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Lyndon Johnson’s Complex, Outsized Presidency Examined in New Book

August 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Veteran journalist Charles Peters, founder of Washington Monthly, talks with Judy Woodruff about his new book on the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, some politics of the past and a new book on the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

Judy Woodruff has our conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was large in stature, personality and political ambition.The consummate legislator, a vice president who was thrust into the presidency.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was complex, outsized, contradictory, and ultimately fascinating.His was a presidency of civil right, health reform, a war on poverty, but mostly defined by the war in Vietnam.

Now comes a new book on his term in office, “Lyndon B. Johnson.”It’s part of the Times Books series on the American presidency.

The author is Charles Peters, the founder and former editor of “The Washington Monthly” magazine.He’s also worked in politics and government.He ran John F. Kennedy’s West Virginia campaign and he helped to launch the Peace Corps.

Charlie Peters, it’s so good to you have with us.

CHARLES PETERS, author, “Lyndon B. Johnson”:It’s great to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One thing that comes across here is this outsized personality and his ability to get what he needed, what he wanted politically.Persuasive, cajoled, intimidated people.

Where did that phenomenon political ability come from?

CHARLES PETERS: Well, his father was a politician.His father was a populist politician who anticipated Johnson in being — he fought the Klan back when the Ku Klux Klan was very, very powerful in Texas.So, his father had political courage.And his father was just — was a natural politician who was elected to the — he served eight years in the Texas legislature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you write that Johnson was able to accomplish incredible things.

CHARLES PETERS: Only FDR rivals his legislative accomplishment.And so that ranks him with the greatest presidents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Civil rights and Medicare.

CHARLES PETERS: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has changed this country.Obama would not be president without the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Medicare changed the life of seniors in this country.The combination of Social Security and Medicare made so much difference for the old age of Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also write, Charlie Peters, about his weaknesses: the string of extramarital affairs, the abusive behavior you write about toward his subordinates.

CHARLES PETERS: A touching thing about the affairs is that the women involved, all of them retained great fondness for Johnson.And of course his wife Lady Bird seemed, as far as anybody could see, truly adored him.So that was the good side.

The bad side was, except for one of these affairs, he would boast about the relationships to other people, which to me was just a horrible thing to do.He was — he would make aides go into the bathroom with him.That didn’t seem very charming to me.

And he could say cruel things to people, and not just in front of other people, and be abusive.I was troubled by this so much, I called up his old friend Liz Carpenter, and I said, “Liz, this is finally the thing that I just can’t answer.”And she said, “He is just that way.You have to accept him, warts and all.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there was this persistent rivalry with the Kennedys.Was that his doing or theirs?

CHARLES PETERS: Both sides were at fault.I think both particularly Lyndon and Bobby saw the worst side of each other.And they were perfectly right about the worst side of each other.

Johnson saw Bobby as the guy who tried to get Castro assassinated.He saw the unpleasant side of Bobby’s personality.

And so Johnson understood all of that.He never understood the things that by the end of Bobby’s life made him a great man.

Similarly, Bobby understood all the deal-making, vulgar side of Lyndon Johnson, and he didn’t have any understanding or sympathy with the great side and the great things the man was capable of doing.And the worst thing that Kennedy said though to Johnson was they hid Bobby’s visit to (INAUDIBLE) gesture that had ended the Cuban Missile Crisis.So, Johnson felt and the American public thought that the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis was, we were eye ball to eyeball and we made the other guy blink, when the truth was both sides blinked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say he belongs probably in what you say is the second tier of great presidents.And that was not something that was recognized when he was alive.

CHARLES PETERS: No, I think he belongs with Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Jefferson, right below the top, Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite Vietnam?

CHARLES PETERS: Yes.But Vietnam — it’s hard to say despite Vietnam.You know, someone used that line with John Kenneth Galbraith, and he says that’s like saying Switzerland would be flat without the Alps.So —


JUDY WOODRUFF: But Vietnam was what —

CHARLES PETERS: Vietnam was his presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His presidency.

CHARLES PETERS: And he was wrong.He was just wrong.

He was a man who worried terribly about his manhood, about being courageous.One of his aides told me that — the aide was leaving, and he wanted a nice, warm letter from Johnson when he left the White House.And he asked Johnson’s secretary, “How am I going to get the nice letter?”And she said, “When you send in your resignation letter, praise his courage.”

The guy sent in the letter and he got a very warm letter in response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Charlie Peters, any lessons from Lyndon Johnson for this current president, President Obama, and the enormous challenges he is facing?

CHARLES PETERS: Well, I think with Afghanistan, you have to look at Vietnam and say there were many, many arguments for being in Vietnam, for staying in Vietnam, that the anti-war movement, for instance, didn’t want to face and has never wanted to face in history, the history of the war, just as there are many, many good arguments for being in Afghanistan today, very compelling arguments.But the point I hope Obama pays attention to was what destroyed the chance of success in Vietnam was a corrupt government that was — did not have the faith of the people all down the line, from the lowest level to the top.I’m afraid we’re going to face a similar situation in Afghanistan.

The other thing I would urge Obama to pay attention to in Johnson’s history was — and this was true of Jack Kennedy and many other Democratic presidents, but it’s what got Johnson in trouble in Vietnam.It’s fear of Republican criticism.

When the Tonkin Gulf episode happened, Johnson, his first instinct was just to dismiss it as South Vietnamese provocation, not — so he wasn’t going to make anything out of it.But then an influential adviser said to him, well, Barry Goldwater, who was running against him that year, Barry Goldwater is going to say you lack courage, you lack guts, you’ve got to appear tough.So then Johnson made a big thing out of the Tonkin Gulf, went to Congress, got the Tonkin Gulf resolution, and we were off on the wrong, wrong road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Too worried about the other party.

CHARLES PETERS: To worried about what the other party would say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The book is “Lyndon B. Johnson.”Charles Peters is the author.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

CHARLES PETERS: I’ve enjoyed it, Judy.Thank you.