LBJ (again)

A Very Human President by Jack Valenti

A view of Lyndon Baines Johnson from one of his key advisors. Valenti was there in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and he accompanied Johnson to Washington, D.C. that evening. Johnson invited Valenti and some other advisors to stay at the Elms (the Johnsons’ Washington residence) that night, and Valenti didn’t leave Washington, D.C. until April 1966, when he resigned his position as special assistant to the president. This book was published in 1975, a couple of years after Johnson’s death. Still, Valenti was very protective about his former boss’s legacy; for example, he addresses the rift between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, but his explanation is a bit pat.

This book is full of LBJ tales, most of which are larger than life—no surprise there. I love the story of Johnson calling Truman, to get some support from a man who had been in his shoes. Valenti confesses to listening to the conversation on the other line a little longer than was necessary, and I just loved the humanness of that moment. And he writes that the phone conversation with Truman was like a tonic for Johnson.

Valenti also included a section specifically about the press, which was much more interesting than I would have expected. He describes how journalists would become vexed by Johnson’s unwillingness to reveal his schedule until the last moment, and how that gradually undermined the president’s credibility.

The section about Vietnam surprised me, too—because when I read it, it seemed that escalating the conflict was inevitable. Valenti says that most of the advisors at the time were still “Kennedy men,” and he makes the argument that even if Kennedy had lived, the U.S. still would have sent more and more troops to southeast Asia. (Again, I wondered if Valenti presented the situation in this way to protect Johnson’s legacy. I am a skeptic. And I don’t think we’ll ever wholly understand how that whole situation went so wrong.)

Valenti was a lovely writer. This book is easy to read, and it contains some delightful turns of phrase. Interestingly, though, the most memorable line comes from a letter written to Valenti by David Halberstam. Referring to Lyndon Johnson, Halberstam writes, “He reeks of human juices.” Amen.