The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson

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Joseph A. Califano, Jr. The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. 1991. Reprint, Texas A&M University Press, 2000. 398 p. $17.95



Mary Linhart, Spring 2006

Joseph Califano served as Johnson’s special assistant for domestic affairs between 1965 until Johnson left office in January, 1969 after refusing to run for President. No one could work for Johnson (or listen to the Johnson tapes) without being astounded by his relentless energy, his demanding, overbearing personality and his knowledge of the functioning of the United States political system. Johnson spoke frequently with leaders in areas including civil rights, defense, labor, the press, and urban affairs but there was seldom an encounter he did not deliberately dominate. Part of this domination undoubtedly came from the deference he received as President but much was due to Johnson’s forceful personality and unyielding determination to achieve his goals.

Johnson faced difficult problems. He inherited the Vietnam struggle and was never able to resolve it. In general, his advisors shared his reluctance to withdraw. Califano believes that when Johnson changed the draft process to make it more likely the middle class would be drafted, he created a political problem for himself.

Johnson, the former majority leader, managed Congress like no other President. The ‘President submitted and Congress enacted more than a hundred major proposals in each of the 89th and 90th Congresses.’ (346) To develop his legislative plans, he consulted widely with department heads and staffs and prominent citizens from every walk of life. Johnson sent Califano to universities to solicit ideas for programs. Johnson had no qualms about big intrusive government as long as he was in charge of it. He developed programs that affected almost every area including agriculture, cities, health, the environment, science, the arts, education, consumers, civil rights and poverty.

Johnson had won handily in the election of 1964, most likely because his opponent, Goldwater, was too far to the right. By 1968, despite impressive liberal legislation, Johnson’s popularity declined to the point where he eventually decided not to run for office. The Johnson years had been fraught with turmoil, riots, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. The Vietnam War and the draft roused students’ activism and protest. Urban riots appalled Americans and the rest of the world. Colburn and Pozzetta report more than 300 riots between 1964 and 1969. (The Sixties From Memory to History,128) After the King assassination, there were ‘reports of rioting and looting in more than one hundred American cities.’ (279)

Working for Johnson was not for the fainthearted. His staff had to be ‘reachable and under his control at all times.’ (25) His assistants had red phones that rang continuously when the President called. He had a phone installed in Califano’s bathroom. He insisted Califano go to church in a White House car so he could be reached via car phone. He gave instructions from his bed, in the shower, at meals and in the swimming pool. --Mlinhart 12:13, 7 Mar 2006 (EST)

Other Writer

It is an understatement to say the Lyndon Johnson has been one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century. Recognized by many as the political genius who engineered passage of the most far reaching social and political legislation since Franklin Roosevelt, he is remembered by most for the debacle of Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson has become anathema, even to Democratic politicians staking claim to his legacy. The main reason argues Joseph Califano, “…lies in the fear of being called ‘liberal’, and in the Vietnam War.” (Califano,357). And in contrast to the romantic image many Americans still hold of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson has become for them, the symbol of all that is wrong with partisan politics - a vain, overbearing, valueless politician, accumulating power, and destroying lives for the gratification of his own ego. Popular culture has perpetuated this image, usually portraying Johnson in unflattering ways, such as in the movie the Right Stuff[1], where Johnson is portrayed as a “…Texas hayseed[2],” interested only in the publicity that could be gained by association with the Mercury Astronauts.

Into this image of Johnson have come a number of excellent books looking at his life and his presidency. They range from those which take a primarily critical look at his political rise by Robert Caro[3], who has authored three of a projected four volumes on Lyndon Johnson’s life, and is viewed by many (including Califano) as Johnson’s most critical biographer, to Robert Dallek[4], who takes fairly balanced view of Johnson’s career, to those such as Doris Kearns Goodwin[5] who take a largely sympathetic view. Joseph Califano’s book The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson would fall largely in the latter category. This is understandable given that Califano served as one of Johnson’s top domestic affairs advisors from 1965 to 1969.

