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A Visit With LBJ
An hour and a half of growing astonishment in the presence of the President of the United States, as recorded by a witness who now publishes a record of it for the first time
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
I have come to hold a different view of the outcome, for if I had been able to publish my essay that fall, I could have badly misconstrued what had occurred. My friends at the White House repeatedly assured me that I had seen LBJ in a singular mood. He had been provoked to querulousness at writers that night by something he had just read and associated me with the writing clan (although he was, for the most part, courteous enough), but I was not to interpret what I had witnessed as in any way representative of Johnson’s behavior. That construction of my visit gained credence when, not long after I saw him, the President announced that on October 8 he was to undergo surgery to have his gallbladder removed. He had first felt pain on September 7, two weeks before our interview, and the operation, which also resulted in the surgeon’s taking out a kidney stone, was so serious that he was compelled to spend most of the rest of the year at the ranch. (It would be there that he would shock sensibilities by pulling open his clothes to bare his abdominal scar.) So, then, Johnson’s cantankerousness that evening could be explained away as the result of intolerable pain. In late October The Economist wrote: “With the benefit of hindsight . . . it is tempting to speculate whether the bilious humor . . . should have been laid to incipient gall bladder trouble rather than to egocentricity.”
I now know better. There is today a mountain of evidence that Johnson’s comportment was not idiosyncratic: that he characteristically resorted to barnyard idiom, was fixated on television news, levied war against the media, was abusive to those around him and contemptuous toward those who might be regarded as his equals, vilified John Kennedy, and sought to leave FDR in his shadow—in sum, that he held a conviction of his own centrality in the universe bordering on egomania. That evening I had, unintentionally, been given an early, and extraordinarily extended, opportunity to see the President expose himself at a critical moment in his career when, having been lauded for his skillful assumption of the office after Kennedy’s death, having been returned to the White House in a landslide in 1964, and having carried the Great Society program through Congress, he was plunging the nation ever deeper into the quagmire in Southeast Asia.
Lyndon Johnson held a conviction of his own centrality in the universe bordering on egomania.
Every so often historians are polled about how Presidents should be ranked, and Lyndon Johnson has always been problematic. The ready explanation for the difficulty of rating him is that the same historians who acclaim his domestic programs are sickened by his actions in Vietnam. True enough. But something more than a weighing of disparate policies is involved in the conundrum. For Johnson was the first Chief Executive to compel historians who had always favored a strong Presidency to ask themselves whether the powers of the office might not be exercised in ways inimical to the welfare of the Republic. It is symptomatic that it was Schlesinger, who had celebrated an omnipotent White House in The Age of Roosevelt , who warned of The Imperial Presidency.
This worrisome feature of Johnson’s delusions of grandeur had largely been covered up by the White House staff during his period of uninterrupted success, but in the very week saw him, Time published an apocryphal tale of the visit of West Germany’s Ludwig Erhard to the LBJ Ranch. “I understand you were born in a log cabin,” Erhard says appeasingly. “No, Mr. Chancellor,” Johnson barks back. “You have me confused with Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger.”
There is one final aspect to Johnson’s conduct that evening that also figures in any assessment of his place in history: his loutish manner. Compared with the large issues of policy with which he dealt, that concern may seem trivial. Nothing I witnessed made me admire any less the President’s many achievements, especially in civil rights and the war on poverty. As George Reedy has said, “There is no doubt about his nastiness in dealing with individual human beings. But neither can there be any real doubt about his sincerity in trying to do something for the masses.”
Yet the boorishness he revealed in the interview is no small matter, for we are right to expect that our President, whatever his talents as policy maker and executive, will also be sensitive to his role as the most conspicuous exemplar of republican values. One administrator later said: “When I read some of the things the college kids write about Johnson, they make it very clear why they hate him. Johnson took something that was great and important in their eyes, and he made it small. It’s as though he defecated in the Oval Office. What they’re angry about, and not only the young, is the vulgarization of the presidency.” Any final reckoning on Lyndon B. Johnson is likely to say that however grievous were his failures abroad, he deserves a great deal of credit for advancing equality and justice at home, but it will also add that this immensely powerful man, who wanted to be thought of as the greatest President ever, all too readily debased the office he had sworn to uphold.