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In 1964, the year before Bob Dylan sang, "Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked," the president Dylan was referring to, Lyndon Baines Johnson, called New York Mayor Robert Wagner, whose wife was dying of lung cancer. "I'd walk up there nekkid if there was something I could do," he told Wagner. Those words don't account for the LBJ who could be cruel, vindictive and cutting, but the earthiness of them, the largeness of emotion and, above all, their plainspokenness seem to contain the essence of the man.
It may seem strange to praise plainspokenness in a president who misled the country about the level of American involvement in Vietnam, who played his cards so close to the vest that even his closest supporters were constantly caught off-guard, who very likely won his Senate seat in 1948 by ballot-box stuffing, who didn't hesitate to use FBI wiretaps on potential rivals (including his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, during HHH'S 1968 presidential campaign), who was never shy about using whatever power he had to the ends that he saw fit. Nearly 30 years after he left office, there are still plenty of people who despise LBJ and regard him as a vulgar national embarrassment. There are probably more who don't think of him at all, finding the glamour of his predecessor or the scandal of his successor much more fascinating. I keep returning to those words LBJ spoke to Mayor Wagner, words that are intended to comfort but are also frustrated by their own futility, because they seem to me to contain the seeds of LBJ's thwarted greatness: the conviction that, with all his power, he should be able to do more.
With a figure as imposing and complex as LBJ, it's foolhardy to think any biography could be definitive. But it may be that Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, the second and concluding volume of Robert Dallek's biography (the first was 1991's Lone Star Rising) contains more of the man than any other source. Forget that dubious virtue, balance, which usually translates as the sort of timidity that prevents a writer from asserting a point of view; Dallek has written history that has the unresolvability of great drama. True, these books may not sing the way great dramatic writing does -- Dallek writes plain, workmanlike prose, although he is never less than clear -- but if Dallek's language doesn't achieve grandeur, LBJ himself does.
As articulated by Dallek, Johnson emerges as that rare public figure who deserves the overworked appellation of tragic hero. Some (notably Oliver Stone, a lousy dramatist and an equally lousy historian) have attempted to claim that status for the presidents who bookended Johnson. But a horrendous public death does not make John F. Kennedy's presidency less shallow than it was. Furthermore, the commonly accepted whimsy that Richard Nixon was a master of foreign relations (which, we should not forget, included Laos and Cambodia as well as "opening" China, which now thumbs its nose at the rest of the world) who was undone by a scandal does not render him any less puny a human being. By the end of Dallek's book, LBJ has become something like a Lone Star Lear, a ruler whose best impulses become all but swallowed by a monstrous mixture of egotism and insecurity, mocked by the wreckage he wrought.
It's sometimes said that, were it not for Vietnam, LBJ might be remembered as one of our greatest presidents. But even if America had never become involved in Vietnam, I think some people would still regard him with distaste, people like his other biographer, Robert Caro, who cannot accept that, in politics, greatness leaves no room for purity. (Sidney Blumenthal nailed it when he referred to the last installment of Caro's ongoing LBJ biography as "a romance.") Something in LBJ's unapologetic use of power disturbs the cherished notion of president as savior. But as Ralph Ellison put it in his essay on LBJ, "The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner," "a great politician" who becomes president is a man who "blends ideals and expediencies ... He is a figure who knows better than most of us that politics is the art of the possible, but only of the possible, and that it is only by fighting against the limits of the politically possible that he can demonstrate his mastery and worth."
Those are the limits LBJ strains against throughout Flawed Giant. It begins with Johnson miserable at having given up the power he held as Senate Majority Leader to become JFK's forgotten vice president, only to gain the greatest power in a way that seemed to him a curse. Five days after Dallas, in a speech before Congress, he said, "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today." Later, more brutally than we are used to hearing any politician talk about himself, he said, "I became president. But for millions of Americans I was still illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne, an illegal usurper."
It's a measure of Johnson's political genius that he found a way to translate that insecurity into his vision of the Great Society. In the guise of continuing JFK's program, LBJ went further than Kennedy had ever dared. "Kennedy had died," LBJ said. "But his 'cause' was not really clear ... I had to take the dead man's program and turn it into a martyr's cause." It's impossible, reading those words, to separate a sense of politics-as-symbol from the strategy of a master politician. The biggest difference between Johnson and the people who were repelled by him was his understanding that in politics lofty aspirations and wheeling and dealing are absolutely dependent on one another. Those extremes come together again and again in Flawed Giant, never more hilariously than in the section on how Johnson ensured the passage of Medicare, and then ensured that the American Medical Association would cooperate. His maneuvers were one sly master stroke after another, appealing to his opponents' vanity and susceptibility to pressure as much as their sense of right, just as Medicare appealed both to LBJ's desire to do good and to the knowledge that it would endear him to elderly voters. -- Salon