Lyndon Baines Johnson is not an easy man to describe. He was secretive, egotistical, and rife with contradictions. Everyone exhibits contradictions during his/her life. All of us have oscillations in thought and behavior. But the pendulum of LBJ’s personality swung higher and lower than most.
For every term used to describe the man, the exact opposite described him just as well. He could be empathetic and cruel, exuberant and deeply-depressed, humble and outlandishly-arrogant, a victim and victimizer, articulate and then barely-intelligible, an unabashed braggart and a self-debasing fool, stylish and refined and boorish and disgusting. His wide-ranging personality marked him as a man of the people, all of the people. In a nation of 200 million individualists, oddballs, and outliers, nearly everyone could identify with LBJ.
Johnson occasionally displayed genuine emotional sensitivity. He was known to take offense easily. His feelings could be hurt with an off-hand comment by a colleague or by someone’s inattentiveness. For example, in the fall of 1964, LBJ helped Bobby Kennedy win the U.S. Senate race in New York. Johnson proffered his assistance knowing full well that Kennedy might use his Senate seat, and the political legitimacy that went with it, to challenge LBJ for the presidency in 1968. Johnson felt that Kennedy, during his televised victory speech on the night of the election, did not adequately acknowledge his support. Kennedy’s omission wounded LBJ.
Johnson valued deference. Although he publicly professed to be a proponent of American-style democracy, he privately believed in the prerogatives bestowed by institutional status. Johnson always made a point to show deference toward anyone he considered his superior, such as former presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Conversely, he expected, and frequently demanded, deference from those he viewed as subordinates.
Everything about Johnson was exaggerated. His appetites were huge. He loved to talk. He loved to eat. He liked to smoke. He frequently pushed his mind and his body to the breaking point, occasionally suffering from nervous exhaustion, which happened at the end of the 1964 presidential election. His awareness of his own extremism fostered a countervailing tendency toward political moderation.
Johnson feared that part himself that went too far and wanted too much. Thus, on policy related to the war in Vietnam, he sought what he believed to be the middle ground. He convinced himself that gradual escalation of the ground war in South Vietnam and the air war in North Vietnam was the rational, middle course between general war with the Communist Bloc and a humiliating American defeat.
He was a big man at six feet, three inches tall. And he used his height to intimidate others. LBJ practiced a conversational technique known as the “Johnson treatment.” During the “treatment,” he shoved his large frame into the personal space of his antagonist. Then, standing mere inches from his sparring partner, LBJ stared into his eyes, shouted at him, and pointed a finger into his chest. The “treatment” was supposed to rattle the resolve of political opponents and persuade them to support Johnson’s position. Of course, the treatment was nothing more than a bullying tactic, and it’s debatable whether it was effective. But one thing is certain, those who received the “treatment” rarely, if ever, forgot about it.
By the time he assumed the presidency, he had grown a hefty girth from eating too much fat and sugar and not doing enough exercise. Lady Bird tried to police his diet, but to no avail. She joked to friends that she could not stop the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, from getting what he wanted.
Johnson looked older than his years. By his mid-fifties, he had long drooping ears, a sloping nose, and a spongy face that hung loosely over his eyes and cheekbones. Not a single ounce of the man looked physically fit. He admitted once that his weight fluctuated between ten and fifteen pounds a month because he ate at irregular hours or went without food for extended periods of time, only to binge when he finally sat down at the table again. During his time in the White House, he ordered his personal tailor to sew elastic waist bands into his pants to accommodate his constantly expanding and contracting mid-section.
Some men can hide their emotive selves behind their physiques. LBJ wasn’t one of those men. His physical appearance provided the outside world with a window into his psyche. During the 1964 presidential election campaign, his face possessed a color and liveliness that revealed his enthusiasm for campaigning and his confidence in his upcoming electoral victory. On the other hand, during the Tet Offensive in early 1968, his face looked ashen, his eyes appeared darker than normal, and his body shrunken. His physical collapse at that time mirrored his political collapse.
Johnson’s mode of speech depended on his audience. When discussing Vietnam policy with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, LBJ’s words reflected deliberation, rationality, and intelligence. He spoke the same language as the Eastern intelligentsia. Yet, when he conversed with common folk, or a fellow southerner, he spoke with a Texas drawl and punctuated his statements with corny anecdotes and homespun clichés.
Johnson admired intellectuals. He respected smart men. And he had a lot of big-brained men in his administration, many of whom had served in the Kennedy administration, including Bundy and Robert McNamara. He considered McNamara the smartest member of his cabinet. LBJ liked McNamara because “Bob,” as the president referred to him, never wasted words, went right to the heart of any matter, and always provided detailed, persuasive analysis of the issues.
LBJ once told Lady Bird that he did not think he could go on being president if Bob McNamara left his administration. It wasn’t that Johnson had strong emotional ties to McNamara. Rather, Johnson needed McNamara’s excessive rationalism to put the brakes on his own emotionalism.
Although Johnson admired the Kennedy administration holdovers who served in his White House, he felt insecure in their presence, and he never fully trusted them. His insecurity stemmed from his Texas background. Unlike McNamara or Bundy, Johnson never attended Harvard or Yale. Instead, he had gone to San Marcos State Teacher’s College – a school far removed geographically and pedagogically from the Ivy League. LBJ felt keenly his lack of academic credentials; and this explains why he often reminded the Ivy Leaguers in his administration that he might not have an Ivy League degree, but he was a gifted political operative, unmatched by anyone in his circle.
During his time in the White House, Johnson developed a self-perception common amongst American presidents. He saw himself as a benevolent patriarch; and he wanted everyone to know that he cared about the little guy. His plan for the development of the Mekong River along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority represented an example of his supposed benevolence. He hoped someday to bestow dams, irrigation works, and hydroelectricity on the people of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. When Ho Chi Minh rejected LBJ’s plans for the Mekong River, and the peace pact that accompanied it, the president expressed confusion, dismay, and anger at the apparent intransigence of the old revolutionary leader. Ultimately, the spurned patriarch unleashed his vengeance on the unappreciative North Vietnamese.
Johnson suffered all kinds of doubts – including doubts about his ability to lead the nation, about his health and longevity, about his chances for re-election in 1968, and about American involvement in Vietnam. He hid those doubts with lies.
LBJ did not believe the American people would accept a doubter as president. Sadly, he was correct in that assumption. The American people have never accepted indecision in their political leaders.
Had Johnson been less insecure, and the American people more accepting of presidential fallibility, LBJ may have allowed a proper public and Congressional vetting of the Vietnam question before he decided to escalate U.S. involvement in that distant land. But such was not to be the case. Instead, Johnson, wanting to be perceived by the American people as strong and decisive, escalated the war under a veil of secrecy and lies, with disastrous consequences.
LBJ not only reflected his times, he made an indelible mark on America in the decade of the 1960s. His contradictions became America’s contradictions. His divergent domestic and foreign policies clashed and converged into a storm of political and social upheaval.
Johnson made the mistake of believing he could wage war in a small, impoverished, peripheral land and still maintain popular support for it at home. He believed he could unleash pent-up hopes in the United States while repressing human aspirations in Indochina. LBJ promoted black civil rights, and encouraged the rising expectations of the black community, and then brutally repressed the race riots in the inner cities of America when those expectations did not come to fruition. If America in the 1960s appeared schizophrenic, LBJ was a major reason why.