Canada’s destiny, too, is hitched to this president hell-bent for greatness

Ian Sclanders March 20 1965

Canada’s destiny, too, is hitched to this president hell-bent for greatness

Ian Sclanders March 20 1965

Canada’s destiny, too, is hitched to this president hell-bent for greatness


Ian Sclanders

IN A WOOD AND STONE house by a small river, in lean hard country that breeds lean hard sons, the great professional of U. S. politics, in the raiment of a Texas cattle baron, relaxed in an oversized rocker. Beside him, in the, more restrained garb of official Ottawa, a Nobel Prize winner and former diplomat, now become a politician who has shown little flair for the tough poker game of political operating, hunched slightly forward in a straight chair, looking pleased and eager to please.

At close quarters in the heavy-beamed living room of the LBJ Ranch, where Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lester Bowles Pearson were holding an informal press conference, the contrast in the two men was striking. I wondered how one would fare against the other if the conflicts between Canada and the United States grow deeper and more serious, which is at least a

possibility as Canada struggles to cling to economic and political independence in a world in which the tides are running toward economic unions and political blocs.

Johnson, fifty-six. tops six feet by three inches and resembles John Wayne of the movies. He is handsomer, more dynamic, than photographs or TV screens reveal, unlike John F. Kennedy, who was remarkably photogenic. Johnson’s eyes are narrow, shrewd and restless, darkbrown above high cheekbones, and he dresses as carefully as an actor. This day, his shirt was tan, his necktie striped brown and tan, his jacket brown and tan heather, his slacks tan. His expensive cowboy boots, with an intricately tooled pattern, repeated precisely the brown and tan of the necktie. He could be cast by Hollywood as a Wild West sheriff.

Pearson, older, shorter, with guileless blue

eyes, boyish smile, scholarly mien, would not be miscast as a professor, which he once was. There, by Johnson, he looked for a moment like a lamb by a cougar. This impression vanished when they exchanged banter, Johnson in a Texas drawl with overtones of Washington, and Pearson in a bland Ontario accent with overtones of Oxford. In this sort of exchange, Pearson is sharp and skilled.

Yet when they bargain, how will he do? The advantages rest with Johnson as the leader of a nation with ten times Canada’s population and more than a dozen times Canada’s wealth — a nation with which our defense is inextricably linked, that controls much of our industry, and whose trade, in relative terms, means far more to Canadians than Canada’s trade means to Americans.

Canada, indeed, is / continued overleaf

continued / bound to the U. S. in so many ways that the policies of a president can, on occasion, be more vital to us than those of our own prime minister, whether we like it or not. Roosevelt helped us in depression and war. We shared the Truman and Eisenhower booms and recessions. We waited for Kennedy to create “an America that is on the march” — which he didn’t quite manage — and watched our unemployment figures climb.

The prosperity generated by the more efficient if less inspiring Johnson has washed across our border, although most of what he has done since November 1963, when Lee Oswald murdered John Kennedy at Dallas, was blueprinted by Kennedy.

Now Johnson has emerged from the Kennedy shadow with an overwhelming mandate and a two-to-one majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. If he keeps his health (he suffered a massive heart attack in 1955) he will probably be president for the next eight years — two terms. With automation, with space research bursting into a stream of scientific discoveries, with race and class upheavals in much of the earth, these will be years of promise and peril, and the man at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, and his relations with the man at 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, will be immensely important to Canadians.

What sort of person and what sort of president is Johnson? What will he do? Where will Canada fit? I sought the answers at Washington, at the Texas capital of Austin, where he founded his fortune in radio and television, and in the scrubby Pedernales River Valley, sixty miles from Austin, where he was born and has his LBJ Ranch.

In Washington there are mixed feelings about him, even among Democrats. One of them told me Johnson is “oriental and devious, sly and wily,” and another that “if he has genuine convictions I don’t know what they are.” He is frequently labeled arrogant, barks at his staff when he’s angry, is always in a hurry.

There are those who compare him with Roosevelt, to his disadvantage, like a congressman who said, “FDR had a real if generalized warmth for the average American, and the average American loved FDR. The best you can say for Johnson is that he wants to be loved, wants to be a great president.”

There are also those who compare him with Kennedy, disparagingly. They claim the Kennedy élan and elegance are gone from the White House—that Austin has replaced Boston, bourbon has replaced sherry, Pedernales River chili (a stomach-searing concoction of hamburger, beans and fiery spices) has replaced haute cuisine, corn has replaced culture, fifthrate oratory has replaced first-rate oratory!

