WAS Lyndon Johnson crazy? This is the question that transforms Richard Goodwin's account of the 1960s, Remembering America, from an eloquent narrative into a bizarre romp around the psychoanalyst's couch. After beginning with a fascinating account of the Charles Van Doren quiz show scandals, Goodwin winds up with elaborate discussions of LBJ's bowel movements. The result is both controversial and trivial, leaving Goodwin to contemplate rising book sales and a sinking reputation.
Remembering America: A Voice
From The Sixties
By Richard N. Goodwin
Little, Brown and Co., 543 pps., $19.95
From early on Dick Goodwin was one of the best and the brightest. After attending Tufts University and graduating first in his class from Harvard Law School, he began what looked to be a promising career with a clerkship under Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Keeping on the intellectual fast track, Goodwin then worked as counsel for a House committee investigating fixed TV quiz shows. Goodwin's next move, becoming a speechwriter for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, brought him into the equally scandalous world of politics and power. From 1961 to 1965, Goodwin served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in various roles from assistant to speechwriter, contributing most notably to the creation of the Alliance for Progress and the Great Society. After breaking with Johnson, Goodwin left government but kept his association with politics through the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.
Despite scattered allusions to the famed Kennedy woman-chasing, Goodwin avoids turning his story into a kiss-and-tell memoir. Psychoanalyze-and-tell better describes Goodwin's finished product. The most provocative chapter in the book, entitled, "Descent," describes Lyndon Johnson's progressively paranoid behavior following the 1964 election. This chapter has drawn the most attention--and fire--to the book. Former Johnson aide Jack Valenti and former Secretary of State Dean Rusk have both bitterly attacked Goodwin's portrayal of the president. They accuse Goodwin of misunderstanding Johnson's eccentricities and misusing psychiatric terms that he knows little about.
GOODWIN does seem to have a point about some of the alleged Johnson "eccentricities." In a chapter called, "The Master At Work," Goodwin describes LBJ's infamous habit of conducting meetings while on the toilet. Goodwin tells how Johnson forced him to attend one of these bathroom meetings. "I remained standing, of course," Goodwin relates, "Johnson had the only seat in the room." Later Goodwin details Johnson's rantings about the Kennedys and "Harvards" and his absurd orders to fire one official or another for perceived acts of disloyalty. At one point, Johnson demanded that one of his top foreign policy advisers, McGeorge Bundy, resign because he appeared on television with a group of college professors.
To some, Johnson's distaste for academics may seem perfectly rational, but Goodwin believes Johnson's self-control was disintegrating. "I am not Lyndon Johnson's psychiatrist," Goodwin warns, but he does offer his psychiatric analysis of the president and concludes he had an obsessive paranoid personality. It is on this point that Goodwin's critics take issue with him.
They claim Goodwin, ignorant of Johnson's ways and untrained in psychiatry, has no right to psychoanalyze the President of the United States. His random quotes from psychiatric textbooks and his few unnamed psychiatrist friends do not constitute an informed medical judgment. Most importantly, Goodwin, a Kennedy man at heart, really didn't know Johnson, having worked under him for less than two years. These arguments are persuasive and demonstrate the dangers in armchair psychiatry.
Putting such pitfalls aside and fully aware that I'm no psychiatrist, I feel confident in saying that you don't have to be a genius to realize that possibly Goodwin himself could use a little couch time. "I've always viewed slacks," he writes about his dating experiences, "as the greatest challenge to my coordination." Is Goodwin's awkwardness with women in pants a case of misplaced Oedipal urges? "Now the ghosts dissolve," he writes at the book's end. Ghosts? But then Goodwin seems to be preoccupied by the supernatural. He begins his book by quoting Paul Simon, "Hello darkness my old friend/I've come to talk with you again." To paraphrase Albert Brooks, I know people who talk to the darkness and they take plenty of medication.
Again, I hold no Ph.D. in psychology, but my girlfriend took Psych I, and she says that people who believe in ghosts and confuse mother and father figures have more than a couple of keys sticking in their keyboard. Goodwin's problem with slacks is perhaps symptomatic of a larger malady, something that I once heard Shirley MacLaine during a taping of the Mike Douglas Show call para-pneumoreactionary paralysis. I also have lingering suspicions that Goodwin's obsessive desire to paint LBJ as crazy hints at some problems closer to home. Lurching about accusing the president of being a cuckoo bird, Goodwin is not exactly a cheerful model of sanity. Maybe Johnson's toilet escapades were just imaginative ploys designed to relieve a president of an annoying junior assistant.
WHAT about Goodwin's noted accomplishments, his defenders might rejoin? After all, insane people don't write presidential speeches, coin terms like the Alliance for Progress and the Great Society or write breath-taking memoirs.
Of course, I don't want to be injudicious in my analysis of Goodwin, but he seems to have provided a defense of my less-than-informed opinion in the course of making his argument about Johnson's sanity. While supposedly a raving lunatic over Vietnam and Robert Kennedy, Johnson was also mysteriously able to navigate through Congress the most impressive legislative agenda of any president in American history. Case closed.