At King Lyndon’s Court

The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson

by Eric F. Goldman
Knopf, 531 pp., $8.95

My only thought is how to desert decently…I see clearly that the orange has been squeezed; it is time to think of saving the skin.”

—Voltaire,
on leaving Frederick the Great

Eric Goldman’s account of his service as President Johnson’s intellectual on per diem is dignified and manly on the whole, even though the chill has stayed in his bones and he moves still stiffly through its pages. He works hard and succeeds in convincing us that the character of the servant was better than that of the master. Yet, finally, that difference matters less to us than he could have conceived it would; the memoirs of a failed courtier must exert their claim not because of his character but because of his understanding. Saint-Simon, after all, continues to hold us not just for what was ridiculous yet not altogether ignoble in him nor even for his access to a king and his intimacy with a regent, but especially because he was shrewd as well as foolish.

Goldman, of course, failed as a courtier before he could ever have a chance to be useful as an influence. The defect was, you decide, not one of a character which has survived undamaged but of an understanding which has emerged unimproved.

He had been called to the White House less than two weeks after Mr. Johnson’s accession. “Obviously the appointment might lead to some kind of work for the president,” he had thought, traveling down. His sponsor was Richard H. Nelson, a White House assistant he had known rather vaguely as a student in his history classes at Princeton. While they waited for Mr. Johnson, Nelson looked at Goldman “with a fidgety grin,” and said, “I guess you have some things to say.” Goldman did, and all too many:

I did not know why he had asked to see me, I said to the President, but I certainly had no desire to waste his time with polite conversation. With his permission, I would like to express a particular thought to him, one which I would state as an historian and which might be of some help to him in thinking about the general context of his administration.

What follows is an extensive disquisition on various periods of division in our history and on those presidents, like Theodore Roosevelt, who had appeared as stewards of the public need and had closed the national fissures by making themselves symbols of the national purpose.

I stopped, embarrassed at talking so much. President Johnson was jiggling his glasses from one hand and his eyes had narrowed into hard slits. I wondered whether these were signs of impatience or of interest. “But, Mr. President,” I said, “I don’t want to subject you to a history lecture.”

Go on,” he replied with a quick grin, “I can use a history lecture.”

And so Mr. Goldman moved ahead, suggesting to the new President the path “from the stale obstructive emotions associated with past divisions …

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Letters

A Fine Point June 5, 1969