Detractors shrug off his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater with the assertion that “he didn’t beat a Republican candidate — he beat a nut.” They mention the Billie Sol Estes scandal, the Bobby Baker scandal, the sorry case of Walter Jenkins, who resigned as senior assistant to Johnson when police arrested him on a morals charge in the toilet of Washington’s G Street YMCA. They imply that Johnson exerted influence on the Federal Communications Commission to obtain permission for his wife to buy a broadcasting station at Austin, after others had applied to the FCC in vain for the right to purchase it, and they put his wealth at fourteen million dollars, accumulated while he has been in public office. This is ten million dollars above the estimate of the trustees of the Johnson-family holdings.

The same detractors joke that now he is in the White House he is in constant fear of being

revisited by Bashir Ahmed, the camel driver he met in Pakistan in 1961 and impulsively invited to “come over.” Ahmed did, and stayed at the LBJ Ranch. At the National Press Club in Washington there are correspondents who squirm when they recount the incident, and who sneer when they describe the noisy press conference on the White House lawn last summer. to which they were bidden by Johnson to bring wives and children. They sneer, but they were there, pleading with their kids to squeeze nearer to the president and be in the pictures.

There are, of course, other correspondents who say Bashir Ahmed provided wonderful copy and that Johnson, by having him as a guest, polished America’s reputation for democracy. And those who say the famous press conference should be an annual event. For if Johnson has critics, as he plainly does, they are outnumbered by admirers.

The admirers, like the scoffers, compare him with Franklin Roosevelt, but favorably. They claim he is the first really earnest social reformer since FDR, and liken his avowed goal of a Great Society — in which poverty and racial injustice will be erased, every child will have an opportunity to enrich his mind, none will be denied medical care, blighted cities will be rebuilt and beautified, and ravaged natural resources will be repaired — to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Johnson himself was a New Dealer: Texas director of the National Youth Administration, a Roosevelt appointment, until his election in 1937 as a Roosevelt supporter in the House of Representatives. It was at Roosevelt's request that LBJ. a fledgling congressman not yet thirty, was named to the prestigious naval affairs committee, and when Roosevelt died a grieving Johnson said FDR had been a “second daddy” to him.

The admirers, like the scoffers, not onlycompare Johnson to Roosevelt but to Kennedy — again favorably. Kennedy's approach, they say, was typified by the vivid sentence in his 1961 inaugural address: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country.” They contend Kennedy made things sound too big, difficult, heroic. “In war or a grave national crisis,” a midwestern congressman told me, “Kennedy’s words would have put steel in America’s spine. He had a Churchillian ring. But when most Americans are prosperous and contented, speeches like Kennedy’s get their wind up and they think minor legislation is major.”

If Kennedy’s approach was too high-keyed, Johnson’s is so low-keyed that major legislation sounds minor. He would never suggest that a measure he proposes may meet opposition; instead he radiates confidence that it will be unchallenged. This is part of his strategy. Another part of his technique is that he knows, from intuition, from long experience on Capitol Hill, and from old and trusted friends there, where each congressman will be on each issue, and where to place what kind of pressure. When he speaks in congress you can see him noting, with the speed of a computer, who applauds what — and how enthusiastically. He has, in addition, an instinct for timing. In the wave of sorrow that followed the assassination of Kennedy, he sensed that congress could be induced to approve Kennedy’s civil-rights and tax bills, although it had obstructed them while Kennedy lived.

In the Senate, a two-third majority was required to end the southern filibuster against the civil-rights bill. There were senators who were reluctant to be counted, anxious to stay away. But Johnson saw to it / continued overleaf

continued / that, to assure the necessary majority. every one of the hundred U. S. senators was in his seat when the vote was called, among them the dying Clair Engle of California, who arrived by ambulance, entered the chamber in a wheelchair, with a wig covering the scars of an unsuccessful brain operation, and, unable to speak, touched his right eye to signify his “aye” vote.

Meanwhile Johnson had broken the blockade against the tax-cut bill by rallying congressmen indebted to him for past favors and by making dramatic and disarming gestures of thrift — one of them turning out White House lights that used to be on all night. The Senate’s nickel-squeezer, cagey Harry Byrd of Virginia, was among those who felt that a chief executive who switched off lights would, in spite of tax cuts, maintain financial stability.

The power of a president hinges on his persuasiveness, for under the American system of checks and balances, if he fails to persuade, congress can frustrate whatever he attempts in the legislative realm. In congressional history no persuader has been more effective than Johnson. In his first year in the House of Representatives he promoted the Colorado River project that gave his region hydro. He convinced congress, before Pearl Harbor, that the U. S. should rearm, aid Britain, build up its forces. After Pearl Harbor, he was the first congressman to enlist and, as a lieutenantcommander in the navy, won the Silver Star for gallantry. When President Roosevelt ordered all congressmen to return to Washington in 1942, Johnson headed the naval manpower subcommittee.

