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For The Sake of Argument : Remembering L.B.J.-- Another Voice From '60s

September 25, 1988|Walt Whitman Rostow | Walt Whitman Rostow, professor of political economy at the University of Texas, is the author, among many works, of "Theorists of Economic Growth From David Hume to the Present," forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — There is in our country a little-noted tribal rite. On the birthday of each former President no longer alive, a wreath is delivered in the name of the incumbent and placed on the grave.

Such a quiet ceremony was held Aug. 27, in the family burial ground at the LBJ Ranch. Lyndon Baines Johnson would have been 80 years old.

Driving back to Austin, I thought of the reported recent remark by Richard N. Goodwin that he did not expect "Johnson loyalists" to like his book ("Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties" (Little, Brown)). I asked myself: What does being a Johnson loyalist mean?--for I certainly belong in that category.

In my case, it certainly does not mean that I agreed with L.B.J. on every occasion or found him without flaw. Like all of us, his personality had many elements not always harmonious. To paraphrase the novelist James Gould Cozzens, these were of irreducible complexity and each, by itself, inscrutable. It was "the struck balance" of his habitual predispositions that we observed, magnified by the issues he confronted and the consequences of the decisions he made.

What Johnson confronted as President were simultaneous, inescapable crises at home and abroad: in race relations and Southeast Asia. At home he also perceived a brief interval in which it might prove possible to move America toward the multiracial society of equal opportunity its values demanded and, along the way, to expand the foundations of the nation's educational and health systems. Johnson did not permit the intrusion of urgent, short-run problems to deflect him from the pursuit of these long-run goals.

It was much the same in foreign policy. He found the energy and vision to reach beyond the immediate crises and try to move the world toward orderly peace: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the initiation of work on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; the creation of a consensus in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to ameliorate relations with Eastern Europe; to build with Asian leaders the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations and other foundations for the Pacific community whose dynamism and long-run meaning he had understood and acted on in the 1950s--long before it became the conventional wisdom. Thus, statehood for Hawaii and Alaska and the East-West Center. He was quite explicit in expressing steadily his hope that China, returning to its pragmatic and humane tradition, would join that community.

The views of Johnson loyalists are evidently not identical. But Johnson commanded--and his memory still commands--the loyalty of most who served with him because of his total commitment to the resolution of the dual crises he confronted and to his large aspirations for America and the human community.

There was, however, more to it than that. No business was conducted by Johnson without a strand of humor--usually the lovingly told and relevant anecdote; for he understood that humor breeds a sense of proportion. And then there was--only occasionally expressed--a capacity for deeply felt understanding and affection. On Dec. 12, 1972, just before his death, Johnson was closing speaker at a civil-rights symposium in Austin. He came to this last hurrah against the advice of his doctors and chewed nitroglycerin pills from time to time during the program. Looking down at the array of civil-rights leaders with whom he had fought side by side, he set aside his text and said: "When I listened to Burke Marshall and Henry Gonzalez, Clarence Mitchell and Julian Bond, whom I don't know so well but admire a great deal, I said to myself that 'I love these men more than a man ought to love another man.' "

I knew John F. Kennedy well before I knew Johnson. I first met Kennedy at lunch at the Metropolitan Club in Washington on Feb. 26, 1958. Through an aide, he had asked if I would work in support of the Senate resolution he and John Sherman Cooper were designing to generate international support for the Indian Second Five-Year Development Plan. We discussed that enterprise and, being much of an age, a great deal more. I concluded he would make a great President.

Like many others, I found Kennedy an extraordinary mixture of maturity and humor; high spirits and sense of the possibility of tragedy and the closeness of death; compassion and toughness; short-term political skill and farseeing statesmanship. His friendship, once granted, was steady and reliable and generated an answering intense loyalty.

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