Joseph A. Califano Jr. was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s top assistant for domestic policy, and LBJ was a staunch proponent of gun control. Califano’s advice for President Obama? Exploit the Newtown, Connecticut shooting for gun control in the same way LBJ exploited the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations:
If ever there were a moment for President Obama to learn from history, it is now, in the wake of Friday’s shootings at the elementary school at Newtown, Conn. The timely lesson for Obama, drawn from the experience of Lyndon B. Johnson — the last president to aggressively fight for comprehensive gun control — is this: Demand action on comprehensive gun control immediately from this Congress or lose the opportunity during your presidency.
In the aftermath of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (just weeks after the fatal shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. and only a few years after President John F. Kennedy was shot), President Johnson pressed Congress to enact gun control legislation he had sent to Capitol Hill years earlier. LBJ ordered all of us on his staff — and urged allies in Congress — to act swiftly. “We have only two weeks, maybe only 10 days,” he said, “before the gun lobby gets organized.” He told Larry O’Brien and me, “We’ve got to beat the NRA [National Rifle Association] into the offices of members of Congress.”
I’m not sure this is advice President Obama needs. Given his speech yesterday in Connecticut, it’s clear he plans on waving the bloody shirts of the Sandy Hook Elementary victims in pursuit of his policy agenda.
To say that it’s ghoulish is an understatement, but political opportunists like Obama have no shame.
And that’s what this is. Political opportunism. Whether you lean for or against gun control, shouldn’t this be a debate we want to be cool and rational? Not colored by hot tempers and an emotional response to the murder of innocents? When is sound policy ever created in such conditions?
Look, for instance, at the bad policy we got stuck with in the wake of 9/11. Divisive, legally dubious policies of questionable effectiveness such as the PATRIOT Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security were rushed through Congress by political leaders anxious to do something after the nation was attacked. Don’t we all wish we’d taken a little more time to debate the issues now that we can look back, with cooler heads, with a decade or so of hindsight?
Leveraging trauma, fear and emotion into political capital may be good politics used skillfully by talented politicians like Barack Obama, but it makes for some truly awful policy.