- Historic Sites
Lbj’s Alter Ego
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
But Johnson hated, too, and as the months went by and the Vietnam War continued to grow and the public remained stubbornly besotted by the memory of his martyred predecessor, his hatreds seemed to consume him. Goodwin began seriously to believe the President was exhibiting signs of paranoia. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Kennedy hireling paid to “rile up the Negroes,” LBJ told his aides. American ambassadors appointed by Kennedy were plotting against him overseas. The Soviet ambassador was colluding with his enemies in Washington. “The communists already control the three major networks and the forty major outlets of communication,” he confided to a poolside gathering in Texas. “You know, Dick, the communists are taking over the country,” the President told Goodwin. “Look here.” He waved a manila folder. “It’s Teddy White’s FBI file. He’s a Communist sympathizer.” Goodwin also says Johnson informed Bill Moyers that Vice-President Hubert Humphrey himself was suspect.
Goodwin grew so concerned that he consulted psychiatrists, who only confirmed his fears: the President seemed to be undergoing “paranoid disintegration.” Goodwin resolved to return to private life but to keep his concerns about the President’s sanity to himself. No one would have believed him at the time, he writes, and had he revealed them later, after he had broken with his former chief over Vietnam, such talk would have seemed only politically motivated slander. “Still, to this day,” he adds, “I have never completely overcome the suspicion that my secrecy may have been a very large mistake of judgment or timidity.”
In reluctantly accepting Goodwin’s resignation, Johnson was lavish in his praise: “I know that the unique opportunity to serve your country during these years has been a blessing to you, for it has given you the means of applying your brilliant talents to the problems that beset your fellow men. It has also been a blessing for the country—for within the high councils of government you have articulated with great force and persuasion man’s hunger for justice and his hopes for a better life.” “It was the most extravagant and eloquent tribute I ever received,” Goodwin notes, “before or since.” He has every right to be proud of this encomium, signed by the demanding President for whom he labored so effectively, but the reader can’t help wondering if LBJ actually wrote it.
Goodwin consulted psychiatrists, who confirmed his fears: the President was undergoing “paranoid disintegration.”
Certainly it did not reflect his feelings for long. After Goodwin denounced the war in 1966, Johnson saw to it that his contract for editing a volume of presidential speeches was canceled even though the books had been printed, and when LBJ published his own massive memoir, The Vantage Point , in 1971, he mentioned his former “alter ego” precisely once, in a footnote that lists him as one of twenty-three people who attended a 1965 meeting of the National Security Council.
In 1968 the antiwar movement brought Goodwin back into politics. He joined Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, bringing to the “Clean for Gene” campaign some much-needed Kennedy-style realism. When an earnest young volunteer told him that two different voters had said of McCarthy, “I liked his brother Joe, and I’m going to vote for him,” and asked him what he should say if it happened again, Goodwin answered, “Tell them you appreciate their support and move on.”
He and his cohorts did move on, RFK entered the race, and Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. Goodwin’s own reaction to the news was “muted,” he writes, remembering that LBJ had “not long [before] been the formidable, courageous leader of the most progressive forces of the decade: dragon and St. George fused in one tormented flesh.”
If Goodwin has kissed and told in this memoir—his assertion that Johnson was emotionally disturbed has elicited indignant denials from LBJ loyalists who argue that Goodwin never understood Johnson’s melodramatic style, and his sketches of some of those with whom he once battled (McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk) are brutally dismissive—he has not done so out of simple spite. Despite the decade’s awful denouement—the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the dissolution of the Great Society, and the concomitant obsession with Vietnam—Goodwin concludes that those years demonstrated that “men and women can live as if their world was malleable to their grasp; and that, true or false, to live in this belief is to be the most authentically alive.”