Remembering LBJ, the masterful schemer

It has been a time for remembering President Lyndon Johnson. "Master of the Senate," Robert Caro's new book, has come out. And a close associate of Johnson's, Jack Valenti, recently provided an inside look at the former president at a Monitor breakfast.

It was not surprising that Mr. Valenti sees his old friend – the president who brought about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Great Society reforms – as a great moral leader. But he concedes that Johnson's presidency was flawed by his escalation of the Vietnam War.

"What is history going to say about him?" Valenti asked rhetorically. "Historians gathered together by Arthur Schlesinger, not a Johnson man, put him in the above-average category. That's good enough for me."

Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, was citing a rating made by historians in 1996 that placed Johnson in an "above average" group of presidents, including Kennedy, Eisenhower, McKinley, Cleveland, Monroe, and John Adams. Above them were only nine presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the "great" category and Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman in the "near great" group.

Mr. Caro's book stops short of Johnson's presidency. That book will come later, he has promised.

Caro portrays Johnson as a masterful schemer as he craftily works himself up to leadership in the Senate. He commends Johnson for the maneuverings that enabled the passage of the voting rights legislation in 1957. But he colors the praise with the suggestion that this was as much the product of Johnson's ambition to move forward politically as it was his basic feeling for the poor and racially disadvantaged.

Indeed, Valenti, who says he has never been called upon by Caro for his view of Johnson, told us he was baffled why Caro would spend so many years in writing about a man "he so thoroughly doesn't like."

I, myself, immensely enjoyed reading Caro's account of Johnson's amazing rise to power in the Senate. There is story after story about this man who could be a bully one moment and so very warm and friendly the next moment – anything to get something done and, more than anything else, to get ahead. This hot-and-cold approach to dealing with his fellow man was called "the Johnson treatment."

I recall once, back in the late 1950s, Senator Johnson let the Monitor's bureau chief, William Stringer, know how angry he was with an article he had written. Then, as Mr. Stringer told me, he was entertaining guests one evening a few days later and he heard honking outside. It was Johnson dropping by to give him some freshly caught fish.

I, too, once felt the Johnson ire and later warmth. I had written that Johnson was going to greatly escalate involvement of US soldiers in Vietnam – a story that had been picked up by the Associated Press and widely used by the media. Johnson was incensed and, through a top aide who was sent over to our office, told my bureau chief he wanted a retraction. My boss, Saville Davis, would not give ground. And the war's escalation soon began.

Later on Johnson cited and held up a story of mine at a press conference – an article that contained a survey that put him in a good light.

Incidentally, whenever interviewers would ask Johnson what his favorite newspapers were, he would say The Baltimore Sun and The Christian Science Monitor.

In reading the Caro book (a daunting 1,000-plus pages) I found a number of insights into what drove Johnson. They all come down to this: Johnson, as he reached for the moon, was always terribly conflicted by his desire to be somebody and, at the same time, by his desire to do good. So it was, as Caro sees it, that Johnson ended up never doing good (even the Voting Rights Act) without being sure there would be political advantage down the line for him.

I found the most insightful appraisal of what made Lyndon run about midway in the book, where Caro cites an assessment from an old campaign traveling companion of mine, Paul Healy, who had written in a lead paragraph of an article for the Saturday Evening Post: "Politics is, naturally, Topic A for most social circles in the national capital. But for Johnson it is Topic A-to-Z. He refuses to be trapped into thinking about or discussing sports, literature, the stage, the movies, or anything else...."

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