Putting Lipstick on a Wild Boar: An Abstract Verbal Portrait of LBJ, by Artist Wm. Manchester

William Manchester’s elegant description of Lyndon Johnson – using metaphors of field generals attacking fortresses and baseball analogies of LBJ playing center field – is presented verbatim below as a refreshing break from detailed analytical discourses singling out one of his manipulations, deceits, or treasons.

In the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson decided to take over JFK’s Air Force One instead of the nearly-identical aircraft he had flown in that was parked next to it. As the shocked passengers sat on a steaming Air Force One in Dallas awaiting the flight back to Washington the air was filled with an even greater degree of emotional tension than its uncomfortably high heat and humidity level.  The passengers were divided, roughly in half, between “Kennedy people” and “Johnson people” and the tension between the two groups was tighter than a violin string.  When JFK’s military aide Godfrey McHugh was told that the plane was being held on the ground pending Lyndon Johnson’s being sworn in as President he cried, “I have only one President, and he’s lying back in that cabin.”[1] 

William Manchester and his landmark book “The Death of a President”

Author William Manchester described that tension:

In the Austin-Boston polarization there were no way stations, no neutrals; everyone was branded either JFK or LBJ. Sometimes the labeling required ludicrous distortions.  The Johnsonians presumed that Mary Gallagher’s anger was Irish anger—among themselves they spoke of ”Mary’s Irish.” In point of fact, Gallagher was merely her married name: she had been born an Italian.  Still, her wrath was genuine enough. As she sorted out her blazing thoughts she heard the drone of the stateroom television set. The broadcaster’s voice was inaudible, but above it she heard a Texas Congressman cry, “Say, that’s great!” She stiffened.  Two of the newcomers saw her expression and scowled at her. The meeting of eyes lasted only a moment.  It was enough. It was searing.  As a native of Dallas Marie Fehmer [LBJ’s secretary] felt a special sense of torment, and she made a stab at pacification. She offered to order soup for the Kennedy secretaries.  Lips tightened, heads were shaken.  They didn’t want soup—didn’t, really, want an armistice. [2]

Illustration of the Contrast: LBJ v. JFK

The passages below come from Mr. Manchester’s landmark book Death of a President, in a section within which he describes the contrast between JFK and LBJ:[3] (Emphasis added by author throughout).

To men who were accustomed to dealing with President Kennedy, it was like listening to a foreign tongue.  Both in public and in private, Kennedy had been as direct as his pointed finger at televised press conferences.  Johnson approached a strongly fortified position by outflanking it, or burrowing under it, or surprising the defenders from the rear, or raining down obstacles upon them from the sky, or starving them into submission.

Rarely, and then only reluctantly, would he proceed directly from A to B. To him the shortest distance between two points was a tunnel. His supreme talents were those of the man behind the scenes. But his complexities do not even end there, for few men in public life had found less comfort in anonymity. When the circus catch was made, he wanted the fans to note the LBJ brand on the fielder’s glove. They noted it. It could not be missed.

Yet the feeling persisted that bat, batter, and umpire had been stamped with the same brand—that the play had been set from the start. It was only a feeling. Nothing was ever proved.

His critics called him a wheeler-dealer. They overlooked the subtlety of Johnsonian strategy, his use of wheels within wheels.  Put him within reach of a console switchboard and he became an octopus, clutching telephone receivers like bunches of black bananas. 

As Senate Majority Leader he had made the legislative process work with the virtuosity of statecraft, often relying on intermediaries, who in turn engaged other go-betweens. Typically, a Johnson adviser called a colleague who phoned an associate who made an appointment with a friend, each of whom carefully covered his tracks as he went.

Johnson always managed to be out there in center field at the finish, his mitt outstretched to snag the descending ball.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, few people completely understood the intrinsic difference between POTUS #35 and #36, that Mr. Manchester artfully described, going well beyond the superficial stylistic distinctions obvious to all. It was a subtle warning about Johnson’s penchant for secrecy, and manipulation of others from behind a curtain in the back room, that he felt was essential for the public to understand.

William Manchester only hinted at the sinister implications of Johnson’s darker character; but his original manuscript went much further into those points and was so damning of Johnson’s conduct that much of it was cut back or eliminated entirely from his book at Jacqueline Kennedy’s request—to avoid further worsening the relationship between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. The deleted material was put under seal for one hundred years and will not be released until 2067. Yet the stories that remained in the book still enraged Johnson to such an extent that he sought out another author, Jim Bishop, to write a more empathetic version.

Eventually, within two years after his election in 1964, many realized that the image he tried to project before that election — as a magnanimous, back-slapping man of honor who was truly interested in solving the problems of the common man through progressive legislation was horribly inaccurate.

It was the image he tried to sell, but the term “credibility gap” — which was invented by the White House press corps to describe his intrinsic dishonesty — became popularized practically overnight as the definitive term that best defined the public perception of him. By the end of his term in office, it was the least of the derogatory expletives used to describe him. The brutally honest truth about Lyndon Johnson is that he was cruel, mendacious and narcissistic—concerned only about the pseudo-legend he worked an entire lifetime to create, resulting in the false legacy that has persisted today, thanks largely by historians and biographers who glossed over the dark side of LBJ.

Robert Caro, within his first, most candidly honest book, captured the true essence of Lyndon Johnson’s character, when he wrote that he hungered for power “in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will . . . it was a hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself—or to anyone else—could stand before it” [4] His descriptions of the “real” Johnson grew less and less honest and candid in each of his three successive tomes.

My own image of Lyndon Johnson is that he was a modern version of Svengali, a fictional character in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, described as an intrinsically evil person having the innate ability to control other vulnerable persons, either by persuasion or deceit. In Lyndon’s case, that trait is best illustrated by the many photographs of LBJ administering the “Johnson Treatment” to the some of the subjects he chose to apply it to.

[1] William Manchester, Death of a President, p. 316

[2] Ibid., pp. 343-344

[3] Ibid., pp. 270-271

[4] Caro, Robert, The Path to Power, p. xix

One thought on “Putting Lipstick on a Wild Boar: An Abstract Verbal Portrait of LBJ, by Artist Wm. Manchester

  1. Phil,

    Great credit is yours for keeping this ugly truth about LBJ alive, The tragic problem is that absolutely nobody cares anymore that on that black day in November 1963 the bad guys took over in this nation and kept their power until 2016. It was so consolidated by then that virtually nothing Donald J. Trump could do was enough to “drain the swamp.” He’s just one guy, and we need a thousand more like him. You’re one of them.

    All Best,
    Mike Campbell
    Jacksonville, Fla.


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