Despite the natural bias one might expect, Califano’s book provides a useful and entertaining counterpoint to the popular notions many have of Johnson’s motivations. This is both good and bad in terms of getting a complete picture of Johnson. On the positive side, we are getting a portrait of Johnson from one of those who worked with him intimately, from one who had first hand knowledge of Johnson’s attitudes toward various issues and people, and who was in a position to make accurate observations of his motivations, particularly on civil rights and the Great Society programs. On the negative side, Califano’s experiences were necessarily narrow, confined mostly to domestic policy. The book only views Vietnam in terms of its effect on domestic policy, and in fact, Califano was witness to only one significant Vietnam related meeting between Johnson and his advisors. And other issues, with which Johnson is identified, such as the space program, go completely unmentioned. Also, as is always the case when the author is intimately involved with the events he is recounting, there is always the nagging suspicion that events or actions that may negatively reflect on the author are not included. I have seen no criticism of this book on that basis however.

The tone of Califano’s book is set right up front, with his description of Johnson as a “…brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive…[man]… with a shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of his allies and adversaries.” (Califano,10) In the narrative that follows, each one of these traits is described by Califano as witnessed by him. His bravery in pushing for civil rights legislation despite the clear political damage it was doing to him in the south, the brutal way he treated others, including his own staff and cabinet, often leaving them shaking with rage and disappointment, his mastery of the minutiae of the legislative process, and his prescience in seeing that the time was ripe for the passage of landmark civil rights and social legislation are all recounted by Califano.

David Houpt, Fall 2008

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is a personal memoir of Joseph Califano’s time as Johnson’s top domestic aid. The book opens in 1965 with Califano’s surprise appointment as a special assistant to President Johnson. Johnson was working to bring in the nation’s best, brightest, and dependable men to help implement the findings of his 1964 Great Society Task Force. Califano, who had been working as a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, was tapped to be the Johnson’s point man in the White House. For the next three and a half years Califano spent virtually every waking moment with the President. He was witness to Johnson’s greatest triumphs and eventual defeat. The book is therefore a unique, almost voyeuristic, view of Johnson’s White House.

From the moment Califano met Johnson, he was struck with the man’s political gifts. Johnson was an imposing man who felt most comfortable when he was in complete control. He had a knack for persuasion. For example, he chose to tell Califano the programs he was responsible for implementing while the two were swimming. To ensure that Califano was weak and unable to protest, Johnson picked a part of the pool where he could stand but Califano would be forced to tread water. Though often the victim of such tactics, Califano quickly gained an appreciation for Johnson’s ability to win people over. Listening to the President rattle off the dramatic changes he would like to see it was clear that such powers were going to be needed.

Johnson had won the election of 1964 by a landslide. Free from the shadow of Kennedy and with a liberal Congress at his disposal, Johnson sought to become the new FDR. “It is now my opportunity,” he declared “to help every child get an education, to help every Negro and every American citizen have an equal opportunity, to have every family get a decent home, and to help bring healing to the sick and dignity to the old.”(49) Johnson believed it was time for American to turn its attention to the poor and forgotten. The world’s wealthiest country, he believed, had the duty and privilege of leading the world into a new era of human rights. The 89th Congress would heed his call.

Meeting from January of 1965 to January 1967, the “Great 89th” Congress passed more legislation aimed at helping the underprivileged than had been dreamed possible. Although much credit should go to Congress, none of it would have been possible without Johnson at the helm. Anytime a bill was stalled in a committee or there was concern about the number of votes, Johnson would make a few phone calls (yelling or offering favors depending on the circumstance) and the legislation would magically become law. Of the 113 major measures Johnson sent to Congress, 97 were passed. The “achievements included a war on poverty; health care for the elderly and the poor; aid to education for poor children; voting rights; immigration reform; and regional heart, cancer , and stroke research.”(149) Johnson also delivered legislation to protect the environment, support the arts, rebuild slums into model cities, and provide money for higher education.

