The Big Guy

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine


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.

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