Lessons from LBJ: Why makes LBJ unique?

A year ago, I read Robert Caro’s The Years of LBJ. The four books have changed how I look at politics, organizations, startups, and careers. Tyler Cowen calls these “quake books” – books that shake the foundation of how you look at life.

Lyndon Johnson was the 36th president of the United States. He oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War, the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the broader “Great Society” legislation. Before that, he was the vice president under JFK, the Senate Majority and Minority Leader (Senator from Texas), and the representative for Texas’ 10th congressional district in the House.

Ever since I read the books, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of memos on particular themes from the series. These include tactics that Lyndon Johnson used to accelerate his learning in an organization, how he gained leverage by became a bottleneck for others, and the storytelling techniques he used to capture voter attention. Every Thursday is a forcing function for me to do just that.

When I was brainstorming ideas about this project with my friends, most of them had a similar question: “Why is LBJ more special than other presidents?”

The story of Lyndon Johnson is the not interesting because Lyndon Johnson was a US president.

The story of Lyndon Johnson is interesting because he was not only from one of the poorest parts of the United States, he was from one of the poorest families in one of the poorest parts of the United States. The story of Lyndon Johnson is interesting because when he was a kid and was working as a laborer on one of the first roads that connected the Hill Country of Texas to the rest of the state, he said his then colleagues – other kids – “By God, I’ll be President some day!” It was a path that seemed impossible to plot.

But Lyndon Johnson plotted that path.

Whatever he did – and whatever he did not do – was all in service of this ultimate goal of his. A goal that he didn’t reveal to anyone. It’s difficult to plan your way to the Presidency. There are too many confounding variables. Being directionally correct helps, but you need to be at the right place at the right time.

But Lyndon Johnson planned his way to the Presidency.

It is this meticulous planning that allows us to develop a unique playbook for anyone is young, ambitious, and willing to play the long game. Whatever the controversies surrounding LBJ, I am willing to learn and steal from anyone who is good at anything.

And LBJ was good at a few, very important things.

Lessons from Bradley Tusk's The Fixer

It’s rare that you get to peek behind the scenes at some of the most important political and business campaigns of the last two decades. Bradley Tusk, who now has a VC firm, a consulting firm, and a podcast, was at the frontlines of the Uber campaign against Bill de Blasio and the taxi industry in NYC, Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign, and several other regulatory battles. Through these experiences, he has developed a unique playbook to battle against incumbents, push through bureaucratic malaise, and build a career in a niche with no competition. He shares these strategies and tactics in The Fixer, a memoir that reads more like a war journal. 

Here are my three most important takeaways from the book:

The 5 a.m. email

I talked about this idea in my weekly newsletter, Sunday Snapshots, last week but I want to talk about it again because I think it’s a good example of Tusk’s overall approach towards everything. When you’re starting out in a new career or with a new client, you need to showcase a few skills: competence, ability to take responsibility, and initiative. This neat ritual covers all three. 


In the middle of extremely busy campaigns, Tusk’s team would send his client an email at 5 a.m. This started during Bloomberg’s reelection campaign: 

During the mayoral race, I’d send Mike an email at 5 a.m. every day saying who that day’s endorsement was from and everything going on in the campaign that day: field, ads, polling, events, etc. Since Mike didn’t really like the politics, he was happy to get my email, find out what he needed to know, and then go with his day being mayor. Getting something that organized, that early in the morning also didn’t hurt his opinion of me: I came off as hardworking, organized, persistent, and thoughtful.

He extended this habit to his consulting firm, Tusk Strategy, where his team still sends daily emails to his clients with the agenda and objectives for the day:

We’d send our clients an email every morning at 7 a.m. listing what was happening their campaign that day: every market, every issue, every tactic. Clients would wake up and see what was going on. The contrast between our proactivity and most consultants only doing what they’re asked being asked a few times would be a benefit, plus it’d keep me and the client on the same page; we’d have an agenda for the day and it’d make it easier to get things done.

Showcasing preparedness, competence, and initiative can never harm you. Like with any great tactic, I tried to look for ways to incorporate it into my own life. So, I’ve been sending my supervisor at my internship weekly wrap-up emails every Friday about what I worked on that week, what I aim to finish next week, and what I need from them in order to successfully complete these goals.

Leverage your Personal Monopoly

I recently worked with David Perell and Tiago Forte as the course manager for their online course called Write of Passage. The course was about how you can accelerate your career through writing online and one of the modules in the course was called “Building a Personal Monopoly”. The central idea of the module was simple – you’ll face a lots of headwinds if you try to become best-in-class in a crowded space. The smarter approach is to carve out a narrow and well-defined niche for yourself. For example, one of the students in the course was a Pilot and also interested in philosophy. That’s a unique intersection of skills and interests. I suggested that he brand himself as “The Flying Philosopher”. 


Tusk used a similar strategy when he started Tusk Strategy, his consulting firm which focused on companies with regulatory and political challenges and ran “big, complex multijurisdicational campaigns for people with a lot of money and a lot at stake.” He knew that this type of firm didn’t exist, which was good because:

It was a great business model in that I’d found a niche no one else had, and as long as some clients were willing to pay the fee (starting at $25,000), I could create the market. It was my model, based on my experiences, my skills, and my interests.

This allowed Tusk to operate without worrying about competitors. Running large campaigns was a unique skillset with high barriers to entry. It meant that Tusk’s only competitor was himself. 

This strategy can be scaled up from individuals to companies. A great example in the book is how Uber fought Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio wanted to make sure his donors in the taxi industry supported him for future campaigns, so he proposed legislation which would effectively kill Uber in NYC. While Uber did pursue some of the tactics that Tusk had mastered through other experiences, they also mobilized their customer base in a way that only they could:

The Uber app in New York City is opened hundreds of thousands of times every day. And when Kaitlin Durkosh on the Uber New York team had the brilliant idea of making “de Blasio” one of the options on the app (next to Uber Black, UberX, UberXL, etc.), we had a way to capture people and mobilize them. If you chose the de Blasio option, you were told there was a twenty-five-minute wait time, we explained the problem, and then asked people to email and tweet at their council members to tell them to oppose the bill. In a week, over 250,000 did. 

Uber and Tusk won the fight in no small part because of this clever tactic. Talk about leveraging your personal monopoly towards accomplishing an important goal!

Align your goals with others

Politics is difficult. Optics matter a lot and politicians can’t always do what they think is right. They need to appeal to their base. This is also true in non-political organizations. In order to get what you want, you should think about how you can make others look better while accomplishing your goals.

In The Fixer, Tusk recounts the 2009 campaign by Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called Race to the Top, an $8 billion program that was made available to states that could implement a host of educational reforms, including innovations around charter schools. The most innovative states would win grants worth millions of dollars. As Tusk explains,

Eight billion dollars is a pittance compared to the amount of money spent on schools across the country every year. If it were handed out to the states, half of them wouldn’t even notice. But once it became a competition, everything changed. By definition, politics is a competitive business, filled with competitive people, and once it became about winning, and losing, every politician wanted to win. This is exactly what Obama and Duncan were counting on. All of a sudden, states were passing major reforms to their laws around helping charter schools. 

Tusk is right that politics is competitive. But what’s even more important is that a particular Governor of a state would be seen to be winning over others. That’s important for re-election campaigns. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Jeff Bezos used the same tactic for his HQ2 proposal. Amazon got amazing tax breaks in a race to the bottom between cities.

The Fixer is a great book, and easily one of my favorite reads of 2019. It’s also extremely easy to read and blow through in a couple of days. I highly recommend you pick up a copy.