But it was in the Senate, to which he was elected in 1949, that he gained the stature of a national figure. By 1951 he was the youngest man to be Democratic whip in the Senate and by 1953 he was the youngest Democratic Senate leader. A Pulitzer Prize winner, William S. White, has written: “In the eight years of the Eisenhower tenure, Lyndon Johnson often came very close to running this country . . . What Johnson wanted, Eisenhower usually got. And in foreign affairs he was incomparably more powerful than the country ever knew. Though he never served on the foreignrelations committee ... his voice inside the Senate was the ultimate voice in all that body’s foreign-policy decisions.”

Virtually unknown, even to Americans, is the fact that Johnson guided the motion of censure that ostracized the vicious demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and wrecked his career.

Notwithstanding Johnson’s persuasiveness and achievements, he lost to the Kennedy machine driven by Bobby Kennedy, once a McCarthy staffer, when he sought the presidential nomination in 1960. Asking him to be vice-presidential candidate, John Kennedy said, “If you are not on the ticket with me, that ticket is going to lose.” So Johnson, the proud senator, agreed. He wrote to his constituents: “I had the choice of turning tail and abandoning any opportunity for Texas and the south to have a voice in carrying out national policy, or of repaying the confidence of Democrats from all over the country who voted for me for president (at the nominating convention).”

He appeared to enjoy the vice-presidency. He bought Les Ormes, the Washington mansion of Perle Mesta, the "hostess with the mostest,” and changed the name to The Elms, and he and Lady Bird Johnson (christened Claudia Taylor) entertained lavishly, spending one hundred thousand dollars a year more than the thirty-five thousand dollar vice-presidential salary. “This job of mine, it costs me plenty,” Johnson once said.

Whether he enjoyed the vice-presidency all that much is doubtful, for he and Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy’s chief adviser, could barely tolerate each other. I heard on Washington’s Capitol Hill that thumbing through official papers after the assassination, Johnson found a mislaid personal note from Bobby to John that said, in effect, that Johnson should be scratched from the 1964 ticket. And when Kennedy and Johnson left on the trip on which Kennedy was killed, the story spread that Kennedy was appraising Johnson’s popularity in the south, to determine whether to keep him or drop him. At Johnson’s inauguration this last January, it was conspicuous that Bobby Kennedy was not in the presidential reviewing stand, but that Johnson ostentatious'y welcomed to the stand Mayor Robert Wagner of New York, Bobby’s bitter rival in the New York Democratic organization. “Johnson.” a congressman predicted, “will chop B boy off at the knees.”

In his first year as president, Johnson jammed through congress more legislation, in importance if not volume, than John Kennedy had in the previous three years. Now, beginning to shape his / continued on page 51

continued on page 51

“So solid is his prestige even Washington scandals have left him untarnished”


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Great Society free from want, hate, ignorance, ugliness, he is peppering congress with messages urging new social, conservation, immigration, transportation, education, health, community renewal and related enactments. The outlook: he won’t push too hard too soon, but most of them will eventually go through.

So far, big business is with him, displaying a trust it did not have in Roosevelt or Kennedy. The allegation that Johnson is devious and sly stems partly from his knack of coaxing big business, big labor and the farmer into the same camp. Those who make it say one faction or another is being duped.

Yet so solid is Johnson’s prestige, with so much of the population, that even the Washington scandals have left him untarnished. He knew Billie Sol Estes, the Texas swindler, but so did most Texans. Bobby Baker, Senate secretary of the Democrats, was his protege and presumably collected campaign funds for Democratic senators, but w hy blame Johnson if Baker, who has been accused but not convicted, feathered his own nest by peddling influence? So runs the reasoning of Johnson admirers. As for Walter Jenkins, who recently turned up in church in Washington w'ith his family, how could Johnson suspect that a married man with six children would, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, be the tragic victim of homosexual tendencies? Jenkins has aroused more pity than scorn and been offered a number of jobs outside government.

Have clan and elegance gone from the White House? Johnson men say all that is gone is the Kennedy “soap opera” featuring Jack, Jackie, cute kids and Macaroni the pony — America’s favorite TV show. The Johnsons are sophisticated and attractive people, not boobs, and if they are less formal, less on their dignity, than the Kennedys (Johnson was the first president to decline to wear a silk hat and morning coat at his inauguration) they are not less dignified, and do things gracefully. They are more typically American, but w'hy not?

Did Johnson pull strings so his wife could acquire for $17,500 the broadcasting station at Austin that is the source of the Johnson millions? Maybe. But the reaction of most Americans is admiration, not indignation. The station had been losing money; Lady Bird made it pay. Austin residents, when I was there, pointed out to me with pride the shiny modern building of the Texas Broadcasting Corporation, chief shareholder Lady Bird Johnson, and spoke with pride of Johnson — how he worked as a janitor to pay his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College, how he hustled to create employment when he was based at Austin as Texas director of the National Youth Administration in the middle of the Depression, how he drove the best car and wore the best clothes he could afford, how he borrowed a few thou-

sand dollars from Lady Bird's father, an east-Texas landowmer, to finance his first campaign for congress, and scrupulously repaid it from his congressman’s salary, then ten thousand dollars a year.

