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 to outlast him.
Some, of course, did not put up much of a struggle; and Doris Kearns seems one of those. He needed her in Austin, to help write his memoirs. It would further her career. When she objected that she had to study, do social work, meet different people, he promised her hot-and-cold running scholars, poor people, and millionaire bachelors at the turn of a spigot. It was the old routine; but Ms. Kearns presents it as something peculiar to her and her situation. Does she really not know this was the standard Johnson pitch?
Take, for instance, the morning conferences in her bedroom—Johnson knocking shyly at her door, then crawling under the covers as she retired to a window sill. The relation suggested sounds unique, if not positively loony. Kearns interprets her role as that of a surrogate mother, fending off dirty-minded psychologizing with the simple-minded kind. But Johnson grappled people to his body heat in multiple real and symbolic ways. He liked to talk to people while sitting “on the can,” lying in bed or on his rubbing table, skinny-dipping. He undressed and got under the covers while arguing with Kay Graham in the presidential bedroom. Long before he showed off his gall bladder incision to photographers—in 1958, to be exact—he dropped his pajama pants before journalists (including a woman) to show how much weight he had lost after his heart attack. The Johnson family gatherings under bedclothes became something of a joke in the Sixties, Papa Bear bundling with all his “Birds.”
He wanted aides at his bedside the minute he awoke, and trailed people up with him at nap time, to be dismissed only after he was bedded and getting drowsy. Aides fumbled toilet paper between state documents. Ambassadors were received between towelings. The Johnson who needed three television sets and two tickers going all the time felt he should dictate the nation’s course while defecating, or win a congressman’s vote while he took a shower. It is a measure of his vast energy and ego, and of his fear that he would lose contact with the world if he lost its attention even for an instant.
The Mooney tale of Gerald Siegel’s wooing contains one very revealing episode. Johnson was at the wheel of his car, ready to drive the Siegels on the customary breakneck tour of his ranch, but Mrs. Siegel had not appeared. Johnson fidgeted, honked repeatedly, let impatience undermine his diplomatic efforts. Finally Siegel explained that his wife was in the bathroom. “Well, hell, if she’s not ready we’ll go without her,” said Johnson, making the wheels kick dirt. Johnson’s ever-open bathroom door, his state conferences on that shabby throne, seem intended to prevent anyone from leaving without him. If the door closed, and he were left alone, he might disappear down the hole.
Johnson practiced social intercourse as a kind of full-court press. He liked to hire both husband and wife, so there would be no family sanctum unreachable by him. His intrusion into the private lives of those associated with him had certain pleasant aspects. He showered them with gifts, large and small—a free operation or a gross or two of presidential cuff links. (He gave Ms. Kearns electric toothbrushes by the dozen.) But he also spied on people, went through their desks after they went home at night, opened letters not meant for him. George Reedy’s press briefings were more ragged than they had to be because LBJ listened in on a remote speaker, and once even phoned the press secretary in mid-session to correct what had just been said.
Johnson aspired to total contact with any people he dealt with—knowing them, using them, writing happy endings to their sorrows, punishing them for the “disloyalty” of any response to him less urgent than his own assault. He would laugh, cry, dance, or destroy in order to keep their attention. His tales and “pitch” would change to fit their moods as well as his—what is “truth” in such a windstorm of flattery, bluff, ingratiation, intimidation? The reality was contact, and words had to serve that purpose alone. Having paid for attention with his own tears and abject pleas, he found ways to punish those who witnessed such a spectacle. He was randomly cruel—just another part of his act; it certainly caught people’s attention. He mocked his wife before others, and subjected friends to a long obstacle course of hardships—were they really friends? He was always testing.
These well-established traits are manifested in what seems at first the odd story of a president who recruited a young woman graduate student, met while she was a White House Fellow, to follow him into retirement and help write his memoirs. He tried to win Ms. Kearns as one of his opponents (“you Harvards”), to earn her sympathy, pity, admiration, devotion—attention, of some sort, goddammit! The pitch that seemed to work on her was one he saved for feminine targets—the tale of a mama’s boy forced by his father to deny his own sensitivity for fear of being thought a sissy; Ferdinand the Bull, huffing and puffing on demand, but really in love with flowers. No doubt there was a strong element of truth in this tale, as in most of the routines he used for wooing others. What is astonishing is that he never had to use any other pitch to keep Ms. Kearns coming back for more and more notes on life behind his mother’s skirt. The resulting huge book is written to a background of Johnson singing “Mammy” for hours and hours to little Doris.
