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The Forgotten Power of Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2019

David Remnick recently interviewed Robert Caro and if you’ve read Caro’s book, Working, or the New Yorker article based on the book, there’s not much new here, but this exchange at the end is worth highlighting:

Remnick: We are living in a political moment, and when you watch the current President it seems that one of the saving graces is that, for all his erratic thinking, insulting thinking, his insults directed at minority groups — and, well, practically everyone — that he’s not that good at the exercise of power. He won the election, but if he had Johnsonian capacities in terms of the exercise of power, we might be even in deeper trouble than we already are.

Caro: Well, I think that that’s correct. And I think, [what] you say about Johnson, what does it mean to [be like] Johnson? You say, well, he wins election over Barry Goldwater, in 1964, by this tremendous majority. So the next morning he’s on the phone — or the morning after, he’s still hoarse the day of the election — calling the House Majority Leader and saying, “You know, the only thing that can hold this up here is the Rules Committee. Now is the moment to change the Rules Committee. Here’s how to do it.” And in the next couple of months he passes Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the voting-rights bill… I’m forgetting the rest of it. The most amazing — he could seize a moment because of this political genius that he has, and change, really, the face of America. It’s hard to remember a day when there wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid.

Remnick: You write in “Working” that there is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power. But there’s also great good that can come out of it. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this, you write. Why have we forgotten it?

Caro: You ask very good questions. I think we’ve forgotten it because we’ve had too many Presidents who don’t use political power — you say, what are things that change people’s lives? In the last century, Social Security, Medicare-like, right now I’m working on a section that, you could say, if I wanted to call it this, is what it was like to be old and sick in America before Medicare. And as I’m doing this I’m thinking, People aren’t even going to be able to imagine this. What was it like to be old in America before Social Security? People can’t imagine it. The power of government to do good for people is immense. And I think we have forgotten that power.