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Richard Goodwin's Account of a 'Paranoid' L.B.J. Riles Some Ex-Colleagues

September 14, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, Mass. — Richard N. Goodwin has grown bored with the questions about why he wrote such mean things about Lyndon Baines Johnson.

"I'm not saying anything mean about Johnson," Goodwin said in an interview in his living room here. His voice was less testy than resigned; this was not the first time he had been asked about his iconoclasm, and he was not the first person to write that Johnson was difficult or that he sometimes received guests while seated on the toilet.

"All I'm giving," he said, "is a nice, accurate account of what I and other people in the White House said at the time."

But in asserting in "Remembering America, a Voice From the Sixties" (Little, Brown: $19.95) that "Lyndon Johnson had become a very dangerous man" because his "paranoid and irrational" behavior was affecting his decision-making abilities, Goodwin made himself the target of angry criticism from others who served in the Johnson Administration.

Heated Response From Valenti

Former Johnson White House aide Jack Valenti, for example, now head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, responded heatedly to Goodwin's request for an advance comment on the book.

Valenti, said Goodwin, fired off an angry five-page letter warning that if Goodwin published the sections about Johnson's mental condition, Valenti "would take a spear" to him.

In a telephone interview from his office in Washington, Valenti called Goodwin "an itinerant prose slinger" to whom Johnson gave "political resuscitation." Goodwin's book, Valenti said, is "a loose amalgam of Judas and Benedict Arnold rolled into one."

Goodwin praised Johnson and pledged "undying loyalty" at the time he resigned, Valenti said, "and mind you, this is written to a man Dick Goodwin now says is mad." The section on Johnson's mental stability was included, "he knows it, and I know it, to jack up sales of the book," Valenti said.

Dean Rusk, Johnson's secretary of state, called Goodwin's suppositions "nonsense."

Journalist Bill Moyers, like Goodwin a White House aide in the Johnson Administration, has refused to confirm or deny Goodwin's contention that the two presidential assistants separately sought opinions from psychiatrists on the President's "mental disequilibrium."

Just as quickly, however, others lauded Goodwin for taking on an Emperor's-new-clothes kind of issue.

Hugh Sidey, the Time magazine journalist who, Goodwin said, approached him during the Johnson era and said "What's wrong with the President?" praised Goodwin in a recent column for probing "a dim corner of Washington history."

Privately, Goodwin said other veterans of the Johnson years in Washington concurred with his position that Johnson's "mental disintegration" led to the buildup, and finally to America's defeat, in Vietnam.

"If the consequences of Johnson's mental condition had been some snafu in the Department of Agriculture, you could have said the hell with it," Goodwin said. "But this was the biggest disaster in United States military history. Fifty thousand Americans died; millions of Asians died. It produced a kind of wound that we have never recovered from."

Still, Goodwin insisted that the flap over his writing came as a big surprise.

"The Johnson thing is 30 to 35 pages out of a 500-page book," he said. "I didn't anticipate this at all."

Besides, Goodwin added, his view of Johnson's mental condition had been expressed 10 years earlier in "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream," written by his wife, Doris Kearns Goodwin, also a former aide to Johnson, and "nobody paid any attention."

Digging for Recollections

But in the ensuing decade, the '60s have become a grand archeological digging site for journalists, historians, political theorists, novelists, musicians. The collective nostalgia fuels curiosity about the recollections of this veteran of John F. Kennedy's campaign staff, one of the few who moved from Kennedy's inner circle to Johnson's after the Kennedy assassination in 1963.

At a recent lecture at a local public library, Goodwin said he was besieged with questions about the political idealism of the '60s. Not one person, he said, inquired about Goodwin's theory that Johnson had lost the ability to separate delusion from reality.

Suffering from mild battle fatigue in the fallout of the "Was Johnson paranoid?" debate, Goodwin prefers to focus on this period when "most Americans felt the future could be bent to their will."

He wrote the book, he said, in large part to address "the emptiness and banality of today's dialogue, which I find so dispiriting."

Growth of Movements

For "people who lived through the '60s," it was "a time at which they felt intensely involved in more than their own personal lives," Goodwin said. The '60s saw the dawning of the women's movement, the flowering of the civil rights movement, the growth of a consumer movement, Goodwin said.

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