POLITICAL LEADERSHIP, U.S. STYLE.
Commentator 13.1, 1969.
A Very Personal Presidency: Lyndon Johnson in the White House, by Hugh Sidey (McClelland and Stewart) is a dull book, which is disappointing, for its author writes an entertaining column on the presidency for Life magazine, and I thought he would be a shrewd, highly literate president-watcher. However, I had been pondering the problems of leadership through the pages of [Peter] Newman’s Distemper of Our Times before picking up Sidey’s book and it occurred to me that if Canada suffers from distemper, then the United States is afflicted with plague. Sidey also presents an assessment of leadership, and his title is a giveaway. His verdict is that the key to LBJ’s failure is his personality.
No prime minister in a parliamentary government wields the power that a United States president has during his term of office 1. For that matter, neither did any Roman emperor, and perhaps the comparison is apt, for one of the much-touted books of last year was a collection of essays edited by Al Purdy, The New Romans (Hurtig), who are, of course, the Americans. One peculiarity of the old Romans was that they seem to have held their emperors personally responsible for the evils which befell them, whether it was inflation, plague or military disaster Emperors were more than rulers; they were scapegoats. They were greeted with optimism when they ascended the throne, but when if turned out that they were not superhuman, as it usually did, disillusion set in with often fatal results.
The American president lives in a similar world, except that with LBJ, there was no outburst of optimism when he entered the White House. There was no honeymoon. Kennedy was just dead, and the New Frontiersmen quickly reformed themselves into the high priests of the Kennedy cult. It is to Johnson’s credit that he took up the reigns of government firmly and went on. But in the end he was overwhelmed by Vietnam, and the problems of the cities and race relations. These were not issues which LBJ created. But neither did he have the solutions, and a nation’s discontent centred on him.
Yet Sidey’s assessment of LBJ consists merely of examining his mental processes. He devotes a chapter to the “credibility gap”, and tries to show that it arose from Johnson’s fear of telling the truth. He relates some amusing stories to illustrate his point. Once Johnson and his mother were escorting a visitor through Johnson City, Texas, and he pointed to a shabby cabin and said with feeling, “There’s my birthplace.” His mother protested, “Now, Lyndon, you know you were born n a much better place nearer town which has been pulled down.” “I know, Ma,” said LBJ, “but everyone’s got to have a birthplace.”
I suppose that this shows that for Johnson, truth was what he wanted to believe. But have we forgotten that there was an incipient “credibility gap” under President Kennedy, although the phrase had not yet been invented.
Sidey presents a whole host of psychoses which LBJ brought out of his native Texas, and another set which he got from his years in Congress. Thus the central picture that emerges has overtones of tragedy. Johnson was a man who distrusted the military establishment. He inherited the politics of the New Deal, and his favourite reading was Barbara Ward’s Rich Nations and Poor Nations, which advocates a sort of international New Deal to solve the world’s problems. What Johnson would have liked to do in Vietnam was to set up another Tennessee Valley Authority on the Mekong River. But he carried on the military escalation which Kennedy had started, because he could think of nothing else to do. The alternative was to accept defeat, and defeat was something which no Texan whose ascendant died at the Alamo (that was one of LBJ’s white lies) could take.
1 I’m not sure that I would make this statement today, in January of 2010. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not wanting to face the House of Commons, has just prorogued Parliament, a prerogative that belongs to the Governor-General – Harper simply made a telephone call to Rideau Hall and that was all that was needed. The Governor-General’s power to act as a check on the PMO has withered away, and no U.S. president could get away scot free if he were to try Harper’s maneuver.