Tim Pawlenty Cribs 'Better Deal' From LBJ

Pawlenty reheats LBJ rhetoric for his economic plan.

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Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled his economic plan Tuesday and it quickly and rightly drew ridicule from the left and the right for its fantastical assumptions and projections. Pawlenty termed his plan a "Better Deal," an apparent attempt to rhetorically echo FDR's "New Deal," in encapsulating his plan. But with this particular reach he found rhetorical ground already (if briefly) claimed by Lyndon Johnson.

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FDR's New Deal was followed by Harry Truman's "Fair Deal," and more than a decade after that by JFK's "New Frontier." As Johnson wrapped up his first 100 days in office, in the spring of 1964, he sat for a television interview with reporters from the three major TV networks. One reporter asked him whether he had come up with a similar catchphrase to sum up his economic program. LBJ, who had been "badgering" speechwriter Richard Goodwin to come up with something along those lines, floated the "better deal" notion.

I have had a lot of things to deal with the first 100 days and I haven't thought of a slogan, but I suppose all of us want a 'better deal,' don't we!

He would deploy the phrase in three speeches over the following nine days, but dropped it thereafter, apparently unsatisfied with it.

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So there would be some irony if Pawlenty sticks with the bit of verbiage throughout the campaign and makes it his own.

But even that irony would have a bit of an echo to it. In his search for a phrase to satisfy Johnson, Goodwin had consulted with White House professor-in-residence Eric Goldman. Goldman suggested to Goodwin the title of a 1937 Walter Lippmann book, The Good Society. As I recount in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters:

There was no small irony in the suggestion: Lippmann's Good Society was not only a broadside against Johnson's hero, FDR, but against the New Deal and activist government generally, which he equated with fascism.

So LBJ passed on "Better Deal" to embrace "Great Society," which had its rhetorical roots in a broadside against the kind of activist government policies that he and FDR favored. Now Pawlenty has scooped up the rhetorical fragment LBJ cast off and done so in service of a radical small government plan that would have Johnson and Roosevelt spinning in their graves. [Check out political cartoons about the GOP.]

It just goes to show, I suppose, the malleability of slogans and rhetoric.

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