The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson
“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.”
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.”
And now I was sure that President Johnson was listening beyond the requirements of politeness.
Still ought not Mr. Goldman, having taken his pupil to the summit and shown him the great plain below awaiting his command, have felt something curiously flat in the President’s immediate response?
President Johnson asked me to send him my suggestions concerning how he ought to handle his press conferences.
So, even as Goldman departs, aware only of the President’s “warm flattery,” one accompanies him, suspecting that all his disasters have been in that first false step. His determination not to waste the President’s time with idle conversation has about it some of the fine spirit of Samuel Johnson’s declaration that it was not for him to bandy civilities with his sovereign. But Dr. Johnson had not come to court with a view to staying, and Eric Goldman had.
We may not be able to require a historian to decide with Acton that great men are almost always bad men; but we can expect him to know that the grand have about them a good deal of the vulgar. There have been three persons who were described as “intellectuals-in-residence” in the White House. Of the three, Arthur Schlesinger and John Roche seem each to have brought contentment to his master; only Goldman was a failure. The difference was, I think, in the ability to gossip, agreeably in Schlesinger, disagreeably in Roche, but in both cases suitably for their prince.
Goldman was not abrasive; his manners seem to have been, if anything, rather too correct. But what is fatal for a courtier is to be afraid of unbending, of being thought a fool. There are jobs for which too high and stiff an estimate of one’s own character unfit a man. What separated Goldman from Mr. Johnson almost at once was not any fantasy of the President’s but two of Goldman’s own: his fantasy about his dignity as a historical philosopher and his fantasy about the dignity to be expected from Mr. Johnson as a historical personage.
The President may have known immediately that Goldman was not his man; what was curious was that he kept him. But Mr. Johnson always was rather a Sir Forcible Feeble, a character native to our South. Arthur Schlesinger was trying earnestly to depart; Mr. Johnson was suspicious of the man and scornful of the office. Still he was never quite secure enough to allow any vacancy to be left behind unfilled; and Schlesinger could not be freed until a qualified substitute could be found. I remember saying once in those days that Vann Woodward was the only plausible candidate, and getting the outraged reply, “A man like Vann Woodward wouldn’t work for a man like Lyndon Johnson.”
The search then was carried out with little confidence that any man could have been fitted to this master. Mr. Johnson could hardly have escaped that first lecture unconscious that Mr. Goldman, however qualified, was alien to his own mental processes. We can only wonder sadly what might have been if the candidate had been Vann Woodward and they had begun talking about Tom Watson. Still the President accepted Goldman as one of the duties he inherited with the office, just as he did, in a larger case, the Vietnam War, and with as little capacity to dispose of the matter.
Mr. Johnson very quickly shunted his new consultant off to Mrs. Johnson’s establishment, Goldman’s concerns being for this White House pretty much what religion is for the Italians, “the stuff of women.” But, even in the antechamber, Goldman did his loyal best to create Mr. Johnson in his cherished image as steward of the national will. “If people want a sense of purpose,” Harold Macmillan once told Henry Fairlie, “they should get it from their archbishops.” Goldman remains immune to the common sense of that assessment of the politician’s proper station. Yet, in his effort to make Mr. Johnson an inspiration to his country, Goldman’s imagination was guiltless of the presumption that alarmed Macmillan; he does not have a dangerous imagination. Mr. Johnson proved made of recalcitrant material, but, even if he hadn’t been, the gain for the national spirit could hardly have been spacious. Goldman asked of the President very little more than he got:
1) “It occurred to me that it might be useful to invite for lunch, in the privacy of the White House Mess, with whatever members of the staff cared to come, an occasional writer or academic of stature…. The first guest I chose was James Baldwin….” No White House staff member except the “imperturbable” McGeorge Bundy chose to join the board. Goldman does not seem to have held any further at homes.
2) Goldman solicited John Steinbeck to prepare “a prose poem on the theme of the American experience” for personal rendition at the inauguration. When Mr. Johnson read it, he said to Mrs. Johnson, “It’s too good—it will upstage my speech.” The President thereupon looted a few paragraphs from Steinbeck’s draft for his own.
