Russell and Duenes

Lyndon Johnson…The Best and the Worst

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LBJHistorian Paul Johnson says, correctly, “There was a dark side to [Lyndon] Johnson. He was unscrupulous.” That’s putting is mildly, depending on who you ask. As I’ve said before, I’m intrigued by Johnson because he is at turns inspiring and repulsive. I found myself very agitated today at Johnson’s mafia-like corruption when it came to the press. We are too often reminded of president Nixon’s relationship with the press, but I’m guessing Lyndon Johnson’s despicable stance toward the press doesn’t make too many high school history textbooks.

Shortly after becoming president, Johnson, who was almost surely headed for scandal had not Kennedy been killed, decided he did not like a certain reporter, Margaret Mayer, snooping around his broadcasting interests. So he arranged to have her shut up by letting the higher ups at the reporter’s paper know that he could arrange to bring the power of the federal government against not only the paper, but against them personally (you know, look into your tax records a bit, or some such). As Robert Caro puts it, Johnson wanted the reporter told by her bosses: “We don’t want to spend all of our time inquiring into matters that’s none of our business. They might be inquiring into some of our affairs that are their business.” Hence, according to Caro, “stopping Margaret Mayer had been easy.”

Worse, Johnson wanted a written guarantee, and got it, from the Houston Chronicle, stating that the paper would give him unqualified support no matter what policies Johnson advocated. (Caro wrongly dubbed this a “Texas journalistic enterprise.” Ah no, it was corrupt strong-arming, pure and simple). How did Johnson get such a guarantee? He told the Chronicle’s president, John T. Jones Jr., that he couldn’t have a bank merger he wanted unless the Chronicle pledged its unqualified support for Johnson throughout his entire public life. Johnson held the cards because the merger could not get approval from the Federal Reserve and Justice Department without Johnson’s nod. I suppose Jones could have stood his ground and been willing to lose his merger for the sake of journalistic integrity, but he didn’t. So much for “speaking truth to power.” I am under no illusions that Johnson was unique in using the power of the State to manipulate and coerce people into doing his will, but it’s obscene and reprehensible nonetheless. Here we see examples of some of the worst of Johnson’s power-mongering.

By contrast, on the inspiring end of things, I find myself drawn to emulate Johnson in his ability to persuade people and get things done. I’m not a pragmatist by nature, but I am coming to see the value of developing relationships such that important work can be accomplished. Johnson had a real gift for understanding people, what they wanted and needed, and how he could take that knowledge and use it to accomplish his ends. Now I disagree with many of his ends, but I think one could learn many lessons from Johnson, as I am, about how to accomplish good aims by persuading people to your cause and offering helpful compromises and trade-offs. And Johnson was decisive, too, in many situations. I admire that. He came into situations with a desire and ability to move things forward.

I find myself wanting to act more decisively, to blow off the fog of ambiguity, whether at my job or in my home life with my wife and children. I want to work with people and be proactive with them in getting valuable things done and making my contexts better. Johnson has been helpful in encouraging me toward this end.

So perhaps you see why I enjoy learning about president Johnson. His sins and virtues seem to come forth in bold relief, and I find this engrossing.



Written by Michael Duenes

April 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm

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