lyndon johnson and ronald reagan -- 11/26/14

Today's selection -- from Landslide by Jonathan Darman. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were winners in two of the greatest electoral landslides in U.S. political history and had two of the most towering political personalities in post-war America, but their personal styles were dramatically different:

"It is hard to think of two presidents in modern history, after all, who approached the office more differently than [Ronald] Reagan and [Lyndon] Johnson. Johnson was among the most hyperactive executives the White House had ever seen, always seeking to put his fingerprints on every last scrap of administration business no matter how large or small. Early in the Johnson presidency, James B. Reston, the Washington correspondent for The New York Times, worried over the punishing regime the president was observing in the White House. Johnson, wrote the columnist, 'has three telephones in his car, with five circuits, and the amazing thing about it is that he seems able to talk on all five at once, carry on a conversation in the back seat, and direct traffic on the side.' In his short time as president, Reston wrote, Johnson 'had done everything but cut the White House lawn.'

"[Recorded] conversations [of Johnson] reveal a president who insisted on personally selecting and approving everything -- the locations of bombing targets in Vietnam, the line items in billion-dollar spending bills, the hairstyles of the secretaries sitting outside his door. He wanted to be involved in all of it. Learning that a White House aide failed to wake him in the night to inform him of an administration defeat on Capitol Hill, Johnson was upset. 'When you're bleeding up on that Hill,' the president explained, 'I want to bleed with you.'

"That would never be Reagan -- an actor learns early the benefits of a good night's sleep. From his earliest days in politics, Reagan was supremely confident in his own abilities as an executive. He had come to prominence in a career in which he constantly had to give up control -- to producers and directors and studio bosses, to makeup designers and camera operators and press agents, to critics and millions of anonymous strangers who would form consequential opinions of him as they watched on distant screens. When he began his political career in the mid-1960s, he took to the disaggregated life of a political candidate quickly. Most first-time candidates struggle to adapt to an existence in which they must surrender control of their lives to other people. Reagan had been doing it for years. He understood an important distinction that Johnson never grasped: being in control and being successful aren't always the same thing.

Reagan announces his 1966 campaign.
"And so, as president, Reagan often seemed only vaguely aware of the pressing business of his own administration. Americans grew accustomed to a leader who liked naps and long vacations and days spent ambling on horseback on his mountain ranch above the Pacific. His aides worried at times over the cumulative effect in the press that he appeared too detached from decision making, too much a figurehead. They wondered if they ought to brief reporters on the more punishing aspects of the president's working regime. Reagan advised them to keep quiet; in the long run, it was always better to appear above it all. Like Johnson, he was a rancher, but he stayed out of the swampy muck.

"Each was a gifted performer and raconteur who could captivate an audience. But they excelled in different settings. Johnson was best in person. He was overwhelming, always, and his conversations hummed with transactional momentum. He told involved and engaging Texas tall tales, but he usually told them in order to drive home a pertinent point. He made use of his large girth and six-foot-three-inch frame. All the clichéd metaphors of politics -- glad-handing, buttonholing, back stroking, arm twisting -- were things Johnson actually, physically did in order to get his way. His greatest asset was his intuitive sensitivity to human emotion, his unmatched ability to spot people's highest ambitions and their darkest fears. Even Alabama governor George Wallace, one of the twentieth century's most notorious racial demagogues, found himself mesmerized by an impassioned Oval Office conference with Johnson in the midst of a tense 1965 standoff over racial protests in Wallace's home state. 'Hell,' said Wallace afterward, 'if I'd stayed in there much longer, he'd have had me coming out for civil rights.'

"A conversation with Reagan, on the other hand, was usually pleasant and entirely superficial. In his early days as a politician, supporters would often walk away from first encounters with candidate Reagan disappointed. He'd told funny jokes, they'd laughed heartily, they'd had a ball. But they couldn't remember much if any substance to what he'd said. The problem wasn't that Reagan was an empty suit; rather, he struggled to connect with people when they came too close. Even his own children encountered a fog in their father's eyes when they greeted him in a room. He was friendly, but he gave the impression that he was meeting them for the first time.

"He was better with an audience watching him. Better still if they were watching him on a television screen from the comfort of their own homes. In these moments, he was great. ...

"Television was taking over politics in the midsixties. Anyone who'd lived through the Kennedy years could see that. Johnson could see it, and he worked tirelessly to adapt, but never with much success. As president, he obsessed over his televised press conferences, bringing in a shifting cast of experts for coaching on his diction, his posture, his eyewear. But his problem was fundamental: performing for a TV camera, he could never do what he did in person, he couldn't see his audience and adapt his personality accordingly. And that introduced a terrifying possibility: that the people watching would see him as himself."


Jonathan Darman


Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America


Random House


Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Darman


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