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History as LBJ

Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power

by Rowl Evans, by Robert Novak
New American Library, 597 pp., $7.95

Last March I was a guest at a dinner meeting in Washington of American historians. They met in the new Smithsonian building devoted to the history of science and invention in America, a setting formidably elegant in its stripped force, to discuss History as Literature. A great pendulum, gently swaying to the rotation of the earth, hung down the length of the building from ceiling to floor, reminding me of the “Godless Museum” in Moscow where the League for the Promotion of Atheism had once hung a similar pendulum in a church to show the young that Fact, not God, moved the world. Behind the dais at the Washington dinner hung the tattered American ensign which after that bombardment in 1814 was still there.

There was so much national brag, ingenuity, money, and social brilliance represented in that extraordinary dining space dominated by the pendulum swaying down the center of the building, the flag technicoloring the wall just behind the podium, that I was somewhat surprised by the uniformity with which all the speakers that night—the main feature was Dean Acheson—invoked and celebrated History as Literature. Even the professional scholars on the dais seemed to be hinting that their merits as writers were unappreciated. Most of the leading American historians write so easily and so well, and many of them sell so well, that I cannot understand why any of them should need still to plead for History as an art. The English historian J. H. Plumb has suggested that American historians are all too literary and have been unwilling to ask the right questions about social change in this country. “For too long American historians have been concerned with narrative, with biography, or with cultural and institutional history that evades economic and social roots…in general the work of American historians has seemed curiously unsophisticated and old-fashioned.” Instant history is now so popular in this country, so clearly exploits the obsession with “news” and the sense of emergency already inflated by the mass media, that I would have expected the gifted professionals on the dais to worry not about being mistaken for their monograph-writing colleagues but about the need to come to grips with the unprecedented and dominating power now represented on the world scene by the United States.

DEAN ACHESON was Undersecretary of the Treasury under Roosevelt, Secretary of State under Truman. He played a great role in formulating the Marshall Plan, he was a major architect of the Truman Doctrine, he has been one of the great strengths behind Johnson’s foreign policy; he is a famously able lawyer, a man imposing, intelligent, charming, and notoriously firm when he needs to be. He is in his seventy-fourth year. With all this wealth of experience, with all this courage, intelligence, and charm, with a monumental bearing in his gentleman-lawyer’s style that should subdue even DeGaulle, Mr. Acheson that night also came out for literature and had nothing to offer that one could not have learned from an elderly dilettante of the Pleasures of Reading. What he could have told those historians about History as History—how interestingly he could have defended Johnson’s Vietnam policy to the many academic liberals and foreign diplomats who were dining that night! But with a strange modesty he quoted from Lord Acton, Carlyle, and other Olympian moralists who knew less about power than he does. Mr. Acheson himself has a lot of “style,” and he is clearly fond of history written in a good style. Of course we all are, but I was never aware that good historians deliberately set out to write “literature” any more than good poets set out to create “beauty.” But coming as it did from such a powerful and power-wise source as Mr. Acheson, it was odd to find history so disengaged from everything but the pleasures of reading it. To a group of Washington reporters Mr. Acheson would, no doubt, have talked turkey.

In 1957, Lyndon B. Johnson, then Majority Leader of the Senate, held the fate of President Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Bill in his hands. On the Nigra Question the Senator from Texas had always voted with his friend and mentor Senator Russell of Georgia. But this time the “ponderous, protean Texan, with the forbidding look of a chain-gang boss,” who had so quickly become Democratic Leader in the Senate through his tireless subtlety in negotiation and his overpowering personal vehemence, was secretly preparing to “emancipate himself from the Confederate yoke that had destroyed Richard Russell’s presidential ambitions” by getting credit throughout the country for putting Eisenhower’s bill through. Publicly, Johnson was silent, and even Ben Cohen, the Roosevelt brain-truster to whom Johnson turned for advice on the civil rights bill, “never was sure how far Johnson would go on civil rights—indeed, whether he would end up voting for the bill. As in the McCarthy censure fight and just about every major legislative fight since, the absence of a firmly staked-out position for Johnson infinitely enhanced his maneuverability. The strong possibility that, in the case of the civil rights bill, Johnson himself did not quite know where he was going, in no way weakened his legislative position.”

