Lyndon Johnson was a true sophisticate. I know that's what most people think he wasn't, but they are wrong. He was an enormously sophisticated man about life, about what makes things happen, what causes people to do what they do. -- Harry McPherson
There is no adjective in the dictionary to describe him. He was cruel and kind, generous and greedy, sensitive and insensitive, crafty and naive, ruthless and caring, he could overwhelm people with kindness and turn around and be cruel and petty towards those same people; he knew how to use people in politics in a way nobody else could that I know of. As a matter of fact it would take every adjective in the dictionary to describe him. -- John B. Connally
At the innermost core of the soul and spirit of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, and the forever-proud son of the hardscrabble soil of Texas, was a mystery that no one ever solved.
It was a question of definition -- of his character, of his private and public vision. And a question of taking the measure of a larger-than-life man who defied easy assessment.
He was magnanimous or petty, depending on the moment, the occasion and the personalities involved. He also was proud of humble, gracious or crude, sentimental or hardboiled, generous or mean. And on and on through a catalogue of human emotions and reactions.
Of one thing, most everyone -- his most fervent friends and his most unforgiving foes -- agreed. Johnson was one of a kind, and infinitely more complicated than anyone imagined at first meeting.
"All of the people who came in contact with Lyndon Johnson -- his family, his friends, his political associates, the members of the White House staff -- each of them has his or her slice of Lyndon Johnson. Now some slices are larger than others . . . but nobody has ever put all of the slices togethter. The things that have been written about him, all of them are very limited, taking in a very small slice. What has to be done is to put all the slices of the pie together. If it can be done," said Tom Johnson, a longtime associate.
George Reedy, former White House press secretary: "Every time I think of Johnson, the first thought that springs into my head is Pirandello. Purandello is a playwright who would leave you with the most baffled wonderment as to whether the whole thing was a figment of somebody's imagination; whether this man really was a king or whether he was just a demented lunatic that was surrounded by some others. Johnson would leave you like that."
And Bill Moyers, a longtime Johnson aide: "Johnson had an uncanny ability to see himself as if he were an actor and a spectator at the same time. aAnd he had this double-layer -- bifocal vision in a sense. He could be acting and yet, while he was performing, he was existentially involved in the moment -- he always was outside the process looking at himself. It was a flaw at times, and I think it helped bring him down."
Perhaps, because even when Vietnam became the issue that drove him from public life, he was, to many of his associates, wallowing in feigned self-pity that had the hard edge of honesty about it. No one ever said Johnson was not, at times, as impressed by his string-pulling theatrics as anyone else.
The politicians who tracked Johnson's career over the four decades of his public life were as bewildered by Johnson as the foreign peasants who listened, wide-eyed and uncomprehending, as the tall man with the Stetson hat lectured them in rice paddies and dusty hamlets far from his own home.
One of the problems was that people judged Johnson by their own instincts and standards.
At the simplest level, George Christian, another Johnson press secretary, recalls:
"I remember on the press plane coming back from Australia to Manila for the Manila conference in 1966, the prime minister of New Zealand and his wife flew with him up there . . . And they were all having breakfast in the cabin of the plane with some of the press around, and Johnson just absentmindedly reached over and ate a piece of bacon off the plate of the prime minister's wife. And the press got on to it and blew it up, almost made an international incident out of it. It was just him."
Johnson felt the same way -- that he was misunderstood, viewed as a bumpkin by the eastern elite, and university intelligentsia, the urbane crowd with its expensive tastes and fancy accents.
Harry McPherson, a one-time special assistant: "It never seemed to satisfy him that he was smarter, and tougher, and harder working, and had more power than anybody else. That never seemed to give him the sense that Harry Truman had of being established within himself. Johnson, to use one of his favorite expressions, was always 'an hour late and a dollar short."
It was, many people thought, the reason for his crude shows of power and exercises in intimidation.
John P. Roche, an educator and columnist who was a special consultant to Johnson: "He put people down in ways I thought was despicable. He did take people swimming bare-assed in the pool, and the kind of people he loved to do it with were characters like the great stone face, John Gardner. He dropped people like that on their aristocratic asses. And what it meant, stripped down, it meant, 'I got that great intellectual John Gardner in my pool swimming around bare-assed naked.'"
Jack Valenti: "He was not the most sophisticated man in the sense of personal habits. . . . He was full of those things that we may call coarse manners, or that somebody else might call vulgar. If it were not the president, they might be called 'earthy.' He was a very earthy man."
This story, told many times with much gusto in Washington, comes from Coates Redmon, a former Peace Corps official and speech writer for Rosalynn Carter:
"One day Bill [Moyers] telephoned my husband to come quick to the president's bedroom. I think Lynda Bird was there, and Mrs. Johnson, and Marie Fehmer was taking dictation. The president was lying on his side in his bed facing the group.
