Once in 1971, two years after he had left the White House, Lyndon Johnson was appearing in a series of retrospective documentaries for television—for CBS, that is, the network of which Frank Stanton was president. CBS was the Johnson network, as Holt, Rinehart & Winston, the CBS book division, would become—to its financial loss—the Johnson publisher. He was in a relaxed mood one afternoon during the filming, and one of the senior CBS producers, John Sharnik, asked him what had changed in politics since his first years in Congress some thirty-four years earlier. Sharnik said it casually, and he was stunned by the vehement quality of Johnson’s answer: “You guys,” he had said without pausing to reflect. “All you guys in the media. All of politics changed because of you. You’ve broken all the machines and the ties between us in Congress and the city machines. You’ve given us a new kind of people”—a certain disdain passed across his face—“Teddy, Tunney. They’re your creations, your puppets: No machine could ever create a Teddy Kennedy. Only you guys. They’re all yours. Your product.”
He was a man of the thirties, and he never really adapted to the new technology of his own times. Characteristically, he was one of the few people in Washington in the late sixties who was a devoted listener to radio, though his and his wife’s private fortune centered around their Austin, Texas, radio-television station. He never really made it on television, though during the honeymoon that followed his accession to the presidency, he seemed to know his way around the medium. He reveled in it, President of all the people, anchorman for all the networks. He could do whatever he wanted, no one could catch up with him. These were great moments for him: His own impetuosity enhanced by being President, and a televised President at that; and his surprises being orchestrated as surprises for the whole country.
There was the time he was settling a railroad strike and, looking at his watch, saw that it was nearly seven o’clock: he would announce the news himself at seven o’clock on the button. He decided to go to the CBS station (the White House was not yet set up for instant presidential specials; that would come in a few weeks—hot cameras ready for a hot Lyndon), and so suddenly the whole White House team was rushing into cars, sirens screaming, tires screeching, tearing through Washington evening traffic, and yes, at the very instant that Walter Cronkite came on the air in New York, he was put in the position not of giving the news, but of introducing the President of the United States, the only President we had, and Lyndon was there announcing that he had settled the railroad strike. He loved it, it was exhilarating. When he returned to the White House and a dismayed Lady Bird asked why he had done it, why he had risked his life tearing through traffic like that, he laughed and said, Because I wanted to see the look on Walter Cronkite’s face when I walked in the studio.
In the beginning, simply being there was enough; he was the message, and the rest of the government was part of the stage set. Years later, when power began to slip away, and the Vietnam War was darkening everything, and critics like Bobby Kennedy began to make speeches against his policy, he tried on occasion to smother the trouble and upstage the critics by in effect moving the first rank of his Administration to the Pacific en masse for war planning conferences and consultations that dominated the news. Bill Moyers, then his press secretary, went before the National Press Club and gently mocked this tendency by answering to a planted question that he was not trying to take headlines away from Bobby, but yes, he was able to announce that he was sending Hubert Humphrey to the moon. Lyndon Johnson was not amused.
He never really came to terms with television. As he was a beneficiary of it, so he became a victim of it. He was an excessive man, and he did not know how to restrain his use of the medium; at the same time, he tended to be awkward and stiff on camera. The combination of his own style and the impact of television was deadly. In Lyndon Johnson there were many pluses and many minuses, but whatever else, he was not a man to ration himself; he wanted, as a politician and as a man, to give too much and to take too much. Where Jack Kennedy was aware of the danger of overexposure, Johnson was almost maniacal about being on the screen; he wanted to be on all the time. When his aides, particularly the holdover aides from Kennedy, warned him that he dealing with fire, that he had been on yesterday land the day before, he responded yes, but he wanted to be on today as well. On all three networks. And if Jack Kennedy was in a sense first television President, or the first President made by television, then Lyndon Johnson was first who was brought down by television, or at least in part by television. For it enhanced not only his hold on the presidency while he rode high, but ultimately the forces that came to be ranged against him. He was too volatile a man in too volatile a time using too volatile an instrument.
His farewell to politics that most people remember was his surprise announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election. But he uttered a much more interesting farewell the next day in Chicago, before the National Association of Broadcasters. There he very simply blamed them for his defeat, and for defeat in Vietnam. They had turned the country against him, he said. Winston Churchill was never very far from his mind, and he asked them what would have happened at Dunkirk if they had had their cameras there. They had beaten him, those cameras and all those punk kid reporters in Vietnam. They, the broadcasters, had beaten him, not Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and the kids in the streets. He was more than a little right, and he had learned the hard way that because of television, what goes up goes up quickly, but things can come down as quickly. He saw television as a gimmick and it brought out the worst in him: acting, preening, false piety. He would try to play someone else. Kennedy. Roosevelt. Churchill. Almost anyone but Lyndon Johnson. He could not be himself. He fell prey to the worst habit a politician or a major television correspondent can form: he watched himself endlessly on the replay, and waited up for the late night shows to study himself, not liking what he saw, always looking for ways to change it. When he did a television special with three network reporters, he walking out, ostensibly to take phone calls, but really to check the videotape. After the show had been filmed, while he was flying to Australia, he called in corrections from Air Force One—always on grounds of national security—so many of that CBS finally noted that the program had been edited with White House supervision,
If television was a gimmick, then he had to keep trying his own gimmicks with it. A better lighting man, a better makeup man, a better pair of glasses, a better TelePrompTer, a better television adviser. He was always unhappy with the way he across, the big nose (what is politely called in the television trade “prominent features”) forever casting unwanted shadows. Makeup men would come and makeup men would go, and the Rushmore of the features remained, casting shadows. When Johnson first became President, CBS had a young man named Mike Hunnicutt working in its Washington bureau, and one night he made Johnson up just as the President went on the air. Afterwards Johnson summoned Hunnicutt, and the man was ushered into the Oval Office for a memorable meeting with the leader of the Free World.
“Boy, you trying to fuck me?” asked the President of the United States.
“Sir?” said the young man from CBS.
“Boy, you trying to fuck me?” Johnson repeated. The young man looked puzzled.
“Get him out of here!” Johnson roared, and a Secret Service man rushed Hunnicutt out of the office, whereupon it was explained to him that the President had not liked the way he looked.
In 1964, still bothered by his image, he asked his friend Frank Stanton for help, and Stanton dispatched Fred Friendly to advise him. Friendly was clearly there to teach Johnson about television. President Johnson surprised him by demanding that he would join the White House staff: Fred Friendly would become Johnson’s chief intellectual, the domestic version of Mac Bundy; the country needed Fred Friendly. Friendly, despite his own outsized ambitions, knew he was in dangerous waters. He called old friend Ed Murrow, who warned him off: “It’s the worst idea I ever heard—they’ll cut your balls off in four weeks.” So despite further presidential pleas—“Make up your mind, make up your mind, what are you going to do, sit around in New York at some fancy restaurant drinking old-fashioneds and making $100,000 a year, or are you going to help your country?”—Friendly remained in television. And Lyndon Johnson continued his search for someone to transform him on television. Someone who could make him less Texan, more eastern, shrink his nose, and gentle his accent. He could not hire Friendly from CBS, so he eventually hired Kintner from NBC, but his problems remained.