The Beginning of the End
Thursday, March 31, 2005
THE THIRTY-FIRST OF MARCH
An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson's Final Days in Office
By Horace Busby
Farrar Straus Giroux. 250 pp. $24
Thirty-seven years ago to the day, Lyndon Baines Johnson went on television to speak to the American people about the war in Vietnam. He spoke both as president of the United States and as a prospective candidate for reelection. Efforts to negotiate a settlement with the communist government in Hanoi were going nowhere, and Johnson was determined to do something that might break the stalemate. He had decided to announce that the United States would immediately stop bombing North Vietnam, but he knew that because the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy were drawing broad support among Democratic voters, a bombing halt could be interpreted as a cynical play for votes rather than a genuine attempt to speed up the peace process.
So Johnson was prepared to take a giant step further. For weeks he had labored -- mostly alone, but also in consultation with his former speechwriter, Horace Busby, who remained a close friend and adviser -- over a brief postscript to the speech. At the eleventh hour, he let others in the White House in on the secret, and it seems that only within minutes of the speech did Johnson himself know whether he would read it. He did, and it stunned the nation. Its most famous words were:
"Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God's, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people. United we have kept that commitment. . . . What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness and politics among any of our people. Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office -- the Presidency of your country.
"Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
With those words, Johnson may well have done more than speed up peace talks, as in fact he did. He may also have rescued himself from history's enduring opprobrium. His presidency, which in its first couple of years had made immense strides toward guaranteeing and protecting full rights and opportunities for all Americans, had bogged down in the quagmire of Vietnam. Around the country, college students and other protesters viewed Johnson with utter hatred -- perhaps the cruelest of their chants was "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" -- and except among the most militant war hawks, he was seen as hopelessly out of his depth in foreign affairs at a time of great international tension.
The March 31, 1968, speech didn't change all that immediately, but as Busby reports toward the end of this uncommonly engaging and revealing book -- the manuscript was discovered among his papers in 2003, three years after Busby's death -- it made people see Johnson in a new light. The day after delivering it, Johnson flew to Chicago for an engagement and invited Busby to join him. At the hotel where he was to speak, Johnson was greeted by the large crowd in the lobby with "thunderous and insistent" applause. "After tens of thousands of hours in their leadership," Busby writes, "Lyndon Johnson had, in his one hour the night before, finally reached through to the people he sought to serve."
By the time of the speech, Busby had been at Johnson's right hand for two decades. Though the focus of Busby's memoir is on the famous speech, much of "The Thirty-First of March" is devoted to his early years in Johnson's office and to the personality and behavior of the eternally fascinating, surprising and bewildering LBJ. In 1948 Busby was a couple of years out of the University of Texas, working as a reporter covering state government in Austin, when a mutual friend told him that Johnson, then a member of Congress, wanted Busby to join his staff. Busby was baffled; the two had never met. But Johnson, it developed, had been impressed by Busby's editorials for the famous old college paper the Daily Texan, and wanted him to come to Washington and be Johnson's egghead. "I want him to read, think and come up with a good new idea every day," Johnson said.
Johnson wanted him right away -- actually, whenever Johnson wanted anything, he wanted it yesterday -- but Busby deliberated for months before saying yes. As soon as he got to Washington he realized that Johnson's "obsessive" pace was not for him, yet the two managed to work out a modus vivendi with which both were comfortable:
"I did not approve his working style and did not adapt to it, but -- for what reasons I never knew -- Congressman Johnson directed none of his explosiveness at me. From the first month to the last year of our association, my colleagues were to complain that I led a privileged life in his employ: setting my own pace, keeping my own schedule, sharing the best times, spared the worst times. Certainly that was true, and while the future was not to be without its flaring moments, a measure of independence helped our relationship to endure."
He also quickly realized that "the Johnson personality, and the many tales in circulation about its more volatile manifestations, overshadowed all else about him -- his politics, his performance, his genuinely remarkable public record."
He was the proverbial bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, he "was baffling, broke all the rules, trampled on conventions and customs of his profession, and evoked a sort of wonder rather than awe from his colleagues." On the other hand, "extroverted, gregarious and roughshod as he could appear at times, [Johnson] sheltered a sensitive, introspective and unaccountably fragile self inside."
Johnson's abiding conviction was that his mission was to be, as he put it, "for the people -- p-double- e-p-u-l." Once he remarked to Busby: "People are good. What the average folks want is very simple: peace, a roof over their heads, food on their tables, milk for their babies, a good job at good wages, a doctor when they need him, an education for their kids, a little something to live on when they're old, and a nice funeral when they die."
That side of Johnson was just about washed away by Vietnam, and Robert Caro's hostile biography-in-progress -- overpraised by the literati and illuminati because it bends over backward to confirm the comforting apprehension that the villain of Vietnam was a monster -- has intensified the process. Busby was no LBJ sentimentalist -- quite to the contrary, he had personal experiences of the man's many unattractive qualities and declined to whitewash them -- but he knew him probably as well as anyone except Lady Bird, and he liked, admired and respected him. His quite wonderful memoir, rescued by his children from a garage in California, may well be the best and most honest book we have about LBJ.