You might suppose that, apart from their names, Lyndon Johnson and Boris Johnson have extraordinarily little in common. In many ways that is true, but there is also something very significant that they share.
First, the differences. LBJ was immensely tall and gangly with enormous ears, deeply lined features and a habit of grabbing people by the lapel and invading their personal space – all very different from our own Mr Blobby. LBJ had no literary pretensions, had no gilded home life as a child or young man and did not throw bread rolls at people at Harvard or Princetown as he had nothing like Boris’s Oxford education. Indeed, LBJ was formed in the bitter Hill Country of Texas, brilliantly described in Robert Caro’s awesome biography, where his father ended up bust and humiliated, leaving Lyndon with an irresistible psychological yearning to win power and respect whatever the price and above all other considerations in life. In pursuit of his goals, he was a brilliant reader of people, especially their weak spots, and a careful listener when he needed to be. He had a genius for finding solutions to seemingly intractable political problems and was a brilliant persuader and negotiator. I do not know if Boris shares any of those political gifts – we’ll soon find out. But there is another clear difference which leads me to doubt it: LBJ worked himself to the bone in pursuit of his goals, obsessively, day and night, leaving absolutely no detail to chance. Nobody could accuse Boris Johnson of that. LBJ never suffered from laziness or a sense of entitlement, leaving details to others.
So what did these two Johnsons have in common? Well, they both have a line in obscene swearing, and probably most of us would not envy the wife or partner of either. But the most important thing they share is an almost complete lack of adherence to any principle. (I shall come back to that “almost” in a moment.) Power and ambition comes first for both men. On civil rights, for example, LBJ could for many years simultaneously persuade the Southerners that he was one of them, and Liberals that he was really one of them. This mirrored many previous examples as he clawed his way to power, saying to each constituency what he thought it wanted to hear. Equally, it is a mystery to most of us as to what Boris Johnson stands for, apart from Boris Johnson. In both cases, they could the day after tomorrow be arguing with passion the exact opposite of the case it suits them to argue passionately today – and they are both very good actors.
If you assume this characteristic is self evidently a weakness, please think again. It did not do LBJ much harm. Nor has it done much harm to Boris so far, despite all the huffing from the Dominic Grieves or Max Hastings. The lack of ideological encumbrance can be a gift. If LBJ had been a lifelong Liberal, he could not possibly have persuaded the US Senate in 1957 to pass the first civil rights bill for many decades. He could do it because he was so good at talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, combined with political acumen and ruthless application of pressure plus cynical alliances. Those who may be rubbing their hands on the Left of politics because they think Boris Johnson will be a right wing ideologue driving reasonable people away are probably making a big mistake, precisely because Boris is not an ideologue or even an idealist, having no apparent principles whatever. That means he can do all sorts of things that the true believers – the Free Traders, the Market Economists, the Shrink the Staters, the true Little Englanders, the Blimps, the social reactionaries, the pro-Business and pro-private-sector zealots – would never do. Political calculation is surely Boris’s only constraint. He will do whatever he thinks is required to stay in power once he has it. To use his own recent phrase, expect a “Minestrone” of a Government if Brexit allows, with lots of tasty ingredients that appeal to different political constituencies. That makes him a much more formidable political opponent than some on the Left may assume.
Maybe there are straws in the wind in his track record as London Mayor. There is some truth in the claim that he “hugged” his public servants. I have heard people from the quite radical organisation London Citizens, closely associated with the Living Wage, praise him as a collaborator in some dimensions by comparison with Ken Livingstone. Boris made mistakes all right, but was hardly to be pigeon-holed as a right-wing ideologue; he did what he thought he had to do to remain in office. He would surely do the same if he were Prime Minister. Whether he is skilful, astute, determined, driven and hard working enough to rival LBJ is quite another matter.
I said that LBJ was “almost” completely devoid of principle. His thirst for power always came first, overwhelming any other principle. But when the cause of the poor and down-trodden became aligned with his political ambitions, he showed, according to Robert Caro, that he did have principles after all. His experience of poverty and humilation in the Hill Country had left an additional legacy inside him, and it showed in 1957 and later when he did more as President for black American rights, arguably, than any US President apart from Abraham Lincoln. If ever Prime Minister Boris Johnson feels secure in his powerful position, will there be any comparable revelation? Is there something, once ambition for power is satisfied, that he might then want to do for more principled reasons? Only then would we find out if Boris Johnson has “almost” no principles, like LBJ, or none at all. In either case: ideologues and idealists, beware! Politicians who have no (or almost no) principles can be a lot more effective than you like to think.
2 thoughts on “Two Johnsons Compared: LBJ and Boris”
Currently reading The Path to Power and have repeatedly thought of this connection, googled a while and found your write up, it’s really impressive!
Thanks Sam. I wonder if the final volume of the bio will ever appear?