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My Search For Lyndon Johnson

May 2024
11min read

Writing a biography is an act of selfdiscovery. As James Atlas, a New York Times Magazine editor, said in a recent article, “Choosing a Life,” “the biographer’s subject enact[s] the main themes of the biographer’s own life.” Atlas quoted Leon Edel, who spent twenty years writing a five-volume life of Henry James: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of a biography out of some deep personal motive.”

The author of a major new biography found a man every bit as unsavory as his detractors claim. He also found a man with a passionate commitment to fulfilling the highest ideals of this republic—and the sawy to do it.

What possible connections could my life have to Lyndon Johnson’s? A Jew, a New Yorker, an academic, I am light-years removed from the Texas power broker whose sixteen-hour workdays were studies in political wheeling and dealing. Although Johnson believed that if he had not become a politician he would have been a teacher, his fascination with power and action, as opposed to the world of books and contemplation, belies his conviction. Lyndon Johnson would have been a very unhappy academic. And however much I enjoy people—one point of connection to LBJ—I would have been equally unhappy in the fierce give-and-take I associate with political life.

Yet a lifelong fascination with people, politics, and power drew me previously to write about Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And Johnson in some curious way was a combination of the two: the master politician and showman, the consummate actor playing a role, using his powers of persuasion to convince an audience—Congress, the press, the public—of the need for political programs he believed essential to the national well-being.

But there was more drawing me to this roughand-tumble Texan. He reminded me of my father: overbearing, in need of constant attention, tyrannical, crude, abusive. I had seen it all before. And as a research associate at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute for four years, I had studied it.

But if Johnson was so familiar a figure, why spend years of my life writing about him? Because what ultimately made this man so interesting to me was my conviction that he had become a caricature of himself, that behind the surface qualities was someone more interesting and important—a complicated man who would tell us a great deal about twentieth-century America. appearance of Robert Caro’s first volume about LBJ, in 1982, with its acerbic tone and overdrawn conclusions, deepened my conviction that the picture of Johnson as a narcissistic ogre was too reductionist, too one-sided, too ahistorical to do justice to the man and his times. And subsequent evidence in the last nine years has added to my belief that we badly need something more than what we have on LBJ.


In the course of my research I heard, read, and saw numerous assertions of Johnson’s crudeness, grandiosity, and unlikability. Consider, for example, Edward Sorel’s drawing of LBJ in the December 1988 Atlantic . Dressed in a blue Napoleonic uniform with gold epaulets, a red sash, medals, and a saber at his side, Johnson sits at a dressing table, smiling at himself in a mirror that reflects not only his image but that of two black cherubs holding a halo above his head. Large ears, a jutting chin, and a long, pointed nose accent Johnson’s prominent head. A photograph of an avuncular FDR and a gold pocket watch are on the dressing table. It is a portrait of a totally self-absorbed character intent on his image in history.

Charles de Gaulle said, in effect, that this man Kennedy was the nation’s mask, but this man Johnson was the country’s real face.

“Why do the people like Bobby Kennedy more than they like me?” Johnson asked former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. “Because, Mr. President,” Acheson replied, “you’re not a very likable person.” The hatred of Johnson, someone told the historian William E. Leuchtenburg, springs from the fact that “Johnson took something that was great and important… and … made it small. It’s as though he defecated in the Oval Office.” What people are angry about “is the vulgarization of the presidency.” Johnson, Leuchtenburg concluded, “debased the office he had sworn to uphold.”

Twenty years after he left the White House, the dislike of Johnson had not abated. A November 1988 Louis Harris poll on presidential performance from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan consistently ranked Johnson near or at the bottom of eleven categories. Asked which of these Presidents made people feel proudest of being an American, most inspired confidence in the White House, and could be trusted most in a crisis, respondents consistently put LBJ last alongside Gerald Ford and behind Richard Nixon. Whom will history view as the best among these Presidents? Only 1 percent chose Johnson. The President best able to get things done? Just 3 percent said Johnson, 1 percent more than said Jimmy Carter and 2 percent more than said Ford. And the President setting the highest moral standards? JFK, Reagan, and Carter, in that order, led the list. Johnson stood alone in last place, chosen by only 1 percent of the sample. Even Richard Nixon fared better with 2 percent of the vote.

