Everything about him was big, supersized even. The ears that drooped, or so it seemed, all the way to his shoulders. The hands, which enveloped pure mortals’ digits in an iron grip on the second floor of the Capitol. The passions, which first were about mere power and later about pure possibility. The emotions, which washed over his life and shaped a war on poverty and another in Vietnam. And the hurts, about the slights of his youth, the insecurities about his education, the deep wounds when the kids and the blacks and the liberals turned against him and transformed him into an ugly cartoon character he didn’t recognize and couldn’t comprehend.
Lyndon Johnson was so big a figure that no one canvas, let alone one book (or many, in the case of Robert Caro, whose fourth volume on LBJ comes out this spring - a nonfiction literary event if there ever were one) can adequately capture him. Yet Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Johnson Library and Museum, does remarkably well with one crisp phrase: “Flawed, yes, and not always good, but great.’’
That assessment comes at the beginning of his “Indomitable Will,’’ a kind of annotated oral history of the Johnson period (with chapter titles like “Looking at the Living, Wishing for the Dead’’ on the Kennedy assassination followed by “Let Us Continue’’) that captures the many Johnsons - the man who was, in the words of Joseph Califano, a special assistant to the president and later a Carter administration Cabinet official, “brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive, with a shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of his adversaries.’’
The Updegrove volume is sympathetic but not sycophantic. It is not a remake of the 1980 Merle Miller oral history “Lyndon,’’ an affectionate look at the 36th president that borders on the treacly.
This is serious work, with a serious second look at a lot of the received wisdom, which is, of course, flawed conventional wisdom about Johnson.
Updegrove, or more precisely the witnesses to history he cites, takes issue with the notion that Johnson bullied the Kennedy people on the plane out of Dallas after the assassination (the testimony of Judge Homer Thornberry); argues that Johnson had a bigger role in the Cuban Missile Crisis than customarily believed (Secretary of State Dean Rusk); contends that Robert F. Kennedy didn’t try to muscle Johnson out of the vice presidency for 1964 (Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach); undermines the consensus that Johnson didn’t do enough for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1968 election (Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, a Minnesotan), and debunks the folklore that Johnson’s own loyalists adored him (press secretary George Reedy).
“As a human being he was a miserable person . . . a bully, sadist, lout and egotist,’’ Reedy recalled. “His lapses from civilized conduct were deliberately and usually intended to subordinate someone else to his will.’’
Though Johnson had a credibility gap with the public and press, he had a gift for winning the trust of fellow pols. This is revealing testimony: Representative George H.W. Bush, later vice president and president, recalled that his father, GOP Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, always said Johnson’s “word is good.’’ The son continued: “Just the fact that a guy like my dad, from the other side of the aisle, felt that way about him - I’ve never forgotten that.’’
Like many Johnson books, this sets forth the contradictions in the man. Here was a pioneer in civil rights who stopped himself halfway through spouting a racial epithet in front of a black aide. Here was a man who personified practicality in politics but practiced idealism. “I mean, he - this was a man who believed you could end poverty - you know, how, how glorious - who believed you could end racism,’’ said Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
Ending poverty, ending racism, but surprising to many, not the Vietnam War - among them Senator George S. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee: “I really believed that: that Johnson was too shrewd to continue [our involvement].’’ That was just another mysterious aspect of the 36th president. Even now, there is no end to the Johnson mysteries.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.