The Last Days of the President

LBJ in retirement  

On the night before Christmas, 1971, Lyndon Baines Johnson played the most improbable role of his varied and controversial life. Protected from public view behind the gates of his Texas ranch, and no longer suffering the cloying presence of a battalion of White House reporters, Johnson donned a red suit and false beard, climbed aboard a small tractor, and drove to the hangar adjoining his airstrip. Assembled inside were the families of his ranch hands for what had become a traditional ceremony over the years: receiving greetings and gifts from LBJ. This time, they were so stunned at the sight of the former President ho-ho-hoing aboard a chugging tractor that they greeted his arrival with disbelieving silence. Undeterred, Johnson dismounted the tractor and unloaded a bag of toys for the children, sent to him for the occasion by an old friend, New York toy manufacturer Louis Marx, father of Patricia Marx Ellsberg.

"I'm going to enjoy the time I've got left," Johnson told friends when he left Washington in January, 1969, a worn old man at sixty, consumed by the bitter, often violent, five years of his presidency. He had never doubted that he could have won the 1968 election against Richard Nixon if he had chosen to run for another term. But in 1967 he launched a secret actuarial study on his life expectancy, supplying personal histories of all the males in the recent Johnson line, himself included. The men in the Johnson family have a history of dying young," he told me at his ranch in the summer of 1971, "My daddy was only sixty-two when he died, and I figured that with my history of heart trouble I'd never live through another four years. The American people had enough of Presidents dying in office." The prediction handed to Johnson was that he would die at the age of sixty-four. He did.

He returned to the Texas hill country so exhausted by his presidency that it took him nearly a full year to shed the fatigue in his bones. From the outset he issued the sternest orders to his staff that the press was to be totally off limits. "I've served my time with that bunch," he said, "and I give up on them. There's no objectivity left anymore. The new style is advocacy reporting—send some snotty-nosed reporter down here to act like a district attorney and ask me where I was on the night of the twenty-third. I'm always guilty unless I can prove otherwise. So to hell with it." His press grievances were usually accompanied by favorite examples of anti-Johnson stacked decks—among these, the flurry of comment generated when he had lifted his shirt to expose ample belly and fresh surgical scar. He explained: "Rumors were flying that I really had cancer. I had to prove I really had my gall bladder taken out." By contrast Nixon, he thought, had intimidated the press into fair treatment. "The damn press always accused me of things I didn't do. They never once found out about the things I did do," he complained with a smile. One result of such self-righteous bitterness was that the man who had been the world's most powerful and publicized ruler was simply swept down a hole of obscurity, surfacing only occasionally at University of Texas football games or at the funerals of old friends such as Hale Boggs and Harry Truman. A logical surmise was that Johnson was brooding in silence on his ranch porch, pouting at the unfriendly, unloving world beyond his guarded gates. But LBJ's temperament was more complicated than that: relaxed, easy, and friendly for days, he would suddenly lapse into an aloof and brooding moodiness, only to give way to a period of driving restlessness. He was a seesawing personality for as long as anyone could remember.

His first year in retirement was crowded with projects. He supervised nearly every construction detail of the massive LBJ Library complex on the University of Texas campus, which houses not only thirty-one million documents acquired over thirty-eight years in Washington, but also the LBJ School of Public Affairs. At one point, university regent Frank Erwin approached Johnson about an Indiana educator who was interested in running the LBJ School. Johnson frowned at the mention of the state which sent to the Senate one of Johnson's least favorite persons, and among the most vocal of his war critics, Vance Hartke. "Frank," Johnson responded, "I never met a man from Indiana who was worth a shit."

There was fresh bitterness over a series of hour-long interviews, with Walter Cronkite for which Johnson had contracted with CBS before leaving the White House. The first show, on Vietnam, had been a fiasco. "I did lousy," Johnson admitted, and raised hell over what he claimed had been an unfair CBS editing practice—Cronkite refilming new questions to answers he had originally given during the interview at the ranch. "Cronkite came down here all sweetness and light, telling me how he'd love to teach journalism at Texas someday, then he does this to me," he fumed. The critical reaction to his television interview on Vietnam reinforced Johnson's conviction that his presidential memoirs should be divided into two separate books, one on domestic policies, the other on foreign affairs. In this way, he reasoned, the Great Society would be spared from the critical response he anticipated to his explanations of Vietnam policy. His publishers talked him out of separate books, and Johnson cautiously began unfolding his version of his presidential years. Assisted by two trusted staff writers, Robert Hardesty and William Jorden, he issued only one firm guideline, that not one word should appear in the book that could not be corroborated by documentation. To aid in this effort, Johnson threw open to his writers every file and document from his White House years, including telephone conversations he had held as President, which were recorded and transcribed for history. (Exposure to this material was largely for his writers' background information; few revelations or previously unpublished documents appeared in Johnson's book.) Jorden, a former New York Times reporter who had worked as an assistant to Walt Rostow, was particularly impressed with his research reading. "My God," he said, "I thought I knew just about everything involving Vietnam during my White House days. I discovered that I had missed a lot."1

William Jorden worked on the book's Vietnam chapters, which went to twenty drafts, and were read by McGeorge Bundy, Generals Earle Wheeler and William Westmoreland, and Abe Fortas, LBJ's pre-eminent confidant, among others, before receiving final approval. The result of all this effort was a fully researched but flat and predictable apologia of the Johnson years, most of its vital juices evaporated many drafts ago.

Hurt and disappointed by the adverse critical reaction to his book, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969, Johnson found solace working the land of his 330-acre ranch, which he bought in 1951. Under a fiery Texas sun, the Pedernales River runs clear and full. Fat cattle graze languidly in the shade of live oaks. Johnson knew that he owned some of the loveliest property in Texas, and unleashed his energies as a working rancher like a restless child entering a playpen. LBJ installed a complex irrigation system (and was observed clad only in paper shorts helping to lay pipe in the middle of the shallow Pedernales), constructed a large hen house, planted acres of experimental grasses sufficiently hardy to withstand severe hill country weather, and built up his cattle herds through shrewd purchases at the weekly cattle auctions near Stonewall. On one occasion, ranch foreman Dale Milenchek talked Johnson into purchasing an $8000 breeding bull. The massive animal impregnated only a few cows before suffering a fatal leg infection. Johnson complained, "Dale bought me the most expensive sausage in the history of Texas."

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