Johnson’s unsavory reputation is well deserved. He was a master fixer who never met an election he couldn’t manipulate. In 1937, when he made his first run for a congressional seat, he broke all the campaign finance laws, and his managers apparently gave Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s son, a five-thousand-dollar bribe for a telegram implying FDR’s support of LBJ. Someone in the Agriculture Department allowed Johnson campaigners to distribute parity checks to farmers, further identifying LBJ with FDR and a popular New Deal program in Texas’s Tenth Congressional District. In 1941 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes helped suppress an FBI investigation of LBJ’s fund raising in the 1940 congressional campaigns. In 1944 FDR settled an Internal Revenue Service investigation of Brown & Root, a Texas construction firm that put hundreds of thousands of dollars into Johnson’s 1941 Senate campaign. The uninhibited pursuit of the inquiry could have sent Johnson’s closest supporters to prison and ruined his career. In 1946 Tommy Corcoran, an FDR fixer and later a Washington attorney, helped Johnson secretly obtain the military records of his opponent in hopes of finding something they could use against him in the primary campaign. In 1948 Corcoran and Attorney General Tom Clark, whom Johnson had helped win his appointment by Truman, apparently lobbied Associate Justice Hugo Black to reject Coke Stevenson’s plea that Johnson’s tainted victory over him in the Democratic senatorial primary was grounds for keeping LBJ off the November ballot. In his 1954 primary campaign Johnson received help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation against a hopelessly outclassed opponent who commanded less than 30 percent of the vote. When John Kennedy won the nomination in 1960, Johnson aggressively sought the Vice Presidency, something he denied to his dying day but which now is confirmed by abundant evidence. John Connally says that LBJ asked him to arrange a draft at the 1968 Democratic convention despite his March 31 announcement that he wouldn’t run again.

The Federal Communications Commission offers yet another example of Johnson’s behind-the-scenes manipulation. There is telling evidence in the recollections of Arthur Stehling, a Fredericksburg, Texas, attorney and a friend of Johnson, in FBI wiretaps of Tommy Corcoran, and in the pattern of FCC actions that despite his insistent denials, Johnson effectively manipulated the FCC into favorable decisions affecting his considerable broadcasting properties.

Did Johnson commit all this skulduggery out of some flaw in his character? It’s clear that his consuming ambition propelled him into unholy actions. But that’s only part of the story. Johnson also took his cue from other successful politicians who broke the rules to get ahead. Indeed, in LBJ’s view, almost all politicians he admired and loathed—FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Harold Ickes, Tommy Corcoran, Tom Clark, Hugo Black, Herbert Brownell, Maury Maverick, Alvin Wirtz, the Kennedys, Wilbert Lee ("Pappy") O’Daniel, Coke Stevenson, and many others he served with in the House and Senate—had cut political corners—and worse—to win their ends. In Johnson’s mind he was no more than a representative political figure who operated within the “real” rules of the game.

He saw the Kennedys as a particularly good case in point. Johnson was initially contemptuous of Jack Kennedy’s ambition to be President. Behind his back Johnson called him “sonny boy,” sneered at his meager accomplishments in the House and Senate, and puzzled over his rise to prominence as a candidate. “It was the goddamnedest thing,” Johnson later told Doris Kearns; “here was a whippersnapper, malaria-ridden and yellah, sickly, sickly. He never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing. But somehow… he managed to create the image of himself as a shining intellectual, a youthful leader who would change the face of the country. Now, I will admit that he had a good sense of humor and that he looked awfully good on the goddamn television screen and through it all was a pretty decent fellow, but his growing hold on the American people was simply a mystery to me.”