They told me, wdth hindsight, how they figured from the start that he would be president. And they told

me. with much emphasis, that his sympathies are with the common man.

Seeing him against his background, 1 got the impression that, Washington cynics to the contrary, his sympathies are with the common man. For he was born and reared in poor country — rocky eroded little hills sprinkled with gnarled spindly mesquites, stunt-

ed live oaks, cactus. Vultures wheel in the sky. In his boyhood there was no electricity there, and no flood control on the Pedernales, which, when not overflowing its banks, dried to a trickle. The Johnson forebears were pioneers, friends of General Sam Houston, who was president of Texas when it was a republic — good old

“When Johnson grants a favor he expects a return. What’s he want from us?”

stock but uniformly poor on this mean soil. Johnson tasted deprivation himself and. while he doesn’t boast of it, is in the Lincoln tradition of cabinto-White House.

At the LBJ Ranch when Lester Pearson was there, he said he had to feed his purebred Herefords “from the grocery store’’ for lack of grass. There was a time when he couldn’t have bought feed. And I suspect that his Great Society and his war on poverty were conceived beside the Pedernales long ago. Thin and miserable as it is, he loves this land. Pearson’s plane had hardly touched down when Johnson ushered him, complete with Homburg hat, into a helicopter and flew him around the area. They saw a lot of little southern deer and Johnson

spoke of the gastronomic excellence of deer meat sausage with plenty of red pepper in it. Next day they had deer-meat sausage for breakfast, with hominy grits.

From all indications. Johnson and Pearson like each other. Johnson, on his first trip to Canada, to sign the Columbia River treaty, flew over British Columbia with Pearson in a Canadian aircraft — the first U. S. president to ignore U. S. Secret Service regulations and fly in the plane of another nation. There is friendliness, too, between Johnson and Paul Martin, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs. It is said of Johnson that he can “make anybody like him if he tries.”

At the LBJ Ranch, transformed

from a subsistence farm to a richman’s estate, with spacious wooden wings stretching out from a stone core that dates from the days when Texas was still Mexican, and with such luxuries as a heated swimming pool, electric golf carts, and an airport large enough for jets, Martin was with Pearson. Martin wakened at 6 a.m. and, bathrobe over pyjamas, tiptoed to the kitchen for coffee. He bumped into Johnson, likewise in quest of coffee, and they talked Canada-U. S. relations until the coffee pot was empty.

Johnson has given Canada tokens of goodwill. He resisted the demands of cattlemen for an embargo on Canadian beef, although he allowed lighter restrictions. His intervention killed a bill sought by American lumbermen

to curtail Canadian lumber sales in the U. S. He was in on the negotiations for the new tariff agreement supposed to assure Canada a bigger share of the North American auto market — a deal our government considers fairly generous, though some critics say the net result will be fatter profits for U. S. parent companies.

Yet Johnson is a trader. When he grants a favor he expects a return. What does he want from Canada? He certainly wants Canada’s moral support for his foreign policies. He wants more Canadian participation in nuclear defense, more Canadian aid to areas where the U. S. is heavily involved, such as Vietnam and Latin America. He has already prodded Ottawa into increasing shipments of civilian supplies to Vietnam, and he let Pearson know in Texas that he’d like Canada in the Organization of American States presumably to echo the U. S. He didn’t reach the stage of arm-twisting. If and when he does, Johnson being Johnson, he will be far more persuasive than his predecessors. But if he can settle the Vietnamese mess he inherited, without starting a real war in the process of trying, his policies may be easier to go along with than those of his predecessors, for judging from his record he is more moderate, less of a brinkman. He lately instructed American embassies in most countries, and notably in France, to speak courteously and shun trouble.

Meanwhile, what does his Great Society mean for Canada? First, Johnson is committed to the proposition that there must be no recession and that economic growth must be speeded — if necessary by more government spending and more tax reductions. If the U. S. economy leaps, it will stimulate Canada’s economy, and U. S. tax reductions create a climate in which Ottawa can hardly resist comparable tax reductions. Second, the flamboyant phrases, war on poverty and the Great Society, do not come naturally to Canadian politicians, most of whom regard them as too crass and blatant. But, since Johnson has popularized them, Canadian politicians will pick them up and use them to dramatize and press for programs not unlike Johnson’s.

We’ll be hearing the Johnson phrases — again and again and again. They are likely to have an impact on our future and, in a sense, stamp the LBJ brand on Canada. ★