IT IS SAID OF LYNDON Johnson that he loved women. It is said by Merle Miller, Johnson's most recent biographer, and it is said by a host of people whom Miller quotes. Johnson, it is clear, loved to have women around, loved to have them work for him, loved to talk to them, loved to confide in them and loved to make love to them -- although how well and how often we are not told.
We are told, though, that this is the human side of him -- the non-presidential, non-imperial side of him. It shows a certain vulnerability, a need for love. He was not always an ogre. He could be tender. He could fall in love. He was also, you will remember, married. No matter. We are told he loved his wife also.
But he did love those other women. One lady told how he just entered her room one night, saying, "Move over, honey, this is yore president." And there is another story about how some young thing pressed her hotel key into his hand during the 1960 convention and he, grateful as can be, paid her a visit that same day, thanking her afterward as only a politician can: "Ah want to thank you for yore help to mah campaign." We all give what we can.
There are lots of those stories, so many in fact that it's clear that they long ago must have reached the ear of that other lady he loved -- Lady Bird Johnson. Just what she thought of his extramarital affairs, we are not told. We are told by others, though, that Johnson's affairs did not mean that he did not love Lady Bird or respect Lady Bird or even, we are given to believe, worship the very ground the little lady walked. It was just that he was a politician and in need of much ego gratification. Her needs somehow go unmentioned in all this.
Johnson, of course, was not the first and probably not the last president to have affairs while in the White House. His predecessor, John F. Kennedy, seemed to have so many of them that the Cuban missile crisis must have come as a welcome diversion. Dwight Eisenhower seems to have been true to Mamie while president, and Harry and Bess Truman were notoriously old-fashioned, but Franklin Roosevelt, we are told, had something going with Lucy Rutherford Mercer, although what it was remains unclear. But probably this century's number one White House Romeo was Warren Harding who, although married and something of a stern prude in public, used to entertain one Nan Britton in a little room in the White House.
Presidents, like ordinary people, will have affairs and it should be clear by now that it does not mean much, if anything, when it comes to assessing their performance in office. Some of the best had them, some of the best did not, and Harding, who was among the very worst, had more than his share.
And it also seems clear that by now -- at my age, anyway -- one hesitates before making moral judgments about extramarital affairs. Some people have them and some don't and some people do some of the time and some do none of the time. Sometimes they destroy a marriage and sometimes they don't, and sometimes, I suppose, they strengthen them. There are even those who claim that extramarital affairs are the only way to make a marriage succeed and what they do, they do openly. The rest, however, cheat.
Cheat -- it is a good word, and it should be somewhere in the background when the subject of Lyndon Johnson's affairs come up. What seems to be missing for all the accounting and all the explanations and all the justifications of how he needed to and how, maybe, if he couldn't have an affair he would get a nosebleed and die, is the notion of cheating -- of deceiving his wife, of not including her in the secret, of playing her for the fool, of not treating her with all that respect everyone is always mentioning.
This is what is left out of all the accounts of how he loved her and respected her and worshipped her and all the rest. I'm sure he did, but a younger generation of both men and women -- probably more permissive sexually -- would nevertheless ask what sort of respect he was thinking about -- unless, of course, they had an arrangement. And an older generation of women (and some men) who have gone through the same thing might wonder what kind of love it is that inflicts such pain -- causes such heartache.
All of this is true for all men and all women. But the consequences are greater for a politician, and especially a president, because he lives in a fishbowl. With a president, there is no such thing as a secret affair. Almost always the Secret Service knows and the press corps and some aides and maybe some of the staff. Maybe you can connect this -- this arrogant assumption that no one will snitch -- with the sort of mentality that led, in the end, to Vietnam or maybe you just want to consider how everyone gets sucked into the conspiracy -- the lies -- and gets compromised without having any of the fun.
Whatever you make of it, though, you have to stop and pause and wonder what in the world everyone is talking about when they describe Johnson's affairs as innocent, harmless peccadilloes that didn't affect the presidency and didn't hurt anyone. If presidents are human, then so, too, are their wives. It hurt.It probably still does.