Our Crudest President
"Louisiana's a bunch of crooks, and Mississippi's too ignorant to know any better, and Alabama's the same way." Thus, the 36th president of the United States in conversation with Special Assistant McGeorge Bundy the day after his landslide electoral victory in 1964. The three Southern states had gone to Barry Goldwater: Never let it be said that LBJ was short on frankness, or long on forgiveness.
Reaching for Glory is the second volume of Johnson's transcribed White House tapes, secretly recorded, released by Lady Bird long before the 50-year mark that Johnson himself stipulated, and redacted by Michael Beschloss. The first volume, Taking Charge, began with LBJ aboard Air Force One, moments after Kennedy was pronounced dead (his first call was to Rose Kennedy), and continued through his efforts to avert a floor fight that would disrupt the 1964 Democratic convention. The second volume starts just before the '64 elections, and continues through his star-crossed decision to send masses of ground troops into Vietnam. (The third and final volume of transcriptions is in the works.) In between stands a stunning record of achievement, a great series of progressive legislative triumphscivil rights, voting rights, Medicare, the War on Poverty, Appalachian reliefall of them overshadowed, in the end, by the War.
This is American political history as it actually plays, a voyeur's delight and a historian's feast, and it's undeniably entertaining, at least from the distance of a few decades. "God Almighty," Johnson says to Russell Long, senator from the aforementioned Louisiana, who calls pleading for a local military base not to be shut down. "Don't you pick out the cross-eyed, stuttering, bowlegged girl and bring her up and say, 'Now, listen, this ought to be the beauty queen, and you name her, by God, and it's a favor to me.' "
Transcripts of the Nixon tapes released over the past few decades make your skin crawl a little. It all seems so tawdry, and the language is so wretched and debased: There is no pleasure in it. Johnson, too, could be paranoid, resentful, and self-pitying; probably most presidents are. He was suspicious and bullying, and he sulked when he thought he wasn't getting the love he deserved. But he had gifts and a certain ability to enjoy them: a command of American speech in its most glorious rankness, the sharpest elbows in national politics, and a master's touch for getting what he wanted, whether it was the Voting Rights Act through a recalcitrant Congress, a black man on the Supreme Court, or Bobby Kennedy out of his way.
So we see him, here, flirting shamelessly with Jackie Kennedy, who seems to have adored him, and shamelessly flirted back; he considers naming her ambassador to Mexico ("She'd just walk out on that balcony and look down on 'em, and they'd just pee all over themselves every day"). He plots, coerces, flatters, rants, tells off-color jokes. There is a good deal of dirty politics revealed: He didn't hesitate to spread the word on adversarial columnist Joe Alsop's FBI-documented but otherwise closeted indiscretions, or to peremptorily announce his old friend Abe Fortas's appointment to the Supreme Court before Fortas himself had agreed to it.
And there's a frustrating combination of insight, hardscrabble sympathy, and blindness in a tirade like this one, justifying social programs at the same time he predicts urban race riots, which were, in fact, right around the corner. " . . . [T]hese young Nigro [sic] boys out on the streets. They've got no school to go to, and no job. . . . You know when you were seventeen, eighteenI ran off to California. Didn't think my daddy had any sense, from Texas, when I was a boy sixteen. But you take an old hard-peckered boy that sits around and got no school and got no job and got no work and got no discipline. His daddy's probably on relief, and his mama's probably taking mor-phine. Why, he ain't got nothing to hurt if he gets shot. I mean, he's better off dead than where he is." There's something both heartening and terrifying in the idea of a president who can speak so directly, and get so much right, and so much wrong, in a few short sentences.
As for the elephant standing in the corner of the room: It's startling to see how clearly Johnson knew that Vietnam couldn't be won. If the book contains a bombshell, this is it, though perhaps there's no real reason to be surprised by anything but his candor. "I don't think anything is going to be as bad as losing," he says to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in February of '65, "and I don't see any way of winning." By June, he's even more pessimistic: "I really believe [the North Vietnamese] will last longer than we do," he says at one point; and a few days later: "I don't believe they're ever going to quit. And I don't see . . . that we have any . . . plan for a victorymilitarily or diplomatically." Thereafter, he frets endlessly over his options, he submits to the murmurings of McNamara and Bundyif there are Iagos in this tale, these are theyhe roars in pain and frustration, and finally he embraces what he knows is his and the nation's doom. "I can't run out," he says to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. "I'm not going to run in. I can't just sit there and let them [American servicemen in Vietnam] be murdered."
Well, what to say? Most Americans will have a hard time forgiving Johnson for Vietnam; it's not at all clear that he thought he should be forgiven. Which is too bad, for if nothing else Johnson's social programs should be remembered: They are chastening reminders of the days, now apparently long gone, when a liberal president was actually a liberal. Yes, he was a crude, scheming son of a bitch, but he was our crude, scheming son of a bitch, and he was good at it and it's fun to watch.
And then suddenly it's not so much fun anymore. Tragedy, in the old-fashioned sense, is created when a good and powerful man is compelled by history, circumstance, and his nature to sin against history, circumstance, and his nature. Let it here be proposed that Lyndon Johnson, of all people, is the great tragic figure of postwar American history.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.