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LEADERS: Lyndon Johnson: 1908-1973

12 minute read

“To hunger for use and to go unused is the worst hunger of all. . . Presidents quickly realize that while a single act might destroy the world they live in, no one single decision can make life suddenly better or can turn history around for the good.”

—Lyndon Baines Johnson

HE ate a leisurely lunch at the L.B.J.

Ranch one day last week and then donned his pajamas for an afternoon nap. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., stricken, he snatched up his bedroom telephone and gasped out one last order: “Send Mike immediately.” Two Secret Service agents sprinted 100 yards to Johnson’s bedroom and found him crumpled on the floor. His face was already blue from lack of oxygen, his right eye and cheekbone bruised from the fall. Too late, the agents attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, then tried external heart massage, then carried him to his private turboprop at the ranch landing field. By the time the plane reached San Antonio a quarter of an hour later, the agents knew that the 36th President of the United States was dead.

In the three days that followed, the nation paid tribute to the memory of Lyndon Johnson’s gargantuan presence. As his body lay in state at the L.B.J. Library in Austin and later in the Rotunda of the Capitol, tens of thousands stood in line to pay homage at the bier —and to be thanked for coming by Lady Bird Johnson and her daughters. The dirges and the caisson and the white horses provided the traditional ingredients of a presidential funeral, but the rhetoric was somehow peculiar to the nature of Lyndon Johnson, as when Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk declared that “in another age, he might have been known as Lyndon the Liberator.” Another old friend, W. Marvin Watson, declared that Johnson “was ours, and we loved him beyond any telling of it.” Metropolitan Opera Soprano Leontyne Price sang Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Finally the body of Lyndon Johnson was borne home to the Texas hill country aboard the presidential jetliner that was once known as Air Force One (and is now called The Spirit of ’76), the same plane that had carried the body of John Kennedy from Dallas to Washington, and on which Lyndon Johnson had taken the oath of office nine years before.

His admirers might talk of having loved Lyndon Johnson, but that was hardly the universal reaction to his presidency. During his last days before retiring from the White House, he was a virtual prisoner. He could scarcely venture out even to the National City Christian Church without risking an encounter with angry youths chanting, “Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?” Yet, as the funeral service ended last week, small groups of young people came forward seeking the autograph of Dean Rusk. The incident suggested that the bitterness of the nation’s longest war was just beginning to fade, and as President Nixon said in announcing the ceasefire: “No one would have welcomed this peace more than he.”

Plot. Few Presidents have escaped vilification while in office, but L.B.J. got more than his measure. He was denounced as vain, tyrannical, vindictive, sly, crude. The attack was so harsh and sweeping because Lyndon Johnson resembled a cast of characters more than a single person.

There was folksy Lyndon, interlarding his speeches with anecdotes that began, “My ole Daddy once told me. . .,” or winding up a whistle-stop address with, “Ah wish Ah could stay and do a little sippin’ and whittlin’ with you. . .” There was Lyndon the manipulator of men, devising byzantine plots so secretive that not even his aides knew what he had in mind. And there was the frugal Lyndon Johnson going around turning off lights in the White House and urging everyone to “tell your friends that you have an independent, taxpaying, light-bill-saving President.”

Prisoner. Most of all there was Lyndon the patriot, who choked up at the sight of Old Glory on a foreign field and could say—because he wanted to believe it in defiance of the facts—that his great grandfather had died in the Alamo with Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Johnson’s patriotic fervor made him implacable on Viet Nam, the tragedy that pulled him from office. He was determined that “I’m not going down in history as the first American President to lose a war.” He related Viet Nam to Texas: “Just like the Alamo, somebody damn well needed to go to their aid. Well, by God, I’m going to Viet Nam’s aid!” He promised: “I’ll do anything except swallow my honor and betray my country to get peace.”

Johnson was always haunted by the past. He loved to relate lugubrious tales of family poverty, even though the Johnsons were actually quite well off by the standards-of the Texas of his time. Lyndon’s father had earned a teacher’s certificate and was active in state politics as well as farming. He married Rebekah Baines, who was possibly the only female college graduate in all of Texas’ Blanco County. The marriage was recognized as genetically sound. As one neighbor put it: “The Baineses have the brains, and the Johnsons have the guts. The Baineses are intelligent, but they can’t put things over. The Johnsons can put things over.”

Johnson was shaped and shadowed for life by the hill country of Texas. To him, the world was just Johnson City grown big. He shared the prairie populist notion of mid-America that a wicked “they”—usually Wall Street or scheming foreign diplomats—were insidiously taking control. For most of Johnson’s political life, “they” were the Communists. He was baffled by and suspicious of Eastern intellectuals and especially Harvard men. A story he told and always with loud laughter was that when he had gathered his top men in the Cabinet room there were Rhodes scholars, men from Harvard, Phi Beta Kappas—and one boy from Southwest Texas State Teachers College.

He had a passion about water, having seen rivers dry up in summer and sweep everything before them in spring floods. His first years in Congress were spent on bills to harness the Colorado, and the first thing he did after he bought his ranch was to put in a dam. “The prettiest sight you can see is seeing the dam filled up on the Pedernales. And one of the nicest sounds you can hear is the water at night going over the dam.”

Moving to the Senate in 1948, Johnson gradually became the master of cloakroom intrigues, of late-night telephone calls and of political favors given and received—the master, in short, of the Senate itself. As Senate majority leader for six years, Johnson was the architect and deliverer of such Eisenhower legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The 1,000 days of the Kennedy Administration were days of frustration for Vice President Johnson, who had been nominated primarily to balance the ticket and win Southern votes, and from that penumbra he emerged, President by accident, as a whirlwind of creative energy unleashed.

