on the World Today

WASHINGTON is a one-man town. Lyndon Johnson is not only the President of the United States but the majority leader of the Democratic Party, chief liaison officer with the Congress, principal spokesman, with his own TV studio in the basement of the White House, and almost the sole topic of conversation in the capital. Recently, one of his own Cabinet officers went to a dinner party in Georgetown and announced to the assembled guests as he entered: “Let’s do something dilfcrent tonight. Let’s not talk about the President or Vietnam for at least ten minutes.” That’s the way it is. Everybody has a Johnson story the way old soldiers have a war story, and some but certainly not all of them are true, and that’s probably the way the President wants it to be.

This is not the trend in other capitals of the world. Except for Paris and Peking, the cult of personality is out. Wilson in London, Kosygin and Brezhnev in Moscow, Erhard in Bonn, and Sato in Tokyo are all technicians. A managerial revolution has taken place in politics. The handsome and powerful foreign secretaries of the past — Acheson, Eden, and others — have been replaced by a collection of competent diplomatic mechanics— Rusk in Washington, Michael Stewart in London, Maurice Couve de Murville in Paris, Gerhard Schroeder in Bonn, Andrei Gromyko in the Soviet Union, and nobody can quite remember who in India or Japan.

But Washington is dominated by a commanding individual, whose habits of thought and techniques of political maneuver determine what the nation does in the world. Nobody but Johnson, for example, could imagine a peace offensive in which a covey of officials suddenly fly off to the Vatican, Paris, Belgrade, Warsaw, Bangkok, New Delhi, and various other capitals. Or a war in which the President and commander in chief passes on nearly every bombing target and then stays up half the night to get reports on how the raids came out. Or a diplomatic conference to which the leaders of Vietnam are summoned on a few hours’ notice like colonial servants.

But Johnson is not an impulsive or capricious man who acts on his own. There is nothing of the dictator about him. He consults with a great many people before he ever makes a move.

We can do anything

The President has transferred to the White House the habits of the Senate cloakroom. In many ways he is running the presidency as he ran the majority leadership on Capitol Hill. It is a highly personal system. His personality dominates policy and, many people here believe, helps explain his Vietnam decisions. In the first place, he believes in all the conventional patriotic assumptions about the United States. This is a nation set apart. It can do anything it sets its mind to do. It can create a Great Society. It can abolish poverty in America and disease in the world. It can educate every child who tries, and can feed the multitude.

Kennedy was a critic of American society, crying out to us to question the conventional wisdom of the day, imploring us to forget the myths of the past and deal with the “realities” of the present. But not Johnson. He believes that the experience of the past can help us deal with the realities of the present. He sees no conflict between John Calvin and John Maynard Keynes. He wants to encompass the whole: past and present, conservative and liberal, idealistic and realistic.

Thus, France’s experience in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina is not particularly relevant in his mind. The French were defeated by the same political leader, Ho Chi Minh, and suffered 172,000 casualties to the armies led by the same military leader, General Giap. But America is not France. We went to Saigon to give, France to take. France was colonial, we are anticolonial, and we have helicopters, and we have never lost a war. Others offered peace and didn’t mean it, and waged war and couldn’t win it, but when we offer peace we mean it, and if we have to wage war, we will win it.

Zigs and zags

This is sensitive ground. Who can say what moves men under pressure? But nothing in Washington explains the starts and stops, the warmaking and peacemaking, the bombing and the pleading, the oilers and the threats of American policy better than the extraordinary contradictions of Lyndon Johnson’s character.

When he was on the Hill, he dealt personally with committee chairmen and the leaders of the opposition. He also dealt personally with newspaper reporters on his beat. No big meeting. No mass press conferences if he could help it. A small office of overworked aides. He is following much the same procedure in the White House.

He has handled his Vietnam policy, for example, as if he were handling a bill in the Senate. He has zigged and zagged to meet the opposition of the hawks on one side and the doves on the other, just as he changed his bills on Capitol Hill to pick up votes on the right and then on the left.

A couple of days before his famous Baltimore speech just a year ago, he had not planned to say anything about unconditional discussions. He showed a draft of the speech to a Washington columnist, who proposed that he offer a cease-fire and “unconditional discussions.” He agreed to the latter. Later, when the columnist still criticized him, he remarked, “I don’t understand that fellow: every time I pull my chair up to him he moves away.”

The President complains about inaccurate news stories on Vietnam and other matters of foreign and domestic policy. He says the lines of communication are open, but they are not. Officials are not about to jeopardize their jobs by talking out of turn. And even those who privately seek to explain Administration policy are frequently not in a position to do so, because they know only a small part of the story. The rest of it is held closely by a few at the top. This was clearly the case during the big American peace offensive aimed at some kind of political accommodation in Vietnam.

The trouble with the President’s sensitivity over personal image is that he appears to get in the way of his own light. There are too many people who tend to remember the bad and not the good about Johnson. They remember his public display of the gallbladder incision and forget his rather remarkable record on domestic legislation. The truth about Johnson’s record is that it is not nearly so bad as his critics say, and, particularly in the area of foreign policy, not as good as the President would like to have the country believe.

Johnson’s Cuba

But for all that is said here about the Administration’s record, it is to the President and his conduct of the war in Vietnam that much of the country will look for an answer to the success or failure of the Johnson approach. Vietnam clearly is Johnson’s nightmare as was Cuba for Kennedy. And while most people do not have all the salient facts about the Vietnamese war, they at least are entitled to feel there is some sense of continuity to American policy, and that the President is proceeding in an orderly fashion toward reasoned objectives in Southeast Asia.

