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A Man I Met

What it's like to meet Lyndon B. Johnson

Keystone/Getty Images

There’s a winding stone stairway in the Capitol, between walls three feet thick, where you meet the most extraordinary people. Hardly anybody uses it any more but reporters and Senate pages. I was coming up it last week, thinking about the inaugural, and about the war we used to call “Johnson’s war”—maybe coming to an end, and about how Mr. Nixon’s budget is hitting the Great Society like a wrecker’s ball, and how LBJ himself picked this theatrical moment to die. But then, he never allowed anybody to upstage him. 

And bless me, down the circular steps came a familiar figure, looking eight feet tall, with big arms and hands and that squint, and that crafty grin, and those eyes that never seemed to laugh even when the mouth laughed. “Oh,” he said, looking at me without any great pleasure, “it’s you-all.” I stammered something: “You are—uh—you are getting some wonderful notices,” I said at last. 

His big face—with jutting jaw and big ears—broke into a grin. “Now it just so happens,” he said, plunging his hand into his baggy pocket, “I have some of those clippings right here. That New York Times, now—they’ve come to their senses at last.” “Yes, I read it,’’ I said, hoping to escape what I knew was coming. He gave one of those overwhelming, almost hypnotic looks. He never read very well: 

“‘A man who, once in office, aspired only to educate the nation’s young, feed its hungry, lift up its poor, promote equality and end the war among the brothers of this earth,’” he quoted. Then suddenly his face became unnaturally meek and humble. “Of course, I know I don’t deserve it. I’m just a poor country boy from the Pedernales.” I couldn’t help myself. “Now, sir, I know that Pedernales bit! You know right well you’re as smart or smarter than those guys you inherited from JFK; only you never could quite believe it.” “They thought I was uncouth,” he complained. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t have let you fellows see my gall bladder scar.” His mobile face was registering penitence. “Lady Bird bawled me out.” “You have to admit not every President would hoist his shirttail, peel back his undershirt, and let the cameramen snap the incision for the front pages.” He chuckled. “They were always talking about Jack’s ‘grace,’” he said. “Hell, some people have it; and some don’t.” “Yes, but do you have to carry bravado so far? Did you have to call you-know-who, from the Eastern Establishment, for a conference while you were in the bathroom, astride the Executive commode?” 

He changed the subject abruptly by reaching for some more clippings. “This editorial calls me the greatest parliamentary genius America ever had.” “You were, sir! It was magnificent the way you engineered that roll call to censure Joe McCarthy, 67 to 22; you knew where every vote was. I can see you in that huge office of yours, the majority leader’s, like the Sistine Chapel with allegorical nymphs floating all around.” 

“Yup, that Eyetalian artist, Brumidi, his name was: when he didn’t know what else to fill a spot with, he painted a nymph.” 

“And you fitted right in, sir, bigger than life. You knew where the power was, and you held the levers. That desk of yours, it had so many buzzers, and speakers, and telephones—it was like playing an organ. There you sat, pressing buttons, using intercoms, shouting for papers, always complaining they were keeping you waiting. You told me once you wouldn’t be treated like a ‘motherless child’ and, by golly, in a second you were pacing the floor, rocking an imaginary baby. Wow.” 

“And what,” he demanded suddenly, “are the histories going to say?” Now he was solemn, with no make-believe; the great, imperious man who had to be loved. “Think they’ll read my clippings, eh?” he pleaded. 

“You can bet on it! They’ll read about you, and won’t believe it. That vice presidential election train, for instance. Remember ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ at every town? We called it ‘The Cornpone Special.’ And that final shout you gave from the rear platform, as the train started to move, ‘What has Nixon ever done for Culpeper?’” 

“Hah, Nixon! Him. You know why Sam Rayburn made me run as Vice President with Jack? Stew AIsop wrote the story. Jack couldn’t win without me. ‘Rayburn’s instinctive fear of a Catholic candidate was outweighed by the visceral horror of a Nixon presidency.’ I like that visceral horror.” 

“Well, we got the presidency. Mr. Nixon says that the nation can’t afford the Great Society.” 

It sounded like teeth grinding. There was a pause. “I won’t say a word about another President,” he said quietly, at length. “And what do you think?” 

“I’ll say this—when you saw the war was a dud you tried to call it off; you called off bombing, and politics (including your second term) and you started negotiating.” “I wanted peace more than anything else,” he said, simply. 

He was the same mixture—cantankerous, vain, humble, crafty, brutal, sentimental, towering, the same figure I watched from the press gallery that night of March 15, 1965, when he addressed the joint session. It was the watershed voting rights bill. He began, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” I could hear him again, “To right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. . . . The issue of equal rights for American Negroes. . . . There must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise.” 

It came from the heart; powerful, sledge-hammer eloquence: “Outside this chamber,” he said, “is the outraged conscience of a nation.” The members were applauding now—every sentence, almost; 40 times altogether. And he went on, “Their cause must be our cause, too. And we shall overcome.” What a roar! “These are the enemies—poverty, ignorance and disease. Not our fellow men, not our neighbor. We shall overcome.” 

They passed it—the Senate 77-19; the House, 333-85; the most comprehensive civil rights law in 90 years. And then there was Medicare, and housing, and education and all the rest. 

I looked up the stairway, but it was empty. A hard man to love, maybe. And yet, . . . From the stone wall there was still a murmur, “We shall overcome.”