The Failure of Lyndon Johnson

The Failure of Lyndon Johnson

An intellectual’s lot is not a happy one —at least if the setting is the White House, the President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the man of ideas Eric Goldman, on leave from Princeton to serve as Special Consultant to the President or, more broadly, “White House intellectual-in-residence.” As an account—the word “tragedy” is altogether misplaced but more about that later—of a turbulent period for LBJ and a frustrating experience for EFG, this book is only intermittently interesting. Although it adds virtually nothing of importance to the record, and its effect is to persuade this reader that court scribes should wait at least five years before writing up the events they have witnessed, there is something of value to be gleaned from the book. The “something” has to do with the imprint of a powerful personality on the political process, as well as with the role of an “idea man” who is charged with serving that powerful personality, but never really told to what end nor in what ways nor for how long.

A considerable segment of this memoir is devoted to a detailed, mostly boring description of the President’s impressive record on liberal domestic legislation. On the periphery of the periphery of power Goldman has little to contribute here; long passages read as if the New York Times had been cut to page size and pressed between hard covers. Then, there are endless miniatures of the men and women in the President’s entourage, capped by a full-scale, sympathetic profile of Mrs. Johnson. All the sketches are agreeably written but the result is no more useful: Time pressed between hard covers. “Lyndon Johnson went into another intense brain-picking effort, especially with lawyer-politico friend James H. Rowe, Jr., Montana-born and Harvard-educated, an alumnus of the New Deal, able, urbane, rocking back and forth in his chair, in his comfortable, middle years….” Etc., etc. Johnson himself moves restlessly across the scene, and Goldman does succeed in conveying the sense of a human being—generous and mean-spirited, boastful and “lashed by insecurity,” a Populist and a Texas conservative. For the most part, however, the life and times of Abe Fortas or Jack Valenti provide the same kind of pedestrian reading as his description of the tactics employed to get votes on Medicare.

Aware of all this, Goldman has threaded into his narrative a recurrent theme, a thesis if you like: Fate handed to President Johnson a unique opportunity not only to complete the unfinished work of the New Deal-Fair DealNew Frontier but to preside over an emergent “consensus,” a reconciliation of the people out there in Texas and the South with the new, politically strategic middle-class and professional people of the Northeast. Because of what he was and had become, President Johnson could bring together Middletown and “Metroamerica,” thus enabling ...

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