The People’s Choice

My Hope for America

by Lyndon B. Johnson
Random House, 128 pp., $.95 (paper)

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

This is the month when Mr. Johnson seems to swell and fill all our politics and, to find his like, we despair in our own history and come to settle on the reign of George II. Mr. Johnson is at once the Hanoverian King and Robert Walpole, his own great minister, and there is no alternative to him but the Old Pretender, cursing and praying in his imaginary court.

Random House here has given us the monarchical Mr. Johnson as Horace Walpole remembered him, “uniformly meritorious [and] absurd.” As a document it is all House of Hanover; the mixture with Walpole intrudes only in the cover portrait, where Mr. Johnson seems to have attempted with heroic concentration to look toward the stars. The total effect is of John Wayne listening while Jonas Mekas’s Village Voice review of “The Alamo” is read aloud to him. The monarch looks with love; his great minister knows too much to look with anything but mistrust. There is on this face both the effort to believe everything and the experience to believe nothing. It is a low face of high aspirations.

Being the king’s face, it is innocent in a way in which General Eisenhower could not imagine being innocent; being also the minister’s face, it is devious to a degree that Everett Dirksen would find serpentine. Of course, it lies to itself, and that is proper. Hervey said to Walpole: “All princes must now and then be deceived by their ministers.”

Mr. Johnson distributes his vanity undiminished between the king in him and the minister. He is proud of the coarse in himself. “I do not,” he has said, “trust a man unless I have his p-ck-r in my pocket,” and all of Robert Walpole’s conversation seems to have been just such a struggle towards so perfect a distillation of his experience with the management of public affairs. Mr. Johnson is also proud of the ceremonial in his person. Ceremony is the art of lying to oneself and one’s subjects; the true king lies better to himself than any minister could. Hervey and Walpole, “though neither of them were very partial to his majesty,” had to confess that, “with a woman who could be gained by writing, they would rather have any man in the world for a rival than the King. Nor, indeed, in the gift of writing love letters, do I believe any man ever surpassed him.” The love letter is a royal art, since it begins with the lie to self. This is Mr. Johnson’s letter to his current mistress, all America.

My Hope for America is, we are told, the first book written by a President of the United States while he was in office. The claim does not seem remotely reasonable; there is a two-page Preface evidently composed by the President in a style clearly his own and depressingly like Conrad…

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