Listening to Lyndon

Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965
Edited by Michael Beschloss. Simon and Schuster, 475 pages, $30.00

When dealing with the amazing personality of Lyndon Baines Johnson, there is just no substitute for an encounter with the real thing. This is an inescapable conclusion of reading the second volume of Michael Beschloss's judiciously edited transcripts of LBJ's secretly recorded conversations. I say this despite the fact that Robert Caro--whom I would nominate for the world's most diligent biographer--is about to release pages 3,000 to 4,000 or so of what is shaping up as the most ambitious biography of all time. The first two volumes of Caro on LBJ have been exhaustively researched and magnificently written, if shockingly unsympathetic at times. Yet even Caro's masterpiece-in-the-making cannot quite do what the relatively unsophisticated tape-recording device underneath Johnson's desk has done: bring the man alive in all his tawdry, jaw-dropping glory.

The problem with Lyndon Johnson is that he is just not credible: His character is too complex, too contradictory, and too large to fit on the printed page. Beschloss has done what appears to be a scrupulous job of editing these noisy, incompletely taped conversations and helps the reader along a bit by explaining what is going on. I was particularly impressed with a footnote in which he admitted that he had transcribed the word "nigras" while other listeners heard "niggers." But good editing is not enough. Not even Caro is enough. Listening to these tapes and reading these transcripts makes it hard to avoid the conclusion, however delicately stated, that Lyndon Johnson was nuts; attractive, convincing, well intentioned, irresistible, perhaps, but out of his mind. He had planned to become president since he was a teenager; angled for it, fought for it, begged for it, and probably would have killed for it. But when he finally got there, under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable, it drove him crazy.

Johnson's story is, in many ways, tragic. He understood that Vietnam would likely be a disaster both for himself and for the nation. He knew that he didn't have to pursue the war. Richard Russell, an important mentor from LBJ's days as a young senator and the powerful, pro-military chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee--exactly the kind of southern hawk who could provide Johnson with the political cover he needed--advised him that a war in Vietnam would prove "the damnedest mess on earth." The United States, he said, would be "in quicksand up to its neck." Vice President Hubert Humphrey advised the president, moreover, that 1965 would be "a year of minimum political risk for the Johnson administration" and that Johnson could pretty much do what he wanted. His close adviser McGeorge Bundy later admitted that if Johnson "had decided that the right thing to do was to cut our losses, he was quite sufficiently inventive to do that in a way that would not have destroyed the Great Society." All of these conflicting currents eventually led William Bundy, one of the war's key architects and most enthusiastic supporters, to conclude that Johnson could have carried public opinion with him "on whatever course he chose."

In any event, Johnson made his choice and he stuck to it, the evidence be damned. These tapes reveal, for the first time, that he understood--as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara apparently did not--that not very much had happened in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964, and that the resolution he secured from Congress giving him the authority to wage war in Vietnam had been secured on the basis of false evidence. Johnson blames the generals and admirals for leading him astray, in his own inimitable language:

I don't want them just being some change o'life woman running up and saying that, by God, she was being raped just because a man walks in the room! And that looks to me like that's what happens in the thirty years that I've been watching them. A man gets enough braid on him, and he walks in a room and he just immediately concludes that he's being attacked.

Cute, but the truth is that on that fateful summer day, the military was a great deal more circumspect about the imaginary attack on the USS Turner Joy and the Maddox than were Johnson and McNamara. Both men exerted tremendous pressure down through the chain of command to confirm the nonexistent attack so that Johnson could announce a U.S. retaliation in time to make the news that night--a bit of unforgivable moral expediency that may have resulted in U.S. pilots being downed over Vietnam. Earlier that day, Johnson had falsely informed congressional leaders: "Some of our boys are floating around in the water."

The news that no such attack had occurred may have prevented Johnson from responding to another Gulf of Tonkin incident six weeks after the big one, but it does not seem to have affected Johnson's judgment about the wisdom of the war or the constitutional basis for its conduct. Nothing is quite so shocking, even to these cynical eyes, as discovering how minimally the truth mattered in anything. In April 1965, while the president is apparently watching Rawhide on TV, McGeorge Bundy calls to tell the president that a U.S. aircraft accidentally bombed a village in Cambodia, a nation with which we were not at war. Bundy gets right to the point: "The operational question is whether we admit it to the Cambodians, who are now accusing us." Bundy's two suggestions are: "We could perhaps ask the GVN [the South Vietnamese] to accept responsibility for the incident"; or "We could, of course, pretend it never happened." We never hear Johnson's decision, but I am fairly certain it was not to come clean about the whole thing and admit the mistake.

