The most underappreciated president of the 20th century may be Lyndon B. Johnson. In his forthcoming book, Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, author Mark Updegrove—director of the LBJ Library and Museum on the Forty Acres—explains why.
As a result, history’s glow is often cast more favorably on our most graceful, attractive, and eloquent presidents.
Lyndon Baines Johnson “would win no beauty contests,” Updegrove concedes. But he also believes that he is the 20th century’s most underrated president, based largely on a prodigious legislative legacy that came from a passion for social reform and his sheer ability to get things done—often on the backs of his embattled staff. In this exclusive excerpt, Updegrove examines the demanding LBJ as boss and taskmaster: the good, the bad, and, on occasion, the ugly.
If being married to Lyndon Johnson was an all-consuming proposition, so was working for him. Aides endured workdays that took them from early morning to late night, often seven days a week, and were on call even in their few off hours. And they answered to a mercurial boss as demanding as he was driven. “I only think about politics eighteen hours a day,” Johnson once said, perhaps without irony. He expected the same focus from those on his staff, and could be cruel when they didn’t show it.
Still, as hard as they worked, few, if any, would dispute that Johnson worked even harder—Jack Valenti, only half-jokingly, claimed that Johnson was born with extra glands—and that Johnson’s loyalty and magnanimity, along with his underlings’ profound sense of purpose in what they were working toward, more than offset their daily hardship.
Jack Valenti: Before I first went up [to Washington] . . . on that terrible trip back from Dallas, the President had called me over and said, “I want you on my staff, and you are going to fly back with me.” Before we even took off, he said this. I said two dumb things. The first was, “I don’t have any clothes, Mr. President.”
He said, “You can go buy some.”
And the second thing was, “I don’t have a place to live.” That was really a mistake. He said, “You can live with me until Mary Margaret [Valenti’s wife] gets there.”
I thought it was very gracious of him and very loving and fine. Eleven days after he was president, he moved into the White House and put me up on the third floor. Being within arm’s distance from Lyndon Johnson meant that you were with him every hour of the day, and the days were long and the nights were short. He would call me at about five thirty in the morning:
“Well, what are you doing?” What am I doing? . . . “Well,” he said, “get out of bed. Come on. We have work to do.” And I groggily would find my way down at six o’clock in the morning. And about one o’clock the next morning it would be over, and then it started again at five-thirty in the morning.
I got down on my knees and thanked God for liberating me when my wife finally got up here and we went to an apartment to live in and I left that White House, away from the all-embracing impact of that man.
A reporter in Washington [once] asked me, “What about this [Robert] Caro book [depicting] this terrible man you worked for?”
The answer is that working with him was the summertime of our lives, when we were for a brief moment part of one of the greatest advances in history.
Doug Cater, special assistant to the president, 1964–68: The notion that Lyndon Johnson was some new invention in having ego and vanity, in being able to bruise you—it never struck me as odd. I was not of a thin skin when I came [to work with him]. It didn’t bother me to see him burst out sometimes. It was life with Big Daddy, and Big Daddy could beat you one moment and then hug you the next and invite you to eat. I read about other presidents whose aides never had a meal with them. Hell, it was hard to avoid a meal with Lyndon Johnson.
But there was a spirit of family with him. The people who didn’t observe that, if they had a one-shot experience, they could get an impression of a man who was overblown, that in this personality everything was too much by half.
We’ve got to get it written into history that it was a hell of a lot of fun working for this man. We did not cringe, although we took it and we didn’t answer back. I never saw anybody successfully talk back to Lyndon Johnson. But we learned to live with him on satisfactory terms.
Many who worked in Johnson’s White House came away with battle scars in the form of tales of being chewed out, humiliated, bullied, brutalized, or embarrassed. A memo to Johnson by Joe Califano, for instance, was returned to Califano with a handwritten note from the president that read, “Are you fucking crazy?” Thick skin was as requisite for staffers as a pristine suit and tie or stockings without runs, all of which were subject to Johnson’s scrutinizing gaze. The president’s acute insensitivity was evident in a January 25, 1964, phone conversation with his press secretary George Reedy, in which he berated Reedy for his slovenliness and suggested that he keep his obesity in check by donning a corset:
LBJ: I’m going to try to build you up. Build you up gradually but where you’re the—you’ve got some prestige and standing and not just Walter [Jenkins] or Bill Moyers—I want you . . . you’re entitled to prestige . . . you’ve worked for it harder than anybody else . . . so I want to do it but you’ve got to help me yourself. You don’t help yourself, you in those damned old wrinkled suits . . . and you come in with a dirty shirt . . . and you come in with your tie screwed up . . . I want you to look real nice . . . put on your corset if you have to . . .
George Reedy: Okay, sir.
LBJ: But look like a top-flight businessman. You look like a goddamned reporter and I want you to look better, so you work hard over the weekend and next week just work like hell on these reports and be sure that every briefing you’ve got plenty of things, and then come in and insist on 10 minutes with me before each briefing so you can get what I’ve been doing that day. . .
