Lively, momorable look at LBJ through the eyes of those who knew him; Lyndon, An Oral Biography, by Merle Miller. New york: Putnam. $17.95.
Twelve years ago, after the presidency of Lyndon Johnson had been destroyed by the war in Vietnam and he had announced that he would not seek re-election, many Americans openly doubted that Robert Kennedy would compete for the Democratic nomination. Not Lyndon. He had known it all along, says Merle Miller. Night after night he would shake his head and say: "That little runt will get in. The runt's going to run. I don't care what he says now."
This anecdote tells us a lot. It illustrates Lyndon's crudity, which made so many people despise him. It provides an example of his often uncanny political acumen. And it testifies, inferentially, to the animosity between him and the younger Kennedy. Charles Bartlett, the Washington journalist, talks about this: "Lyndon Johnson was convinced that there was a great conspiracy to try to steal the government back for the Kennedys: and on the other hand I think that Bobby Kennedy was absolutely convinced that Lyndon Johnson was out to destroy him in public life."
The antagonism apparently was not shared by President John Kennedy. Dean Rusk comments: "I had long been used to the favorite indoor sport around Washington -- making fun of vice-presidents -- but I never saw the slightest trace of that in John F. Kennedy, although some of his staff used to throw barbs." This view is supported by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who tells Miller of her husband's attitude towards his vice-president: "Jack thought it would be a frustrating job, and I think he did everything to make Lyndon feel as comfortable as possible in it. One thing Prime Minister Macmillan had said to Jack about President Eisenhower and Vice-president Nixon -- that Eisenhower never let Nixon on the place -- impressed Jack a lot."
This fragment of political background conveys strikingly the flavor of both the subject, Lyndon Johnson, and the comprehensive biography compiled by Merle Miller. Every aspect of Lyndon's personality and his tumultuous career -- from birth and youth through his 24 years in the Congress to his violently curtailed vice-presidency and ill-starred presidency -- are covered and re-covered, mostly by the ingenious method of interviewing as many of those most intimately concerned as will talk into a tape recorder.
Consequently, a reader simply doesn't want to miss reading a single line of this book of over 560 pages (plus copious) notes and so on) lest a significant item or comment be missed, even though it turns out that in some segments Miller has overdone the interviewing and will certainly leave a few of us dazed by repetition, contradiction, and superfluity.
An example of this is provided by the account, in 20 pages containing over 50 excerpts from interviews, of that complicated and dubious runoff election in which Lyndon became a senator by a margin of 87 votes out of a total of over 900 ,000 cast. Everybody has his say, and a bewildered reader come with relief to the final one-line verdict of Creekmore Fath, a Texas lawyer, that "both sides were stealing, and Lyndon won."
Such one-liners make the book memorable. A notable one emerges during the long and saddening account of how Lyndon tried disastrously to cope with the war in Vietnam.Ernest Gruening, Democratic senator from Alaska, says simply: "the Tonkin Gulf resolution was a deliberate fraud, as you know. None of us knew it at the time." Another one enlivens the story of the purchase by Lady Bird of a radio station in Texas and the subsequent recurring talk over the years whether Lyndon used his influence in Washington to promote the family fortune built upon that purchase. Many witnesses argue that he didn't. But Barry Goldwater steals the show by asking the ultimate blunt question: "How could a man, almost penniless, come to Washington and die worth over $20 million?"
The biography comes over, like its subject, overwhelmingly. But inevitably it leaves us still guessing about an infinitely complex human being. One of the few things that can be said with certainty as this biography is laid down is that Johnson was not equipped to become a successful president of a country to which so many other countries and peoples all over the world look for leadership , help, and understanding. He had hardly been out of the United States when he became vice-president; he spoke no foreign language; and he seems never to have grasped that foreigners were neither Texans nor Americans. He would probably have been a magnificent president if he had never had to deal with anywhere outside the United States; between January and October of 1965 he signed into law 90 of the 115 legislative proposals he had sent to the Hill.
As Hubert Humphrey told Miller: "He'd come on like a tidal wave sweeping all over the place. There was nothing delicate about him. He was a downfield blocker and a running fullblack all the time." But clearly not the man to be captain of an American team playing in an international league.