But Johnson admired the boldness, calculation, and even ruthlessness with which the Kennedys went after the nomination. In the fall of 1955 Joe Kennedy sent Tommy Corcoran to ask Johnson to announce his candidacy for President. Corcoran was also to say that if LBJ would privately promise to take Jack as his running mate in 1956, Joe would arrange financing for the campaign. Johnson understood that the Kennedys wanted to use him as a stalking-horse for Jack’s White House ambitions. Joe Kennedy made it clear to Corcoran that the ultimate aim was to make Jack Kennedy President. From the Kennedy perspective a losing Johnson campaign against Ike, with Jack as Lyndon’s running mate, was a fine way to launch Kennedy’s campaign for the presidential nomination in 1960. Joe believed that Lyndon would lose to Ike, but not by the landslide that seemed the likely outcome of another Adlai Stevenson campaign, and a lopsided Eisenhower victory over a Stevenson-Kennedy ticket could be blamed partly on Jack’s Catholicism and might damage his political standing. Believing it premature to reveal his intentions, understanding that the Kennedys wanted to use him for their purposes, and seeing little need for their help in any event, Johnson turned them down.

When Charles de Gaulle came to the United States for Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, he said, in effect: This man Kennedy was America’s mask, but this man Johnson is the country’s real face. De Gaulle’s observation has much to recommend it; Johnson is an excellent vehicle for studying American politics since the 1930s.

He is also a wonderful starting point for understanding the transformation and integration of the South into the mainstream of American economic and political life. Johnson was more concerned about larger national issues than people have generally appreciated. It is accepted wisdom that Johnson deserves credit for advancing civil rights and the cause of economic and social justice during his Presidency. But few have understood that Johnson was a man of considerable vision who from his earliest days in government supported programs that could have a redefining influence on the country in general and the South in particular. The psychiatrist Robert Coles had it right when he wrote in 1976 that Johnson was “a restless, extravagantly self-centered, brutishly expansive, manipulative, teasing and sly man, but he was also genuinely passionately interested in making life easier and more honorable for millions of terribly hardpressed working class men and women. His almost manic vitality was purposefully, intelligently, compassionately used. He could turn mean and sour, but … he had a lot more than himself and his place in history on his mind.”

Desegregation is a fine example. Johnson was a Southerner who could talk comfortably to other Southerners in the vernacular. “Sam, why don’t you-all let this nigger bill pass?” he asked Sam Rayburn during the congressional debate on the 1957 civil rights bill. Even as late as 1965, when, as President, he appointed the first black associate justice to the United States Supreme Court, he privately used the same pejorative term to describe his appointee. When a young Texas attorney joining his staff suggested a fine but obscure black federal judge for the position, Johnson said, “Son, when I appoint a nigger to the Court, I want everyone to know he’s a nigger.” The attorney never heard him speak about blacks that way again and believed that Johnson was playing a part and trying to create a kind of rapport between two “good old Southern boys” at their first meeting.

This posturing aside, Johnson, according to the White House aide Harry McPherson, was “your typical Southern liberal who would have done a lot more in the field of civil rights early in his career had it been possible; but the very naked reality was that if you did take a position … it was almost certain that you would be defeated … by a bigot.… But Johnson was one of those men early on who disbelieved in the Southern racial system and who thought that the salvation for the South lay through economic progress for everybody.”

Johnson had given expression to this view in the 1930s, when he had served as the Texas director of the National Youth Administration. His efforts to help black youngsters —28 percent of the young people in the state—were similar to those he made for whites, though most of them were made behind the scenes. In fact, the impact of the NYA college-aid program Johnson put in place was proportionately much greater on blacks than on whites: Whereas 24.2 percent of all eligible black college students received help, only 12 to 14 percent of whites did. The plight of black youngsters moved LBJ to special efforts in their behalf. When white colleges got donations of equipment that freed some of their NYA funds, Johnson would pass the savings along to blacks. In an era of strict segregation he would occasionally spend a night at a black college to see how the NYA programs were working. More than thirty years later “a venerable and distinguished Negro leader” told Doris Kearns how “we began to get word up here that there was one NYA director who wasn’t like the others. He was looking after Negroes and poor folks and most NYA people weren’t doing that.”

