Hey, hey, LBJ: The former president, not much talked about these days, comes in for assessment by political colleagues and journalists of the day.
Celebrated playwright Clare Boothe Luce once remarked that all presidents are known by a single sentence: Thus, Lincoln freed the slaves; Washington was the father of his country; Clinton—well, you get the idea. For Lyndon Johnson, as LBJ Presidential Library Museum director Updegrove (Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis, 2009, etc.) writes, the sentence would necessarily involve Vietnam, an assessment that is not strictly fair, since Johnson inherited the war. However, as he put it, “I knew from the start that if I left the woman I love—the Great Society—in order to fight that bitch of a war, then I would lose everything.” So he did, and in doing so he effectively repudiated his own record by not running for reelection in 1968. One bit of news in this newsworthy book is that Johnson plainly believed that he would have defeated Richard Nixon had he stood for office: “I believe I would have been nominated by that convention,” he said near the end of his life, “and that I would have won over Nixon by a substantial margin.” Instead, as Updegrove notes, the Democrats chose the bland Hubert Humphrey, who must have seemed a walk in the park after years of the mercurial Johnson, who was a blusterer and bully. However, notes staffer Myer Feldman, “I think Lyndon Johnson had great virtues and great vices, [and] depending on whether that particular day he was emphasizing the vices or the virtues, you liked or disliked him.” Other news: Johnson didn’t read books; by Dean Rusk’s account, Johnson was closely involved in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis, though Bobby Kennedy later froze him out of the historical record; and Barry Goldwater missed an opportunity by pretending the civil-rights movement didn’t exist in the 1964 campaign.
A readable, endlessly interesting look at the LBJ years.