Books

Why were they in Vietnam? It all started with LBJ’s grandmother...

BARBARA AMIEL May 31 1976
Books

Why were they in Vietnam? It all started with LBJ’s grandmother...

BARBARA AMIEL May 31 1976

Why were they in Vietnam? It all started with LBJ’s grandmother...

Books

LYNDON JOHNSON

& THE AMERICAN

DREAM by Doris Kearns

(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $14.75)

Doris Kearns may have thought it a woman’s prerogative to change her mind but her publishers were not so chauvinistic. Back in 1970 Kearns was a Harvard academic in search of tenure. Basic Books’ Erwin Glikes was a publisher after a good book. The two met at a party in Cambridge and by evening’s end Kearns was all set to write a biography of Lyndon Johnson for a $20,000 advance and the prospect of a manuscript to present to her faculty peers. Kearns, known to intimates as “little or-

phan Annie with eyes” on account of her winsome looks, had never written a book before but had glimpsed celebrity status in 1967 when she published an anti-war, antiLBJ article in the New Republic. At the time she was a White House Fellow (one of a group of young people selected to work with senior government people) and had met LBJ at a White House party. Parties, it seems, work out for Kearns, because in spite of the article she was soon snug in Johnson’s office. When he left Washington she followed him to the banks of the Pedernales to help with his memoirs.

By 1975 Kearns had completed her own

manuscript on LBJ and snared political strategist and speech writer Richard Goodwin as a fiancé. Goodwin, who had worked for Johnson, McCarthy and two Kennedys, had a reputation for being “trouble.” Gore Vidal winningly described him as “an lago in search of an Othello.” In Kearns he found Desdemona. She reneged on her contract with Basic Books and signed a $ 150,000 contract with another publisher for a book she and Goodwin would write on LBJ. Legal suits proliferated and sparked The Scandal of New York’s Literary Set. Finally Goodwin backed out of the collaboration crying foul over “public innuendo . . . insidious because it reflects intense prejudices—that she is a vulnerable, infatuated female, who has been manipulated by some malignant, dominating man.” Harper & Row (parent company of Basic Books) took over the manuscript and Kearns got tenure and her

man. Late in 1975 the Harvard Professor of Government married Richard Goodwin.

Now read on: Lyndon Johnson & The American Dream is billed as a “psycho-history” of the President. Psycho-history is much more scientific than predicting the future from the entrails of dead animals and just about as reliable. The Kearns biography leans heavily on this technique of explaining history by applied psychoanalysis. “As a child,” writes Kearns, “Johnson had a persistent fear of becoming paralyzed and sitting forever like his grandmother. But recurrent dreams are generally a statement of profound psychic dilemmas, suggesting unresolved problems far beyond the reach of daily events. Seen in this light, the boy’s paralysis presents one solution to the fear of acting out the forbidden Oedipal wish to eliminate the father and take the mother.” And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say. Later on we are told these fears “plagued virtually every step of his political rise” and that they prefigured many of Johnson’s political actions.

Readers will absolve Kearns from charges that her speech-writer husband assisted her beyond the call of duty: Goodwin would have given her writing the punch (and humor) missing from Kearns’ earnest academic prose. What gives sparkle to this book are the verbatim ramblings of an unsanitized, uncensored LBJ. “How the hell can that creepy guy be a hero to you?” Johnson asked Kearns after watching Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. “If that’s an example of what love seems like to your generation then we’re all in big trouble. All they did was to yell and scream at each other before getting to the altar. Then after it was over they sat on the bus like dumb mutes with absolutely nothing to say to one another.” The politic LBJ, one eye on relevance and Mount Rushmore, kept such outbursts from his own autobiography.

Kearns makes excellent use of LB J’S infatuation with a young member of the Eastern-intellectual-enemy. Those 5.30 a.m. sessions in her bedroom, Kearns in a chair and LBJ in her bed “pulling the sheets up to his neck looking like a cold and frightened child” paid off. Between the Freudian clichés is a memorable portrait of a President who never understood why his country rejected him. “How is it possible,” he asked Kearns, “that all these people could be so ungrateful to me after I had given them so much? ... I tried to make it possible for every child of every color to grow up in a nice house, to eat a solid breakfast, to attend a decent school... I asked so little in return. Just a little thanks.” Johnson suffered from the rational man’s syndrome. The Vietnam war was a simple matter of

fighting off a burglar in his neighbor’s house. People’s miseries could be solved by making sure everyone had some breakfast and some education. It never occurred to Johnson that benefactors could be hated and that some acts should be done not for thanks but simply because they are RIGHT. BARBARA AMIEL