Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lyndon B. Johnson: The Most Interesting & Crazy of Them All

The Johnson Treatment in action

When you talk about 1960s pop culture, at some point, often against better judgement, you must talk about Lyndon Baines Johnson.

LBJ (1908 – 1973) is among the most interesting of U.S. presidents. No other holder of that office ever encompassed such a divergent set of personality characteristics (with the possible exception of Richard Nixon during the darkest days of Watergate — when he took pills on top of the booze). And character is contrast.

Brilliant / anti-intellectual, shy / extroverted, crude / charming, violent / peace-loving, honorable / corrupt… Johnson, a towering Texan at 6’ 3.5”, 240 lbs, was an ever-evolving, ever-explosive force of life. There has never been a feature film made of Johnson’s life because American film generally has trouble with shading.

Johnson got the top job when his boss, John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. And he gave up the position because he was simply burnt out.

He had a lousy heart. He expected to die young and smoked and drank heavily. He grew up poor and would take almost every advantage offered to him, underhanded or not.

He claimed, more than once, to close aides and friends, that he had an abnormally large penis.

He inherited the Vietnam War from Kennedy, and did his best to win it—not realizing, until the end of his job, that it was un-winnable. His inability to accept defeat resulted in the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, both American and Vietnamese. When American forces did withdraw from Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge would keep up the killing.

Johnson and JFK: A study in contrast
When in public, LBJ often insulted his wife and friends. Once, while receiving an enema, he gave dictation to a female assistant. While sitting on the toilet, he would sometimes call his aides to the washroom door and discuss affairs of state. If he felt a guest or dignitary was being condescending, he could display his disapproval by farting and belching.

He shook the hands of lepers after his advisors told him the disease was communicable. In order to get a fellow politician to change his mind, the lumbering LBJ might stand two inches from the man, bend slightly, and begin yelling: it became known as ‘the Johnson Treatment’.

He could sniff out nests of political power better than any American politician, before or since, and in this case, he was a genius - no question.

He had numerous love affairs that were, strangely, chaperoned by his wife. Johnson insisted on being called L.B.J., attempting to align his profile with F.D.R. He gave his wife (Claudia Johnson) a new name, ‘Lady Bird Johnson’, because he wanted her to have the same initials as himself. Their children were named Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson. He even named his dog LBJ, for ‘Little Beagle Johnson’.

LBJ: Warts and all
Bill Moyers, Johnson's press secretary, thought his boss was clinically paranoid. However, his paranoia was somewhat justified: LBJ had thousands of enemies.

He started out as a school teacher and said he was ‘temperamentally unsuited’ to be president.

The Treatment continues
A hardcore Southerner, Johnson did the most of any president in advancing civil rights. He envisioned the creation of a ‘Great Society’, but the Vietnam War gave him no respite.

He was prone to rhetorical grandiosity, once declaring "These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem."

He hated Bobby Kennedy so much that he initially refused to let the assassinated senator and veteran be buried in Arlington Cemetary, close to JFK. And Bobby Kennedy hated LBJ just as much.

During a speech, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson declared that he supported a negotiated settlement to Vietnam. Later, when he visited LBJ at Johnson's ranch, the president grabbed him by the lapels and shook him and screamed, “You pissed on my rug!”

Long hair. Near the end. The real thing
After suffering a massive heart attack at age 46, he hated to be alone.

He became renowned for phoning people late into the night.

He died from a heart attack, alone in his bedroom, reaching for a phone.

Nobody knows quite what to make of Lyndon Johnson — because he was the real thing.