Marc Johnson doesn’t pretend to know how to fix our broken political system, but he figures a good start would be to encourage people to learn about and reflect on our history.
That’s why he recently launched a podcast called “Many Things Considered,” the motto of which is “Looking to politics past to make sense of politics present.”
And it’s why the subject of his most recent podcast is Mike Mansfield, the Butte miner who went on to be the longest-serving majority leader in the history of the U.S. Senate, and who is widely considered to have been the best, too.
The 50-minute episode explores the question of how the Senate, once considered a deliberative body and now considered a dysfunctional institution, can recover its bearings and get back to the business of working on behalf of the national interest.
The episode is replete with anecdotes from former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, former Senate Historian Richard Baker and Pat Williams, a longtime House member from Montana whom Johnson describes in the podcast as “an old and good friend.”
They all paint a portrait of Mansfield as a humble man with a great intellect and a curious mind, a fundamentally good, decent man and a leader who let others stand in the spotlight.
The podcast is worth listening to all the way through, ending as it does with Williams’ priceless anecdote about an encounter he had with Mansfield in the Oxford Saloon in Missoula many years ago.
Johnson, 62, is not a Montanan, as you might suppose from his familiarity with Mansfield and his friendship with Williams—not to mention his forthcoming biography of another Montana senator, Burton K. Wheeler.
A native of western Nebraska who grew up there and in Wyoming and South Dakota, Johnson studied journalism at South Dakota State University. He spent most of his working life in Idaho, starting out in commercial television in Boise in the mid-1970s and then moving to Idaho Public Television, where he developed a daily public affairs program and where he remained for nine years.
In 1985, he went to work for Cecil Andrus, the former Idaho governor who had served as Interior director under President Jimmy Carter, took a couple of years off and then decided to run for governor again. Johnson was Andrus’ press secretary during the campaign of 1986, kept that position when Johnson won the election and became the governor’s chief of staff after his re-election in 1990.
In 1994, about half a year before Andrus left office, Johnson was hired by Gallatin Public Affairs, a consulting and lobbying firm. He ran the company’s Idaho office for 20 years, working mostly in “crisis management” for clients that included the University of Idaho, the Idaho National Laboratory and the largest hospital system in the state.
Johnson said Gallatin Public Affairs has always prided itself on being “religiously bipartisan.”
“To be effective,” he said, “you’ve got to be able to appeal across the political spectrum.”
Johnson began blogging on a web site hosted by Gallatin Public Affairs many years ago, writing about politics and history with a focus on the New Deal era, the history of the Senate and the American presidency.
The podcast is entirely his work, he said, though Gallatin hosts it on its website and has provided some technical help. He said he would hope that the podcasts reach “opinion leaders, people who shape opinion or whose position or influence can be used to make things better.”
But he has also been gratified by the number of “everyday civilians” who have contacted him on social media and by email to congratulate him and thank him for the podcasts. Whoever makes up his audience, he said, his goal is to get people thinking about politics and the political system, and how it might improve.
“Applying a little dose of history once in a while and reflecting on people who did things well can be something of an antidote to what’s happening now,” he said.
Few politicians in American history have done things as well as Mansfield. Though Mansfield was sometimes criticized for being too amiable or accommodating, Johnson asks his listeners to consider what the Senate accomplished when it was led by Mansfield from 1961 to 1977.
Under this “shy, unassuming intellectual from Butte, Montana,” Johnson says in the podcast, the Senate passed the Wilderness Act and civil rights and voting rights acts, and established Medicare, public television, student loans, environmental protections and the national endowments for the arts and humanities.
Besides presiding over all those accomplishments, Mansfield delivered an address on leadership that, if anything, resonates even more strongly today than when he wrote it in 1963. He composed the address precisely because of the criticism that he was too easy-going, too unwilling to crack the whip.
He was scheduled to deliver it on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, so Mansfield had the speech entered into the record but he did not deliver it. More than 30 years later, Lott, the former Senate majority leader, inaugurated a lecture series on the subject of leadership, and he asked Mansfield to deliver the first one.
Mansfield by then was in his mid-90s, having been, after his time in the Senate, the longest-serving ambassador to Japan ever. For this occasion, he dusted off his 1963 speech and read it aloud for the first time, after making a few changes.
It is still a stirring piece of work, and Johnson’s podcast includes a two-minute excerpt in which Mansfield says that under the Constitution, authority and responsibility are not vested in the leaders of the Senate, but “with all of us individually, collectively and equally.”
The Senate will not function as it ought to without accommodation, restraint and courage, he continued.
“It is not the senators as individuals who are of fundamental importance,” he said. “In the end it is the institution of the Senate. It is the Senate itself as one of the foundations of the Constitution. It is the Senate as one of the rocks of the Republic.”
Johnson said it will be difficult to build a new generation of strong leaders given the toxic partisanship in Washington, the unrelenting attacks on politicians’ character, the never-ending need to raise money for the next campaign.
“I don’t know how you break that cycle and start to attract people like Mike Mansfield,” he said.
Johnson said his old boss, Gov. Andrus, used to say that American politicians usually respond effectively only when dealing with a crisis like the Depression or a war.
“I hate to offer the theory that it’s going to take a crisis,” Johnson said, but that may be what it takes, and as bad as politics has gotten, “I’m not convinced we’ve reached rock bottom yet.”
If that sounds too depressing, listen to Johnson’s podcast, listen to leaders like Mike Mansfield and Pat Williams. It might restore your hope for the future.