- Historic Sites
A One-sided Johnson
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
Roosevelt routinely exaggerated his own accomplishments and, when there were none to exaggerate, cheerfully fabricated them. “The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s Constitution myself,” he assured trackside audiences during his 1920 race for Vice-Pr»sident, and when it quickly became clear that these were not the facts, he took refuge in the trapped politician’s standard excuse: The press had misquoted him. Early enemies and allies alike mistrusted Roosevelt, and with good reason; even a close friend admitted he was “not particularly steady in his views.” Having championed American participation in the League of Nations as his party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1920, for example, it gave him only momentary pause to oppose it a dozen years later in order to win the party’s presidential nomination. And the roster of powerful mentors whom FDR deserted in the interest of his own career—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Josephus Daniels, and Al Smith were just the most prominent among them—was even longer than Johnson’s.
Caro is particularly devastating about Johnson’s gaudy version of his wartime experiences. A single combat mission, lasting precisely thirteen minutes, was transformed by LBJ’s shameless bragging into months spent under fire and a suicide mission that saw fourteen Zeros shot down around him. But FDR, too, misrepresented his record; he never managed to make it into uniform during World War I, but on the basis of a larkish inspection tour of the western front, he claimed nonetheless to have seen more of the fighting “than any other American” and asked that his name appear among those of the “first division” of Groton graduates who had served their country.
The charges critics leveled against FDR are eerily reminiscent of those Caro has compiled for his indictment of LBJ.
Roosevelt did not systematically use his political power to enrich himself, as Johnson evidently did, and I know of no evidence that he ever personally conspired to steal votes, but his reaction to LBJ’s loss in 1941 demonstrates a certain familiarity with the gamier side of local politics. “Lyndon,” he told the sheepish loser, “apparently you Texans haven’t learned one of the first things we learned up in New York State, and that is that when the election is over, you have to sit on the ballot boxes.”
I point up these parallels with LBJ not to denigrate Roosevelt—the survival of the American experiment during the Great Depression provides the strongest possible evidence that his strengths far outweighed his weaknesses—but rather to suggest that all of Johnson’s flaws were not uniquely his. Clearly, Johnson was a far more turbulent, insecure man than Roosevelt. No one would ever have said of LBJ, as Robert Sherwood once said of FDR, that he seemed to have been “psychoanalyzed by God.” But even madmen are complicated, and like Roosevelt, Johnson must have been far more than the sum of his flaws.
In one of the essays in a shrewd little compilation called 27 Masters of Politics , long out of print, FDR’s former aide Raymond Moley sought not to excuse his former boss so much as to explain him, in a passage that could usefully be applied to Lyndon Johnson as well: “I have been asked many times by those who know of my long association with Roosevelt:… was he … ‘sincere’?
”… I always answered that sincerity, as a quality known to the generality of people, is not fairly applicable to a politician. Or to put it another way, in a category of virtues appropriate to a politician, sincerity occupies a less exalted place than it does among the qualities of a novelist, a teacher or a scientist. And that is in no way damning the politician, for he may exalt virtues such as kindness, understanding and public service far beyond those who sniff at his lack of sincerity. …
‘The politician creates illusions. His words must be selected not because they are the most forceful or descriptive in conveying exact facts and situations, but because they will produce, in the minds of hearers or readers the reaction desired by the speaker or writer. What therefore, does sincerity, as we talk this virtue to our children, have to do with the calculations of a politician?
“Ultimately, the considerations of a politician are not based upon truth or fact; they are based upon what the public will conceive to be truth or fact.”
Unpalatable as that truth may be, it seems to me that one cannot fully understand politics or politicians— or power—without first trying to digest it.