3) Whenever a historical anniversary came along, Goldman suggested that Mr. Johnson mark it with due ceremony. There is in this attention to the calendar something of the pedagogical enterprise of the teacher of social studies in the intermediate grades; even the White House Festival of Arts was a kind of spring “show and tell.”
4) Goldman suggested The Good Society as the proper designation for Mr. Johnson’s intentions. Richard Goodwin preferred The Great Society and so did the President.
5) In 1964, at Mr. Johnson’s request, Goldman prepared a ten-page memorandum on the Vice Presidency. It recommended “real steps to increase the dignity, responsibilities and activities of the Vice Presidency.”
6) Goldman asked Norman Podhoretz and others to write what they thought the general “thrust” of the administration ought to be. “They agreed that it was important, even urgent, for President Johnson to use his Office in a conscious effort to alter American values.”
7) Goldman persuaded Walter Jenkins to refuse the request that a publisher, strategically placed, be given Ellis Island as a home for underprivileged children.
8) Goldman carried through the Presidential Scholars Program, which granted medallions to 121 selected high school students. “Was a monetary reward really important—wouldn’t students so able almost certainly receive scholarships from other sources?” Jacques Lipchitz was commissioned to design the medallion. Mr. Johnson sensibly refused Lipchitz’s request for thirty hours’ time to pose. At the end, however, the President was more content with this venture than any Goldman had suggested. “This program,” he said, “will revolutionize education.” By its third year, Marvin Watson was ordering Goldman to accept no future Presidential Scholars without a full check on their families by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Labors of this sort fall unexceptionably into that middle ground between the inane and the consequential. Somewhere along in them, you finally fail to maintain your interest in Goldman’s misfortunes at anything like Goldman’s own level; you cannot steadily care about disappointments in enterprises as unimportant as these. The end indeed is a perverse sort of sympathy for Mr. Johnson; in fairness, ought any man to have been put through some of the ceremonies he so unhandsomely endured?
There was the luncheon marking the 175th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. Goldman and Horace Busby chose to invite a group of “writers who had distinguished themselves by their books about the presidency.” Goldman describes this as “an interesting group”; the response of the profane confronted by its roster is to wonder just what George Dangerfield was doing in that galère.
[President Johnson] was about as uncomfortable as any human being I have ever seen. He talked and talked in a compulsive monologue …”Somebody,” Lyndon Johnson declared with a jab at his food, “has got to assert the good of the country, and I’m it at least at the moment….” [He] moved into a defensive, complaining description of his problem as a “Southern president.”
Disturbed by these self-torturing themes and trying to break the luncheon into a general conversation, I attempted several times to break up the subject. The move did not work. The President shook off my remarks and drove ahead with his near monologue.
Now, if we can assume that Goldman is correct in judging the reaction of his fellow historians to this performance, their distress suggests something absolutely staggering about their lack of interest in the experience of history. These were students of the Presidency and here was a President right before them as close as possible to a state of nature. Instead of being grateful for the specimen, they were only distressed by the spectacle.
It is this distraction from what is seen by what was preconceived that may explain why Goldman, serious and responsible as he otherwise is, leaves the sense that he has cheated himself and us. His fault is not that he did so little in the White House but that those two-and-a-half years did so little for his education and therefore for ours.
Goldman is a contemporary historian, a branch of studies immediately recognizable by its indexes, which have one notation for Louis Armstrong, one for Hannah Arendt, one for Kitty Genovese, and one for Jean-Paul Sartre. The great puzzle about Goldman is that he could have sat in the White House from the end of 1963 to the middle of 1966 without wondering whether something fundamental had not happened to American history. The Vietnam War might have suggested some such, with its combination of official helplessness and malignity, with the loss of the faith of millions of Americans both in their power and their virtue, with so many persons so otherwise respectable entertaining thoughts of treason.
Yet Goldman’s references to this disaster never travel very far beyond his worries about its damage to the unity of the nation and the political security of the administration. By the spring of 1966, he “was growing increasingly opposed to [Mr. Johnson’s] policy and uncomfortable with it on many grounds, including the moral,” although “my memos concerning foreign policy did not argue the war itself; he would have stopped reading after the first sentence.” But his own worries in no way inclined him to sympathy with those private men of his calling who had roused more rapidly and less circumspectly against the war than he had. His judgment of them suggests indeed that, if permitted to write Mr. Johnson’s speeches, he might have added a certain gloss to the President’s assaults on the intellectuals, while retaining their spirit.
