Magazine article The Spectator

The Very Heart of High Politics

Magazine article The Spectator

The Very Heart of High Politics

Article excerpt

No one seriously or frivolously interested in American history and politics should leave this book unread. It consists of a most skilfully edited selection of transcripts from tape-recordings surreptitiously made by Lyndon Johnson during his first ten months as President: recordings of telephone conversations (LBJ was hardly ever off that instrument) and of conversations in the Oval Office. The whole is an immensely thought-provoking compendium - at different moments it prompts reflection on both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair but it is above all a stupendous, unstudied self-portrait of its monstrous star unstudied because Johnson usually forgot that he was recording, and often forgot to turn his machine off.

His purpose in taping was apparently to help himself in the business of government: for a man who did so much business by word of mouth an indisputable record of what had been said and agreed was theoretically invaluable. Whether it was of much actual use is doubtful: for example, Johnson failed to tape one of the most important conversations of all, when he told Bobby Kennedy that he was not going to get the 1964 vice-presidential nomination. But for today's reader it is enough that we can live with LBJ from day to day, and discover for ourselves how mercurial he was, how avid for flattery (says a journalist, `You were cuter than a pig on that television'), how self-deceiving (`All I want is great solace - and a little love'), how bad-tempered, how rustic, and at the same time how intelligent, how well informed, how dignified (when he thought it necessary) and how warm-hearted. He was ridiculously thin-skinned ('a man ought to have the hide of a rhinoceros in this job. But I don't') - perhaps all presidents are. He was a bully, because he was as selfcentred as a child, but he was not a sadist. His instinct, always, was to reach out; the celebrated 'Treatment' by which he bent almost everyone to his will largely consisted in establishing so intimate a relationship with his victim that the victim would feel awful if he (or she) turned Johnson down.

Perhaps the most revealing episode concerns the 1964 Democratic convention. Johnson has the world at his feet. He has got the complete Kennedy legislative programme through Congress, including the Civil Rights Act; he is sure of the presidential nomination; he has dictated the party platform and secretly chosen his vice-presidential candidate (Hubert Humphrey); he is immensely popular, and the Republicans have condemned themselves to crushing defeat by nominating Barry Goldwater. …

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