At the beginning of this year, during a semiprivate session with the press in Austin, Texas, Bill Moyers sought to paint the President’s mood on most major foreign policy issues. He suggested that Johnson’s greatest disappointment in 1965 was his failure to convince North Vietnam and Communist China of this country’s genuine desire for peace in Southeast Asia. It was said that Johnson believes history would judge him harshly on the conduct of American policy in Vietnam should he leave office tomorrow. Accordingly, the President feels he must deal with Vietnam effectively before anyone can make an accurate judgment about his capacity for leadership in the area of foreign affairs.

No consensus on Vietnam

In Vietnam, as in other political or diplomatic areas, Johnson would like to see a kind of national consensus in support of his policy. If anything, however, the reaction from certain factions in the country would suggest that the more Johnson maneuvers in Vietnam, the more confused and divided this country becomes. Nothing illustrates the point more clearly than the airing of Administration policy on Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which indicated the deep sense of not only congressional but domestic frustration over Johnson’s personal domination of the Vietnamese crisis.

Old friends of the President’s, Fulbright, Mansfield, and even Senator Richard Russell, find themselves at odds with Johnson. During those Senate hearings, there was a vague hint of congressional entrapment — a feeling that the President had wrung from Congress a mandate on Vietnam in 1964, and then stretched that mandate far beyond its intended limits.

Fulbright was Johnson’s friend and his choice for Secretary of State in 1960, but personal loyalty comes first in the President’s catalogue of political virtues. Johnson simply cannot understand how Fulbright can be his friend and also his critic. In fairness to the President, it must be said that he followed this principle when he was Senate Majority Leader during the Eisenhower Administration. Johnson would oppose Eisenhower on domestic issues, but on important foreign policy questions, whatever his doubts, he supported the President. Moreover, Johnson expects the same kind of support from others, particularly when they are members of his own party.

The Congress looks a little bewildered these days, as if it would like to continue avoiding any part of Johnson’s war in Vietnam yet wants to seem to be consulted on it. This perhaps explains Fulbright’s wistful remark on the purpose of the Vietnam hearings before his committee. He could say only that he apologized for not holding the hearings before, in 1964, and that he simply didn’t realize what the country was getting into at that time, a sad commentary on the legislative branch’s inability, or unwillingness, to venture leadership instead of easy followership.

What is so misleading about the public dialogue on Vietnam is that the President appears to approach the imponderables of the crisis with such certainty, in effect suggesting that he and he alone is right. He is almost scornful of those who dare to question his position. And yet the President’s apparent confidence about the course of American policy in Vietnam is hardly reflected by his closest diplomatic and military advisers. His own official family is fundamentally divided about what should and should not be done in Southeast Asia. Rusk was for a resumption of bombing at the end of January; ball was not.

So it is that Johnson’s views and strength of will again prevail because most of the officials around the President have doubts about whether their advice on Vietnam is right, let alone viable.

The real LBJ

Between the President’s public personality and his private personality there is a great difference. Reading a speech, with the square glass Telcprompters before him, he is your Uncle Dudley, who looks like the line coach of the Dallas Cowboys and sounds part schoolmaster and part parson. Somehow this picture doesn’t hold together: he looks tough and sounds almost sweet. But in private conversation he is quiet, slow, vivid, and overpowering. His gilt of mimicry is amusing, and when turned on his opponents, devastating. He has a computer-like memory, and a bank of political stories that are always apt and often hilarious. He may go on for hours in a single almost unbroken monologue, but this is always relevant to his purpose, which usually is to convince the listener of something and persuade him to do what the President wants.

Governor Pat Brown tells about calling on Johnson in 1960 to decide whether to support him for the Democratic presidential nomination. After fifteen minutes of uninterrupted Johnson talk, Brown was impressed. Fifteen minutes later, Brown thought he was hearing the most brilliant monologue of His life. When the torrent continued for forty-five minutes, however, Brown began to have his doubts, and after an hour, Brown was so troubled by all this energy and passion that he went away convinced he should vote for somebody else.

This is central to Johnson’s personality. By the tests of ordinary men, he overdoes everything. His actions and reactions arc all exaggerated. He will humiliate his stall with criticism and then shower them with praise and gilts. McNamara, he insists, is the best Secretary of Defense in the history of the Pentagon, Rusk the best Secretary of State of this century. The President genuinely wants a fair and compassionate society in America, but he calls it a Great Society. It is not enough for a newspaper to support him 90 percent of the time. Oh, that other ten percent!, he says.

The President decides

The President’s insistence on being the central figure for all things in government has its effects on his political colleagues. Since Johnson assumed the presidency in November, 1963, it is hard, for example, to recall any memorable speech made by a member of his Administration. Vice President Humphrey is the best illustration of the point. When he was in the Senate, there was not a man in Washington who produced more ideas to deal with the problems of the day, but as Johnson’s deputy, he has been a fountain of trivialities, most of them celebrating the President and the President’s programs and now sounding the shrillest Vietnam hawk cries to be heard in Washington.

All this adds to Johnson’s cult of personality. He is skeptical of advice. He listens to everybody and trusts nobody all the way. He delegates nothing that is fundamental. He decides, and he decides intuitively on the basis of what has worked pragmatically in the past. This may be why his decisions on the home front have been so successful, for he has America in his hones.

In Vietnam and, indeed, in the rest of the world it is a different thing. Johnson is trying to prove that the assumptions that have worked for America will work for the world, and he has a towering personal confidence and all the great power of the presidency with which to press the experiment.