- Historic Sites
My Search For Lyndon Johnson
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Writing a biography is an act of selfdiscovery. As James Atlas, a New York Times Magazine editor, said in a recent article, “Choosing a Life,” “the biographer’s subject enact[s] the main themes of the biographer’s own life.” Atlas quoted Leon Edel, who spent twenty years writing a five-volume life of Henry James: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of a biography out of some deep personal motive.”
The author of a major new biography found a man every bit as unsavory as his detractors claim. He also found a man with a passionate commitment to fulfilling the highest ideals of this republic—and the sawy to do it.
What possible connections could my life have to Lyndon Johnson’s? A Jew, a New Yorker, an academic, I am light-years removed from the Texas power broker whose sixteen-hour workdays were studies in political wheeling and dealing. Although Johnson believed that if he had not become a politician he would have been a teacher, his fascination with power and action, as opposed to the world of books and contemplation, belies his conviction. Lyndon Johnson would have been a very unhappy academic. And however much I enjoy people—one point of connection to LBJ—I would have been equally unhappy in the fierce give-and-take I associate with political life.
Yet a lifelong fascination with people, politics, and power drew me previously to write about Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And Johnson in some curious way was a combination of the two: the master politician and showman, the consummate actor playing a role, using his powers of persuasion to convince an audience—Congress, the press, the public—of the need for political programs he believed essential to the national well-being.
But there was more drawing me to this roughand-tumble Texan. He reminded me of my father: overbearing, in need of constant attention, tyrannical, crude, abusive. I had seen it all before. And as a research associate at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute for four years, I had studied it.
But if Johnson was so familiar a figure, why spend years of my life writing about him? Because what ultimately made this man so interesting to me was my conviction that he had become a caricature of himself, that behind the surface qualities was someone more interesting and important—a complicated man who would tell us a great deal about twentieth-century America. appearance of Robert Caro’s first volume about LBJ, in 1982, with its acerbic tone and overdrawn conclusions, deepened my conviction that the picture of Johnson as a narcissistic ogre was too reductionist, too one-sided, too ahistorical to do justice to the man and his times. And subsequent evidence in the last nine years has added to my belief that we badly need something more than what we have on LBJ.
In the course of my research I heard, read, and saw numerous assertions of Johnson’s crudeness, grandiosity, and unlikability. Consider, for example, Edward Sorel’s drawing of LBJ in the December 1988 Atlantic . Dressed in a blue Napoleonic uniform with gold epaulets, a red sash, medals, and a saber at his side, Johnson sits at a dressing table, smiling at himself in a mirror that reflects not only his image but that of two black cherubs holding a halo above his head. Large ears, a jutting chin, and a long, pointed nose accent Johnson’s prominent head. A photograph of an avuncular FDR and a gold pocket watch are on the dressing table. It is a portrait of a totally self-absorbed character intent on his image in history.
Charles de Gaulle said, in effect, that this man Kennedy was the nation’s mask, but this man Johnson was the country’s real face.
“Why do the people like Bobby Kennedy more than they like me?” Johnson asked former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. “Because, Mr. President,” Acheson replied, “you’re not a very likable person.” The hatred of Johnson, someone told the historian William E. Leuchtenburg, springs from the fact that “Johnson took something that was great and important… and … made it small. It’s as though he defecated in the Oval Office.” What people are angry about “is the vulgarization of the presidency.” Johnson, Leuchtenburg concluded, “debased the office he had sworn to uphold.”
Twenty years after he left the White House, the dislike of Johnson had not abated. A November 1988 Louis Harris poll on presidential performance from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan consistently ranked Johnson near or at the bottom of eleven categories. Asked which of these Presidents made people feel proudest of being an American, most inspired confidence in the White House, and could be trusted most in a crisis, respondents consistently put LBJ last alongside Gerald Ford and behind Richard Nixon. Whom will history view as the best among these Presidents? Only 1 percent chose Johnson. The President best able to get things done? Just 3 percent said Johnson, 1 percent more than said Jimmy Carter and 2 percent more than said Ford. And the President setting the highest moral standards? JFK, Reagan, and Carter, in that order, led the list. Johnson stood alone in last place, chosen by only 1 percent of the sample. Even Richard Nixon fared better with 2 percent of the vote.