Lyndon B. Johnson had hardly ascended the throne when the United States Information Agency bought and distributed 214,000 copies of a book by an ex-LBJ staffer and long-time intimate. Booth Mooney. Mooney is a wonderful friend. His book. The Lyndon Johnson Story, was a hymn of praise from invocation to benediction.
Reading it, I recalled a film. Redskin Football Highlights of 1961, in which the Washington team ran, passed, and kicked its way to what apparently was the greatest string of unbroken victories since Napoleon struck out for Toulon. Actually, the Redskins had won but a single game.
Though he strangely boasted a few years back that he couldn't remember the last time he finished a book, the President devoured the Mooney book with delight, Johnson's friends were forever having gift copies show up in the mail, lovingly autographed not by the author but by the subject. Congressmen, critics, or even casual office visitors might suddenly find LBJ pressing a copy of Mooney's book on them and saying that if they wanted to know anything about him - well, here it was. right here, all of it. That Mooney took a leave of absence from LBJ's staff to write the book for use as a glorified campaign tract may have escaped Johnson's mind.
USIA has made it known that it will not stock for its shelves Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, a political biography by the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.
This is a shame. No more definitive biography of Lyndon B. Johnson exists--and may not until history brings us the longer view.
The skeletal structure of the book is familiar. It traces the Johnson career from New Deal congressman to a President bedeviled in mid-1966 by Vietnam, the white backlash, a nervous stockmarket, the credibility gap, and off-year Republican resurgence.
But Evans and Novak rise far above the retelling of warmed-over tales. Details of ancient intrigues, manipulations and successes are so numerous the mind boggles at what fantastic research must have gone into this work.
Someway, somehow, the authors convinced great numbers of people to talk candidly about a man who lets it be known that he is perfectly capable of talking about himself, thank you, and will select the subject, the time, and the place. ("Actually," Evans says, "most people talked compulsively once we got them started. They seemed to want to get it off their chests.") Only one old LBJ crony slipped around to see the authors under cover of night and more than 300 were interviewed.
The authors have had close access to Johnson and his staffers over the years. Evans covered Capitol Hill for The New York Herald Tribune; Novak for Associated Press and The Wall Srteet Journal. Wisely, they saved their notes. Anecdote follows anecdote. All are artfully used. It is all there: the hoo-hawing, indiscriminate profanity and compulsive flesh-pressing; LBJ's crying need to be loved by all and yet retain a drill sergeant's iron-fisted control; the little miracles and helpful deceits which form the foundation stone of Lyndon Johnson's career. The authors have not, however, dealt in literary assassination. They are careful to bestow praise when they feel praise is due. Indeed, one feels that in defending Johnson's decision to land troops in the Dominican Republic they are his (Sympathetic hawks. (Evans and Novak reason thus; John F, Kennedy feared most of ail "a second Castro" in the western hemisphere; the Dominican revolt held that potential; ergo, LBJ was right--and, they imply, acted in concert with what Kennedy might have done.) They understand Johnson's troubled Jekyll-Hyde existence: parochial nose-pick politician on the one hand and frustrated national figure on the other, describing it with more charity than long-suffering Texas liberals, or such uncompromising men as Senator Paul Douglas, will appreciate, ("Let's pretend that we really are senators," Douglas once said bitterly to a colleague after LBJ had thwarted him with another half-loaf compromise, "and push the bell three times." He referred to the signal senators use when ringing for elevators). Their recitations of Johnson's Senate Majority Leader miracles are sometimes given in gee-whiz tones, seldom stressing that much of the magic was sleight-of-hand illusion. (As when Johnson sang the blues to newsmen, claiming certain defeat on measures he knew full well would pass because Bobby Baker's meticulous head count told him so-- and because he had thoughtfully stashed a few nose-ring senators in the cloakroom to herd forward for their dances when drama reached the proper pitch). Measured against their otherwise remarkable grasp of this complex, contradictory man one almost suspects that the authors--or editors gilded LBJ's lily in spots so as to give a more detached appearance to what really is a hard-hitting book.
Still, there is much here to flatter and please the average mortal —but then it's been said that our President owns "extra glands," and we have boatloads of evidence that he bleeds at the slightest critical pen-prick. Some scenes may give him political hemophilia.
Example: the festive night in December, 1963, when LBJ gathered in the White House a group of six revelers including Senators Fulbright and Mc-Carthy, an obscure Texas congressman, and only one representative of the Executive Branch. Tossing them a speech drafted by his staff for delivery before the United Nations (his first as President),' Johnson cavalierly invited his guests to "take a shot at improving it." "Whereupon the six men scribbled away on the margins of the speech in high good humor--some changing a word, others writing in substantive revisions." Diplomacy by Cutty Sark doesn't make me sleep better at night. Jack Valenti to the contrary.
There is the cynical tableau in which Johnson blandly discusses with his Council of Economic Advisers how to phony up his budget enough to come in at less than $100 million, so that Congress and the public would buy his proposed tax cut. (" 'Once you have the tax cut,' Johnson added, 'you can do what you want just like Eisenhower did. Eisenhower talked economy and then spent,' Johnson said wryly,")
There is that symbol of fiscal integrity, the late Harry Byrd, telling LBJ of the tax cut proposal, "I'm going to have to vote against the bill, but I'll be working for you behind the scenes." Civics teachers and orthodox economists may not approve, but that's the way the game is played.
Neither will Lyndon Johnson be pleased by remarks on his free-wheeling operations abroad during the time of his Vice-Presidency. He drove diplomatic officials wild by demanding over-sized beds to fit his lanky frame, shipping his favorite limousine ahead, dispatching a Navy plane from Taipeh to Hong Kong to buy his favorite brand of Scotch. Career diplomats cringed at the way LBJ trampled on protocol. Once, showing up in London on extremely short notice, he skipped out early on a dinner in his honor to which the cream of British politics had been invited. His excuse was the need for bed rest. The British were not amused when newspaper photographs the next day showed Johnson among wee-hour revelers "at a snappy Park Lane nightclub." Such overseas excesses, the authors deduce, resulted from LBJ's hemmed-in, frustrated feeling during the long thousand days he stood in John F. Kennedy's shadow.
The book abounds in fascinating sections, especially from the period of Johnson's Senate Majority Leader days forward. It comes miles closer than anything in print to answering that ancient question, what is LBJ really like? The subject may not feel it is required reading. I do.
Larry L. King served as Administrative Assistant to two Texas congressmen for a decade and traveled with the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign team. His novel. The One-eyed Man, was published by the New American Library.
By Larry L. King