Reaching for Glory edited by Michael Beschloss
Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-65
edited by Michael Beschloss
Simon & Schuster. 480 pp. $30.00
Like Dracula, Lyndon Johnson refuses to die. Here he is again, returning from more than 25 years in the grave to impress, fascinate, and horrify us at the same time. This miracle comes to us courtesy of the Johnson family and the administrators of the Johnson archive in Austin, Texas, who decided to release secret tapes of LBJ’s White House conversations. This was done in explicit contravention of the late President’s wish that these tapes be sealed for 50 years after his death, and then possibly destroyed afterward. No reader of this book will wonder why.
In an earlier, 1997 volume titled Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-64, the presidential historian Michael Beschloss assembled and annotated transcripts of Johnson’s covertly recorded conversations from the time of the assassination of President Kennedy in late November 1963 to the eve of the 1964 presidential election. Here he carries the story forward to the late summer of 1965. The two dates bracket a crucial transformation in the Johnson presidency.
At the beginning of this installment Johnson is on the cusp of the most resounding electoral victory in modern American history; in its final pages he realizes that his presidency is doomed to failure and ignominy, thanks largely to the Vietnam war. Perhaps a better tide might have been From Sweet to Bitter. Or From Euphoria to Self-Pity.
The eighteen months covered in this book were chock full of dramatic and important events. Apart from the gradual escalation of our involvement in Vietnam, they saw the presidential election of 1964, the civil-rights revolution in the South, and LBJ’s attempt to construct an elaborate welfare state that would have been much larger, more costly, and potentially more wasteful than the “Great Society” he succeeded in saddling us with in the end.
The book also contains a series of fascinating, often highly revealing cameo appearances by the leading political personalities of the period—J. Edgar Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, Senator Richard Russell, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice (later UN Ambassador) Arthur Goldberg, Bill Moyers, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Robert Kennedy, and Billy Graham, among others. There are several conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy, some of which actually predate the period of this volume but have been included by way of a prologue. And Beschloss has also included entries from the tape-recorded diary of Lady Bird Johnson. They establish that she was far more intellectually focused and emotionally stable than her husband.
Lyndon Johnson came to the presidency better equipped in many ways than any number of his predecessors (and successors). As a former majority leader of the Senate, he was not only a virtuoso of the legislative process but a tireless collector of influential friends across the political spectrum and a player skilled enough even to use former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower as pawns. He knew how to manipulate, cajole, and persuade—often on the telephone, without even the benefit of face-to-face contact. He had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, and was almost literally inexhaustible. His dynamism, his tactical brilliance, even a crude kind of wit all bounce off the pages of this volume.
He was, however, a deeply insecure man who nursed all kinds of hidden hurts and suspicions, some of which were justified but many of which were frankly outlandish. When his longtime aide Walter Jenkins was arrested in the fall of 1964 for obscene conduct in the men’s room of the downtown YMCA, Johnson was convinced, the tapes show, that his aide had been set up by a “plant” from the presidential campaign of his Republican opponent Barry Gold-water. (Not so.) After trouncing Goldwater by winning an unprecedented 61 percent of the popular vote several weeks later, Johnson is seen brooding that Bobby Kennedy and the people around him “put out this stuff that nobody loves Johnson. . . . That I was just the lesser of two evils.” ‘We’ve got to have some love and affection in our own right!” he thunders. Indeed, his obsession with the Kennedy family, the “Georgetown crowd,” and the sophisticates of New “fork and Washington reaches almost pathological proportions, covering every silver cloud with a dark lining.
Johnson was also a brutal and cynical political operator, not squeamish about using underhanded, even illegal tactics to advance his purposes.1 To counteract the widespread notion that the Kennedy clan regarded him as a usurper, he allowed reporters to eavesdrop covertly on his private conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy. He ordered his campaign workers to leak to the press that Goldwater had had two nervous breakdowns, and held in reserve a rumor about his opponent’s having fathered an illegitimate child.
