My Search For Lyndon Johnson

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Someone once told me you write a book to forget a subject. But how do you forget someone as brilliant, funny, devious, nasty, and unwise as LBJ?

By the 1950s Johnson was more convinced than ever that, in McPherson’s words, “the race question … obsessed the South and diverted it from attending to its economic and educational problems. …” Doris Kearns reached a similar conclusion about Johnson’s view of how segregation hurt the South. He told her that by 1957 Congress had to act. Inaction would injure the Senate’s prestige, erode black support for the Democratic party, and “brand him forever as sectional and therefore unpresidential.” Moreover, he believed that Southern opposition to civil rights legislation made it impossible for the region “to act on its most fundamental problem—economic growth.” Johnson was convinced that a major determinant of Southern prospects “would be the willingness of Southern leadership to accept the inevitability of some progress on civil rights and get on with the business of the future, or its continued insistence on conjuring the ghost of Thaddeus Stevens.” And Johnson felt there was a compelling moral argument for racial equality. Clark Clifford, who got to know Johnson well in the 1950s, believes that his sincerity could be in doubt on many things but not on racial equality. LBJ looked at blacks and Hispanics, “looked at their lives, and saw they really did not have a chance. They did not have a decent chance for good health, for decent housing, for jobs; they were always skating right on the edge, struggling to keep body and soul together. I think he must have said to himself, ‘Someday, 1 would love to help those people. My God, I would love to give them a chance!’ ”

Johnson, as this brief glimpse at him suggests, was, in the journalist Russell Baker’s words, “a human puzzle so complicated nobody could ever understand it.… He was a character out of a Russian novel, one of those human complications that filled the imagination of Dostoyevsky, a storm of warring human instincts: sinner and saint, buffoon and statesman, cynic and sentimentalist, a man torn between hungers for immortality and self-destruction.” Another journalist, Sidney BIumenthal, says Johnson was more complex than any Manichaean picture of him can convey. He was not a case of good and evil living side by side but of “an unlovable man desperate to be loved, whose cynicism and idealism were mysteriously inseparable, all of a piece.” Blumenthal quotes Robert Penn Warren’s observation in All the King’s Men : “A man’s virtue may be the defect of his desire, as his crime may be a function of his virtue.” Lyndon Johnson was a study in ambiguity.

Someone once told me that you write a book in order to forget a subject. But how do you forget someone as brilliant, foresightful, funny, devious, nasty, and unwise as LBJ? Not easily. Besides I’m writing a second volume on the most interesting part of his life—the Presidency. And in an era when leadership sometimes seems more a matter of riskfree public relations—putting the right spin on things —than a genuine commitment to ideas and programs openly aimed at transforming the national life, Johnson reminds us that large designs and a bold reach can make a difference. Dare I confess I hear him thundering from the heavens about curing world poverty and promoting a great universe? Get on with that second volume, he says. If I don’t, he’s got a fine ghost writer to suggest.