The Half-Life of a Winner

I've just finished reading David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. Reading this history of how we got into Vietnam certainly sheds instructive light on ...
by | January 25, 2008

Lbj_2 I've just finished reading David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. Reading this history of how we got into Vietnam certainly sheds instructive light on our current war, but I bring it up here to point out that this book is among other things a masterful study of how bureaucracies work -- how they can bend to the wishes of the principal policymakers but also how their positions take on an internal logic of their own. Departmental demands and rivalries, plus the instincts of careerism, shape them in ways that become nearly impervios to outside forces.

This long quote isn't quite about that, but in this presidential season it's worth reading how Halberstam captures the bittersweet quality of Lyndon Johnson's anticipation of his great landslide win in 1964 and his sense in advance of how fragile and fleeting his mandate would be:

He was going to win and win big, and he was going to get a real Congress, and there was nothing in his way. "We'll have nine, eh, maybe even 18 months before the Hill turns around on us," he would say. "We have that much time to get it all through." And then he talked of his plans, his dreams, what he would do, the education legislation, the housing program, the domestic vision, and he pushed his domestic staff to work harder and harder on domestic legislation, driving them relentlessly, always aware of the limits of time.

"When you win big," he would say, recalling Franklin Roosevelt's experience, "you can have anything you want for a time. You come home with that big landslide and there isn't a one of them who'll stand in your way. No, they'll be glad to be aboard and to have their photograph taken with you and be part of all that victory. They'll come along and they'll give you almost everything you want for a while and then they'll turn on you. They always do. They'll lay in waiting, waiting for you to make a slip and you will. They'll give you almost everything and then they'll make you pay for it. They'll get tired of all those columnists writing how smart you are and how weak they are and then the pendulum will swing back."

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