Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
LBJ: An Irreverent Chronicle
Lyndon Johnson liked to have protégés around him. He had risen as the client of Sam Rayburn, and he seemed always to wish for as bright and loyal a disciple as he had been to “Mr. Sam.” Some of his protégés became famous, one way or another—Bobby Baker, say, or Bill Moyers. Most did not. Yet he stayed on the lookout for young people to impress and promote—he made two White House Fellows his speech writers: Tom Johnson and Charles Maguire. He also made it a practice, from early days, to woo or steal talent from his rivals. Even as a guest in some other politician’s home, Johnson would openly try to hire the man’s best aides away from him. It was often easier for the quarry to give in at the outset, since Johnson could wear down almost any personal resistance. The man who could persuade Arthur Goldberg to step down from the Supreme Court for a job like that of UN ambassador could obviously mesmerize us lesser folk into jumping off skyscrapers.
How did he do it? Booth Mooney, himself a speech writer won over from the staff of Johnson’s opponent in his first Senate race, describes one such campaign. Gerald Siegel was trying to leave Johnson’s staff, and the Senator offered him a job at the family TV station in Texas, to keep him “on the team”:
Siegel and his charming wife, Helene, went down to Austin on an inspection tour. They were accorded a typically Johnsonian grand reception, introduced to the Jewish community of Austin, and made to feel in general that the good life awaited them. As they were driven by car around the pleasant city, LBJ enthusiastically showed them the section where he knew they would want to live. He named clubs which they should join. He told them what kind of boat they would need for use on the several adjacent lakes.
(In fact Siegel got caught up in committee work, and stayed in Washington another year before going to the Harvard Business School.)
It is too often said that Johnson bullied people. He did, but by an unremitting blast of personal attention rather than by threats or surliness. Indeed, one of his most effective tactics was an abject profession of personal need. He could not go on without the services of the targeted individual. His very life depended on it—along with other things like the national security and the fate of Western civilization. The object of his attentions was pommeled with hyperbole. James Rowe was recruited by the lavish shedding of real tears. Newsmen were promised, fawningly, “I’ll leak to you like a dog on a hydrant.” When one thing did not work, Johnson would try ten others—appeals to greed, duty, vanity, God. He knew there must be something that would work, and he would go through his whole repertoire and then start over again, if he had to. Few had the energy …