Advising the President: II

The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.
by Eric F. Goldman.
Alfred A. Knopf. 531 pp. $8.95.

Toward the end of his intermittently interesting book about the first three years of the Johnson administration, Eric F. Goldman comes to have ’sizable doubts about the whole conception of the position of White House ‘intellectual-in-residence.’ ” By this point, the reader will have conceived some doubts of his own, at least regarding the relationship that obtained between President Johnson and Professor Goldman.

The young tradition of intellectual-in-residence was established by Arthur Schlesinger during the administration of John F. Kennedy; there the resemblance to Eric Goldman's experience begins and ends. Kennedy was nicely attuned to vibrations from the intellectual orchestra; Johnson had no ear for such music. Schlesinger was politically knowing; Goldman had almost no acquaintance with official Washington. In Johnson's mind, evidently, the intellectual-in-residence, with no political base or strengths of his own, was to serve as a second-string envoy, bearing the philosophy of ’consensus” to a deeply distrusted and somewhat mystifying group located mainly on college campuses and around the West Side of New York City. Since Goldman was without political obligations or aspirations, there was a limit to how much pushing around he had to take, and that put a strain on LBJ's temper. Goldman appears to have owed his appointment to the celebrity he won as host on a TV panel show and to Rendezvous with Destiny, his book about the Roosevelt period. Johnson seems to have wanted Goldman to sell him as another FDR, but made it clear from the start that Goldman was not to fancy himself another Arthur Schlesinger.

Eric Goldman was Special Consultant to the President for thirty-three months, from December 1963 to September 1966. He arrived with somewhat innocent hopes and left more sad than bitter. He was never one of the White House's West Wing insiders like Walter Jenkins or Bill Moyers or Jack Valenti, but he was close to the action, and his book has the disabilities as well as the advantages of being an inside report by an outsider. No revelations explode from these pages—the recounting of LBJ's legislative accomplishments of 1964 and the maneuverings of that year's conventions and election campaigns might have been written (in fact have been written) by persons considerably farther from the scene. But his portrait of Johnson is honest and discerning; Goldman is neither sycophant nor slanderer, though his prose sometimes makes him seem more simpleminded than he can possibly be. Discussing what he calls LBJ's ’acts of noblesse oblige,” he writes, ’When another assistant was celebrating his wedding anniversary, two unexpected guests arrived: a beaming President of the United States and the First Lady carrying a touching gift.”


Goldman's Johnson is intelligent, manipulative, overbearing, cornball, thin-skinned, mistrustful, secretive, vain, devious, dishonest, competitive, and something of an idealist. All these characteristics have been noted and remarked on elsewhere, but Goldman manages to make of them a living man. He is helped by a number of selected vignettes—Johnson's furious efforts at mediation during the 1964 railroad strike; and by an occasional fresh incident—the President delivering a monologue one night to a few associates to the effect that several of the Senators who opposed his Vietnam adventure were getting guidance and instruction from the Soviet embassy. (We are also indebted to Goldman for a priceless moment with Everett Dirksen. Following the passage of the civil-rights bill, which after his customary meanderings the Senate Minority Leader effectively supported, Goldman offered congratulations. Dirksen replied: ’Nothing, nothing at all to my credit. I simply glimpsed duty and followed its inexorable path.”) Unfortunately, Goldman cannot let his portrait of the President alone; he must take the extra step into psychoanalysis—and, inevitably, Lyndon Johnson turns out to have been ’lashed by his insecurity.”

Now, what was a professor from Princeton University and the National Broadcasting System to do for the politician from Johnson City, Texas, and the Senate cloakroom? When he resigned, Goldman, a man seemingly slow to anger, was incensed at the effort by Bill Moyers to minimize his past services, but on the basis of his own testimony those services were at best marginal. He refers to special projects, too confidential to be written of even now, which he undertook for the White House, but the main substantive accomplishment for which he claims credit was the idea for a Presidential Commission to study the draft. (The Commission in fact made some sensible proposals, which Congress managed to ignore when it renewed the Selective Service law in 1967.) For the most part Goldman seems to have busied himself in trying to educate an administration that had other things on its mind. He wrote long memos, in primer style, on the rise of the Metroamerican—a term that refers to us sophisticated, enlightened city dwellers and which, God help us, will probably be picked up by Time magazine and implanted into the American language—and other subjects that would have tried the patience of more patient men than Lyndon Johnson. He wrote speeches—one of his assignments being to do up a talk for the President on famous events that had taken place in specific rooms of the White House. He served as a Master of Revels, bringing students, scholars, and writers—LBJ's ’quiet braintrust,” exceedingly quiet—to Washington for conferences and ceremonies marking such occasions as the 175th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington and the bicentennial of the American Revolution. His career in this line reached its disorderly climax at the White House Festival of the Arts in 1965, where John Hersey pointedly read an excerpt from Hiroshima and Dwight Macdonald ran about collecting anti-Vietnam signatures, and which Robert Lowell, amid public commotion, refused to attend at all. And he helped Ladybird in the various odd jobs that served to keep her occupied in Washington. He evidently liked Mrs. Johnson a lot and gives her the benefit of a thoroughly embarrassing chapter, suitable for any ladies magazine: ’To such a young woman anything might happen, and it promptly did.”

The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson will do nothing for Eric Goldman's reputation either among politicians or among intellectuals. The political pros can only mark him down as yet another book-writing dilettante; they do not make nice distinctions between one professor's books and another's. And there will be a tendency among the intelligentsia to conclude, not without relish, that Goldman only suffered the humiliation due to anyone who allows himself to be co-opted by the enemy; they will no doubt find confirmation of their judgment in the quality of his writing. (We can look forward in the coming months to fearsome attacks on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, delivered from one sanctuary or another, for taking a job with the abominable Nixon.) The problem is that the enemy referred to in Goldman's case (as in Moynihan's) is the President, and there is something to be said for the proposition that when the President calls, one is obliged to respond—not alone by the requirements of citizenship but by the possibility that one's principles may thereby be advanced. Eric Goldman's interlude at the White House was not a success; given his own political innocence, the character of Lyndon Johnson, the artificiality of his role and the famous gap between the politician's instinctive approach to problems and that of the college professor, there was no way it could be a success. (Moynihan has the advantage of being a specialist in an area that desperately needs expert attention; it does not matter in this relationship that Richard Nixon may not have rapport with the nation's professors.) Whatever prompted Eric Goldman to accept his summons to Washington—idealism, careerism, curiosity—the act itself was not dishonorable. He tried. He failed—or, more fairly, the arrangement was programmed for failure. His experience is cautionary, but special; the uses of the intellectual-in-residence are open to further exploration.

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