Becoming President in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Johnson felt that his great mission was to unite the nation. He forever quoted Isaiah: “Come now, let us reason together.” TIME’S White House correspondent, who was in Dallas, says that Johnson “pursued his goal with a single-mind-edness and skill that no other man in high office could have mustered. He somehow reached out and comprehended that incredible problem, surrounded it and mastered all the details. In the short view, at least, he produced a near miracle in a storm center of anguish.”

In his first formal speech as President, Johnson told a joint session of Congress: “All I have I would gladly have given not to be standing here today.” His memorial to the slain President was to ram through Congress the New Frontier bills and programs that had been so long delayed. In 1957 he had reversed a record of opposition to civil rights; now he made what the New York Times called the “deepest commitment to the Negro cause of any American President.” In his March 15, 1965, speech he even included the black challenge: “We shall overcome!” To the end, his stand on America’s most complex social problem was unwavering.

Franklin Roosevelt had been his idol and his model, and he set about to complete the New Deal. A cornucopia of liberal legislation—part Roosevelt New Deal, part Kennedy New Frontier, part Johnson’s own Great Society —poured forth in housing, antipoverty programs, education, conservation, civil rights, Medicare. After his crushing defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, Johnson pushed through such bills as the Highway Beautification Act and the Appalachian Regional Development Act. The $11.5 billion tax reduction had already aided a major economic surge, though his manipulation of the budget set the stage for the present inflation. By White House count, 252 measures were requested in four years and 226 passed, for an incredible presidential score of 90%.

Johnsonian law will shape American life for years to come, particularly in the areas of education, social welfare and civil rights. Yet the total impact on the national consciousness was curiously slight, partly because the Great Society was not a total concept but a medley of individual programs and ideas. In the exuberance of the moment, much of the legislation passed under his leadership was too hastily conceived—the product of good will more than of good planning. Perhaps he came to office out of time, operating on Depression-forged beliefs in Government spending that no longer applied in the America of the ’60s.

Overshadowing all of Johnson’s good works, moreover, was the “brushfire” war he inherited, which soon began to breed revolt on the campuses and riots that scarred America’s cities. Month after month, optimistic war bulletins from the White House were followed by news of slaughter in the field, giving birth to the “credibility gap.” As Historian Eric Goldman wrote: “In his periods of triumph and of down-sweep, he stood the tragic figure of an extraordinarily gifted President who was the wrong man from the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong circumstances.”

History’s verdict on Johnson’s achievements and failures is still uncertain, but the thousands who mourned him last week had no doubt about his remarkable rampaging personality. His friends like to recall how Lyndon, after driving his new Lincoln Continental through a pasture down on the ranch, detected a slight hint of malfunction in the car and seized a telephone in the car to call Henry Ford II with his complaint, “You just aren’t building them the way you used to, Henry.”

His personal pronouncements were sometimes eccentric (“Never trust a man whose eyes are too close to his nose”) and sometimes pungent (he would keep J. Edgar Hoover, said Johnson, because “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in”). His storytelling was legendary. One of his own favorites: “I decided to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, and so I called him into my office. I told him, Thurgood, I know this will surprise you and please you, but you’re the best I can think of, and I’m also delighted that I will have the chance to place the first black man on the court.’ There were tears in both of our eyes. Finally Thurgood said, ‘Mr. President, can I call my wife and tell her this marvelous news?’ When Mrs. Marshall heard Thurgood’s voice, she shouted, ‘Baby, did we get it?’ ”

Lyndon Johnson is remembered, too, for his strange, dogged passion: for the time he flew to Viet Nam and told U.S. forces to “come home with that coonskin on the wall”; for the time he roared round the world in less than five days in 1967 and wound up dropping in on the Pope to see if anything could be done about freeing U.S. war prisoners; and for the many times he would stop to talk farming with an Appalachian family or drop in on the old folks in the new nursing home down in Johnson City. “Didn’t he live well?” Lady Bird Johnson asked a friend beside the bier in Austin last week. He certainly did.

After his return to the Pedernales four years ago, Johnson supervised the building of the massive L.B.J. Library, wrote a volume of memoirs, and is said to have doubled the size of his personal fortune (usually estimated at more than $20 million, including land, cattle, airplanes, banks and radio stations). But mostly he devoted himself to his 330-acre ranch, occasionally helping to lay pipe in the middle of the shallow Pedernales and gradually building up his cattle herds through shrewd trading at local livestock auctions. He would come home at ten in the evening, tired and dung-booted, to tell his guests about the price of beef and about egg production problems. “He’s become a goddam farmer,” an old friend complained. “I want to talk Democratic politics. He talks only hog prices.”

Friends were disturbed a year ago when Johnson began smoking for the first time in 16 years, and started to put on weight as well (see MEDICINE). “He would wait until Lady Bird was deep in conversation at the other end of the table,” a family friend recalls, “then reach for two or three extra cookies.” Even his serious heart attack last April failed to change his habits. “I’m an old man,” he once explained, “so what’s the difference? My body is just aging in its own way.”

A cold rain had just stopped falling as they buried Lyndon Johnson under the giant live oak trees in the family cemetery near the Pedernales. “Along this stream and under these trees he loved, he will now rest,” said ex-Governor John Connally. “He first saw light here. He last felt life here. May he now find peace here.” Beyond a nearby stone wall, the howitzers of the Texas National Guard fired a 21-gun salute in a cow pasture.

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