On another occasion, Johnson publicly embarrassed Reedy. When Pierre Salinger, a Kennedy holdover who served as Johnson’s press secretary throughout much of the year after Kennedy’s death, suggested that Johnson fly to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to announce his choice as his running mate personally, Johnson embraced the idea. In the presence of the news media, he went on to ask Reedy, “Why don’t you have good ideas like Pierre?” Only a rare private apology from Johnson prevented Reedy’s resignation, which he had tendered shortly after Johnson’s comment. Despite the bullying that seemed intrinsic in his job description, Reedy was of two minds about the boss.
George Reedy, White House press secretary, 1964–66: As a human being he was a miserable person . . . a bully, sadist, lout, and egotist. His lapses from civilized conduct were deliberate and usually intended to subordinate someone else to his will.
Were there nothing to look at save LBJ’s personal relationships with other people, it would be merciful to forget him altogether. But there is much more to look at. He may have been a son of a bitch, but he was a colossal son of a bitch. . . . Nevertheless, he was capable of inspiring strong attachments even with people who knew him for what he was.
“That’s just him,” was how Liz Carpenter explained Johnson’s shortcomings. “You have to face the fact that he was that way. You had to accept him warts and all.” She was one of the few who did answer back. When Johnson once harangued her by demanding, “Why don’t you use your head?” she responded in kind: “I’m too busy trying to get you to use yours!”
Then there was the matter of Johnson’s gargantuan ego. Male aides invited to skinny-dip in the White House pool might be subjected to their genitalia being sized up unfavorably by the president, who nicknamed his own penis Jumbo. When one of Johnson’s administrative assistants, Yolanda Boozer, gave her newborn son the middle name Lyndon in honor of her boss in 1963, Johnson, then vice president, offered her additional maternity leave if she made Lyndon his first name instead. (She did, though the number of extra maternity days she was given for her concession is forgotten to history.)
Ervin Duggan, staff assistant to the president, 1965–69: He was very much like my uncle Ed. Ed was an irascible, difficult person who wanted to be irascible and difficult because when you’re that way, people have to handle you, they have to placate you, they have to settle you down.
And it’s kind of a wonderful thing for the ego to be irascible and to have everyone have to adjust to you. And I realized that this personality, this enormous—the cliché was that he was larger than life—that his irascibility was, in a way, a way of becoming the center of attention.
But there was no one-size-fits-all approach from Johnson toward his staff. He was more complex than that, more nuanced. While there are abundant accounts of his tyrannical behavior, there were many people who never experienced it at all.
Dean Rusk: I never had an unkind word from LBJ. I had frank words, but there was never any blustering or intimidation or anything as far as I was concerned.
Wilbur Cohen: I certainly never felt that I was intimidated or brutalized in any way. I felt my contacts and relationships with President Johnson were always on the subject of the substantive issues, and while we had differences of opinion expressed, I consider that entirely normal and reasonable.
Bob Hardesty: In all honesty, you have to say he treated different people in different ways. He was never impolite to me, but I would know when he was unhappy because he would give me the silent treatment. But I [did see] him blow up at people and be rather scorching.
Wilbur Cohen: I don’t think you can characterize Johnson in any one dimension, because he had this very unusual ability to deal differently with different people and different problems.I think he sized up every individual—this is the very conclusion I come to—I think he made a mental intellectual impression in his brain of every individual he dealt with. He related that to how he worked with the individual. I think he treated people differently, but I think that was based upon a very fundamental appreciation of human psychology. For those subordinates who were subjected to Johnson’s worst sides, though, the question is why were they willing to put up with it?
Betty Hickman, secretary to Senator Johnson, aide to the president: I think there are several reasons. Possibly it was a sort of awesome job; everybody sort of stood in awe of you because you were on LBJ’s staff. I know I could pick up the phone and order something from one of the [federal] departments, and they were knocking on the door before I hung up. [I]t was partially that, and I think [we] respected him. I think most people realized that the man was under a great deal of pressure and that he was really—he was married to the job. There was no such thing as making personal plans. He didn’t golf, he didn’t socialize much. He did go to a lot of dinners and events, but it was not of his choosing. He worked in the car; he had a phone in the car. He would think nothing of calling you up at four and five o’clock in the morning to dictate something to you.
But you did feel, because he was so dedicated, that you were kind of responsible to be just as dedicated almost.
There was also Johnson’s softer side. For all the accounts of his harshness and cruelty, there are at least as many stories of his generosity. “He never said, ‘I’m sorry,’” recalled Bill Foster, a navy officer who filmed much of Johnson’s public presidency as his official duty. “But he always made sure he made it up to you.” That desire to make amends may have explained the brand-new Lincoln automobile Johnson gave to George Reedy out of the blue, one of many cars Johnson gave to friends, aides, and employees through the years. But his thoughtfulness went beyond the gifts he gave.
