Ol’ Lyndon

The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969

by Lyndon Baines Johnson
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 636 pp., $15.00

The issue here is how we read a document. For how we read determines what we learn.

So far, at any rate, we have not been learning much from this slyly honest witness. Mostly we have heard a frustrated (and therefore angry) complaint that Ol’ Lyndon did not go naked down to the river and confess his sins in chants of unconditional surrender. But then I remembered Abbie Hoffman’s belated admission that Revolution for the Hell of It is a contradiction in terms, and it struck me that Lyndon went to the river before Abbie. I have a feeling that the comparison may tell us as much about the weakness of the left during its most striking opportunity since it blew the Great Depression as all the books that will ever be written on the subject.

We face, on another front, the precious vanguard of sophisticated nags who fill the page with put-downs of the man. They scan the document to cull footnotes for a priori conclusions of such profundity as that LBJ was not JFK. My, how the computers must be overheating under the load of all those Brownie Points coming in from the Ivy League. The one relevant aspect of John Kenneth Galbraith’s egoistic digression is his honesty about the supercilious arrogance of such elitist evasions. If the Liberal Establishment were prepared to lead us plebs into the Golden Age, it would have neither the time nor the need to belabor Lyndon and his merely human torments. Having won the battle at the crossroads with their shiny new crossbows, the prodigies would be fingering the Grail.

Alas.

Rather, thank God. (Remember the Bay of Pigs, the Green Berets, the Missile Madness, and the noble call to Define Ourselves in Terms of the State?)

Next there will be many readers of the witness who will try to use it as the cornerstone for their own ambitious architecture. You know: the dreary academic-bureaucratic strategy of constructing one’s own career upon a critique of another’s labor. If you have that much leisure, and are hung up on reading, you can relax about what to do for the next decade.

So we are left with the most difficult alternative (there is a double meaning there, but it will have to wait for another essay). The only way forward is to make the effort to read with skepticism, compassion, and a readiness to recognize a truth we did not expect to find. That is, try to be a historian. Or, if you (like me) prefer the idiom of Thucydides, try to be a citizen. Meaning read Lyndon to understand better what we have wrought, and how we misbent the iron, in order to undo what we came to feel (when manipulated through appeals to our good intentions and our egos) was our finest hour.

Extremely difficult and terribly painful.

But Lyndon has given us some leverage, and it is crucial to use it carefully: “I make no pretense …

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