A Day at the White House

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

“President and Mrs. Johnson are planning the most extensive arts festival ever held in the White House,” reported the New York Times on May 27th. It would last thirteen hours, there would be exhibitions of current American painting, sculpture, and photography; programs of American plays, movies, ballet, and music; and readings by two novelists, Saul Bellow and John Hersey, two poets. Robert Lowell and Phyllis McGinley, and one popular biographer, Catherine Drinker Bowen. The Johnsonian consensus: Bellow and Lowell balanced against Hersey and McGinley, with Miss Bowen added to the democratic, or kitschy, side of the scale to make it all the more consensual. As the drunk said about the books in Jay Gatsby’s library: “Absolutely real—have pages and everything…. See! It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter…. This fella’s a regular Belasco! What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Our President, too, is a regular Belasco for realistic stage settings and, like Gatsby, he knows when, and where, to stop: just beyond Miss Bowen. He doesn’t cut the pages. But what do you want, what do you expect? A consensus is a consensus.

A week later, the consensus was broken by Robert Lowell, who wrote a letter to the President that appeared on the front page of the June 3rd Times:

…. Although I am very enthusiastic about most of your domestic legislation and intentions, I nevertheless can only follow our present foreign policy with the greatest dismay and distrust…. We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin.

I know it is hard for the responsible man to act; it is also painful for the private and irresolute man to dare criticism. At this anguished, delicate and perhaps determining moment, I feel I am serving you and our country best by not taking part in the White House Festival of the Arts.

In the same issue of the Times, statements appeared by Bellow and Hersey explaining why they had decided not to join Lowell. Neither expressed disagreement with his “dismay and distrust” (though Bellow seemed to accept Vietnam, criticizing only the Dominican occupation; I’m told he had first written a much stronger letter but then, like his Herzog, didn’t send it; there was to be plenty of Herzogian behavior by others at the Festival). Bellow reasoned—logically enough if one doesn’t accept Lowell’s premise that our recent foreign policy is so shameful and disastrous as to make it an overriding consideration even in lending support to a Presidential arts festival—that it was not “a political occasion which demands agreement with Mr. Johnson on all the policies of his administration.” “Moreover,” he concluded, “Mr. Johnson is not simply this country’s principal policy-maker. He is an institution. When…

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