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LYNDON B. JOHNSON


Excerpted from an essay by Robert Dallek:

LBJJohnson was much loved and greatly hated -- not just liked and disliked but adored by some and despised by others. Some people remember him as kind, generous, compassionate, considerate, decent, and devoted to advancing the well-being of the least advantaged among us. Others describe him as cruel, dictatorial, grandiose, and even vicious....

The journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak have given us an indelible picture of Johnson applying "The Treatment" to people who needed persuading. It was,

supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless....

Johnson was a man possessed by inner demons. From early in his childhood he manifested character traits that shaped his behavior throughout his life. As a boy and a man he suffered from a sense of emptiness: he couldn't stand to be alone; he needed constant companionship, attention, affection, and approval. He had insatiable appetites: for work, women, food, drink, conversation, and material possessions. They were all in the service of filling himself up -- of giving himself a sort of validity or sense of self-worth....

Johnson's neediness translated into a number of traits that has a large impact on his political actions. He had a compulsion to be the best, to outdo everybody, to eclipse all his predecessors in the White House and become the greatest president in American history. As journalist Nicholas Lemann says, Johnson "wanted to set world records in politics, as a star athlete would in sports. 'Get those coonskins up on the wall,' he would tell people around him."....

As a senator, he had to be top dog, and drove himself to become Majority Leader. He turned a post with limited influence into the most powerful position in the Senate, from which he directed the passage of significant laws affecting labor, the elderly, housing, civil rights, defense, and space exploration. As Majority Leader, he was thrilled to be the first legislator in Washington with a car phone. When Everett Dirksen, Republican Minority Leader and a friendly rival, also acquired one, he telephoned Johnson's limo to say that he was calling from his new car phone. "Can you hold on a minute, Ev?" Johnson asked. "My other phone is ringing." .... After Johnson won election to the vice presidency in 1960, he "looked as if he'd lost his last friend on earth...I don't think I ever saw a more unhappy man," one of his secretaries recalls. LBJ & JFKHe found it hard to explain how John Kennedy, a more junior and less accomplished senator, could have bested him for the presidential nomination. He expressed his distress and rivalry with JFK during a telephone call on the evening of the election. "'I see you are losing Ohio,'" he told Kennedy. "'I'm carrying Texas and we are doing pretty well in Pennsylvania.'" "Doesn't that sound like him," his old friend Jim Rowe told Hubert Humphrey.

He was a reluctant Vice President. He had hoped and planned for the presidency, but fate or the limitations of his time, place and personality has cast him in the second spot. And he despised it.

The same neediness that made Johnson so eager for personal grandeur contributed to his desire to help the least advantaged. Throughout his life he identified with poor folks who has neither the material possessions nor the social regard held by and accorded to the most affluent members of society. He remembered his first teaching job at Cotulla, Texas, in an elementary school with Mexican-American students as an awakening of his desire to help "those poor little kids. I saw hunger in their eyes and pain in their bodies. Those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much. I was determined to spark something inside them, to fill their souls with ambition and interest and belief in the future." Both in Cotulla and later, there was an almost desperate urgency to Johnson's desire to give sustenance to the poor, as if he were filling himself with the attention and affection he so badly craved....

The (Vietnam) war brought out the worst in Johnson. His failure to deal effectively with the conflict partly rested on his character flaws: his grandiosity that could overcome every obstacle and his impulse to view criticism of his policies as personal attacks which he would overcome by increasing his efforts to make his policies succeed. Johnson fought in Vietnam for many reasons. He genuinely believed it essential to hold the line in Vietnam against Communist advance. Otherwise, the United States would face the loss of all of Southeast Asia to a hostile ideology. He also believed that a failure to stop the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in South Vietnam would embolden Moscow and Peking and raise the likelihood of another larger, possibly nuclear, war....

Eugene McCarthyJohnson saw liberal opponents of his Vietnam policies as disloyal to him and the country. Vietnam was a war he believed in; it was nothing he wanted to do, but he felt he had no choice, it was vital to the country's well-being....

The only satisfactory explanation he saw for the dissent was Communist influence. He believed that the driving force behind the marches, rallies, teach-ins, sit-ins, draft-card burnings, and written and oral expressions of opposition by intellectuals and prominent public officials like Senators George Aiken, J. William Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Wayne Morse was the Communists.... Senator FulbrightIn 1965-66 the war became a personal crusade for Johnson. It was his war, being fought by his "boys," with his helicopters and his planes and guns. Withdrawal and defeat became unthinkable. In 1967, when Leonard Marks, LBJ's director of the United States Information Agency and a close friend whom Johnson had always treated with consideration and respect, privately suggested that the President follow Senator Aiken's advice in Vietnam--declare victory and leave--Johnson glared at him until Marks asked: "What do you think?" Johnson shouted at him: "Get out." As increasing numbers of Americans died in the fighting and Johnson couldn't appear in public without risk of protests, he became emotionally distraught. By 1967, Georgia senator Richard Russell, a Johnson mentor, couldn't bear to see Johnson alone at the White House, because the President would cry uncontrollably....

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