Machismo In The White House


On a slow Saturday afternoon in the 1950’s, expansive and garrulous in his posh Senate majority-leader quarters, Johnson discoursed to a half dozen young Texas staffers in the patois of their shared native place. Why—he said—you take that ragtag bunch at Valley Forge, who’d have given them a cut dog’s chance? There they were, barefoot in the snow and their asses hanging out, nothing to eat but moss and dead leaves and snakes, not half enough bullets for their guns, and facing the soldiers of the most powerful king of his time. Yet they sucked it up, wouldn’t quit, lived to fight another day—and won. Or you take the Civil War, now: it had been so exceptionally bloody because you had aroused Americans fighting on both sides; it had been something like rock against rock, or like two mean ol’ pit bulldogs going at each other with neither of them willing to be chewed up and both of ’em thinking only of taking hunks out of the other. He again invoked the Alamo: a mere handful of freedom-loving men standing against the Mexican hordes, knowing they faced certain death, but they’d carved their names in history for all time, and before they got through with ol’ General Santa Anna he thought he’d stumbled into a nest of stinging scorpions or bumblebees.

Fifteen years later Johnson would show irritation when Clark Clifford suggested that victory in Vietnam might require a sustaining commitment of twenty to thirty years. No—L.B.J. said—no, no, the thing to do was get in and out quickly, pour everything you had into the fight, land the knockout blow: hell, the North Vietnamese had to see the futility of facing all that American muscle. If you really poured it on ’em, you could clean up that mess within six months. We had the troops, the firepower, the bombs, the sophisticated weaponry, the oil—everything we needed to win. Did we have the resolve? Well, the Texas Rangers had a saying that you couldn’t stop a man who just kept on a-coming. And that’s what we’d do in Vietnam, Clark, just keep on a-coming …

Always he talked of the necessity to be strong; he invoked his father’s standing up to the Ku Klux Klan in the igso’s, Teddy Roosevelt’s carrying that big stick, F.D.R.’s mobilizing the country to beat Hitler and Tojo. He liked oP Harry Truman—tough little bastard and his own man- but, listen, Harry and Dean Acheson had lost control when they failed to properly prosecute the Korean War. They lost the public’s respect, lost control of General MacArthur, lost the backing of Congress, lost the war or the next thing to it. Next thing you know, they got blamed for losing China and then there was Joe McCarthy accusing them of being soft on communism and everybody believed it. Well, it wouldn’t happen to him, nosir. He hadn’t started the Vietnam war—Jack Kennedy had made the first commitment of out-and-out combat troops, don’t forget—but he wouldn’t bug out no matter how much the Nervous Nellies brayed. Kennedy had proved during the Cuban missile crisis that if you stood firm then the Reds would back down. They were playground bullies, and he didn’t intend to be pushed around any more than Jack Kennedy had. When a bully ragged you, you didn’t go whining to the teacher but gave him some of his own medicine.

Only later, in exile, when he spoke with unusual candor of his darker parts, did it become clear how obsessed with failure Lyndon Johnson always had been. As a preschool youngster he walked a country lane to visit a grandfather, his head stuffed with answers he knew would be required (“How many head of cattle you got, Lyndon? How much do they eat? How many head can you graze to the acre?”) and fearing he might forget them. If he forgot them, he got no bright-red apple but received, instead, a stern and disapproving gaze. L.B.J.’s mother, who smothered him with affection and praise should he perform to her pleasure, refused to acknowledge his presence should he somehow displease or disappoint her. His father accused him of being a sleepyhead, a slow starter, and sometimes said every boy in town had a two-hour head start on him. Had we known these things from scratch, we might not have wondered why Lyndon Johnson seemed so blind for so long to the Asian realities. His personal history simply permitted him no retreats or failures in testings.

From childhood L.B.J. experienced bad dreams. As with much else, they would stay with him to the grave. His nightmares were of being paralyzed and unable to act, of being chained inside a cage or to his desk, of being pursued by hostile forces. These and other disturbing dreams haunted his White House years; he could see himself stricken and ill on a cot, unable even to speak—like Woodrow Wilson—while, in an adjoining room, his trusted aides squabbled and quarreled in dividing his power. He translated the dreams to mean that should he for a moment show weakness, be indecisive, then history might judge him as the first American President who had failed to stand up and be counted.