- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

"Reaching For Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-65," is a lively, engrossing and, yet, deeply disturbing account of Lyndon Baines Johnson's presidency from around Labor Day 1964 through Labor Day 1965. This is Michael Beschloss' second book analyzing America's 36th president and the politics of a turbulent decade, by exploring some of the hundreds of hours of conversations secretly recorded by LBJ between 1963 and 1969.
As with his first book ("Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963-64," which was published four years ago), Mr. Beschloss generally does an excellent job in providing historical context and perspective. Readers (and listeners to the CD which is included in the book's $30 purchase price) are provided an extraordinary opportunity to read along and/or listen in, as LBJ discusses the escalating conflict with North Vietnam; efforts to persuade Gov. George Wallace not to obstruct a March 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.; black rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and a coup in the Dominican Republic, which inspires LBJ to dispatch close to 30,000 troops to prevent a possible communist takeover there.
On the secret tapes (which have been available to Washington-area listeners for more than three years via a local C-SPAN-operated public affairs radio station), readers can hear LBJ as he discusses these and other major events of his presidency with some of the most important political figures of the 20th century, among them: Federal Bureau of Investigagion director J. Edgar Hoover, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Sen. Richard Russell, Sen. Everett Dirksen and former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
In "Taking Charge," the tapes provided readers with a relatively sympathetic picture of President Johnson a man suddenly jolted into the presidency as a result of President John F. Kennedy's assassination as he struggles to cope with the staggering responsibilities that have been thrust upon him. But "Reaching For Glory" is something dramatically different. Here the tapes reveal a dark and even ugly psychological portrait of LBJ, who comes across as a man who is literally falling apart emotionally. He is faced with myriad problems at home: violent confrontations in the South over civil rights, riots in the North and bitter battles to enact his Great Society programs.
LBJ could be a harsh taskmaster. Mr. Beschloss provides us with conversations in which LBJ who was fond of comparing his progress in passing social legislation to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first 100 days browbeats Vice President Hubert Humphrey over the importance of passing these programs right away. In a particularly brutal March 1, 1965 telephone call, Johnson verbally browbeat House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Adam Clayton Powell. Johnson was furious with the liberal Harlem Democrat because federal aid to education had been held up in his committee. Why? Because Powell had fled to Puerto Rico to dodge a House investigation into the abuse of expense funds.
In the White House, and in other key administration posts, LBJ is surrounded by people he sees as Kennedy administration holdovers who are disloyal to him, and are doing the bidding of the man who was probably his most bitter rival: Bobby Kennedy, who, was elected to the Senate from New York in 1964, and who by 1965 has begun to snipe at Johnson's Vietnam policies. This opposition is infuriating to LBJ, who views it as disloyalty. Bobby was elected to the Senate in large part on the coattails of President Johnson, who ran several million votes ahead of him in New York State. (On one tape, Kennedy can be heard negotiating with LBJ over when the president can come into the state to campaign for him.)
The LBJ whom Mr. Beschloss presents to readers in "Reaching for Glory" is deeply paranoid and resentful. Although public-opinion polls (which Johnson was fond of boasting about in conversations with aides and political allies) show him to be on the verge of winning a landslide victory in 1964, LBJ can't help but disseminate dirt on his Republican opponent, conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Using his access to confidential FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Pentagon files, Johnson feeds negative information and discusses topics for anti-Goldwater articles with journalists like syndicated columnist William White, who essentially functioned as an appendage of LBJ's White House press operation.
On Oct. 14, 1964 less than three weeks before the election LBJ, ensconced at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, gets devastating news. He learns that Walter Jenkins (the special assistant to the president and LBJ's most trusted aide) had been arrested at a YMCA a few blocks away from the White House one week earlier while performing oral sex on another man.
Readers and listeners are treated to an extraordinary series of telephone calls involving LBJ; his wife, Lady Bird; Hoover and FBI White House liaison Cartha DeLoach; veteran LBJ allies Clark Clifford and Abe Fortas (Fortas, whom LBJ would appoint to the Supreme Court the following year, would resign from the court in disgrace in 1969) as they attempt to come up with the right kind of "spin"; prevent Jenkins from speaking to the press; and stop the Republicans whom LBJ falsely speculates had entrapped Jenkins from exploiting the issue politically.
Even on election night, as he is on the verge of winning an historic landslide, LBJ is full of anger. "God, I hate for it [the election] to be over, because the hell starts then," LBJ wrote in his diary that evening: Nov. 3, 1964. The following day, Mr. Beschloss writes, an "anxious and resentful" Johnson calls his longtime political friend and confidant, New York attorney Edwin Weisl, Sr., to mount a propaganda campaign to convince the American people that he didn't win the election because Americans were afraid of Goldwater, but because they "love" LBJ.
One of the saddest things about reading this book and listening to the tapes is learning about the toll that the pressures of the presidency took on LBJ's physical and emotional health. Much of this information comes from previously unpublished portions of Lady Bird's near-daily recordings about her husband's presidency. By February of 1965, she had become so concerned about his health (he had had one heart attack by the time he became president) that she bought a black dress, thinking that she might need it to wear to a presidential funeral.
Perhaps the most exaggerated, overhyped and misunderstood part of this book are the revelations that LBJ believed early on that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. One man who draws the wrong conclusions is columnist Cal Thomas, asserting that Mr. Beschloss' book "should end the argument over who was right about the Vietnam War: [The very dovish Sen.] George McGovern was."
Noting that LBJ privately confided that he saw no way to win the war, Mr. Thomas suggests that conservatives need to learn "a lesson" from this: that the peace movement was and is patriotic. Here, Mr. Thomas seems to be demolishing a straw man. No reasonable person is arguing that the overwhelming majority of doves were not patriots. But it was hardly unfair to criticize the patriotism and good sense of people who burned the American flag and openly rooted for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong.
The real lesson to be learned from Mr. Beschloss and other historians is that Johnson was a poor wartime leader whose politically motivated mismanagement of the Vietnam War (which included browbeating members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when they suggested different approaches to dealing with the Vietnamese Communists) was a prescription for disaster. If LBJ and Mr. McNamara were running the war in Afghanistan today, you can bet that the Taliban would still be ruling the roost in Kabul.

Joel Himelfarb is assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.




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