Lyndon, What Did You Do?

Johnson, by the way, is shouting to a helicopter pilot in that picture, on the campaign trail; he isn't aggressively attacking a heckler, and Kennedy isn't holding him back so much as steadying him--but it's really a matter of what you want to read in, isn't it?




Who'd be a serious political leader? I don't mean the untested and managerial leaders of present days, but those who aspire to Empire. There's a huge amount of evidence in the American presidency of the psychological requirements and costs of leadership, for example. Every single president since Eisenhower, until Obama, has been weird, with one exception. Kennedy was priapic; Johnson psychotic; Nixon neurotic; Carter strange; Reagan a delusional liar; Clinton not far off that, and, well, the Bushes. If Ford escapes my list, it's because Leslie Lynch King (his first and therefore 'real name') wasn't elected to any office and was acutely aware of it. To me, he didn't do that bad a job when faced with what he faced, and should frankly have won in '76.

There's a script which I am tempted to associate with Theodore White, but which I know I should not, about these presidents. The drama begins with some disastrous late night meeting, followed by a Hamlet-like contemplation alone in the oval office; then a whisky-soaked rise by lamp or firelight to an intense contemplation of Abraham Lincoln's portrait, followed by a quiet collapse into a chair. LBJ did it during Vietnam, taking odd comfort as a Southern Democrat from Lincoln's fortitude in the fiery trial; I'd like to imagine Kennedy doing it after recording his haunted tape on the worst night of the Cuban crisis.

Actually, though, Lincoln was tormented and lucky not to have been either overthrown or removed from a collapsed nation. Like Johnson, history books record his sleeplessness and guilt, though unlike LBJ, he at least could acknowledge the cause of his troubles, the Civil War. Johnson--who should have slept easy, having pushed through Civil Rights, medicare and medicaid, the 'Great Society' and one of the biggest wins in history--actually seems to have been gripped both by the disaster in Vietnam, and the chaos in the streets consequent upon it, and by all accounts, by something much more intimate (given that sending American servicemen to a mincer and killing lots of Asians isn't, at the top, an intimate affair).

LBJ was, let's face it, mad. He bullied neurotically, pursued political office relentlessly, and combined cowardice with duplicity and bizarre, byzantine schemes in a way that somehow managed to embody Hermann Goering and Susan B Anthony. Perhaps he just simply wasn't suited to the presidency, and had grown up warped; perhaps he was, like many political leaders, too fixed on eclipsing his already-eclipsed hero, FDR, to build anything new.

There seems, however, to have been more than a smidgeon of guilt in Lyndon Johnson's mind over what had happened to John Kennedy in Lyndon's native Texas in 1963. At the very least, on 22 November of that year, Johnson had been facing almost certain resignation from the Vice-presidency, and possible criminal prosecution in the Bobby Baker affair. He could be credibly connected to a web of Texas corruption which had already killed, and could be connected to 'Mac' Wallace, who appears to have been some sort of unstable Texas hitman quite easily. Later on, after his death in 1984, Johnson would be named in purported pre-indictment material as a co-conspirator in the murder of several people on the basis of his association with Wallace. Including Johnson's sister.

Even if President Kennedy had pardoned Johnson, JFK seems to have been determined, according to his secretary, Mrs Lincoln, to have dropped Johnson in 1964, and to have run with Terry Sanford of North Carolina. His original choice, named in early press releases in 1960, had not been Johnson anyway, but Stuart Symington of California, and Kennedy's brother hated LBJ. Friendless, threatened, and politically alone, Johnson had spent most of the fall of 1963 at his ranch, making frantic telephone calls and lazing, until, in November, the calls appear to have stopped and Lyndon seems to have calmed down.

By 2011, a growing body of opinion not associated with the early investigators, obsessives and ghouls of the Kennedy assassination movement, seems to have cohered around the probability that Lyndon knew something about one or all of the assassination attempts that dogged Kennedy in 1963. People forget that the President is almost always a hunted person; in 1963, Kennedy motorcades were cancelled in Tampa, potential gunmen were restrained in Chicago, and, according to Secret Servicemen of the time, other attempts and rumours of potential attempts on Kennedy's life were suppressed. There may even have been teams of people following those who were clearly out to kill the president, ready to kill them if they acted.

We know this because the exhaustive works concentrated on the assassination, including the Warren Commission, the Congressional Hearings of the Seventies, the Church Committee, and the Assassination Records Review body have all revealed it, as have people like Abraham Bolden. Bolden was the first black Secret Serviceman, personally hired by JFK, who tried to expose the culture of hard-drinking and racism rife amongst the service and who was drummed out under Johnson, before apparently being set up and jailed in trials which the lawyer in me doesn't like to think about at all.

There is very little forensic evidence in the Kennedy assassination. That which exists is perfectly consistent with Lee Oswald firing his rifle with his bullets, at John Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository, then escaping to kill JD Tippett before being apprehended and shot by Jack Ruby. What there is is a mountain of lost evidence, damaged or corrupted evidence, circumstantial data, and multiple conspiracy which is overlaid.

It's perfectly possible, for instance, that LBJ was told that Oswald had a Cuban connection (it's possible he had, as a low-level intelligence agent) and that Oswald was being set up as a 'Castro sympathiser' to justify a war on Cuba before the event, leading to LBJ coming down hard to make him a lone gunman afterward. There's plenty of evidence of that. It's possible that the Mafia wanted to claim the credit for the killing, and that they had deniable contracts out anyway, so put two and two together and, as in Vegas, made five.