IN ORDER TO KEEP his old Southern allies from the usual filibuster, Johnson needed to knock Part Three out of the bill—this gave the Attorney General of the United States the power to file suit for injunctions against violators of civil rights—and to substitute for this an amendment giving defendants the right to trial by jury. This of course would make a joke out of any indictment. But to kill Part Three, Johnson needed Northern and liberal votes. He managed to pick up one vote from Maine by unilaterally putting back into the Federal Budget $409,000 to survey the Passamaquoddy tidal basin on the Maine-Canadian border—a sum that had been eliminated by the House. The vote he wanted particularly was that of Rhode Island’s eighty-nine-year-old Senator Green, whose vote in favor of the jury trial amendment would spur positive votes from Senators Pastore and John Kennedy. Johnson called in Dean Acheson, who went over the draft of the bill and agreed that Part Three was dangerous. Acheson, who as Secretary of State had spent many hours with the Foreign Relations Committee, of which Green was a member, was requested to persuade Green. Acheson then went to the Senate Office Building, walked conspicuously and slowly past the open door of Green’s office until he was summoned in to pay his respects. After the amenities had been exchanged, Green confessed that he was “deeply puzzled about certain parts of the bill, particularly the jury trial amendment, and wished that he were a lawyer. Several Senators had asked him how he would vote and he couldn’t tell them. Would Dean mind if he asked his advice on that? Acheson thought for a long moment, then replied: ‘If I were you. Theodore, I’d vote for the jury amendment. Yes, I surely would.’ A minute later Acheson returned to his walk down the corridor, stopped at the first pay telephone and called Johnson. ‘Lyndon,’ he said ‘don’t ask me any questions, but you’ve got your three votes.”’

In order to write Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, Messrs. Evans and Novak relied not only on their intensive experience as Washington reporters, but also on “more than two hundred special interviews with political figures and government officials who were either participants in or observers of the events described. The information derived from both our day-to-day reporting and from these special interviews was obtained on a confidential basis.” In the paltry source notes at the back of their book, they cite some very few printed articles, books, and academic theses. But these secondary sources “were of only limited value in researching Johnson’s Senate period and of even less value in our study of the presidential period.” By contrast with these insignificant secondary sources, we have some of the most extraordinarily intimate views of Johnson in the exercise of power that an outsider to the cloakrooms is likely to have. There are almost six hundred pages to this book, and most of these are based on conversations with reporters, secretaries, pages, politicians, staff friends, and ex-friends—surely with Richard Russell, Dean Acheson, Mike Mansfield, Walter Lippmann, several Kennedys, Paul Douglas, Hubert Humphrey, William Knowland, Pierre Salinger, Arthur Schlesinger, and all the other and diverse powers in American life who have drunk with LBJ, have been abused by LBJ, have had lunch with LBJ, have received confidences from LBJ, have been fired by LBJ, have eavesdropped on LBJ. The question naturally comes up: Why should so many distinguished and influential people leak so much information for the benefit of a book that must inevitably not please a leader so notoriously touchy as the President—a book which it is already well known he resents and has forbidden to be circulated by USIS libraries abroad? How is it possible that so many advisers and hangers-on, so many current friends and associates in office, should be willing to reveal so much that is inevitably taken as damaging to the leader they support, whom many of them admire, and who over that “dirty little war” in Vietnam is just now suffering the most exasperating frustration in his career?