All this legislation came at a price. Inflation was a constant source of concern. Part of the reason Johnson moved with such speed to implement his Great Society is that he knew that sooner or later Congress would refuse to spend any more money. Throughout his presidency, Johnson had been promising “guns and butter.” Vietnam was escalating and it was becoming clear that a victory would require even more money and troops. Although Johnson hated being involved in Vietnam (because it took time and resources away from his domestic agenda) he believed that pulling out would be irresponsible and an act of political suicide. So, he tried to keep the country in the dark as to what was really going on in Southeast Asia and continue with his Great Society. But the money to fund the war still had to come from some place. It was not long before the press began hounding Johnson about his “credibility gap.”

In the end, the Great Society was killed by a combination of race riots and Vietnam. Throughout 1966 and 1967, race riots broke out across the country. Johnson, who truly believed that he had done more for African Americans than any president since Lincoln, was shocked. Cities burned, people died, and a growing conservative backlash blamed the Great Society. Poor blacks, who had been the target of many of Johnson’s reforms, were now the targets of angry white mobs. While this was taking place, the Vietnam War was dividing the Democratic Party. Liberals broke with the president and refused to support him on anything until he promised to get out of Vietnam. Broken, unable to pass a single piece of legislation without getting skewered, Johnson announced that he would not seek or accept the Democratic nomination for President in 1968.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is a spectacular book for anyone interested in political history. It is an intimate portrayal of the political world of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson is portrayed as a natural politician. He may not have had Kennedy’s looks but he had an intuitive way of seeing through people and saying just the right thing. He was able to convince just about anybody of anything. Even George Wallace was quoted as saying that had he been in a room with Johnson for too long he might end up supporting Civil Rights. But Johnson was human. He had fears, held resentments, and was not above lying to get his way.

Johnson had a fear of sleeping alone. Ever since his heart-attack he was worried that something would happen in the night and nobody would hear him scream. He was also deeply suspicious (and afraid) of Bobby Kennedy. President Kennedy had not treated Johnson well as a Vice President (a favor which Johnson passed on to Hubert Humphrey). It was as though Johnson was haunted by the ghost of Kennedy and the knowledge that in death Kennedy had become a larger figure than Johnson ever would. Bobby just reminded him of this.

Califano writes with clarity and energy. His passion and love for the work leaps from the pages. As does his reverence for Johnson. There are a few instances where Califano is critical of Johnson, but there are far more where he heaps praise. This should not come as a surprise seeing as he did work for Johnson but it does leave one wondering if it is an accurate portrayal of Johnson. History has not been kind to Johnson and Califano is in many ways on the defensive throughout the book. He is clearly striving to prove to the reader that Johnson was a really good man who did great things for the country. Vietnam, according to Califano, was not Johnson’s fault. Johnson just did the best he possibly could for the country—even giving up his political life.

If there as one main criticism it would be that the book lacks a meaningful discussion of Vietnam. Califano was a domestic aid and therefore only sat in on a few of the meetings where Vietnam was discussed. But when one does not have a grasp of what was going on with the War, it is hard to understand why the Great Society ended up how it did.

Mary Linhart, Spring 2006

Lyndon Johnson was nothing if not complex. He was personally ambitious yet many of his programs were aimed at the poorest of the poor. He was politically astute yet became the focus of scorn and derision. Johnson’s mastery of the workings of Washington is perhaps unequalled by any President, certainly by any modern President. Califano remembers Johnson as ‘brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibility intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive.’ He could be ‘altruistic and petty, caring and crude, generous and petulant, bluntly honest and calculatingly devious.’ (10)

Califano states the ‘foundation of Johnson’s strategy was the growing economy.’ (75) Robert M. Collins concurs. Economic growth during the sixties ‘played a significant role in liberalism’s domestic programs.’ It ‘fueled the basic optimism that made the Great Society appear possible’ and it provided the ‘wherewithal’ to support the programs along with the Vietnam War. (The Sixties From Memory to History, 23)

Johnson, a Southerner, was probably the only person in the country that could have gotten strong Civil Rights legislation through Congress. He gained political support from African Americans and those supporting Civil Rights but he lost support from the formerly Democratic solid South and from the white working class. It is well-nigh impossible to judge the motivations of Lyndon Johnson. He seemed to be able to convince himself of whatever point of view he had to espouse to achieve his goal. No one has ever claimed Johnson’s support of equal rights for all citizens was not genuine.

