Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency
by Mark K. Updegrove
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Crown (March 13, 2012)
Price: $27.00 + tax and shipping
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History, in its most cursory form, is often a beauty contest: abbreviated judgments based on imagery and sound bites that commonly have substance yield in to superficiality.
The image of George Washington, the stolid, brave general on horseback, is consistent with the formidable legacy he left (minus legends of wooden teeth). The enigmatic, idealistic Thomas Jefferson—like Washington, tall for his day at over six feet—also cuts a dashing figure in history, reflected in the statue romantically peering from the Jefferson Memorial in the capital’s Tidal Basin.
Other Presidential founding fathers, while essential to the country’s beginning, don’t fare so well. John Adams, who had the misfortune of following Washington into the Presidency, was further hampered by a portly frame and an irascible, acerbic nature that complemented his physical appearance. The dry and diminutive James Madison, who crafted the Constitution and ruled the White House in a venerable eight-year run, was described by a contemporary as a “withered little Apple John.” He followed Jefferson into office and, two hundred years later, remains eclipsed by his predecessor’s long shadow. Madison is seldom given his historical due; nor is Adams, though resurrected in recent years through biographical treatment by historian David McCullough and an HBO miniseries.
When it comes to our modern Presidents, photographs, broadcast footage, and sound bytes have disproportionate influence on how we view our leaders in retrospect, favoring the most graceful, attractive, visionary, and eloquent. History blows a kiss to Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan in that regard, while becoming chaste with their immediate successors: Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George H. W.Bush. That’s not to suggest that the latter Presidents should necessarily merit better critical appraisal than the former, or that image isn’t a crucial element for public figures, as any K Street consultant will attest, but simply that Truman, Johnson, and Bush are held back by their own relative shortcomings in the image department.
Throughout his Presidency, Truman battled public perceptions of himself as a prosaic little man—often a sniping partisan—out of his depth in the Oval Office, particularly when likened to the titanic FDR. Bush had his own image problems. Though boasting patrician good looks, he admitted to falling short on “the vision thing” and, upon leaving office after failing to win a second term, lamented that Americans didn’t know his own “heartbeat.” Like Truman, Bush came up short when contrasted with his predecessor, Reagan, who radiated heartbeat, which one could practically see thumping beneath the pocket square of his suit jacket. (Both Truman and Bush would fine some measure of vindication during their lifetimes as the public belatedly came to appreciate their steady hands and strength of character.)
But perhaps more than any, Johnson is given short shrift through historical shorthand. Though tall at six-foot three, the long-eared, droopyeyed LBJ would win no beauty contests, especially relative to the graceful Kennedy. Unlike Kennedy, Johnson didn’t photograph well. The best known images of LBJ are born of tragedy, bookending his Presidency: a somber former vice President being sworn into the presidency on Air Force One, flanked by his wife, Lady Bird, and the newly widowed and shell-shocked first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy; and an emotionally wrought commander-in-chief toward the end of his reign, head down on the White House Cabinet Room table, agonizing over a tape recording from his son-in-law, Chuck Robb, in Vietnam. Other famous photographs from Johnson’s White House years are hardly the stuff of Presidential greatness, suggesting a cowboy crudeness incongruous in the White House: the President lifting his shirt to reveal his gallbladder scar to members of the press or holding up his beagle by its ears.
Nor did Johnson play well on television. Just as the medium expanded Kennedy and Reagan, it shrank the “bigger-than-life” LBJ, who kept his oversize personality in check when the camera lights were on for the sake of appearing “Presidential.” Instead, Johnson came off as a neutered version of himself, subduing the dynamism that made him the most effective legislator of his time. “Television never really caught a true picture of the man,” recalled Ray Scherer, NBC News’s White House correspondent during the Johnson years. “Somehow he was too big for the twenty-one-inch tube.” Maybe the best-known video clip of Johnson is from his last year in the White House, when the embattled President announced to a shocked nation, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
And though he was an effective public speaker, Johnson’s rhetoric and delivery generally didn’t achieve heights beyond the marginal, at least by White House standards.