The typescript of the book’s prologue, sent out to reviewers, had no mention at all of Mrs. Johnson, of the strange desert flower that did not wilt under the lifelong blast of Johnson’s love and cruelty. But handwritten late inserts scattered Lady Bird’s name dutifully through the text, and are incorporated in the book. The changes may have been a precaution against prurient interpretation of the long hours Ms. Kearns spent alone with Johnson—we are now given the impression that she entered the family circle, sitting around and chatting with the daughters. But no doubt the first draft better reflects the reality. Johnson did not want a distracting audience present when he indulged in creative persuasion. Lady Bird had no doubt heard many variants of the Mammy song, used in more literal wooing contexts over the years. It always embarrassed Johnson to have witnesses from his past on hand while he was “remembering” that past—as when pointing to any handy log cabin near the Pedernales as his birthplace. Once his mother was standing by, and remarked indignantly that he was born in a nice house, not that thing. Real mothers inhibit the idealizations of the Mammy song—much as presidents behind the arras can inhibit press secretaries.
Ms. Kearns admits, in a protective way, that Johnson took a fictive approach to his own past—calling up relatives who seem to have died like flies in every Texas battle since the Alamo, or expanding his own “war service” to fit different contexts. But Kearns guards her treasure trove of notes by saying that the particular form of invention he settled on was indicative. True enough. But indicative, among other things, of what he thought would impress her. Vast areas of the Johnson psyche are missing from this book—the shrewd and bluffing masculine side, obscene and voracious and game playing—because he did not think that would “play” in Cambridge. (Some of these areas are referred to, of course; but as a cover for the “real” LBJ, the suppressed mama’s boy.)
Kearns’s other defense of her material is based on the fact that she uses Johnson’s dreams, as recounted to her, and dreams are admittedly fictive—whether fashioned by the unconscious or touched up by the conscious mind. But her attempt to interpret these dreams as if they had been elicited in therapy raises many kinds of doubt and question. Psychiatrists are themselves a bit disturbed at the thought of “analyzing” living people in biographies. If an analyst has not actually engaged the person as his patient, he or she cannot speak scientifically or protect the laboratory conditions of the art. On the other hand, if the person has been a patient, then the analyst is bound by professional ethics not to reveal what was learned by the patient in sessions structured solely for the patient’s benefit. The analyst is caught in a dilemma; either speak without real knowledge, or acquire that knowledge at the cost of being unable to speak. The analyst-biographer violates either the intellectual standards or the ethics of his profession if he pretends to have the kind of knowledge that can be gained only under analysis.
Ms. Kearns has no professional problem, since analysis is not her profession. But she seems insufficiently aware of the fact that dreams told in a persuasive context cannot have the evidentiary value of those discussed in analysis. Johnson, whose standards of veracity were lax or nonexistent in the heat of persuasion, was trying to convince Ms. Kearns—and, through her, all the “Harvards”—that he was not the monster attacked in the war protestors’ chant: “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” He was creating the image of a sensitive intellectual hidden under Texas swagger. Everything he told her was aimed at this effect, and he was always conscious of the effect he had on others. And all this effort worked through the normal Johnson channels—his virtuosity at teasing, flattering, taunting, flirting, startling, begging, “showing off.”
Besides, while he was trying to use her, Ms. Kearns was preparing to use him. She had to respond to the Johnson treatment enough to keep him applying it, while trying to stay detached enough to record it for her own later purposes. Nothing could be further from the kind of sessions aimed entirely at the recovery of reality by the analysand. She was encouraging Johnson’s unreal flights of imagination, which her own responses were bound to affect. We have to cope, then, not only with his motives and her motives, but with the presumed reading of her motives that he was making, and the way her motives colored her remembering and recounting of the scenes. Given what she comes up with, it is hardly worth the effort.
Buried in this huge book is the material for a perceptive little essay. It would make a touching and modest vignette—a last glimpse of “the Johnson treatment,” something like the literary visits to Swinburne at The Pines—a touch of the old magic glowing amid ashes. But Ms. Kearns needed to use her ore for academic purposes, not refining but amalgamating, bulking out. Most of the resultant book is dissertation-fodder. She plods through the familiar story of the Great Society and the Vietnam war, trying to convince us we can see it in a new light because of her “new material” (the Mammy songs). She has nothing useful to say about the Johnson presidency; and in so far as she tries to connect it with childhood traumata, she obscures the political setting of the times. Despite all his personal energy and imagination, Johnson lived in a political world shaped by the New Deal and World War II, and showed no desire or ability to break out of that world. The policies he inherited failed, in a way that matters more than the personal failings of Johnson.
Other books give us a better-rounded and more interesting picture of the man. Pretending less, they deliver more. Booth Mooney’s is especially useful, since it is a corrective to his earlier sycophantic biography. Mooney knew the mushy side of Johnson, as well as the mean one. He also knew what a sharp eye he had for people and for character types. Here, for instance, is the whole history of Southern “populists” put in one pungent LBJ sentence: “Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say the niggers caused it, helped out by the Communists—but, he’d say, we gotta have help from Washington.” I would trade two or three quotes like that for all the maudlin sessions remembered and stretched out through dreary pages by Ms. Kearns.