After Johnson became a congressman in 1937, he kept on making special efforts to help blacks. When he learned that black farmers in his district were not getting the same small loans given to white farmers for seed and equipment, he raised “unshirted hell” with the Farm Security Administration, and applications from blacks began to be approved. MiIo Perkins, a top official in the FSA, recalled that Johnson “was the first man in Congress from the South ever to go to bat for the Negro farmer.” Johnson also worked quietly to ensure that blacks were included within the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and to bar school lunch grants to any state with separate school systems for blacks that did not make an equitable distribution of school lunch funds. Likewise, in 1937 and 1938, after Roosevelt signed the Wagner-Steagall Act creating the United States Housing Authority and making available five hundred million dollars in loans for low-cost housing, Johnson arranged for Austin to be one of the first three cities in the country to receive a loan. Johnson persuaded city leaders “to stand up for the Negroes and the Mexicans” and designate 100 of the 186 housing units built under the program for them.

Someone once told me you write a book to forget a subject. But how do you forget someone as brilliant, funny, devious, nasty, and unwise as LBJ?

By the 1950s Johnson was more convinced than ever that, in McPherson’s words, “the race question … obsessed the South and diverted it from attending to its economic and educational problems. …” Doris Kearns reached a similar conclusion about Johnson’s view of how segregation hurt the South. He told her that by 1957 Congress had to act. Inaction would injure the Senate’s prestige, erode black support for the Democratic party, and “brand him forever as sectional and therefore unpresidential.” Moreover, he believed that Southern opposition to civil rights legislation made it impossible for the region “to act on its most fundamental problem—economic growth.” Johnson was convinced that a major determinant of Southern prospects “would be the willingness of Southern leadership to accept the inevitability of some progress on civil rights and get on with the business of the future, or its continued insistence on conjuring the ghost of Thaddeus Stevens.” And Johnson felt there was a compelling moral argument for racial equality. Clark Clifford, who got to know Johnson well in the 1950s, believes that his sincerity could be in doubt on many things but not on racial equality. LBJ looked at blacks and Hispanics, “looked at their lives, and saw they really did not have a chance. They did not have a decent chance for good health, for decent housing, for jobs; they were always skating right on the edge, struggling to keep body and soul together. I think he must have said to himself, ‘Someday, 1 would love to help those people. My God, I would love to give them a chance!’ ”

Johnson, as this brief glimpse at him suggests, was, in the journalist Russell Baker’s words, “a human puzzle so complicated nobody could ever understand it.… He was a character out of a Russian novel, one of those human complications that filled the imagination of Dostoyevsky, a storm of warring human instincts: sinner and saint, buffoon and statesman, cynic and sentimentalist, a man torn between hungers for immortality and self-destruction.” Another journalist, Sidney BIumenthal, says Johnson was more complex than any Manichaean picture of him can convey. He was not a case of good and evil living side by side but of “an unlovable man desperate to be loved, whose cynicism and idealism were mysteriously inseparable, all of a piece.” Blumenthal quotes Robert Penn Warren’s observation in All the King’s Men : “A man’s virtue may be the defect of his desire, as his crime may be a function of his virtue.” Lyndon Johnson was a study in ambiguity.

Someone once told me that you write a book in order to forget a subject. But how do you forget someone as brilliant, foresightful, funny, devious, nasty, and unwise as LBJ? Not easily. Besides I’m writing a second volume on the most interesting part of his life—the Presidency. And in an era when leadership sometimes seems more a matter of riskfree public relations—putting the right spin on things —than a genuine commitment to ideas and programs openly aimed at transforming the national life, Johnson reminds us that large designs and a bold reach can make a difference. Dare I confess I hear him thundering from the heavens about curing world poverty and promoting a great universe? Get on with that second volume, he says. If I don’t, he’s got a fine ghost writer to suggest.

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