None of these areas does justice to the thirty-sixth President.
In fact, there are few who knew him who wouldn’t describe Lyndon Johnson as a great man. Flawed, yes, and not always good, but great. Moreover, almost anyone who was exposed to him has a story worth telling. When one was in his presence, his kinetic energy, mental intensity, and aura of power were palpable; he was always the biggest man in the room—the most colorful, complex, and enigmatic, too. “Allowing for shades of subtlety,” wrote Johnson aide Bob Hardesty, reflecting on hisformer boss, “there were as many LBJs as there were people who knew him. Each individual had a unique perspective on him—andas often as not these perspectives were contradictory.”
Along with almost everyone who knew Johnson, John Connally, an early Johnson campaign manager and friend, who achieved his own political success as governor of Texas, picked up on Hardesty’s theme: “There is no adjective in the dictionary to describe [Johnson],” he mused, “He was cruel and kind, generous and greedy, sensitive and insensitive, crafty and naive, ruthless and thoughtful, simple in many ways and yet extremely complex, caring and totally not caring; he could overwhelm people with kindness and turn around and be cruel and petty toward those same people; he knew how to use people in politics in the way nobody else could that I know of. As a matter of fact, it would take every adjective in the dictionary to describe him.” Like Shakespeare’s King Lear before him, Johnson seemed to ask, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
But what is consistent is that all of those qualities added up to a giant of a man, and they help explain Johnson’s prodigious achievements, which can’t be ignored by history. More than any President since his mentor, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson got things done. His “Great Society,” with its flurry of laws delivering social change, bears testimony to his force of personality and triumph of will. As veteran journalist and President watcher Helen Thomas put it, “I think [Johnson] did monogram our society in his time here. . . . In the first place, I thought he had no peers—maybe FDR—in terms of what he did for the general welfare with the Great Society: Medicare, Head Start, federal aid to education, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, all those things.” LBJ’s sweeping reform in the areas of civil rights, education, health care, immigration, the arts and humanities, and the environment changed forever the face and heart of America and the way we live.
Still, Johnson gets little credit for it. In the contentious 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries that saw party favorite, Hillary Clinton, square off against upstart Barack Obama, Clinton was excoriated when she allowed, “[Martin Luther] King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a President to get it done.” A barrage of critics charged that Clinton’s comment diminished King and was tinged with racism. But is there any doubt that a President might have an essential role in seeing a landmark law to fruition, particularly the first major piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction? As civil rights leader and former lieutenant to Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, put it later, “Martin Luther King understood that we would not have been able to be successful if we didn’t have a President with the kind of[political] skill [as Lyndon Johnson], and while [King] loved President Kennedy, and knew that President Kennedy gave his life [for his country], he said, ‘I’m not sure President Kennedy could have done this for us.’ ”
Yet when Barack Obama became President in 2009, maybe the most historic milestone in the nation’s long struggle for civil rights, Johnson was generally not among those on the short list of people who came to mind in ensuring that that day would come. As historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in an essay in Barack Obama: The Official Inauguration Book, reflecting the sentiments of many, “The baton had been passed from Lincoln to the Roosevelts to the Kennedys and King to this man [Obama].” It likely wouldn’t have surprised Johnson, who was given to bouts of self-pity and was particularly thin-skinned over the backseat he had taken to the Kennedy brothers.
In his foreword to that same book, though, congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis wrote that after the bloody campaign in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, “President Johnson made one of the most meaningful speeches that any American President has made in modern times on the question of voting rights and civil rights. The most powerful nation on the face of the earth had heard the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of an oppressed people, and this government was prepared to act”—resulting in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and transformational political power and social change for people of color. But then, King and Lewis knew Johnson, worked with him, and saw firsthand the difference he made.
