“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams wrote an op-ed for the New York Times this morning. In a lot of respects, it praised former president Lyndon Baines Johnson, while certainly not flattering George W. Bush. In fact, the purpose of the piece appears to be to chastise president Bush for not going to Texas ahead of Rita by relaying what Johnson did forty years ago when Hurricane Betsy hit Louisiana:
“GIVEN President Bush's final decision not to head to Texas in advance of Hurricane Rita, it's worth noting that American presidents have long found both political riches and peril at the scene of a storm. A listen to the tapes of President Lyndon B. Johnson's White House telephone conversations of 40 years ago reveals that history does indeed repeat itself, even if presidential reactions and motivations have varied widely.”
Yet, the piece went on to show how LBJ didn’t want to go to Louisiana despite the efforts of its Senator, Russell Long. It wasn’t until Long properly conveyed a political benefit for the trip that LBJ acquiesced:
“Not fully convinced that his message had gotten through to his old friend and fellow Southerner, Long chose the most direct route to Johnson's famously weak heart: electoral politics. ‘If you want to go to Louisiana right now - you lost that state last year ... you could save yourself a campaign speech,’ the senator insisted. ‘Just go there right now and say, 'My God, this is horrible! These federally constructed levees that Hale Boggs and Russell Long built is the only thing that saved 5,000 lives!’'
“Johnson replied that he had a "hell of a two days" ahead on his schedule, so Long went in for the kill: ‘If you go there right now, Mr. President, they couldn't beat you if Eisenhower ran!’
“Minutes later, Johnson had his staff make arrangements for a trip to New Orleans.”
So, Johnson only went to Louisiana because he saw a political advantage in doing so, not out of any sense of compassion or humanity.
Yet, the most delicious irony is the final paragraph:
“Senator Russell Long was not on that flight back to Washington. He had stayed in New Orleans. The scion of Louisiana political royalty had lost his home to the storm, but had delivered the ultimate prize to his people: a visit by the president, and a promise of federal aid to build up the levees surrounding his beloved city.”
Williams curiously neglected to inform the reader that much of that federal aid didn’t go to building those levees, but instead was funneled into the pet projects of the various political leaders that have controlled the region since LBJ’s historic visit. Or hadn’t Williams noticed that those levees haven’t fared very well in the past four weeks?