OF COURSE GREAT POWER is always fascinating to watch and to report on, and to be a stable companion to statesmen, as Henry Adams said, to explain why he lived in Washington, is to have something to say about power as a human spectacle. To share in the atmosphere of power is to share in history as “literature”; great power is by nature dramatic, and the powerful are themselves the first to feel the drama. I heard the other day that a frightened young reporter, who opened an interview with Johnson by asking a very lame question, got this thunder: “What the hell do you mean asking the head of the free world a chicken-shitting question like that?” Washington is such a gossip industry about the manipulation of power and the nature of the powerful that hardly anyone who is privy to rich and important details—this means Senators more than stenographers—is likely to overlook the sense of his own importance that is acquired by reporting that as Vice-President Johnson “had a Navy plane despatched from Taipeh to Hong Kong to purchase a case of Cutty Sark and returned for the Vice-President’s party.” Saint-Simon says that among his sources of information were the confidential valets around Louis XIV. “By such means I was regularly informed of all that went on, both grave and trivial, through honest, direct, and sure channels. Thus, apart from my other concerns, my curiosity was satisfied, and you must admit, whether you be somebody or nobody, that this is the only nourishment to be found at Courts, and that without it you would die of boredom.” But it was no valet who told Evans and Novak that Johnson called Walter Lippmann in to read an advance copy of his “peace” speech at Johns Hopkins, and that he graciously accepted Lippmann’s approbation while posing for a sculptor. It was no underling who told Evans and Novak how vindictively Johnson turned on his protégé Senator Hartke of Indiana when the latter became a member of the Senate “Peace Bloc.” “When another Democratic Senator delivered a speech on Vietnam, Johnson telephoned to congratulate him on a constructive suggestion, and gratuitously remarked that he was ‘not like that obscenity Hartke.”’

Perhaps more than this desire to show oneself a “somebody,” it is surely the natural human reaction to Johnson’s unbelievably assertive personality that explains the willingness of so many Big People to confide in Evans and Novak. Lieutenant-Governor Ramsey of Texas, describing the famous Johnson Treatment, once explained to Governor Shivers why he had taken Johnson’s side against the Governor. Well, Allan, it’s this way. Lyndon got me by the lapels and put his face on top of mine and talked and talked and talked. I figured it was either getting drowned or joining.” The Treatment seems to consist in such flattering crescendoes of attention, such tornadoes of persuasion and reminiscence and mimicry, such relentless buttonholing and cajolery and manipulation, that even the most hardened politician finds himself submitting to a Natural Force. Later, when he has caught his breath, he may also find that Johnson has been ridiculing him behind his back. Even if we suppose that the account in this book of the confrontation between Johnson and Robert Kennedy before the 1964 convention—Kennedy was told that he could not have the Vice-Presidential nomination—came to Evans and Novak from a friend of the Senator’s rather than from the Senator, it is clear that the force of the original interview sufficiently left its mark on Kennedy, for it is now communicated to us in its pristine resentment. Johnson ridiculed Kennedy to newspapermen after the interview, and a Johnson aide was certain that the whole interview had been taped, that Walter Jenkins had transcribed the tape onto paper—“backing up Kennedy’s recollection of a recording device on the President’s desk.”

LBJ, IT IS CLEAR, is the most dominating personality conceivable at the head of the most powerful political unit in the world. Whether from “insecurity” at his East Texas roots, or from an overcharge of sheer nervous force, or from some more mysterious need to impress himself on everybody in sight and to convert to his immediate purpose—whatever that may be—everyone he needs to manipulate and to convince, the man obviously “operates,” as we say nowadays, with a more overbearing physical authority, with more insistency, with a more hysterical urgency for being loved and supported, than one can remember of any other national leader of a democracy. In instance after instance recounted in these interviews, Johnson “has placed himself at the center, with the world revolving around him.” His inordinate demands on his staffs, his abuse of even the lowliest assistants, have made it notoriously difficult for him to keep people. Whenever he wants something, anything, he wants it then and there. He has treated his closest associates, even “his” Vice-President, with open contempt. When Ed Murrow, dying of cancer, was trying to get out of Washington after he had unofficially resigned as head of the United States Information Agency, Johnson delayed Murrow’s departure for California until he could find an appropriate replacement. “He felt the presidency could not risk toplevel vacancies. Any vacancy could impair confidence, and confidence after Dallas was the first imperative.” In the 1964 Panama crisis, he showed “an insistence on deciding every detail himself; a tendency to encourage the most frantic mood of emergency in the government: and a willingness to employ massive American power to the fullest.” Ever since the bombings of North Vietnam were resumed this year, Johnson has insisted on choosing the targets himself. When he talks of the need for restraint in confronting Communist power in Asia, he makes it a confrontation between Lyndon Johnson and China. “I don’t want China to spit in my eye, and I don’t want to spit in China’s eye.” he has said. And always, through this long, long anecdote, one sees him working on people and exerting influence, reaching for power and getting “close” to people, as if, true to the novel of a Southern grassroots leader he has been acting out for thirty years, he made no distinction between his wants and politics. The President on campaign in 1964 rode in an open car through Northern city streets shouting through a bullhorn—“Y’all come down and hear the speakin’; come on down now to the speakin’.” Even in a hammock, late at night, resting from his labors by talking about them, he went on talking, talking after the reporters on the ground fell asleep.

