Remembering yesterday

October 20, 1997|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- Lyndon, we hardly knew ye.

We knew you were earthy and we knew you were emotional. We knew you were manipulative and we knew you were maniacal. We knew how big were your dreams and how big were your demons.

But only this month, three decades later, are we discovering just how earthy and emotional, just how manipulative and maniacal, was Lyndon Baines Johnson, man of big dreams and big demons.

Smack in the middle of a modern-day controversy about presidential tapes comes the publication of transcripts of President Johnson's taped conversations -- and surprisingly intimate and revealing tapes made by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

The Johnson revival comes at a time when the office of the presidency seems small, when the agenda of Washington seems small, when the duties of a superpower seem small.

There was, to be sure, nothing small about Lyndon Johnson -- not his body, which was so big that the presidential desk had to be rebuilt; nor his ambitions, which were so big that the taxpayers are still underwriting them; nor his dreams, which were so big that they stretched the country's imagination and its heart; nor his mistakes, so big that Americans are still haunted by them.

All that -- the values that shaped the last third of the century, the vulgarity that stuns us even at this distance -- is vivid in the Dictaphone tapes that are turning up on television broadcasts and are transcribed in a new book, ''Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964.''

Sometimes the voices crackle, sometimes the tapes themselves wheeze, but all the time Lyndon Johnson, son of Texas and father of modern America, is clear.

Here is Johnson in the middle of his private anguish over Vietnam months and years before that anguish would engulf the nation.

Here is Johnson conspiring against his native South to transform the civil-rights movement from the Negro's cause to the nation's cause. Here is LBJ assuming the glorious burden of the presidency on the saddest Friday afternoon in American history.

Listen to Lady Bird Johnson speaking of her encounter with Jacqueline Kennedy in Parkland Hospital: ''Suddenly I found myself face to face with Jackie in a small hall. I think it was right outside the operating room. You always think of her, or somebody like her, as being insulated, protected. She was quite alone. I don't think I ever saw anybody so much alone in my life.''

Special gifts

No one ever took office under more terrible circumstances. He followed a martyred president, and he lacked John Kennedy's grace, breeding, education and charm. But Johnson had gifts of his own, and these tapes remind us of them.

He was, of course, the only occupant of the White House to tape his presidency from beginning to end. But it's hard to imagine that a year and a half's worth of taped transcripts of any other president, save perhaps Abraham Lincoln, would be so absorbing, so absolutely gripping. No other modern president -- not Richard Nixon, not Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan, all men of great inner strengths and weaknesses -- was so outsized a figure.

"You stand in awe of the animal energy," says Harry McPherson, who worked for Johnson in the Senate and the White House.

And yet for a man so big, Lyndon Johnson was so small: willing to deny an ambassadorial post to a man who snubbed him years earlier; willing to retaliate against an Air Force aide who in his grief over the passing of Kennedy refused to obey a Johnson command on the flight back from Dallas; willing to badger a hairdresser to fly down from New York to attend to his wife and daughter; willing to bully a clothing executive to send him a few pair of pants that wouldn't pinch his privates.

Johnson, the last bourbon-and-branch-water president, showed no surface doubts. But he couldn't suppress his internal doubts. He referred to himself as ''some plug-ugly from Johnson City'' and as ''this country hick, tobacco-chewing Southerner.''

In August 1964 he nearly stepped away from the presidential nomination, and almost delivered this speech: ''The times require leadership about which there is no doubt and a voice that men of all parties and sections and color can follow. I've learned, after trying very hard, that I am not that voice or that leader.''

No president was as magnanimous as Washington, as creative as Jefferson. No president was as much an instrument of God as Lincoln, as much a force of nature as Theodore Roosevelt. No president was as idealistic as Woodrow Wilson, as effective as Franklin Roosevelt. And no president was as complex -- or, as we are discovering in 1997, as captivating -- as Lyndon Johnson.

David M. Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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