In understanding Johnson, seeing was believing. Those who witnessed “the Johnson treatment” up close appreciated Johnson’s ability to get people who mattered to say yes—even to the most controversial reforms. Leon Jaworski, best known for his stint as Watergate special prosecutor, said of Johnson, “This man makes the greatest, most persuasive talk to a small group of anyone I have ever known. I have never known his equal.” Lady Bird Johnson called her husband “the last of the courthouse politicians,” those who commanded the attention of a gathering of folks within earshot from the steps of a courthouse, and he was certainly among the best. “People, not TV studios, were adrenaline to him,” Liz Carpenter, a longtime Johnson aide, observed. “They were not only his adrenaline, they were his cause, and he wanted to seize his moment and take his chance with them.” Those qualities and skills, plus a fierce desire to do right, led to a societal transformation that has not since been achieved by any of his successors.
There, too, was Vietnam, the inherited war Johnson didn’t bargain for and never overcame. In the eyes of history, Vietnam dances around Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon, flirting with them, but it attaches itself to Johnson, clinging to him by the light of day. As Helen Thomas quickly added to her accolades for Johnson, “Vietnam, of course, was his great tragedy.” For Johnson, who longed for greatness and a place in the pantheon of Presidents, Vietnam was indeed a tragedy. “I knew from the start that if I left the woman I love—the Great Society—in order to fight that bitch of a war, then I would lose everything. All my programs. All my hopes. All my dreams,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled Johnson lamenting in his winter years. While the Great Society added immeasurably to the utopian optimism that marked the dawn of the sixties era, Vietnam, an ill-fated war that saw the loss of more than thirty-six thousand American troops by the time Johnson left office—fifty-eight thousand when the war was over in 1975—was the conflict that ultimately divided the nation.
Clare Booth Luce, playwright and wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, famously lectured incumbent Presidents that they would be remembered in one sentence: “Lincoln: He freed the slaves,” she would illustrate. If so, Johnson’s sentence surely has Vietnam in it, and if it’s long enough, it may include the prodigious accomplishments of the Great Society—in particular those involving civil rights—as a triumphant counterbalance. Had the Great Society marked the end of his presidency and Vietnam the beginning, and not the other way around, the sentence may have been different. But it was Vietnam that brought Johnson’s once auspicious Presidency to an end, punctuating his obstreperous tenure.
Compounding Johnson’s challenges in any historical judgment—abbreviated or otherwise—is his protean nature, which makes him an easy mark for historical revisionism. Among the most extreme examples came in 2004, when the History Channel broadcast a special implicating him as a conspirator in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Never mind that the documentary was based on conspiracy theories that held no water, Johnson, undeniably power-hungry and ambitious, could be retrofitted into the implausible storyline. (In the wake of outrage from Presidents Carter and Ford and former Johnson aides, among others, the History Channel issued to Lady Bird Johnson “deepest apologies” over choosing to air the program).
Even responsible biographers, drawing on the rich tapestry of Johnson’s life and personality, can craft an account that is factually accurate but unduly skewed, given the subject’s enormous breadth and inherent contradictions. As Connally once told Robert Caro, in response to Caro’s celebrated biographies of Johnson’s early and Senate years, “Every time you could put a dark twist to something Johnson did, you did it. You never paint the bright side. You never give him credit for anything that’s virtuous or noble or reasonable or fair or rational.” Walter Cronkite agreed, characterizing Caro’s portrait of Johnson as “one-sided.” “I don’t really believe that [Johnson] was all evil,” Cronkite said. “He had an ugly side. Many of us do, I suppose.” Johnson used to joke about the Depression era schoolteacher in desperate need of a job who was asked by the school board whether he taught that the world was round or flat. “I can teach it either way,” he replied. Those interpreting Johnson’s life and legacy have the same leeway.
After Pablo Picasso painted his now-famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, which was criticized at the time for not accurately capturing his subject, he replied, “It doesn’t look like her now, but it will.” History’s distortions can resonate similarly, becoming conventional wisdom as impressions congeal. It may help to explain the delta in public perceptions of LBJ versus those of Presidential scholars. In a 2010 Gallup poll in which Americans were asked to rank the nine Presidents of the last fifty years—from Kennedy through George W. Bush—Johnson came in seventh, after Jimmy Carter and just ahead of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. At the same time, Presidential scholars—those who have combed through the record and taken measure beyond the surface—typically rank Johnson in the second quintileof all Presidents, on a plane with other “near greats” such as Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Truman, and just short of the pantheon reserved for Washington, Lincoln, and FDR.
