By Edward P. Smith
President Lyndon Johnson may have been the greatest political arm twister ever to inhabit the Oval Office. The onetime Senate majority leader had an instinct for how to get a deal done that many think has disappeared from both Capitol Hill and the White House.
Attendees at NCSL’s Executive Committee meeting in Austin, Texas, were treated to a first-hand recollection of one such arm-twisting moment at a dinner Friday at the LBJ library.
Ben Barnes, a legendary figure in Texas politics and the youngest House speaker and lieutenant governor in the state’s history, regaled the crowd with a story about how he found himself in the Oval Office drinking Scotch with Johnson and Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who was Senate minority leader from 1959 to 1969.
Barnes was sitting in Dirksen's Senate office discussing an intergovernmental commission that they served on together when the senator announced that they’d both been invited to the White House for a drink,
There is no substitute for hearing this sort of story from a born raconteur like Barnes, but suffice it to say that Johnson had other things on his mind than a simple drink. After a glass of Scotch—Barnes suspected Johnson had the bartender serve his guests an extra shot—Johnson just happened to mention that he needed three GOP votes in the Senate to get a tax bill through. The gravel-voiced Dirksen sputtered a bit and told the president there was no way he or any other Republican senator would vote for the bill.
Johnson ordered more Scotch.
Then the president just happened to remember that an Army Corps of Engineers general had told him that a dam project the senator wanted built in southern Illinois was not high enough on the priority list to be funded that year.
Johnson let that sink in and ordered more Scotch.
After the third glass, Dirksen allowed that maybe he could get three votes for the tax bill if Johnson could find a way to get that dam built. The president and the Senate minority leader then shared a bear hug—difficult to imagine the scene today—and the deal was done.
It was an instructive tale that was not lost on the room full of lawmakers and legislative staff.
Edward P. Smith is NCSL’s director of digital communications.