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The Full Johnson
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Down with the debunking biographer,” Lyndon Johnson wrote in his college newspaper in 1929. “It now seems to be quite a thing to pull down the mighty from their seats and roll them in the mire. This practice deserves pronounced condemnation. Hero worship is a tremendous force in uplifting and strengthening. Humanity, let us have our heroes. Let us continue to believe that some have been truly great.”
All his life Lyndon Johnson wanted desperately to be numbered among the truly great; in fact, he told an aide during his Presidency that he wanted to be “the greatest President of them all,” greater than “the whole bunch of them.” But in the years since his death he has less often been revered than rolled in the mire by historians and biographers, for whom the memory of the blood and betrayal of Vietnam has been allowed to blot out everything else Johnson achieved in a political career that spanned more than three decades. Many of their books—most notably The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s best-selling demonography—seem almost to have been written backward, relentlessly searching out the roots of Johnson’s supposed villainy rather than chronicling his life as he actually lived it, unfolding forward, with all options open, the outcome always in doubt. Since monsters are ultimately less interesting than men, the results of all this retrospective moralizing, for the most part, have been disappointingly self-fulfilling.
Television was as cruel to Lyndon Johnson as it was kind to John Kennedy. The eerie detachment that often disconcerted those who encountered JFK’s chilly blue-eyed stare in person somehow perfectly suited the little screen. Kennedy was our first real television President, and not even Ronald Reagan’s finest performances in the same role ever quite matched his.
There was never anything detached, anything cool, about Lyndon Johnson. Every inch of him seems to have been fully engaged every moment of every day—and far into the night as well, as his sleep-deprived aides often complained. The real Johnson was too big, too loud, too crude, too driven, ever to settle comfortably into our living rooms, and the palpable speciousness of the “presidential” persona LBJ insisted upon adopting for televised occasions—slow-walking, slow-talking, as dolorous as a funeral director—only fed our distrust of him. We knew that Johnson had to be a phony.
There is, therefore, an especially nice irony in the fact that “LBJ,” a fourhour television life to be shown on PBS on September 29 and October 1, is far fairer toward him than most of those who have sought to capture him on paper. The man who made it is David Grubin, the much-honored film maker whose hour “The Wyeths: A Father and His Family” about the artist N. C. Wyeth and his talented offspring, which aired on the Smithsonian World series on PBS five years ago, is, for my money, one of the ten or fifteen best film biographies ever made. In that program Grubin—and his collaborator, the historian and biographer David McCullough—deftly uncovered the complexity roiling just beneath the too tranquil surface of an outwardly happy family.
With Johnson, Grubin faced something like the opposite challenge: finding the real man behind the troubled, turbulent Texas politician we all think we know. The resulting portrait is a triumph, I think, unblinking but evenhanded, and fascinating from first reel to last. The Lyndon Johnson whom Grubin shows us is complex, contradictory, greatly gifted, and hugely capable, driven by decent instincts and great dreams for himself and his country. “Do something we can be proud of,” LBJ exhorts a crowd in 1964, as he calls upon his listeners to help him “free thirty million Americans from the presence of poverty. Help the weak and the meek and lift ‘em up and help them train and give them an education where they can make their own way.”
He is also heedless, deceitful, venal, unscrupulous, egomaniacal, and, as warfare in the inner cities of America and the jungles of Southeast Asia simultaneously threatens to drive him from the White House, something frighteningly close to paranoid.
The prologue to the first program, which takes LBJ all the way from the Texas hill country to the White House, sets the tone for all four hours and provides a much-needed reminder of the great heights to which Johnson climbed before he fell so far: LBJ waltzes blissfully with his wife at the 1965 inaugural ball, overwhelmingly elected President in his own right, eager to get on with the building of his Great Society.
Film presents unique challenges to the biographer. Johnson was always at his best behind closed doors, applying what Clark Clifford has called “the full Johnson” to those he needed to enlist in his cause. No one ever filmed that Johnson in action, and so to evoke him, Grubin shows us a sequence of stills of LBJ looming over diminutive Sen. Theodore F. Green of Rhode Island while we hear a host of bemused witnesses—more than a dozen of them—recalling Johnson in action. “It was like being under a waterfall,” Johnson’s press secretary George Reedy says. John Connally recalls LBJ’s monomania. “His whole life was politics,” and in all their years of friendship, he says, Johnson never read a single book.