Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was not an easy man. Bill, a
colleague with whom I worked on Johnston Atoll in the 1980s, was on the Johnsons’ security detail during their Texas visits. He spoke of loud, embarrassing, drunken fights between the Johnsons and crude behavior like throwing dishes of jelly beans and popcorn and expecting the security detail to pick it all up immediately. Ronald Kessler’s book, In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, confirms much of what Bill told me then. Regardless of his personal behavior, Johnson was a political sophisticate who understood power at a fundamental level. By all accounts, Johnson’s rise to power was steady and ruthless.
The dichotomy among historians becomes apparent once Johnson assumes the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination. The gulf widens through the nine years of the Johnson presidency. Was Johnson a model for business executives and a great progressive leader as portrayed by historian Robert A. Caro, who has studied Johnson for the better part of three decades? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, was Johnson a dangerous, paranoid individual? According to former Kennedy speech writer and author Richard N. Goodwin in his 1988 book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, Johnson’s behavior drove two presidential assistants to separately seek opinions on Johnson’s mental stability from psychiatrists.
What can be said with certainty is that, as president, Johnson drove social engineering to new heights with his ‘War on Poverty’ and ‘Great Society’, which included legislation for public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, and aid to education. Johnson did not confine his activity to just the home front, though. He was busy with the CIA, too; the U.S. Dominican Republic intervention in 1965, the Vietnam War, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, and efforts to reduce tension with the Soviet Union.
It took three tries to land a Director of Central Intelligence, DCI, he wanted, but Johnson finally got the job done. Johnson inherited DCI John A. McCone from Kennedy. Kennedy asked McCone to head up the CIA following Kennedy’s termination of Allen W. Dulles, a remnant of Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS, after the Bay of Pigs disaster. McCone was reputed to be an excellent manager and returned balance to an agency enamored of covert activities and nation-building. Under McCone, the CIA redistributed its organizational energy between analysis and science and technology in addition to its well-known covert actions. Not everyone in the CIA was a happy camper with this intelligence outsider, but McCone earned his spurs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson and DCI McCone parted ways in 1965 over disagreements about the Vietnam build-up. Continue reading