Phyllis Bonanno, personal assistant to LBJ, 1968–69: One day I came into the office and I’d had my hair done. The president said to me, “Today’s a Wednesday. You don’t have your hair done till Friday.” Typical LBJ, right? And I said, “Well, Mr. President, my parents are here, and they’re in town for two or three days. And so I had my hair done.” And he said, “Your parents are here? Where are your parents?” And I said, “Well, they’re staying at the Washington Hilton.” [T]wo hours later, my mother calls me and she said, “Phyllis, we just had a knock at the door and we have an invitation to the reception after the White House dinner tomorrow night for President Tubman of Liberia. What am I going to wear? Where’s your father going to get a tuxedo?” I said, “I don’t know, Mom, but we’ll figure that all out.”
And unbeknownst to me, [President Johnson] had invited my parents to come, which of course was such an exciting moment for them because they really didn’t know the President and First Lady. And of course, when they went through the receiving line, Mrs. Johnson said all of those wonderful things you say to mothers about their children. And it was a very, very special night.
Bob Hardesty: He was just so wonderful to work for. He treated you like family. If you were working at the ranch, when you were down there you took breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the family. He took you out to look at deer at sunset, stop and have a scotch and soda, talk. He was wonderful to be around. I had a major coronary when I first came to Austin [after Johnson had left the presidency] and I was in the hospital. It was touch-and-go for a few days, and we had just moved from Washington, and there was a knock at the door and my wife [Mary] went to the door and it was Mary Rather, who was Lyndon Johnson’s secretary, and she said to my wife, “Mr. Johnson”—she always called him Mr. Johnson—“wanted you to have this.” And she handed her an envelope. [I]n the envelope were ten hundred-dollar bills—that was a lot of money in those days.
And she said, “What’s this for, Mary?”
She said, “Mr. Johnson didn’t want you to have to worry about anything else while Bob is in recovery, and if there are any problems, he hopes this will take care of it.” You don’t forget things like that.
Johnson’s keen sense of humor also helped to make him bearable.
Jack Valenti: [O]ne time John Kenneth Galbraith was in his office. And Ken was saying, “Now Mr. President, you haven’t made an economic speech in quite a while. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even heard one. You need to make economic speeches.”
And the President [said], “Ken, let me tell you about economic speeches.” He says, “[A] president making an economic speech is like a fellow peeing down his leg. It makes him feel warm but nobody else knows what the hell he’s doing.”
Another reason staffers may have been accepting of and affectionate toward Johnson was that he was part of a greater package that included the ever-gracious Mrs. Johnson, who made sure she “walked behind him and said ‘thank you.’ ” The first couple came as a matched set. There was no dividing line between the East and West wings of the White House, as there would be in the Clinton White House, or of the downstairs formal mansion and upstairs family quarters, as there would be with the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan White Houses.
Aides were as likely to see Johnson in his bedroom in boxer shorts as they would in the Oval Office immaculately clad in custom-tailored suits, which he changed after daily afternoon “naps” that often turned into horizontal work sessions. Even Richard Nixon recalled a 1966 meeting in the private quarters of the White House in which Johnson lounged in bed in his pajamas and Mrs. Johnson, entering late in her dressing gown, greeted Nixon warmly before climbing in bed with her husband for the remainder of their conversation. Johnson’s was a personal presidency, with the “spirit of family” that Douglass Cater recalled being shared by others who were made to feel a part of the extended Johnson clan.
Loyalty, for the most part, was a reciprocal part of the bargain. Just as Johnson expected unconditional loyalty from his aides—“I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window and say it smells like roses” was all he asked—he returned it.
Larry Temple: He always talked about loyalty. [O]ne time he told me that there were ten principles of politics, and that they were, in order of importance: loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty and loyalty. And he believed that. And he said, “Some people have left me, but I’ve never left anybody.”
Ben Barnes, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, 1965-69: LBJ told me to think of the 100 people who had helped me the most throughout my life, and make them your home base. He implored me to remember their birthdays, children’s names, and attend their families’ weddings and anniversaries, and to be there when they bury their dead. He went on to tell me that I was always to remember that there isn’t anyone more important than those who brung you first. When you appreciate and value your friends you build trust. Trust that outlives your time as an elected official.
Despite any ruffled feathers Johnson may have left in his wake, the relationships between him and his White House staff would remain largely intact. Most would say that they loved him, and that he changed their lives. And in spite of the trails the relentless, hard-driving thirty-sixth president put them through, they became wistful when the “summertime of their lives” had turned irrevocably to autumn.
Jack Valenti: [W]e were part of a brief but shining moment when we uncaged the better angels and set them loose to magnify hope in this free and loving land. It was a wonderful time; it was a difficult time. What we accomplished was glorious but what we accomplished came hard.
Bill Moyers: [C]haracter is something that presidents transcend. And those of us who worked for him were willing to forgive his personal flaws, as he forgave ours, because in his best moments he had such a large and generous vision of America as a prosperous, caring, just society.
Excerpted from Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, Copyright © 2012 by Mark Updegrove. To be published by Crown Publishers, a divison of Random House, Inc., on March 13.
From top: Johnson in the Oval Office; in rocking chair; working with secretary Phyllis Bonanno; singing with Yuki while his grandson looks on; at his boyhood home in Johnson City, Texas; recovering from gall bladder surgery; laughing with Abe Fortas; meeting with the press following throat surgery. All photos by Yoichi Okamoto.