The essence of Lyndon Johnson cannot be adequately captured through the lens of a camera, behind a microphone, under a klieg light, or by way of any desultory account. He is best remembered up close by those who knew him, and in myriad accounts. Even then, he remains elusive.
This book aims to provide a portrait of Johnson through the stories and recollections of the people who were there with him day in and day out during his Presidency—living with him, working alongside him, covering him in the White House press pool— and through Johnson’s own recollections and his own words, in phone conversations as history was being made. It is not meant to be a definitive Presidential biography, but a collection of impressions illuminating the totality of who he was, what he did, and what it meant. For it is through firsthand narrative more than anything that Lyndon Johnson— who teemed with vitality throughout his sixty-four years and remains enigmatic nearly four decades after his passing—comes to life.
“A Man Who Remains a Mystery”
How do you capture the essence of a man whose ‘essence’ was like quicksilver?” Bob Hardesty, a White House speechwriter from 1966 to the end of Johnson’s term in 1969, once asked of his former boss. “How can you capture a man who remains a mystery even to those who knew him best?” It is a question that will go unanswered in these pages. Any attempt to answer it in any depth or with any degree of certainty would be pure folly. Though it is a journey worth taking.
Jack Valenti, special assistant to the President, 1963–66: I frankly didn’t understand him. I loved him, and I followed him, but I sure as hell didn’t fathom all that made him tick. Since the first time I met him, my opinions about him never changed. It was like being in the jungle and meeting a magnificent panther, silken, silent, ready to spring, and you are a bit afraid and at the same time fascinated by the animal.
Harry Middleton, staff assistant to the President, 1967–69; director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, 1971–2001: There have been good books written about LBJ, not great ones. There are just too many nuances in him. It would take a dramatist, not an author, to capture LBJ.
Warren Rogers, White House correspondent, Hearst Newspapers and Look magazine: I’ve known or interviewed every President since Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson is absolutely the most overwhelming human being I’ve ever known in my life. Anything you want to say about him: good, bad, compassionate, ruthless; everything.
Wilbur Cohen, secretary of health, education, and welfare, 1968–69: He was a complex, contradictory personality. I have heard him, when we were on the [LBJ] Ranch going by and watching the animals, refer to all sorts of sexual characteristics of the animals and of people, and then five minutes later you could stand on the hillside there watching the sunset and you’d find a man who was a poet describing the sunset and the relationship of the land to the people and his hopes and aspirations for people. And it seems to me that people who talk about his crudity do not understand that this was an earthy man . . . a combination of Boccaccio and Machiavelli and John Keats.
Hugh Sidey, Washington correspondent, Time and Life magazines: Lyndon Johnson was the single most fascinating human being I have met in my life and I doubt no matter how extended my years be that the record will be challenged. Within hours of meeting him when he stood astride the U.S. Senate as majority leader, I was ushered into his office and given “the treatment,” complete with chest thumping, leg and arm squeezing, LBJ’s Texas stories and admonitions to take care of him and he would take care of me. Once he made it to the White House, he was even larger and more important than before, natural grist for a column.
John Connally, LBJ congressional aide, Texas governor, 1963–69, and LBJ adviser: He was an extremely ambitious man. He was dedicated to his career. His whole life was politics. He didn’t read books. I don’t want to embarrass his family, but I might ask them if they ever remember him reading a book. I don’t ever remember him reading a book. That is not to say he wasn’t intelligent, or that he wasn’t informed or that he wasn’t interested. But he didn’t have time to read books. He was committed to succeeding as a politician.
Marianne Means, White House correspondent, Hearst Newspapers: Johnson got his kicks out of working. He was a workaholic. He enjoyed it all; he didn’t want to miss a minute. He wanted to be in charge every second.
