I’d Rather Be Wrong

The Johnson Treatment

by Jack Bell
Harper & Row, 305 pp., $4.95

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

About this sub-book, an AP reporter’s mix of anecdotes and bilge, there is little worth saying except that it confirms the impression most literate people are likely to have of President Johnson.

Now and again we all succumb to the naive hope that behind a public man’s appearance there must be another, private reality; but anyone involved in politics of whatever kind soon comes to learn that it is a mode of life enforcing a remarkable closeness between public and private styles. What drew intellectuals to Stevenson and Kennedy was, in fact, a sense that they were “different,” that they were political men who maintained some critical perspective upon themselves and therefore experienced a strain between what they were and what they had to do. Stevenson gained sympathy because he seemed to find this burden hard to bear, Kennedy won admiration because he carried the burden with such grace. Now all this may be a mere indulgent fantasy on our part, for Stevenson’s notable sophistication has not kept him from playing a role at the UN often humiliating and sometimes deceitful. Still, for those of us who believe that self-awareness and its inevitable consequence of self-division are the marks of a civilized man, it is hard to become emotionally involved with any public figure who does not at least suggest a trace of these characteristics.

Perhaps that is why the intellectuals, while obliged to vote for Johnson, have felt so little warmth toward him. In Mr. Bell’s portrait he is a totally political man, clever but not thoughtful, calculating more than reflective. He appears at once sentimental and ruthless, thin-skinned and imperious, remarkably attuned to public moods and utterly expert at the “game” of political maneuver. He is all of a piece, seemingly monolithic, not only completely in but totally of politics. Upon the devices and costs of political manipulation he is capable of looking with some irony, but toward the idea of the manipulation itself and the kind of life it entails he shows no irony whatever. For him the system of American politics is an unquestioned “given,” just as the system of Russian politics must be for Brezhnev. The man is the role; the person, the function.

Within very narrow limits, this may explain why he has been so much more effective than was Kennedy in securing passage of such desirable legislation as the Civil Rights and education bills. (I leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Johnson won the Presidency by a far greater margin than did Kennedy.) Johnson felt no awe, no uncertainty, no fastidiousness before the mechanics of Congressional politics. Understanding it completely and accepting it gladly, he worked entirely within its limits. Sometimes he twisted arms, sometimes he waved carrots. Thereby Johnson managed to achieve more on the domestic front than his predecessor, who was neither inclined to go to the people, as in part…

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