Califano believes ‘above all else, Johnson was concerned with creating racial justice and eliminating poverty.’ (351) Johnson wanted the war on poverty to help those who ‘on their own had no chance of getting their fair share of economic growth.’ (75) His Civil Rights legislation included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Among the poverty programs, Johnson established Medicare and Medicaid, community health centers, job training programs, food stamps, increasing in Social Security, Head Start, the Job Corps, and VISTA. Judging by his record, Johnson refused to accept ‘pockets of poverty in the richest nation in history.’ (346)

In May 1968, Johnson told Califano that he would like to make him Attorney General for a short period of time because he wanted Califano to ‘walk out of here (the government) a distinctly independent man.’ (269) At the time, Califano was talking to Johnson about his plans to leave government and undoubtedly this was partly a ploy by Johnson to convince Califano to stay. Johnson knew the office of Attorney General would give Califano prestige and Johnson also knew that the Attorney General and the FBI had significant access to critical information.

Johnson’s relation with Robert Kennedy, who served as the Attorney General was cautious. It is generally believed that there was no love lost between the two. Califano feels Johnson was envious of the Kennedy family, who had enormous voter appeal. Johnson, unlike John and Robert Kennedy did not come across well on television. It would be a typical Johnson tactic to keep both Robert Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver in his administration to neutralize their opposition.

Califano reveals Johnson consulted with his long time friend and attorney, Abe Fortas, even after Fortas had been appointed to the Supreme Court. Califano, a lawyer, was shocked, but believes Johnson felt the expedient was acceptable and may not have realized that he had crossed a barrier although undoubtedly Fortas did. Fortas even advised Johnson on a pending case in which the Federal government had an interest. Johnson nominated Fortas for Chief Justice but Fortas withdrew after it became obvious that his nomination was in trouble.

Califano’s description of Johnson’s personality and methods is so fascinating that it tends to overshadow the big picture. Perhaps Califano realized this since ‘An Afterword’ the closing section, was added to the 2000 edition and presents a more general assessment and larger view of the Johnson years. --Mlinhart 12:13, 7 Mar 2006 (EST)

Jim Daniels, fall 2005

What we are left with at the end is a portrait of a man who, contrary to current popular opinion was deeply committed to racial equality and was genuinely concerned about helping the downtrodden in society. Johnson, according to Califano, “…simply would not accept poverty,” and so confident was he in his ability to marshal the resources necessary to solve this problem, that he over promised. (Califano,338) Resulting, Califano implies, in the perception of the Great Society as a failure.

What we are not left with is a good read on why believed this way. What were the roots of his commitment to these issues? And what was the basis for his belief that they were solvable problems? Was he simply so cocksure of his abilities and the way he was able to persuade people to his point of view through the “Johnson Treatment,” [6] [7]that he believed by sheer force of will – his will - that these problems could be solved, or, given his interest in and support of the space program, was he influenced by America’s evolution toward technocracy as recounted in …the Heavens and the Earth[8], where every issue is viewed as a systems analysis problem, with every aspect being quantifiable and therefore every problem solvable ?

What we are also not left with is a comprehensive, balanced view of the Great Society. We are seeing it through the eyes of one involved in its development, and in the end, Califano provides a ringing (and to me persuasive) endorsement of much of its legacy, going so far as to compare Johnson favorable with George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt. He even makes the claim (not persuasive ) that much of the criticism of Johnson on Vietnam was unwarranted, that “…few credit Johnson with restraining U.S. military chiefs pressing for even deeper and more intense involvement,” and that Vietnam should be viewed “…as part of a half-century bipartisan commitment to contain communism with American blood and money.” (Califano,357)--kjdaniels 01:52, 24 Oct 2005 (EDT)

Tom Demharter, fall 2005

Coming to power upon the death of President Kennedy in November of 1963, Lyndon Johnson was adamant that Kennedy’s vision for the future of America reach fruition. With years of experience as a member of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Johnson understood what types of deals he needed to make to ensure legislation came through both chambers of Congress intact. As a Roosevelt New Dealer, Johnson also wanted to continue down the path laid out by the man that he admired and worked with first as a member of his administration and then as a freshman Congressman in 1937.

