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The Big Guy

1.

Lyndon Johnson was indeed, as has become almost a commonplace by now, a being of Shakespearean dimensions—a hulking, bush-country colossus, gargantuan of ego and energy, of self-delusions and glooms and paranoias, crass cruelties and rampant vulgarities, but gargantuan also in his benevolent ambitions. All he wanted was to be the greatest president in the history of the Republic, by abolishing with his Great Society benefactions all poverty, hunger, and racial wrong from the land.

Given in his oscillations of mood to a lugubrious woebegoneness—“He could be just the saddest-looking thing,” remembers Roger Wilkins, one of his administration deputies—Johnson while president brooded ponderously over how he was discounted by the intellectual left as a blustering boor. He thus attempted to disguise himself in his public appearances in the improbably solemn mien of some Episcopal archbishop or Ivy League chancellor. But before that, as a young Texas hill-country congressman and then senator, he had a brawling, uncontainable aliveness, once, in galumphing conviviality, leaping atop a table in a Spanish restaurant to stomp out a flamenco. He was an effusive raconteur as well, mimicking his subjects like a master actor, with expressions of glee, dismay, lechery, piety scampering over his face.

He had the same gusto in all things, eating, smoking, and whiskey-drinking “like a man who had a date with a firing squad,” Russell Baker once remarked, and his carnal rompings ranged from stray scrimmagings to more operatic passions like his long romance with the former actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, a mare-like beauty then a member of the House from California. Johnson’s intrepidly dutiful wife, Lady Bird, would later gamely offer, “Lyndon loved people. It would be unnatural for him to withhold love from half the people.” On the whole, it was as if he had been born with some extra helping of an almost monstrous vitality, Johnson himself once allowing, “I keep myself on a leash, just like you would an animal.”

If so, it was only a very occasional and loose leash. He early became fabled for a Rabelaisian earthiness, urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building as the urge took him; if a colleague came into a Capitol bathroom as he was finishing at the urinal there, he would sometimes swing around still holding his member, which he liked to call “Jumbo,” hooting once, “Have you ever seen anything as big as this?,” and shaking it in almost a brandishing manner as he began discoursing about some pending legislation. At the same time, he would oblige aides to take dictation standing in the door of his office bathroom while he went about emptying his bowels, as if in some alpha-male ritual assertion of his primacy. Even on the floors of the House and Senate, he would extravagantly rummage away at his groin, sometimes reaching his hand through a pocket and leaning with half-lifted leg for more thorough access.

Yet he had an overwhelming presence. “He’d come on just like a tidal wave sweeping all over the place,” Hubert Humphrey marveled. “He went through walls…. He’d take the whole room over.” At the same time, he seemed to have a preternatural capacity for quickly sounding the innermost truths of whoever was before him—the actual compulsions of vanity or ambition or grievance, submerged beneath whatever the man might be telling him. An old Johnson familiar told me once, “When it came to dealing psychologically with other men, he was like Bach playing the organ pipes. But it was also like he knew almost too much about human nature, too much about the way people are, to move to any higher perspective.”

From that faculty came what would later be famous as the Johnson Treatment, a ferocious manner of persuasion that proceeded by a kind of progressive physical engulfment: wrapping one giant arm around a colleague’s shoulder with his other hand clenching his lapel, then straightening the senator’s tie knot, then nudging and punching his chest and spearing a forefinger into his shirt, Johnson would lower his face closer and closer to his subject’s in escalating exhortation until the man would be bowed backward like a parenthesis mark. More diminutive members, like Rhode Island’s John Pastore, he would hoist by their lapels up to his face with their shoe-tips barely grazing the floor.

At times, approaching a senator sitting in one of the couches in the cloakroom, Johnson would sink down beside him and commence to, in effect, cage the man, crossing one long leg in front of the senator like a railroad-crossing gate while curling his other arm behind the man to knead his shoulder, then clamping a hand to the man’s thigh. “I want to see ‘em, feel ‘em, smell ‘em,” Johnson once explained. Indeed, it was like a compulsion, in all encounters he cared about, to connect also through an elemental physicality: seated while president next to the patrician wife of Mexico’s president in a brutally hot sun, he took a heavy, lip-smacking swig from a glass of water and held it out to the elegant lady, inviting her to share a swallow with him.

There was, in all, something deep and knowing about the voracious immediacy in his dealings with other people. In that sense, perhaps few presidents, up to, arguably, Bill Clinton, have been quite so primally human.

