Political influence in Washington depends substantially on social and political capital — i.e., reputations and relationships. Forms of social and political capital include preexisting relationships, reputations, trust, shared values, past alliances, and favors owed.
Developing this capital takes effort and time, but they pave the way to influence by creating access to influential policymakers and their staff.
The Rise of Lyndon Johnson
One prominent case study of the use of social and political capital was Lyndon Johnson. His rise was well-described by Chris Matthews in his 1988 book, Hardball: How Politics Is Played – Told by One Who Knows the Game.
In the Depression days of 1931, the Dodge [a hotel on Capitol Hill] had become a boarding hotel, accommodating several U.S. senators and at least one Supreme Court justice. It also housed a less glittering tenantry. Two floors below the lobby level, there stretched a long corridor of cubicles, all sharing a common bath. At night this dank underworld came alive, percolating with the dreams of young bright-eyed men lucky to be working for the Congress of the United States.
One of the subterranean residents was a gawky twenty-two-year-old giant with elephantine ears who had just become secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg, Democrat of Texas. Just two weeks earlier he had been teaching high school in Houston. Now, his first night at the Dodge, he did something strange, something he would admit to biographer and intimate Doris Kearns in the months just before he died. That night, Lyndon Baines Johnson took four showers. Four times he walked towel-draped to the communal bathroom down along the hall. Four times he turned on the water and lathered up. The next morning he got up early to brush his teeth five times, with five-minute intervals in between.
The young man from Texas had a mission. There were seventy-five other congressional secretaries living in the building. He wanted to meet as many of them as possible as fast as possible.
The strategy worked. Within three months of arriving in Washington, the newcomer got himself elected Speaker of the “Little Congress,” the organization of all House staff assistants.
These networking skills served him well later in his career. In 1948 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas.
Johnson’s march to power in the Senate began just as it had in the basement shower room back at the Dodge: he went directly to the source. To succeed at staff-level politics, he had checked into the hotel with the biggest block of votes. His grab for Senate leadership began the same way: getting a hard sense of where the power lay. As Theodore White put it, LBJ displayed an instinct for power “as primordial as a salmon’s going upstream to spawn.”
Brains as well as instinct were at work. While the minds of other newly elected senators in 1949 were awhirl with the cosmic issues they would soon be addressing in the debate, Lyndon Johnson concentrated on the politics of the place. After all, the Senate was just like any other organization he had joined. There were the “whales” who ran the place, and there were the “minnows” who got swept along in their wake.
The first thing he did after his election to the Senate was to summon to his congressional office the twenty-year-old page who answered the phones in the Senate Democratic cloakroom. His name was Robert G. “Bobby” Baker and Johnson knew this particular young man’s talent for sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of those who relied on him so much. “I want to know who’s the power over there,” he demanded of the page, “how do you get things done, the best committees, the works.”
What Johnson learned from his new young friend was not far from what he expected: that all senators are not created equal, that within the “world’s most exclusive club” there existed an “Inner Club” of Southern senators led indisputably by Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Jealous of its influence, this Inner Club would smash anyone or any group that challenged it. Lyndon Johnson decided then and there to “marry” Richard Russell.
He could not, of course, be too obvious in his courtship; there were other men of ambition who had tried that and learned the pain of unrequited love. Johnson would be more discreet. His first move was to get appointed to Russell’s committee, Armed Services. This would give him the excuse he needed to spend a lot of time around the senior senator without appearing to be currying favor.
Johnson pursued his relationship with the powerful Georgian beyond the professional level. Russell, a bachelor, would have both breakfast and supper at the Capitol dining room. “I made sure there was always one companion, one senator, who worked as hard and as long as he, and that was me, Lyndon Johnson.”
Johnson’s ascent within the Senate was astonishing. He became Democratic leader just four years after entering the Senate in 1949. He was the least senior senator ever elected to the post. When the Democrats took back the Senate in 1954, Johnson became Majority Leader.
It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who You Get to Know
The importance of relationships was more humorously described in this 1988 skit on Saturday Night Live.
Dennis Miller: This week, President Reagan sent Congress next year’s budget proposals, totaling nearly $1.1 trillion. For further explanation, here is “Weekend Update” correspondent Jon Lovitz. Hello, Jon.
Jon Lovitz: Thank you, Dennis! The national budget is so complicated, you have to be a genius to understand it. You also have to be important, famous and successful. You say you’re none of these? Well, then, I have one piece of advice for you – Get to know me! Get to know my likes, my dislikes. What makes me tick? What makes me me? What’s my favorite color? Do I always come to life in the Spring? Get to know me!
Now, here’s a letter from a man who lives in Manhattan: “Dear Jon, before I got to know you, I was nothing, nowhere, nobody. I didn’t have a cent to my name. In fact, I didn’t have a name – I couldn’t afford one. And then I got to know you, and today they call me Donald Trump!” Get to know me!
What do I do in my spare time? Have I always had this much hair? Where is my secret freckle? Get to know me!
Now, here’s a letter from a woman who lives in Europe: “Dear Jon, before I got to know you, I was nothing, nowhere, nobody. I had bad teeth and couldn’t afford braces. And then one day, I got to know you. Well, I never got those braces, but today they call me Queen Elizabeth!” Get to know me!
Now, here’s a letter from someone who didn’t get to know me: “Dear blank, I didn’t get to know you, signed Nobody.”
Now, I know some of you are probably thinking, “What a jerk!” Congratulations! You’re getting to know me! So, remember, if you want to get to know me, get to know me!
Dennis Miller: Thank you, Jon. Thank you. You know, the really sick thing is, I know where his secret freckle is.
This article is adapted from Patrick Lester, Leading from Below, Alliance for Children and Families: April 30, 2008.