No examination of Lyndon Johnson would be complete without also taking into consideration the powerful personality and work ethic that he demanded both of his staff and of himself. From the minute detail of the proper tying of a tie to the installation of telephones within the bathroom of his staff members, Johnson used every minute of the day to its potential in order to develop his plan for America. His hope was that this plan would allow every American to partake at some level in the incredible wealth and success that the nation was experiencing during the 1960’s.

In his book, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years, Joseph Califano presents to the reader an opportunity to better understand what it was that exactly drove Johnson to act as he did via the personal reflections and recollections that he compiled as a member of the President’s staff. As a member of the Johnson Administration, Califano was responsible for the development of domestic legislative proposals that would better allow Johnson to enact his vision for the future of America. With this responsibility, Califano was to spend a tremendous amount of time with Johnson, both on a personal and professional level. Through his examination and recollection of this relationship, Califano believes that a consistent and more simplistic picture of Johnson and his vision for the future comes to life.

Throughout the book, Califano defended many of the actions that Johnson took as president, believing that his pure desire to see all Americans succeed far outweighed any of the improper actions that he may have made. However, Califano does not attempt to portray Johnson as an angel or to cover over his rough edges. Many of the stories that Califano presents are full of exploitative and vulgar language, a type of language that no president could possible get away with in the politically correct world of the 21st century. For example, while Johnson was in the middle of reprimanding Califano for striking a poor bargain with Senator John McCellan on the easing of standards for Corps of Engineers water projects, the president called the Senator with Califano in the office. When the Senator answered the phone, Johnson replied, “I’m calling you about Joe Califano. You cut his pecker off and put it in your desk drawer. Now I’m sending him back up there to get it from you. I can’t agree to anything like that. You’ve got to realize that the transportation system of this country needs more highways in Arkansas.” (126) Nor was this the only example of someone’s pecker being chopped off and being placed into a drawer for safekeeping.

While stories such as this are interesting and fun to read, they are not the true focus of Califano’s work, which is instead to defend Johnson’s policies and plans for the creation of a better America. While much of the legislation of the Great Society developed by Johnson’s administration has come under attack following the welfare reform movement of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Califano does not believe that history has been completely honest with its examination of the Johnson Administration and the Great Society. Califano instead argues that throughout his administration, Johnson stayed faithful to his philosophy of not providing handouts to individuals. In Johnson’s eyes, it was economic opportunity and not welfare payments that America’s poor needed. If only the poor could receive the training and tools necessary to succeed in life, poverty as we know it would disappear.

For Califano, the success that Johnson had with the 89th Congress needs to have more attention paid to it. Only by examining the hundreds of pieces of legislation that Johnson was successfully able to push through this amicable Congress does Califano believe that a true picture of Johnson can be uncovered. Califano argues that no other president has been able to accomplish so much in such a short period. While most presidents would not be able to achieve in two terms half of what Johnson did in two years, Califano believes that the legislative success that Johnson had surpasses even that of Franklin Roosevelt.

Overall, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is an excellent read and provides an insight into the workings of the Johnson Administration that few other works could possibly hope to achieve. However, its intimate nature is also its ultimate failure. Because Califano has such a personal connection to Johnson and the work that his administration was able to achieve, the author is unable to provide the reader with an unbiased examination of the information. Too much of what Califano presents is sugarcoated and portrays the president as a complex man whose emotions often drove him more than common sense would allow for. Finally, while Califano is obviously going to present information that is pertinent to what he did within the Johnson Administration, it seems that he is quite possibly providing himself with too large of a role in what exactly took place. After reading the book, the reader gets the impression that without Califano, the Johnson Administration quite possible would have fallen apart. While this is probably was not Califano’s purpose in writing this book, memoirs frequently fall into this trap. Though this fact does not take away from the success that Johnson was able to achieve during the sitting of the 89th Congress, it does lead one to question just how this success occurred.-- 22:19, 24 Oct 2005 (EDT)

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