomorrow morning.”
At six o’clock the next morning, King crawled into bed. At sixten, the phone rang. “Had your coffee yet?” Through the haze, King could recognize the husky and unmistakable voice of LBJ. Arriving at the scene he had been hustled out of the night before. King was greeted by a Johnson standing in a room scattered with the morning newspapers. From the looks of things, he had already been up for an hour.
“How do you take it?” demanded the giant figure, looming over King, the pot of scalding coffee in his hand. King asked for cream and sugar. “I take it black,” Johnson said as he poured King a cup of unadulterated java.
Larry King was about to undergo the “treatment.”
“Now, I used to be a young man like you,” Johnson began, standing so close that King’s glasses were fogging, “and I know what it means to be working for someone else and yet wanting to get on and be your own boss. What’s your training?”
When King said he had been a newspaperman, Johnson was unimpressed. “Not much money in that. You should go to law school. You can always go back to journalism if you want to, but you’ll have the degree.”
King never knew for sure why the great man had summoned him for this thirty seconds of predawn fatherly counsel. What he does recall vividly is the picture of himself, the don’t-take-shit-from-no-man Larry King, dutifully lugging the Senator’s baggage down the stairs and then going back to ask whether there was anything more he could carry.
Johnson had not only transformed an adversary into a bellhop, he had also recruited a future minion to the LBJ campaign team.
Theodore Sorensen, who wrote great speeches for John F. Kennedy and stayed on briefly after Dallas, described the Johnson method of personal dealings this way: never bring up the artillery until you bring up the ammunition. In other words, to gain a senator’s vote on a bill, Johnson would spend days studying every conceivable source of motivation. When he was ready, he would just happen to bump into him. The fellow never knew what hit him.
Few were immune to the treatment. Paul H. Douglas, the great economist who became a great senator, was once opposed to LBJ on a pending vote, but doubted his own sales resistance. “I’m not going out on...

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