To be sure, that Johnson can be found in the 1,040 pages of the third volume, Master of the Senate, of Robert Caro’s gigantic projected tetralogy, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Totaling some 2,500 pages so far, it has already become a work that is stunning in, if nothing else, the sheer Brobdingnagian magnitude of its narrative ambition, a feat of reportorial industry impossible not to admire. The difficulty in Caro’s third volume, though, is that the intermediary passage of Johnson’s progress it follows, his twelve years in the Senate, was largely confined to parliamentary theater—hardly without moment in that time of McCarthy malaria and the massing of the cold war. But that it would take Caro over a thousand pages, far more than in either of his previous volumes, to narrate this interim stage in Johnson’s story would seem a testimonial to its indefinite dramatic currency; and one cannot escape the impression that Caro has expended great effort to somehow make it matter with a piling up of words about it.

Over those expanses of prose, one bafflingly encounters profusely detailed but strangely weightless stretches—including an opening hundred-page exploration of the evolution of the Senate—in which Johnson himself recedes virtually out of sight. Throughout there are arrestingly rich scenes—Johnson’s feverish mirage that he was a serious candidate at the 1956 Democratic convention; the night of the Senate vote on the 1957 civil rights bill when the galleries filled from dinner parties and embassy receptions over town with spectators still in jewels and formal evening dress. But those scenes mostly decorate what turn out to be, like the passage of that 1957 civil rights bill itself, essentially pseudo-happenings.

More dispiritingly, there persists from the prior two volumes Caro’s understanding of Johnson, which reduces him to a mere vast appetite for power—as if he amounted to not much more than a stupendous political Snopes. To the actual mysterious fugue of Johnson’s interior urgencies and compassions and dreads, Caro has applied the flattening overlay of a simplistic cynicism that his “empathy and tenderness for people oppressed…was not as strong as his need for power,” that what most drove him was “not the desire to ‘help somebody’ but to ‘be somebody.’” That characterization impelled Caro in his previous volume to transmogrify Johnson’s opponent in the 1948 Senate race, former governor Coke Stevenson—by almost any measure one of Texas’s more paleolithic conservatives and racists—into a kind of cowboy statesman of a rough frontier nobility, all for the sake of contriving a morally melodramatic contrast with Johnson’s supposed feral rapacity. Portraits of great grotesques carry their own fascinations, of course, but they don’t make for tragedy—they “grieve no universal bones,” in Faulkner’s phrase—if, as when Johnson came to his tremendous capsizing over Vietnam, nothing of value, nothing once grand and moving, is really lost in the fall.

Having been somewhat belabored by such critics as Garry Wills, Ronald Steel, and Murray Kempton for his single-dimensioned casting of Johnson in his first two volumes as mainly just a political raptor, Caro in Master of the Senate seems to feel obliged to offer such pronouncements as,

In the twentieth century…Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican-Americans and indeed all Americans of color had …in all the halls of government.

Still, Caro contends that whatever good Johnson brought about was mostly just a by-blow of his rapacity—that if “Lyndon Johnson’s interests always came first with Lyndon Johnson, there were times when those interests coincided with…the cause of social justice,” but “it would have to be compatible with the ambition.”

The improbable result of this somewhat mechanistic formulation was that Johnson became, as Caro acknowledges, “the President who wrote mercy and justice into the statute books by which America was governed.” But somehow there is a certain gawky artificiality to Caro’s efforts now to reconcile that appreciation with his other, running characterization of Johnson as a creature, as posed in an earlier volume, empty of “any consistent ideology or principle, in fact of any moral foundation whatsoever.”

Even so, in those seemingly irresolvable dissonances in Caro’s construction of his character there lie, like a kind of shadow text, intimations of the true mystery of Johnson’s story.

2.

He had come out of the vast vacant South Texas hill country, a scruffy barren under wizened trees and the occasional distant slow flutter of a windmill in its far voiceless spaces. Here, Johnson had grown up on the shabbier outer fringes of the ruling order of his time and place, in a starkly bare household of the wasted gentry. His father was a frenetically ambitious populist state politician battling for people “caught,” as he once declared, “in the tentacles of circumstance”; but he was improvident and ineffectual in trying to scrabble together a name and station for himself. Caro’s notion is that it was the disastrous consequences for his family of his father’s “idealism” that forever after propelled Johnson “with the feverish, almost frantic intensity that…was really desperation and fear, the fear of a man fleeing something terrible.”

But there can be no doubt of the authenticity of Johnson’s own early surges of populist passion. Scantily educated, laboring for a time on a road gang, he spontaneously identified with the lowly and outcast around him, and as a twenty-year-old teacher in a Mexican-American school in a glum little South Texas town, he heaved his entire being into trying to remake the spirits, minds, and lives of these children of a long-abject and disregarded underclass, to fit them to enter into a full citizenship. While Texas director of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, he labored to salvage the futures of thousands of otherwise derelict youths, and as a perfervid New Dealer congressman during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, he struggled mightily against power-utility interests to bring electricity to the still primeval outback of his hill-country district.

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