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.