Joseph Califano, special assistant to the President, 1965–69: The Lyndon Johnson I worked with was brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive, with a shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of his adversaries. He could be altruistic and petty, caring and crude, generous and petulant, blatantly honest and calculatingly devious—all within the same few minutes. He had a marvelous, if crude, sense of humor. Once he made up his mind, his determination to succeed usually ran over or around whoever and whatever got in his way. He used his prodigious energy—which produced second, third and fourthwinds, as others, allies and adversaries alike, slumped in exhaustion—to mount a social revolution and to control everything and everyone around him. He gave new meaning to the word Machiavellian, as he gave new hope to the disadvantaged.
Myer Feldman, special counsel to the President, 1964–65: I think Lyndon Johnson had great virtues and great vices, depending on whether that particular day he was emphasizing the vices or the virtues, you liked or disliked him. You couldn’t say that you liked Lyndon Johnson all the time. It was equally impossible to say that you disliked Lyndon Johnson all the time—but he was a very strong personality, and he had big swings.
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo, personal secretary to LBJ, 1962–69: [Johnson] was a man of appetites. He worked too hard, lived too rough, and felt too much. I didn’t like him all of the time, but I respected him most of the time. Willard Deason, Johnson friend and supporter: He was a young man always in a hurry; and then he was a middle-aged man always in a hurry. I used to say that he could see around a corner. He had an intuitive thing about him. He understood what was happening and what was going to happen, and he could tell you.
Warren Woodward, LBJ congressional aide, 1948–53, and friend: On the question of his ambition to be President. I grew up in a time when our mothers and fathers told us that our highest ambition should be to grow up to be President. So in that sense every American child wanted to be President. But the contention that it was for the power—to be President just for the power—Idon’t agree with that. If he wanted to be President it was because he saw it as a vehicle to get something done for people. That was his ultimate position. That is why the notion that he was consumed by the lust for power is not entirely accurate. It was necessary to have power to accomplish things.
George Christian, White House press secretary, 1966–69: In my book, President Johnson gave it all he had. He might have been ornery at times, he mighthave been too tough for folks, he was probably less lovable than he wanted to be. But I have never had one shred of doubt concerning his motivations, and that motivation was to change the lives of people he thought were being shortchanged by the system.
Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s White House press secretary and staff director, 1963–69: Looking back on LBJ and his problems, I think he makes subsequent Presidents seem—well, listless, heartless, certainly colorless, and maybe a little chicken.
Lee C. White, special counsel to the President, 1965–66: It was no secret that Lyndon Johnson was a very complex human being. He could be charming, slightly outrageous, extremely thoughtful and considerate, vindictive, sensitive, profane, sentimental, mean, demanding, overbearing, persuasive, crafty, and shrewd. Above all, he was intelligent and focused. High on his agenda were the issues of racial discrimination and problems of the poor. His empathy for the blacks who had been treated so badly and for the poor, regardless of their color, was deep in him, and he was willing to do what needed to be done to try to solve their fundamental problems.
Bill Moyers, special assistant to the President; 1963–67, White House press secretary, 1965–67: Anyone who knew him knew that he could be abusive, hard, sometimes callous, deceptive, often distrustful. Anybody who knew him knew all of those things about him. And yet from this ugly and mean man came a program, a philosophy, a purpose that transcended what we knew about him. . . .The seminal moment of the Johnson years came in a press conference when Jim Deakin of the St. Louis Dispatch asked him, “Mr. President, I don’t understand why for all these years you were either indifferent to or opposed to the advance of civil rights in Texas, and you suddenly turn around and are doing what you’re doing in the White House.”
The President replied (and this is only a paraphrase), “Isn’t it wonderful that after all those years of keeping my hand on the scale, you might say, I have a chance to put right what for so long I helped to keep wrong?”
That is the mystery of Lyndon Johnson. I’m astonished that that much good happened in the world where civilization is but a veneer, where selfishness is exploited and encouraged and people are urged to look out for number one. I’m surprised that anything good and decent occurs. . . . The question is, why did a man as flawed as any human vessel that was ever made rouse a nation to reach beyond itself in such a time?
Copyright © 2012 by Mark K. Updegrove