As I consider the generally lackluster early months of the Bush administration, I wonder how much of the impression is due to the increasingly regimented relationship between the Oval Office and the press. Is it the fact that all images are combed and primped primarily for the TV cameras, or is it that the personalities themselves have been combed and primped and supplied with brush and blush?
When I consider by contrast my impression of Lyndon Baines Johnson during his early, uneasy months in office, I must conclude that this was not a man who could be camouflaged or regimented.
First, he wanted to show that he belonged in the White House. Shortly after taking office, he invited half a dozen editors of the biggest magazines (I was editing McCall’s at the time) to have lunch with him in his small private dining room in the White House so that he could explain his plans for pushing through all the great social changes that he figured JFK failed on.
There was no doubt that the style of the White House had changed. No fine French wine was chilling at the table. No place cards signaled our importance. LBJ greeted us each with a heavy arm around the shoulders. “Now you all sit down and let me tell you how this government’s going to work.” And he did, not pausing for any questions and somehow not pausing even for the business of eating. The food came on platters and in big bowls and was intended to be filling. The President heaped up his plate and went on talking, and I’m not sure that he even paused to notice what the food was. It was ham and the rest of the menu that I’d grown up on. So there was no call to talk about the food.
As unlikely as it seemed at the time, I think that almost everything the man talked about got done. And it got done not because the programs were just and needed but because of the man who loomed and leaned at us from the head of the table. He wheedled and cajoled and entertained us with jackrabbit metaphors. He made his point on running the government more efficiently by jumping up to show how he had installed cutoff switches in the closets so that the lights didn’t burn endlessly and waste electricity. I thought of my father. In LBJ’s face and manner were all the poverty and dust of a Texas childhood, all the need to prove that he belonged, all the painful need to be loved, all the desperate ambition unequaled possibly by any other man in that office.
And then came the moment that I remember most vividly. While the rest of us were still being served, the waiter set down a huge pepper mill at the President’s plate. LBJ swooped it up and pushed a button on the side- a battery-powered pepper mill! The machine crunched and groaned and spewed pepper all over the President’s plate; then he set it back down without any gesture of sharing. After all, this was the President’s table. This was the President’s pepper mill. And this was the President.