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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.1 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 of having written a complete and definitive history of my Presidency. I have tried, rather, to review that period from a President’s point of view—reflecting a President’s personal and political philosophy…. I have not written these chapters to say, ‘This is how it was,’ but to say, ‘This is how I saw it from my vantage point.”’2

He saw first and always as a southern white who grew up wandering hither and yon across that no-man’s land that divides the lowers from the maybe middles. He knew want and work, and learned what the constancy of both did to his parents and his neighbors. That prism-prison distorts some truths, but it clarifies others that the rest of us seldom glimpse—let alone see and feel and therefore know.

One of those is an excruciating awareness of the rest of the country’s pervasive anger and contempt toward the South (that backward slough). Acknowledge and live with that truth as a northern white and you begin to understand Johnson.3 The visceral essay on the white southerner as a second-class citizen has yet to be written. C. Vann Woodward is just too damn polite. And Norman Mailer has not considered it important enough. But if you wonder about their hawkish bellicosity, for example, remember that they alone among us have been defeated and occupied, and then kept down economically, politically, and emotionally for yet another century.

Then put that southern consciousness of being first among the damned into a male with a great and earthy zest for life who has suffered a heart attack; and then make that man President because the young and handsome symbol of northern power and smug self-satisfaction has been murdered while visiting a backward and unruly southern fief. I think you have to take that man seriously when he says he was of a mind not to tempt the gods in 1964. Of course he was torn. Hell, yes, he wanted victory in his—and his beloved South’s—own right, but I have a strong sense that he would have gone home if Lady Bird had said the bags were packed. Her lines about becoming the handy dart board for all the tension and anger, and about the drinking, are masterpieces: the South is finally here and the sex is going, Love; so if you do not challenge Fate, the booze will get you. In that league, Ms. Camelot is a spectator who does not even know the name of the game. It sure as hell is not touch football.

I am glad he stayed. That does not mean I like what happened. I am glad he stayed because what he did at home (especially in trying openly to help the blacks and the poor), and what he did in Vietnam after the attack on the Marines at Danang, finally brought us to the visceral confrontation with ourselves that offers us a chance to break out of our traditional outlook. Given all that has gone before, I do not think that option could open up in any other way. And the Kennedys (and maybe even another white northern Establishment man) might well have finessed the mess into another classic American victory.

Dear God.

It is easy to discount Johnson’s concern and determination to help the poor and the old and the other put-downs. You have heard it many times: “Oh, that just comes naturally to a populist.” But many poor boys—probably most—forget those other people once they scratch and claw their way into the front row at the feed trough. The primary issue here, though it takes a bit of care to confront it directly, is how the programs reveal the limits of white northern liberalism. We must begin, though, with Johnson’s knowledge of how to move the system. That was the product of his white southern experience: if they will not let you run it from the top, then learn how to control it from the side. Others from the South could have maneuvered the legislative victories just about as effectively if they had cared. And, so far as whites are concerned, some of them do care.

So the populist answer is not enough. For Johnson included the blacks and other nobodies. Not just up to the crunch, but through the crunch. The way he tells us how he began to transcend the color line is beautiful. His black driver asked him (in the 1930s) to stop taking the dog along on the numerous trips to Texas. It was hard enough, he explained, just barrelin’ through in three days. But a black man was utterly beaten down because of all those extra hours spent looking for a place to piss—let alone to eat and sleep—and it was just too damn much, even if you are a good man, Mr. Lyndon, for a black man with a dog. And his soul confrontation with his fellow white southerners during an address to the Congress remains a great moment.4

What happened in Selma is part of a far greater movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.”

I paused for breath. In that fleeting moment my thoughts turned to the picked line in Birmingham, the sit-ins in North Carolina, the marches in Selma….

I raised my arms.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And…we…shall…overcome.”

And here, in this memoir, he does what few other whites of any section have done. He admits publicly that he was wrong about black power. No radical chic here: just poor white southerner getting on down the line.5

When asked about black power in 1966, I responded: “I am not interested in black power or white power. What I am concerned with is democratic power, with a small d.” As I look back now, that answer seems totally insufficient. It is easy for a white man to say he is “not interested in black power or white power.” Black power had a different meaning to the black man, who recently had had to seek the white world’s approval and for whom success had come largely on white people’s terms. To such a man, black power meant a great deal—in areas that mattered the most—dignity, pride, and self-awareness.

What we come down to, then, are the concepts that guided Ol’ Lyndon. And those were the product of orthodox northern white liberalism. The program was simply the ideas of the New and Fair Deals pushed to their limits. And, underlying all, the American Zen Buddhism of growth. The nonviolent, nondisruptive way to solve all problems. “The economic pie was big enough for everyone—and growing much faster than our population.”6 But it did not work for Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman, and it did not work for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

This fallacy is tucked away in the classical capitalist assumption (and prayer) that growth will mask the inequitable and irrational use and distribution of resources, as well as meet the demands of increasing population and the cry from everyone for more goodies. Another difficulty was that not even Ol’ Lyndon could forever override the southerners and northerners who demanded duly sanitized and processed representatives when the past seemed about to push us into the present in such matters as community initiative and control of community affairs.7 But the gut truth of it is that the Great Society was what Franklin Roosevelt should have proposed in 1936. It was too little and too late in 1963.

None of that can be dumped on Lyndon. Unless, of course, you simply prefer your benevolent elite to spend its childhood in upstate New York or Cape Cod rather than in Texas. Only a thimbleful of radicals and utopians were offering anything significantly more imaginative and fundamental. If the Great Society was Camelot’s program, then the New Frontier was nothing more than the liberal intellectuals whoopin’ it up back at The Old Stamping Ground.8 If it was mostly Johnson, as I think it was, then he deserves credit for striving to do all that was possible within the orthodoxy he had been taught.

  1. 1

    J.K. Galbraith, “Seeing Things Through for JFK,” Saturday Review (November 6, 1971).

  2. 2

    Johnson, Vantage Point, p. ix.

  3. 3

    Ibid., pp. 18, 89, 95, 155.

  4. 4

    Ibid., pp. 154-155; then see pp. 29, 39, 73, 157.

  5. 5

    Ibid., first see pp. 155-162 and 164-165; then p. 167.

  6. 6

    Ibid., p. 30.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p. 83.

  8. 8

    Here the mind-bending essay is W.I. Susman, “The Persistence of American Reform,” in American Reform: The Ambiguous Legacy, ed. by D. Walden (Yellow Springs, Ohio: The Ampersand Press, 1967), pp. 94-108.

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