"There was a nurse on the other side, the three television sets were all going, and he was going snap, snap, snap. He's batting dictation to Marie, he's switching the channels, he's yelling at Bill . . . and everybody in this fairly large group was acting normal as all get out. Little by little it became apparent what was happening, and Bill whispered, 'Well, you wanted a good one, you got a good one -- he's having an enema."
Most people put it down to acting naturally.
But there was a special uneasiness around the Kennedys and their circle. Once, Johnson mused with considerable unhappiness that he spent as much money on his suits as John F. Kennedy but that they did not look as stylish. He thought it was because he was an ugly duckling; actually, it was because he insisted on double-breasted suits that always looked as if they had too much cloth in them.
Still, just when outsiders began to think there was more, a lot more, to the real or fancied animosities between the two men, a story would come along that made people wonder.
Adrian Spears, a federal judge in Texas:
"There was a good bit of talk about what bitter enemies Johnson and Kennedy were and how they didn't get along. But in 1956, when Stevenson was running for the second time, Johnson and Kennedy were at a motel near San Antonio. Kennedy was the main speaker at our rally there.
"I had the best suite in the motel set aside for Kennedy and Johnson. I was in there talking to them, and the picture that stands out in my mind is John F. Kennedy sitting in a bathtub filled with hot water to ease the pain in his back, and LBJ sitting on the side of the tub pouring water on his back."
Nobody ever said that Lyndon didn't like money, but nobody ever really proved any of those whispered stories that he piled up a tainted fortune, much of it while shielding his manipulations behind Lady Bird's skirts. He was very discreet, and one question was always whether Lyndon was thriftty, tight-fisted or generous. Or a mixture of all three.
Sam Houston Johnson, Lyndon's brother: "They were always careful with money. I wouldn't say tight -- careful. And Lyndon didn't have to wait to get to the White House to start turning off lights. He was always turning off lights. He'd get home late, and I'd be reading. He'd say, "What are you trying to do, Sam House? Keep the electric company in business? Then off with the light.'"
On the other hand, Texas editor Robert M. Jackson looks back:
"I remember one thing that greatly impressed me way back when we were young and poor. He had what I thought was a peculiar attitude toward money. His idea of money was to buy something for somebody with it."
Ramsey Clark, a one-time Johnson cabinet officer:
"Johnson was a compulsive giver. He just wanted to give something always. I don't think I have ever gone by that he didn't wind up giving me something. It might even be something he'd given me before. I think I've got four or five copies of "My Hope for America." You could laugh about some of it, because a lot of it was kind of junky stuff, but the point was, he wanted to give people something -- he really did."
To many, Johnson was tormented by self-doubt, a lifelong sense of insecurity. He was wildly erratic in his dealings with subordinates, veering from smothering affection to vicious bullying and back again.
Valenti: "He was loving, warm, and kind, but he was a mean bully when he wanted to be and he could humiliate you, both publicly and privately. He could castigate you for being one millimeter off in what you were doing. I don't understand it, and never will. But Johnson's kind of like life itself -- you take the sunsets and sunrises, but you also take the avalanches, floods and plagues."
Gerald Siegel, a Washington lawyer: "What you had was a man who had never quite learned to control this tremendous power within him. This, for lack of a better word, temper, emotion, the well of desire and ambition. aspiration, just flowed out of him like an explosive force. Whenever it was frustrated, he behaved like a youngster with a temper tanttrum, turned on us, lashed out without restraint."
But he was quick, as everybody seems anxious to point out, to forgive to welcome back the goof-up, the fumbler and the careless but devoted subordinate.
He was, in a real way, a reflection of the macho, middle-class, rural, depression-era, fundamentalist, man-in-a-hurry mentality that existed when he was growing up. What made Johnson different forever baffled his oldest friends. But in any case, they always knew he would amount to more than a hill of beans, as one old Texas saying went.
Of course, Johnson himself knew he wanted more than a lifetime in Texas. "I would not say I was without ambition, ever," he once said, recalling his first sight of Washington. "You just had to look around, and it was very exciting . . . and there was a smell of power. It's got an odor, you know, power I mean."
He breathed deeply, inhaling and absorbing that heady odor, and learned to out-talk, out-shout, out-maneuver and out-everything everyone, until he had power in Washington.
And still the enigma remained.
Hubert H. Humphrey, who should know:
"Just keep in mind that Lyndon had all the weaknesses and the strengths of a big man. He loved women, he loved to take a drink; he loved a good earthy story; he understood politics and power. He was a patriarch of absolutely unbelievable dimensions. He wanted to do good. He was a soft-hearted guy with all the big veneer."
"He was an all-American president. He was really the history of this country, with all of the turmoil, the bombast, the sentiments, the passions. It was all there. All in one man."