A Visit With LBJ

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That sentence got him going on what turned out to be his favorite topic: himself. “Never was anyone so well trained for this office,” he began. “I met with the President every night for twelve years.” (That was another claim that was palpably untrue.) “I worked out schedules. I was unofficial leader. I headed the Armed Services Committee. They never made a move I wasn’t in on. I created the preparedness subcommittee. I became whip. I became minority leader. I became majority leader. I led by one seat. [That is, the Democrats had a one-seat margin, barely enough to organize the Senate.] I had every Democrat in his seat and voting together to censure McCarthy. Except for Kennedy, who was ill; he wouldn’t give us his pair.” (The animus against JFK was becoming more and more apparent.)

Franklin Roosevelt seemed an even less likely target, for the one quotation most associated with Johnson was his saying in 1945 on learning of FDR’s death, “He was like a daddy to me always.” Ever since, he had been, in his public statements about the President who had fostered his career, the very model of filial piety. Now, however, he declared: “In 1936 Roosevelt won by a landslide. But he was like the fellow who cut cordwood and sold it all at Christmas and then spent it all on firecrackers. It all went up with a bang. He did get things done. There was regulation of business, but that was unimportant. Social Security and the Wagner Act were all that really amounted to much, and none of it compares to my education act.” (Parenthetically he interposed, “We’ve added enough to the public domain to make Teddy Roosevelt ashamed of himself.")

“We have cut down the fear that destroyed Franklin Roosevelt,” he asserted. “The President has terrible power. People are fearful of the President’s power. That fear brought this Republic into being. When people did not like what Roosevelt was doing, he called them economic royalists and moneychangers. He said they had met their match and would meet their master.” Johnson’s voice rose, and he eyed me directly. “It was like people fighting and spitting at one another.”

Johnson saw himself, unlike his renowned predecessor, as the maestro of consensus. “We created a bridge with the people,” he bragged. “We got the titans of industry and labor, and we bred them together.” (The word bred may seem odd, at least to those who don’t think of Johnson as a rancher, but that’s what he said.) “I’m not a confiscator, and business doesn’t think so. Labor is not afraid of what I might do; they know I voted for minimum wage and all those other labor measures.” He took another swig of the grape soda and belched.

“Congress is not afraid. I revere ‘em. I am not for denouncing Congress all the time. I am not like Schlesinger and you writers who think of congressmen as archaic buffoons with tobacco drool running down their shirts. I revere Congress. I got up at seven this morning to have breakfast with them. I don’t have contempt for them.” He added: “I gave the Supreme Court a dinner, and I revere ‘em. I don’t want to impeach Earl Warren.”

The reference to Schlesinger is suggestive. Eric Goldman has reflected on “the mounting irritation of the President and of [his chief aide Walter] Jenkins against Schlesinger. There was something about my fellow historian, to his glory or demerit, which peculiarly roused the Johnsonian.” Schlesinger was perceived as the quintessential Kennedy man who could not stomach having the aggressively coarse Texan in the elegant patrician’s chair. Yet he also believed that Schlesinger could determine his place in history. On the day after Kennedy was assassinated, he told the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Walter Heller: “Now I wanted to say something about all this talk that I’m a conservative who is likely to go back to the Eisenhower ways or give in to the economy bloc in Congress. It’s not so, and I want you to tell your friends—Arthur Schlesinger, Galbraith and other liberals—that it is not so. . . . If you looked at my record, you would know that I am a Roosevelt New Dealer. As a matter of fact, to tell the truth, John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.” (Among the many conceivable explanations for why Johnson was so testy with me was that he had been briefed that, like Schlesinger, I was a New Deal historian. We both came, too, from Ivy League universities, toward which Johnson bore an enduring grudge; he was sure that no matter what he did, that crowd would never accept him.)