As President, Johnson also took bags of cash (all the while moaning that he did not want to be “another Harding”). He instructed his legal counsel Abe Fortas to empty Walter Jenkins’s safe before the police could seal its contents, a clear obstruction of justice—and an impeachable offense—and he later nominated Fortas to the Supreme Court on the presumption that he would act as an inside leaker to the White House. (The presumption was correct.) He treated Vice President Hubert Humphrey like an office boy; to judge by the text of their conversations, it seems as if Humphrey actually enjoyed the experience.
On foreign policy Johnson was inevitably at the mercy of his advisers, and some of the advice they gave him was flatly wrong. Still, he was the President, and the choices were his and his alone. The picture that emerges here, however, is of a powerful man willing to make decisions only as long as others could be blamed if things went wrong. Thus, when a civil war broke out in the Dominican Republic, Johnson was keen to send in the Marines, but he also wanted Ambassador Tapley Bennett to bear the onus by calling for them first. (Unfortunately for LBJ, Bennett was home on leave at the time.)
When it came to Vietnam, Johnson represented himself as boxed in by, on the one hand, policies put into place by his predecessor John F. Kennedy and, on the other, pressures from the U.S. military. There is some truth to the former, but not necessarily to the latter. Dereliction of Duty (1997), H.R. McMaster’s study of high military policy in Vietnam, gives ample reason to doubt that Johnson was being pressured by the Joint Chiefs. If anything, the pressure went in the other direction. Either way, though, it was Johnson, not the Chiefs, who was responsible for the big decisions—and the small ones, too, since Johnson’s penchant for micro-management even led him to pick individual bombing targets. As he says at one point, “they can’t hit an outhouse without my permission.”
The historian Larry Berman has already uncovered the fact that, as early as 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara harbored serious doubts about the war. It seems that Johnson’s doubts arose even earlier, and were more intense. The remarkable conversations recorded on tape reveal a President in the grip of a black pessimism about Vietnam even before the massive commitment of American troops. While he may not have anticipated American defeat in the struggle with Hanoi, he never believed in the possibility of anything resembling victory. As he remarked to McNamara:
I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning (February 26, 1965).
To Senator Richard Russell:
A man can fight if he can see the daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit (March 6, 1965).
And there is an unforgettable exchange with Senator Mike Mansfield:
LBJ: What do we do about [General William Westmoreland's] request for more men?. . .
Mansfield: [A]s you said earlier, it’s 75,000, then it’s 150,000, then it’s 300,000. Where do you stop?
LBJ: You don’t. . . . To me, it’s shaping up like this, Mike—you either get out or you get in. . . . We’ve tried all the neutral things. And we think they [North Vietnam] are winning. Now if we think they’re winning, you can imagine what they think (June 8, 1965).
It may well be, of course, that Beschloss has chosen to reproduce these pessimistic comments simply because they are so dramatically at variance with Johnson’s frequently stated public position on Vietnam. Nor, in the totality of thousands of hours of taped private conversations, does the reader have a way of knowing how representative these views really were. Nonetheless, on the face of it the evidence would seem strong that Johnson sent young Americans to die in a war he believed to be unwinnable.
As Reaching for Glory draws to a close, Johnson is facing a backlash from conservative voters over some of his social policies, including on race, and a serious defection over Vietnam within the liberal ranks of his own party. As things turn sour, he begins to lose sleep and becomes increasingly morose. Fearing for his health, Lady Bird goes so far as to bring a black dress from their Texas home to the White House in case she will need it for his funeral. But Johnson summons the strength to continue for three more years. Presumably these will occupy the final volume (or volumes) of this series.
Though historians and the general public cannot but be grateful to the Johnson family, and particularly to Lady Bird Johnson, for agreeing to unseal the tapes and allow Beschloss to publish these books, one must wonder what private purpose they sought to serve. Lyndon Johnson’s stature among modern Presidents is not, to put it kindly, very high. The publication of this book will not enhance it.
1 While Beschloss is meticulous in identifying references throughout, he might have provided more background about the Bobby Baker and Billy Sol Estes financial scandals. As it is, readers are left wondering what Johnson is so agitated about.