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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
To my disbelief, my watch showed that we had passed the seven o’clock hour with still no indication I was expected to leave. At the stroke of the hour he switched to CBS for Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, but he bellowed against the TV as if to drown them out, while in his most imperious manner preening himself on his success with Congress. “This year a hundred bills will become law,” he exulted. “Any other session, the maximum is twenty.” He added: “The Executive ought to lead. I believe that. I propose; they dispose. I’ve been up on the Hill more than any other President, and more of them have been here. Every member, 535 of them, has been here for two complete briefings. The least congressman from the most remote district can ask whatever he wants of the President.” It appeared that he was overwhelming Congress as he was overwhelming the evening news, and as his harangue, now more than an hour long, continued with no evidence it would ever cease, he was overwhelming me too.
I later read much about how Johnson pulverized those around him, and though he did not chew me out as he did his staff, his manner was so domineering that I felt diminished. Sometime later another interviewer, the feisty Texan Ronnie Dugger, wrote of Lyndon Johnson: “Leading you through the White House as if he owned it, which for his time he did, he cuffed you with his rough anger. He occupied his rocking chair with an indifferent authority, as if, should it squeak, he would maul it. There was threat, ferocity, real danger in him.”
“The executive ought to lead,” the President added. “I believe that. I propose; they dispose.”
At that juncture, to my surprise, a newcomer walked into the room, and the President got up to introduce me to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John Gardner. But Gardner, smiling familiarly, said quickly, “Oh, I know Bill Leuchtenburg.” In fact, we had met for no more than a minute some ten years before in a foyer when I was being offered a job at the Carnegie Foundation, and I have been grateful for his warm intervention that evening at the White House ever since; for a moment I felt that I had an identity, that outside this claustrophobic space there were people who knew me.
Gardner’s arrival surely meant I must go, so that the President could confer with his cabinet officer; but Johnson showed no intention of having his monologue abbreviated, and Gardner, a handsome man at ease with himself, sat there a captive listener, attentive but mum as the torrent of words continued. “Thus there’s been leadership,” the President reiterated, recollecting precisely what he had been saying as Gardner walked in. He was about to elaborate on this theme when for the first time since the screen flashed Luci’s image he got completely caught up in the evening news. CBS was showing U.S. Marines giving medical aid to the Vietnamese. Excitedly the President rose in his chair, flailing his arms, and yelled: “I wish you would call over there and tell them they’re doing a good job. Tell McNamara. I like to see Marines doing something besides killing: helping palsy.” Until then I had been disconcerted by the President’s cold-blooded absorption with power. This was the first time he had displayed any real warmth, any indication he wanted to use power for humane ends—though he showed no awareness of how bizarre was the conjunction of “killing” and “helping palsy.” He contemplated with genuine concern the TV images of a Vietnamese child with muscular dystrophy, doomed to die. There was a slight tic in his cheek as he stared.
This mood changed, though, when CBS turned its attention to a demonstration in Manhattan against the government’s Vietnam policy, with a counterdemonstration of pickets screaming that the protesters were disloyal. No longer could the President comfort himself with the thought that the American presence in Southeast Asia was a health mission, and he found another target for his fury. Animatedly he said to me: “One of the most difficult things I have to do is to read letters from our soldiers in Vietnam saying, ‘We don’t mind dying, but we hate not to be appreciated, and we hate to see these guys on the campuses attacking what we are doing.’”
Johnson seemed prepared to go on further in this vein, but as he was speaking, another newcomer entered the miniature hideaway, which was starting to look like the crowded stateroom in the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera . Suddenly into the room, again altogether unexpectedly, burst Lady Bird, back from a trip to the Midwest to promote the administration’s beautification measure. She was dressed chiefly in blue and was very attractive, radiant, unmistakably in high spirits. She came up to the President as he rose to greet her, took his face in both hands, and kissed him. He asked, “Did you see Luci on TV?” She said she had. She spoke to him about a later dinner engagement, and after we were introduced, she left. (It was another welcome interlude, for, however irascible Johnson was, there was no mistaking the joy he took in seeing his wife or the pride he felt in what she had been doing.) “She’s been in Dirksen’s hometown talking about the beauty program,” the President elucidated, momentarily more composed. “The Democrats have been raising hell about it. But it’s not a Democratic beautification program; it’s a national program. If she can go to Mayor Daley’s Chicago, she can go to Dirksen’s Peoria.”