A Visit With LBJ

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He had his back toward me when I first saw him, giving me a chance to get an impression of him unobserved, and he struck me as much more imposing than I had imagined—not only very tall but burly. He carried more than two hundred pounds on his six-foot-four-inch frame, but he appeared to be even bigger. The New York Times reported that “Lyndon Johnson seems 20 feet tall—when he really measures no more than 10,” and his former press officer George Reedy has written: “By sheer size alone he would dominate any landscape. And no one could avoid the feeling of an elemental force at work when in his presence. One did not know whether he was an earthquake, a volcano, or a hurricane but one knew that he possessed the force of all three combined and that whatever it was, it might go off any moment.”

I sensed immediately that something was wrong. Instead of the amiable Texan I had been led to expect, Johnson appeared morose, even ill-tempered. The suit he wore was funereal, and so, too, was his mood. He seemed so awesomely intimidating that as I approached him, I was reminded of Steve Solarz’s once telling me after class about hearing a member of the President’s staff say, “He is the only man who has ever made me feel that, like my father, he might at any moment take off his belt and strap me.” He shook hands briskly and escorted me into a tiny adjoining room.

Johnson favored this retreat, where Truman and Eisenhower used to nap, for secret meetings and informal exchanges. It was intimate (the President was never more than a foot or two from me) without being really congenial. The furniture, green and overstuffed in an odd combination of modern and Victorian, included an Eames chair upholstered in velour of the same bilious green that colored most of the rest of the room. When we first entered, Johnson sat next to me and Redmon on a couch so that our picture could be taken by the President’s favorite photographer, Yoichi Okamoto. Then he went over to the Eames chair, and for the rest of the evening we sat across from each other; farther down the couch was Redmon, and farther still, in a chair on the other side of the room, Doug Cater.

The interview could not have gotten off to a worse start. As I awaited the President’s signal to ask the first question, Redmon broke in to say with a smile, “Tell him what Mike Mansfield said to you.” Flustered by this unexpected request, I flipped through the pages of my yellow pad in an unavailing effort to find my notes.

Johnson, exasperated with being confronted at the end of a taxing day with a ham-handed professor, said curtly, “I’m going to have to run soon. You’d better ask me what you want to know.” Clearly this was going to be a brief interview.

I was struck by how he reached for examples from the 1930s, when he had been a New Deal zealot.

Picking up on his cue, I managed to start on my first question: “Mr. President, this has been a remarkable Congress. It is even arguable whether this isn’t the most significant Congress ever.” I thought of this opening as a way of being ingratiating since I had some doubt whether this Congress really was as important as those early in the New Deal, but before I could add one more sentence to frame a question, Johnson interjected, “No, it isn’t. It’s not arguable.” I grinned, then realized he was dead serious—even a little angry. It was my first indication that he believed his accomplishments were the most important in all our history. “Not if you can read,” he snapped.

“You can perform a great service,” the President continued, “if you say that never before have the three independent branches been so productive. Never has the American system worked so effectively in producing quality legislation —and at a time when our system is under attack all over the world.” He delivered these sentences mechanically as though he were reading from a TelePrompTer. “Now why is this?” That query started him on a nonstop monologue with Johnson winding himself up like an old Victrola. I got to ask only one other question all evening.

I had no way of knowing then what studies of the President have since revealed: that this way of acting had a long history. One of LBJ’s college boardinghouse associates has recalled: “He was very entertaining sometimes. . . . But if someone else tried to talk—well, he just wouldn’t let them. He’d just interrupt you—my God, his voice would just ride over you until you stopped. He monopolized the conversation from the time he came in to the time he left. I can still see him reaching and talking, reaching and talking.” Similarly, John Kenneth Galbraith remembers an episode when Johnson was Senate majority leader: “He got Arthur [Schlesinger] down to his office—spent a whole mornning with him. . . . Johnson went over every member of the Senate—his drinking habits, his sex habits, his intellectual capacity, reliability, how you manage him. Arthur said, ‘Most informative morning I ever spent. Never got a word in edge-wise.’ Not very long afterwards, Johnson . . . said, ’I’ve been meeting with your friend, Arthur Schlesinger. Really had a very good meeting. We had a long talk. He’s a right smart fellow. But, damn fellow talks too much.’”