I found myself sitting on a bar stool last winter next to Robert Caro at an Irish wake in Times Square for my irreplaceable Times colleague Frank Prial.
I had an overpowering urge to grab Caro’s arm and shake him. For the love of Pete, I wanted to yelp at the 78-year-old historian who has spent 38 years chronicling Lyndon Johnson in more than 3,388 pages: Was he ever going to get to Vietnam?
But the shy, bespectacled writer picking at his hors d’oeuvres did not look like the sort of man who could be rushed.
As Adam Nagourney wrote in The Times on Sunday, Luci Baines Johnson and other members of LBJ’s shrinking circle are pushing to broaden the lens on the president’s legacy so that it is not merely viewed “through the prism of a failed war.”
They are using the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s more impressive domestic policies – including the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act and Medicare – to yank the focus away from “the agony of Vietnam” and “his cross,” as his daughter calls it.
“Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson,” the 66-year-old Luci said, adding that he tried mightily to get out.
Maybe ratcheting up the war with more than 500,000 troops and sending so many young Americans to their deaths halfway around the world based on chest-thumping advice and a naïve theory of democratic dominoes was a deterrent to getting out.
In the new Broadway play with Bryan Cranston as LBJ, “All The Way,” by Robert Schenkkan, there’s a scene where Robert McNamara pushes Johnson to order “retaliatory” airstrikes after the Potemkin Gulf of Tonkin. Hubert Humphrey tries to slow them down, noting that they should not strike back “for an attack which may or may not have happened,” but Johnson, prodded by McNamara, frets about how Barry Goldwater would slam him if he went “soft on the military.”
Johnson was determined not to be seen as weak, not to “cut and run” – the same phrase later used by W. about Iraq when he was determined not to be seen as a wimp and began sending so many young Americans to their deaths halfway around the world based on chest-thumping advice and a naïve theory of democratic dominoes.
Asked by a reporter about Iraq recently, W.’s eyes flashed and he replied, “I am not happy.”
He shouldn’t be. Afghanistan, which he abandoned to pursue a phony “retaliatory” war in Iraq, is crumbling despite all the money, muscle and blood we have poured into it, with our runaway fruitcake puppet Hamid Karzai fiddling while the Taliban burns, vowing to run America out just as they did the Russians and waging vicious attacks on women.
In corrupt and violent Iraq, women are getting detained illegally and tortured. The country is awash in a blood-dimmed tide, with nearly 9,000 killed last year and almost 1,000 killed last month, as al-Qaida and another jihadist group fight for supremacy. In Fallujah, the city where nearly 100 U.S. soldiers died in the fiercest fighting of the war, the black insurgent flag now flies over buildings.
With the help of his own personal librarian, Laura, W. has been trying to reframe his legacy to take the focus off his botched wars, just like LBJ’s family. His presidential library highlights his work on AIDS in Africa, belatedly tapering the roles of his sulfurous regents, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
With Laura at his side, W. spent a long time chatting with reporters on the way to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, putting his own spin on his presidency.
The Texan who hated being “put on the couch,” as he called it, said he had a strategy to see into Vladimir Putin’s soul that entailed getting his attention by asking him, at their first meeting, about something he had read, that his mother had a cross that was blessed in Jerusalem.
The Russian leader told him the breakup of the Soviet Union was the worst thing that had ever happened. Tell it to Ukraine, W. dryly noted. He also said of Putin: “You always have to watch out when someone steeples their fingers.”
Just as LBJ observed that the two things that make politicians more stupid than anything else are sex and envy, W. said that he was not surprised by how Putin evolved because the three things that can change someone are “a love of power, wealth and sex.”
He said that since his heart surgery, he was spending a lot of time painting skulls. Animal skulls, Laura quickly interjected.
He continued his campaign to downplay the influence of Cheney, stressing that he had “lots of advisers.” Asked how much he sees Cheney, he said “never” and asserted that he had never been that close to his vice president and that the age difference precluded a friendship. So he let an acquaintance ruin his presidency?
But just as LBJ will always be yoked to Vietnam and McNamara, 43 will always be yoked to his careless misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and to Cheney.
W. should know: Some landscapes cannot be painted over.