Secretary of State Rusk [was] beleaguered on the subject of the Vietnam War by eminent post-expressionist painters, enzymological biologists and authorities on Scandinavian literature.
More than a few of the letters that came to me and of the comments I heard and a number of the published statements revealed an unmistakable characteristic. In these instances, the LBJ policy was not really being considered on its merits; it was being attacked in considerable measure out of snobbery, social and intellectual…. The type of the new professor may not yet have decided that he was one of the beautiful people, but he was certain that he wanted the more beautiful people to find him congenial at a cocktail party.
Goldman’s memoir of the White House Festival of the Arts convinces us that he stood manfully up to his masters in defense of the right to dissent, a gesture even more noble for the condition that his opinion of the dissenters was almost as low as the President’s. He seems to have imagined them monsters quite beyond recognition.
Saul Maloff, an editor of Newsweek for books and cultural matters…came upon [Saul] Bellow near the stairs leading to the East Room. He hurried to the attack. “How could you stand up there and read from your books after what that man has done in Vietnam?”
Embarrassed, Bellow replied as he had previously stated publicly, that he considered the festival a ceremonial occasion and that he had chosen to make plain his views on foreign policy elsewhere.
Maloff did not stop. He spoke of “turncoats” and said, “We made you and we can break you.” Bellow edged away.
We have Bellow’s testimony that Maloff said a number of pompous things that afternoon but never “We made you and we can break you.” But even without so crushing a witness against it, this is not a story anyone could have believed. A first essential of any historical anecdote is that it be artistically plausible; you cannot put into a man’s mouth words inherently violative of his sense of himself. Perhaps Maloff was speaking to Bellow as a moral snob; but whatever a moral snob’s other pretensions, he does not boast of being a terrorist.
Goldman does not strike us as a man who would retail a story he did not believe to be true; yet you commence to feel that the burden of this embassy in partibus infidelium had left him with so disabling a contempt for the infidel that he will accept anything as truth. The inducements he suggested to his constituents as rewards for better conduct are hardly more complimentary than Mr. Johnson’s would have been:
[To Robert Lowell] He wanted, I was sure, to broaden appreciation of the arts in the United States and make them a more integral part of American living…. It was more than helpful to have the President of the United States—particularly one who was known to have no great personal taste for the arts—celebrate them from the nation’s first house, declaring, directly or, in effect, that whatever one’s personal tastes, the arts were a vital part of the national life…. The effect [of Lowell’s withdrawal] would be particularly disastrous just because of Lowell’s distinction.
[To Mark Van Doren] I thought he ought to know—in confidence—that the President and Mrs. Johnson were bitter at what they considered the use of the festival to harass the president…. I wanted him to be aware of it and also to know that the festival, a minor episode, had taken a turn which could have serious effects on something in which he and I were equally interested—the development of a healthy and fruitful intercourse between the White House and intellectual and artistic groups.
Now what, after all, is being offered with these reminders except the tender of respect and appreciation in exchange for accommodation and consent? The best of servants must end up being very like his master. The view is the same; you are looking out upon the countryside from a window of the Court.
We may trace the peculiarly intense nature of Goldman’s disappointment with Mr. Johnson to two misapprehensions. The first was a romantic image of this particular President, which he now recognizes as false; the other was an image of the office of the Presidency itself which ought to seem to us also false, outworn and rather more perilous.
As a historian of rebellion and reform, Goldman has always seemed to me to incline more to the agrarian rebel than to the metropolitan reformer, to the populist more than to the mugwump. What seemed to so many persons coarse in Mr. Johnson can be immensely evocative for those of us who mourn the fall of Tom Watson, who are nostalgic for those outdoor assemblies of the debt protesters, the torches flaring, the great gathering silently attentive, the orator evangelical. It may seem odd that anyone who showed himself as proper as Goldman did when confronted by persons disorderly in President Johnson’s time should so appreciate those persons who were disorderly in President Cleveland’s. But then, he and we know these heroes only in the library; and, for all of us nostalgic for agrarian uprisings before we were born, Mr. Johnson was an enormous temptation: he represented at once populism and authority. He came thus hallowed to Goldman’s mind. But all that Mr. Johnson retained of the Populist tradition was its paranoia, incredibly magnified, a paranoia which, if it had ever been political, was now only personal.
