Looking Backwards

From the Shelf

LYNDON JOHNSON has written a nifty little book to serve as a postscript to his Administration. It is called The Choices We Face, and it tells us all about them.

"When I returned to Washington on the tragic night of November 22, 1963, the agenda I found waiting for me as a new President was not greatly changed from the agenda which had faced the American people and their government a quarter century earlier when I arrived at the Capitol as a newly elected member of Congress." That's the first sentence in the book. It is a little frightening. (One imagines LBJ at the first meeting of his Cabinet saying, "Now there's one little item I'd like to bring up. It's a project that's been on my mind for some time. I've called it the Tennessee Valley Authority.")

But LBJ hastens to explain what he means. "It seemed that each Cabinet officer who came to brief me on the challenges before us spoke as a voice from the past." That is the second sentence in the book. It goes nicely with the first.

Although he sets out, against this backround, to describe the "activist" programs which we must carry out ("Rarely has so much depended upon the turn we now take"), not until three pages before the end of the book does LBJ actually get there. Throughout, it is The Past which is important.

LBJ tells us why this is so. "I think a loss of national memory has something to do with it [dissent]. After four decades, the Depression has become something to read about in textbooks. . . . World War II, and the great need to prevent an aggressive tyranny from expanding beyond control, is a topic for old movies and not an aching personal fear replete with lessons for the present time."

(One imagines LBJ down on the ranch. "Did you sleep well, dear?" Bird says.

"No, I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about the Depression."

"Well, at least that's better than your dream about Hitler."

"Shut up, Bird, and bring me my chipped beef on toast.")

What LBJ says about the past, however, can teach us a lot. We learn, for example, that "the history of the last 20 years. . . is the story of our persistent efforts to find a path to agreement with the Soviet Union and China and with other nations controlled by Communist parties." We learn why Western Europe has been in such bad shape recently. "The reason, quite simply, was the policy of the government in France." And we learn about the Soviet Union. "The main obstacle between our two great nations . . . has been the Communist ideology." These are important things to know.

LBJ LEARNED some things, too. "Perhaps the greatest single lesson a President learns is that America's power to control events in the world is limited." That is why LBJ only sent half a million men to Vietnam and kept the rest at home. He also learned about national defense. "The Soviet Union is the only nation on earth that possesses a destructive force similar to ours. Theirs is some what less in size, but the average human being would not be able to detect the difference in being hit by 30,000 tons of explosive or 15,000 tons of it." Presumbaly, however, there are a few "non-average" people who could tell the difference, which is why we go on building bombs.

LBJ also learned about freedom. "Contrary to another impression given by recent demonstrators, the federal government has not the slightest inclination to defy or to stifle dissent."

Besides all of these insights, the book contains, as the front cover says, "32 pages of remarkable photographs." They are very good ones. The first shows LBJ addressing the UN (A man for all nations). The next shows him with a bunch of farmers in Tennessee (President of all the people). Then in a Philadephia ghetto (President of blacks, too). Then at Howard University (scholar). Then delivering his State of the Union message (upholder of the finest traditions of democracy). Then standing alone in the Cabinet room, seen from the back, silhouetted against the Rose Garden (the awesome responsibilities of office).

The most remarkable thing about LBJ's book, however, is that when he finally comes to talk about the future, he makes some uncharacteristically perceptive statements. He talks, for example, about the "different visions. . . different questions. . . different doubts" of the current generation of Americans. "Either we move into a new awareness of the new needs of our people," he writes, "or else many of the institutions and values imperative to our progress will become massive irrelevancies."

"There must be," he goes on, "far better ways to serve our goals and purposes than we now have." Forgiving for a moment the lousy writing which cripples the book from the start and forgiving the overall narowness of LBJ's mind, I think he may be groping toward the realization that has come to so many of us in the past few years: that the whole way of life in this country is fast becoming absurd and that until we face that fact we will be beating around the bush. It's only too bad--to the tune of a lot of lives lost and a lot of minds destroyed--that LBJ was trapped by his own awe of the past. Even in the handsome color photograph on the book's cover, he is looking backwards. He probably always will.