As the war grows in size and scope, Johnson demonstrates moments of tremendous lucidity--more so, one might add, than his self-deluded advisers like McNamara and the brothers Bundy--on the hopelessness of victory. He admits, for instance, in June 1965:

I see no program from either Defense or State that gives me much hope of doing anything, except just praying and gasping to hold on ... and hope they'll quit. I don't believe they're ever going to quit. And I don't see ... any ... plan for victory, militarily or diplomatically.

And yet Johnson not only ignores the advice of those close to him who, like Undersecretary of State George Ball, share his skepticism; he assumes almost immediately that anyone who gives public voice to the private doubts he shares is motivated either by treasonous disloyalty or communist ideology.

There is not an anti-Vietnam demonstration mentioned in this book that Johnson does not attribute to communist manipulation. There is not an antiwar speech given in the Senate that Johnson does not blame on either political treachery or Robert Kennedy, or both. Elected to the presidency in one of the most impressive landslides in history, Johnson's neurotic paranoia does not rest for a moment. Why did it take Bobby Kennedy so long to say thank you to LBJ for saving his bacon in the New York Senate race? What would happen if Johnson's advantage over the Republicans (15.6 million votes in the 1964 election) should begin to dwindle in the polls? It doesn't, of course--at least not in the years covered here--but Johnson seems to judge every political move he makes, no matter how trivial, on whether it might offer his imaginary enemies on the right a hypothetical spear to use against him. This despite the fact that Johnson appears to share columnist Drew Pearson's characterization of Barry Goldwater's support as "nothing, really, except the Klan and the kooks."

As liberals would learn to their collective chagrin, the best way to get Lyndon Johnson to follow your program was to threaten him--or appear to. We imagine Johnson to be a champion of liberal political power. His administrations--staffed by more genuine, unapologetic liberals than any other of the twentieth century save Franklin Roosevelt's--notched unprecedented victories in the areas of civil rights, voting rights, and other social-welfare programs. So it is one of the many historical oddities of American politics that Johnson demonstrates little but contempt for liberals on these tapes and appears most comfortable grousing with right-wing zealots. He could turn the liberal treatment on for a Martin Luther King or a Hubert Humphrey when he felt a need to keep one of them on the reservation. But he seems most genuine when complaining to his buddy J. Edgar Hoover over at the FBI, for instance, that "our State Department ... is not worth a damn. They're a bunch of sissy fellows," or to labor chieftain George Meany, "George, I'm real worried about what these Commies [meaning student protesters] are doing... ."

Progressives never really had a chance in this atmosphere, so poisoned was it by the predictable failure of the war in Vietnam and the reactionary impulses in the political culture it inspired. It would take a decade of dissension and previously unthinkable division before this monster could be slain; and we are still, to a considerable degree, living in a political and cultural prison constructed from its unrecognized ruins.

It is a truism that Lyndon Johnson was many different people at once. Johnson had great dreams for his presidency and his country. And he displayed real courage in confronting southern conservatives who did not want to reconcile themselves to the reality of racial equality. But for reasons it would take an army of psychiatrists to explain, he had a greater fear of allowing anyone to question or criticize his policies in public than he did of entering into a war that he knew the nation could not win and could only end in disaster for all concerned. Johnson was so terrified of public debate that he lost faith in McGeorge Bundy not because of the bad advice on Vietnam but because Bundy had agreed to debate the policy in public.

It is not enough to bemoan what might have been under Lyndon Johnson if only he had listened to Ball and Russell and stuck to building the Great Society rather than bombing the Mekong Delta. Johnson's liberal hopes and dreams never had a chance against his conservative fears and nightmares. What I want to know is why? What was so seductive about the arguments of these smart Kennedy advisers that led him to ignore his own political genius? Why is the right so much more threatening than the left, even at this moment of a putative liberal Democratic landslide? What was so important about whether South Vietnam, whose people could barely bring themselves to fight, went communist?

And while I'm at it, I want to know how it is that the United States elected three mentally and emotionally unsound individuals in a row to the most powerful and dangerous job on the planet, at or near the height of the Cold War. John Kennedy was a brilliant tactician and had many qualities that are useful in a president, but his personal recklessness on behalf of his insatiable sexual addiction makes Bill Clinton look like a model of rectitude and Victorian self-denial. (For impressive evidence of Kennedy's intellect, as well as an invaluable historical resource, consult the three-volume Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy, Volumes 1-3: The Great Crises, edited by Timothy Naftali, Philip Zelikow, and Ernest May, just published by W.W. Norton.) Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, actually makes his predecessor look sane--and principled--in comparison. To top it all off, these men were followed by two remarkably grounded and modest men--Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter--neither of whom could win re-election, and who are now thought of as mediocre presidents. (And don't get me started on Reagan. . . . )

Reaching for Glory may leave us with more questions than answers, but it also forces us to stare--however painfully--into an abyss. Understanding Lyndon Johnson is a kind of psychological quagmire with no exit, no endgame, and, ultimately, no solace for anyone who enters it.

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