While Goldman waited for the President that first day, he saw Congressman Wright Patman, the last Populist in Texas, come out of the Oval Office. “And I remembered reading that when the youthful Lyndon Johnson left for his first term in the House of Representatives, his father had advised him, ‘If you don’t know how to vote watch my friend Wright Patman.’ ”
But Mr. Johnson’s “tragedy,” if it was one, had been ordained once the millionaires came to Texas, and he could no longer think of voting with Wright Patman. It had been played out not in the horrible accident of his accession but during his survival on the bloody ground of his state’s politics; he had known the humiliation of returning to the Senate only because the millionaries had decided not to oppose him. The controlling image in the mind of the Texas politician is the Alamo; Mr. Johnson, Senator Tower, and Governor Connally have been left by experience with the same garrison eyes; everything outside the ramparts is hostile. Mr. Johnson’s most intensely felt speech about Vietnam seems to have been the one about the billions out there and the mere millions here and how they wanted what we had and that we fought to keep them from it. No assistant could be accepted as an adviser of Johnson’s until he had been recognized as a bodyguard.
One of the last of Goldman’s conversations with Mr. Johnson was the most extraordinary:
As 1966 went on, on one occasion, a Cabinet member and three White House aides, including myself, sat talking with Lyndon Johnson. At first LBJ rambled pleasantly with political anecdotes, sipping a Dr. Pepper, while all of us munched on potato chips. Then one of the stories introduced a liberal Senator who had opposed the Vietnam War. The president stopped munching and his face hardened…. “Liberal critics! It’s the Russians who are behind the whole thing.” …The Russians were in constant touch with antiwar Senators—and he named names…. “The Soviets think up things for the Senators to say. I often know before they do what their speeches are going to say.”
I was staggered…I did not want it on my conscience that I too had sat silent while a President of the United States talked such dangerous nonsense. I interrupted, “Mr. President—“ But, as always, it was difficult to cut into one of these monologues. Finally I made my way in: “Mr. President, you know that what you are saying simply is not accurate.”
The President looked at me in a curious way. I have often recalled that look, and I still wonder what it meant.
But can it have been anything else except the look between two men, each of whom had a fairly precise idea of the duties of the other’s station and neither of whom understood his own? And what other final encounter can there be between the young man who dreams of serving the first Populist President and then discovers that the last Populist President is Mr. Johnson?
So Goldman is free at last of that misapprehension. Still he clings to the illusion of the President as steward of the national interest which is shared by other historians-in-residence and which is clearly more stubborn to correction by events.
He summons the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt as model for this conception of the office. Theodore Roosevelt’s personal qualities—at Mr. Johnson’s age he was closer to being loony than Mr. Johnson ever got—are among the minor causes for disturbance at his citation. It is much more to the point that, as so often happens with models for contemporary history, Theodore Roosevelt is out of date. He was President of the United States at a time when J. P. Morgan was a larger power in social decisions than he himself was. But time has rendered Theodore Roosevelt irrelevant as a precedent because it is no longer possible for a President to warn us against Americans more powerful than himself; the executive arm of the government is more pervasive in our lives than even Theodore Roosevelt could have imagined. A President who was our real steward would need to alarm us not just against private but also against such public enemies of our welfare as the Pentagon. He would have to warn us against himself; by that test, Eugene McCarthy’s notion of the office and even President Nixon’s may well represent a sounder judgment of present reality than the conception to which Schlesinger, Roche, and Goldman hold fast.
Goldman’s continual recollection of his own moral advantage provides ample evidence of how much deflation contemporary historians could use in their image of themselves; but it is more to the point how much deflation they need in their image of the Presidency. We should be grateful to Mr. Johnson for having given so much of the game away. When he departed and Mr. Nixon ascended, no one—except Mr. Nixon—talked about Presidents who are our stewards, the improvers of our values, the guides to our rendezvous with destiny. Mr. Johnson provided us that surcease. We should be thankful to him while we can; the history of the American historians suggests that we shall have to put up with this foolishness all too soon again.
A Fine Point June 5, 1969