Presidents On Presidents

PrintPrintEmailEmail

For a man who was written off by both Truman and Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson demonstrated a keen sensitivity to other Presidents’ shadows. In 1965 he signed the historic Voting Rights Act in the room where Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation; he journeyed to Independence to sign the Medicare Act in Harry Truman’s presence, as a tribute to Truman’s fight for national health insurance; and in the last year of his Presidency, with protests against the Vietnam War reaching a crescendo, he was haunted by Woodrow Wilson. He had a recurring dream of lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House while his aides argued in the next room over dividing up his power. Awake, he connected the dream immediately to the paralyzed Wilson of 1919. He would get up and walk through the darkened halls to Wilson’s portrait. Gradually Johnson became convinced that if he ran for another term, he would collapse with a stroke—vascular illness ran in his family—and end his Presidency in paralysis and defeat like Wilson. The premonition had a strong influence on his decision to withdraw from the 1968 campaign.

Like most Presidents defeated after a single term, Jimmy Carter left the White House bitter and depressed. But he displayed a Washington-like reluctance to criticize his successor, to the exasperation of many Democrats. Recently, when veterans of the Carter administration gathered for a reunion, they asked Carter what he thought of former President Reagan’s acceptance of a multimillion-dollar fee to make a public appearance in Japan. Carter said he had been asked the same question by reporters and had hesitated to criticize a former President. But among his friends he could be more candid. “If any of you hear of another deal like that,” he said, “let me know.”