It's possible the Kennedy family wanted as little physical information out as possible. It's possible the FBI and the Secret Service wanted one, lone gunman who could not have been stopped as an excuse. It's possible Oswald was an intelligence asset... it's possible, it's possible. Odd that Kennedy's age when nothing seemed impossible should end in that way. It's possible the Kennedys even thought Johnson knew or had a hand in the killing; Robert may well have done, and there have been intriguing stories in recent days that Jacqueline, to whom 'Bobby' was very close after the murder, may well have thought so too. People try to rationalise senselessness.

Any yet, cui bono? I've been bemused, this past year, by the number of books more than prepared to blame LBJ for what happened. A palm print was found, for instance, matching in 13 points that of Mac Wallace, at the sniper's nest and no explanation for it other than that 13 points isn't certainty, has ever been given.

Lyndon's last row with Kennedy, on the morning of the killing, involved Johnson pleading that his political enemy, Yarborough, sit with Kennedy in the car, and that Johnson's friend and Governor of Texas, John Connally, not do so. Johnson spent a good deal of time ducking down in the car following Kennedy, rather than sitting up straight, before any shooting started.

Connally it was who pretended to event organisers that the route had been secured and approved, and who altered it to the strange, indefensible one which took Kennedy's heavy car slowly up and down a dog-leg turn. Johnson's friends owned the Book Depository in which Oswald worked; they provided money for many in the shady milieu in which he seems to have operated. Johnson lied and lied to be sworn in on Air Force One, where he was found by aides in the toilets muttering 'they are going to kill us all', and by Jackie Kennedy lounged across what had been her bed.

He directly disposed of the car in which Kennedy died almost immediately, sending a helicopter escort to have it cleaned, fixed, and altered, and he warned everyone on his commission to head off a real investigation that they could 'start a nuclear war' to the point of reducing Earl Warren to tears. Yet he never once put the White House on nuclear alert. Johnson pathologically deleted everything of Kennedy's within 24 hours from the Oval Office, and then, two years later, in a moment of breakdown, mumbled to an aide through whisky that he had 'had to do it--they were going to ruin me and end my career. I had to do it'.

LBJ's condition of paranoid depression and nightmares in fact got so bad that there were real concerns about whether he would make it to 1968, though once there a hard core of his supporters were probably correct in believing that he could have fought against Richard Nixon and won had he ran, and had his 'bombing halts' worked.

The evidence against Johnson appears to come to this; that he was a phenomenally ruthless and ambitious man; that a strange murder that eliminated his boss happened in his native state; that people claiming to be his mistress, and others, implicate him in at least foreknowledge; and that he definitely covered things up, before experiencing nightmares and paranoia at the thought of a second Kennedy coming at him 'for revenge' in 1968.

That's more or less it, and it's not unpersuasive, though we can't know. As I wrote above, there were plenty of people talking about eliminating Kennedy in 1963, and Johnson may have known of some. The Kennedys made great enemies. There was such a thing as a military-industrial national security state, and it did include the CIA, the mafia, the army and Air Force, the national security staff, and a host of very rich and well connected people as well as grass-roots (perhaps grassy knoll?) organisations. The Kennedys played all sides; they certainly played the anti-Castro people, just as they were secretly writing to Khruschev, associating with Indonesian nationalists, contemplating the swap of West Berlin for parts of East Germany, and revelling with foreign prostitutes.

All this is a matter of record; the amazing thing is that they thought that both sides would not find out. It's perhaps here that the moral failings of the Kennedys as a clan operated analogically, or cosmologically. If their wives, pimps and bootlegging associates could be played with little comeback, in that intimate domestic sphere, why not the more restrained men of the system?

I would think it wrong for James Douglass, in a lovely book called JFK and the Unspeakable, to try to win John Kennedy back for the simple Manichean forces of light. Douglass, a Catholic peace activist and an intellectual historian, would probably argue with me. To contrast Kennedy with 'the unspeakable'--the evil of this world, which is all antichrist, and all within us, in the proper Catholic sense--might seem to make the president the opposite, but the contrast is false. What Douglass reminds us about Kennedy is that he did not respect the limits of the Cold War, and that he had a grip on office without a personal investment in any particular system. He could well have reached out to the third world; might well have avoided Vietnam; may well have avoided deficit-financing war, the destruction of the American gold standard, and the moral messiness of detente. He may have delivered a world where there was an accomodation with Castro and no American trauma, and, who knows, he may have got this past the entrenched forces of American society.

But would he? We won't know. Kennedy was a complex man. He'd technically died several times, and come just the right side of war heroism to get a medal rather than a jail term. Because of his father's money, he hadn't had to constrain himself and warp his adolescent personality to political compromise and success, and because of daily pain he had an unusual sense of the moment. It's no wonder people--women and men--flocked to him. As an historian, however, one has to go back to 1963 and remember that Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan were really doing very well and would continue to do so, and that the Kennedy legacy could, on exposure of the Baker scandal (which inevitably would have tainted the whole administration) have been very very limited indeed. Kennedy ran ahead of the public and lied about it; not a good tactic in the face of the unspeakable.

Barring some document (it's too late for the guns to be smoking) or some strange, amazing combination of electronics and photography of the sort that Thomas Wilson once promised, we'll now never know what happened in Dallas. We can't even be sure, after all, what happened to Kennedy's body, his brain, or his reinternment in 1967. The court he ran (and it was a court) was more renaissance than Imperial, more Borgia than the burghers who followed. What a ride it is to stop wondering who was on the sixth floor or the knoll (either one) or what the impossible details were, and to ask, quite simply--Lyndon, what did you really do?

Comments

Edward Spalton said…
I like the story of Johnson on an air force base, taking the wrong route to Air Force One.

"Mr. President, Sir," said a young officer"Your plane's over here".

"They're all my planes, son" replied LBJ

Anybody who picks a beagle up by the ears is distinctly odd.
Martin Meenagh said…
Indeed they are.