HISTORY, JEAN-PAUL SARTRE once observed, is a bad joke played by the present upon the past. The perception has more to do with the inevitable bias of historians than with history itself. It emphasizes, however, the value of the practice that allowed a suitable interval to elapse before the present tried to judge the past. Today Presidents have taken to employing historians as personal aides, partly in the hope that they will be written up lovingly. Sometimes they areŚwitness Arthur Schlesinger's study of John F. Kennedy. And sometimes the joke is on the Chief Executive. Eric Goldman's bestselling memoir of White House life with Lyndon Johnson emphatically belongs in the latter category.
Congratulations and Condolences. Like instant coffee, instant history can be remarkably palatable. Goldman's pronouncements about Johnson (that he was a tragic failure, "an extraordinarily gifted President who was the wrong man from the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong circumstances") may suffer from myopia, but his book is stuffed with tangy anecdotes. Most of them hardly come out sounding like Hail to the Chief; yet they shade and amplify Johnson's enigmatic image in ways alternately provoking and satisfying.
A Princeton professor, Goldman worked for Johnson for two years and nine months starting just after President Kennedy's assassination. He was charged with providing the new President with a flow of ideas; among those he helped shape was the Johnsonian conception of the Great Society. He also served, more and more uneasily, as a general liaison man, trying to improve relations between the brilliant but unread Texan President and the intellectual community. "Congratulations and condolences," an academic friend quipped when Goldman first went to Washington. "Nobody has had a better job since the N.A.A.C.P. sent a man to Mississippi."
The view proved prophetic. Goldman's diplomatic effort came to total disaster at the famous June 1965 White House Festival of the Arts. Incensed by then about the Viet Nam war and always snobbishly intolerant of the presidential manner, a number of intellectuals noisily stayed away. Among those who did come, one guest - New York Critic Dwight Macdonald - cheekily circulated an anti-Johnson petition at the gathering. Another, John Hersey, chose to read pointed excerpts from his book Hiroshima despite fierce White House displeasure ("The President and I," said Mrs. Johnson, "do not want this man to come here and read these passages").
The festival incident, related by Goldman with much regret and some relish, has the fascination of all court gossip, from Saint-Simon's time until today. But in the telling Goldman overemphasizes the effects of the intellectuals' disapproval on Johnson's political life. As he sees it, one key to the President's eventual fall from power was his inability to win the confidence of the academic world. This was crucial, Goldman suggests, because intellectuals are now looked up to by what he calls "Metroamericans," the growing group of homogenized, sophisticated, influential people in and around U.S. cities.
The real importance of President Johnson's brushes with intellectuals lies in what they contribute to the portrait of the man himself. Goldman found him brilliant, secretive and compulsively insecure, a man "marked by a broad streak of idealism," and by "instincts for the national good" - but one whose wheeling-and-dealing methods often tainted his achievements with the suspicion that his real aim was "a feral pursuit of personal domination."
Portraying this figure Goldman at first concentrates on the President's colossal energy and endless concern for detail. Despite Johnson's 1955 heart attack, the presidential workday - really two days in one - eroded the physiques and psyches of L.B.J. aides, after first afflicting them with a gait known as the "L.B.J. trot."
Comic Caricature? Like much else about the President, the Johnson work pace, examined in detail, often verges on comic caricature. Despite a full presidential load, for instance, Johnson would personally check such things as the neatness of secretarial desks, and the optional equipment ordered with White House staff cars. More than most recent commentators, however, Goldman gives high praise to Johnson's sheer capacity to get things done and to his fantastic memory and powerful, analytical, if academically untrained, mind. It was these qualities that enabled the President to get through Congress the most liberal legislation in the nation's history, most notably Medicare and the Education and Voting Rights acts.
Ultimately, Goldman sees Lyndon Johnson as a restless and brilliant leader crippled by a weak regional education (marginal high school, less than marginal college) that rendered him incapable of coping with the international complexities that any President of the U.S. today must confront. The assessment, predictably pedagogic, is probably misleading. In his skirmishes with the press, in his needless deviousness, in his Queeg-like compulsion never to admit a mistake, as in his statesmanship, Lyndon Johnson's ultimate fault lay not in ignorance but in a disquieting lack of a sense of proportion. Brought up on overblown congressional rhetoric, Johnson seemed to have no grasp of the fact that words have real meaning - apart from the propaganda ends they are put to. As Vice President, justly intent on bolstering the then Viet Nam regime, he blithely characterized Ngo Dinh Diem as the Winston Churchill of Asia. Defending a nasty, though conceivably necessary intervention in the Dominican Republic, he did not scruple to invoke the loftiest rhetoric about the need to protect the freedom of mankind.
Operator's Operator. What did it matter so long as the aim in view was reasonably good? In the long run, it mattered a great deal. Politically, Johnson suffered the same fate as the boy who cried wolf - and for nearly the same reasons. It was not only the intellectuals who found him out, but everyday Americans as well, the very people he most hoped to cajole. Emerging into the complex responsibilities of world power and affluence after World War II, many Americans had come to believe that perhaps the way to deal with the world was to become an "operator." A master of congressional logrolling, Johnson was famous as an operator's operator. One of his unexpected services to the U.S. was to prove just how slender an operator's grasp on leadership can be when he is faced with the high and agonizing challenges of history.