Johnson is bigger than life—bigger in both the good and the bad.” That is where Evans and Novak start, and of course one can dismiss this as the natural effort of reporters to inflate the significance of “their” big story. Everything depicted by journalists as current political history looks absurdly too big, is too dramatic, too insistent. All these swollen political biographies make the politicians in them look bigger than they are; too much is reported, too many details are included in order to magnify the reporter’s “story.” But the principal reason for the inflation of material is that Johnson’s biographers agree with Johnson that history is what lies on the surface, that our history now is LBJ. Evans and Novak understand politics only as negotiation. Their book is a history of deals. The most extraordinary thing about it is how much one learns about Johnson’s political style—I will not say his “personality,” for that supposes human forces that the authors don’t even try to sketch—and how little about his most elemental opinions, his natural likes and dislikes. From the whole book one single piece of spontaneous natural opinion came through to me—as a young congressman, Johnson came to distrust the army brass. This has not affected his support of them; it is just an inner feeling. Otherwise not even his often-expressed sympathy for the old or intolerably poor, natural to his Populist background, is mentioned in this book. He actually comes out a political and human cipher. On fundamental principles he reveals nothing, and he has taken so many sides, has played so many roles, that it is clear that “ideology,” as Evans and Novak pretentiously call it, means not a thing to him. After their election in 1960, Kennedy thought that since Johnson was “not interested in issues” he could exploit Johnson’s genius where it had worked best—on Capitol Hill. But as Vice-President Johnson was virtually useless to the Kennedy legislative program; one reason for his inactivity was that he resented the seventeen negative votes that had been cast by liberal senators in the Democratic caucus when Mansfield violated custom by proposing that the Vice-President be the presiding officer of all the Senate Democrats whenever they met in a formal conference.

PROBABLY JOHNSON would agree with his political biographers that he is “bigger than life.” That is what he has been led to believe by those closest to him. His vehement sense of his own righteousness and his indifference to “ideology”—the Washington word for political values—are in the Southern tradition, which in politics and literature has valued natural ambition, the life force, over any and all abstractions created by modern thought. Reading Johnson’s political biography, one is back in that world of pure “personality” and endless talk and self-dramatization, of old provincial resentments and manic superiority, that has been the great subject of Southern novelists—and the making of many a legislative despot in Washington. There is so much of the poor Southerner’s, the outsider’s, need to get out of the “Texas Trap” and to be loved on a national scale, that one anticipates—as in reading an American political novel about the tragedy of success—the crisis of this overweening personality, the inevitable hysteria as the self-indulgence learned in Southern politics is misapplied to the world scene. Just as one is struck by how many of Johnson’s associates have come together here to talk him down, so one imagines him more and more frustrated by that “dirty little war” and not at all creating the great American consensus that was to be sealed forever around LBJ by “liberal legislation.” Every day he looks sourer, more prematurely disappointed. He is just in the middle of his own first term—there is so much ahead of him, so much power still to run. Yet somehow the “story” is already in, the moral of his life already fixed.

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