LYNDON B. JOHNSON

For my own amusement, I keep a file of presidential trivia, but there is one fragment of information about the 36th president that I have chosen to omit: Lyndon Johnson was the only president who conducted staff meetings in his bathroom while he was moving his bowels. The fact that he bullied his staff into participating in this bizarre behavior speaks to one of the worst characteristics of the president. And, I suppose — to the extent that they didn’t have enough personal pride to tell him to go take a whaddyacallit — it speaks to the self image of Johnson’s toadies. He was a coarse, loud-mouthed bully, and that went along nicely with his appetites for alcohol and women.

Johnson, in a few words, was no damned good. That is, he would have been if he hadn’t conducted the most successful domestic policy of any president except Franklin Roosevelt; if he hadn’t used his political brawn and skill to enact such measures as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act, and if he hadn’t sponsored such programs as Medicare. These contrasting realities about LBJ are described in “Lyndon B. Johnson” by Charles Peters, one of a series of short presidential biographies by Times Books.

Maybe it has been true of every president including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that the nation has had to accept the bad with the good sides of a man, but that lesson has hardly been more boldly drawn than it was in the case of Lyndon Johnson.

Peters, who was a member of the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, gives plenty of examples of Johnson’s petulance, pettiness, and cruelty, including his weakness for publicly humiliating the  people around him. Peters reports instances in which Johnson obfuscated or simply lied, including to the American public, in order to get his way — although LBJ hardly originated that tactic. In fact, Peters describes the scenario in which LBJ, then vice president, was left out of the loop when Robert Kennedy secretly agreed to the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. LBJ succeeded to the presidency and pursued what turned out to be a very aggressive policy against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong without knowing how the missile crisis had been resolved.

Johnson was an extraordinarily ambitious man, and he never made decisions without weighing the political consequences for himself. For instance, he abhorred the idea that he would be cast as a weakling if he publicly vacillated from a determination to prevent the fall of South Vietnam — even while he seriously doubted that the war could be won and made several efforts to achieve a negotiated peace.

The war — or, at least, the way the war was perceived by much of the American public by 1968 — was Johnson’s undoing. People may forget about Johnson showing off his surgical scar, using an aide’s lap as a footrest, lifting his hound by its ears, or even pursuing one sexual affair after another. However, as Peters notes, the bloodshed and the divisiveness and LBJ’s unprecedented decision to decline to run for reelection will always be associated with his memory.

Still, this unlikeable man took a courageous stand during a time of great uncertainty in the country and doggedly promoted his programs to help the poor, to assure medical care for the elderly, to assist students, and to finally bring true political equality to black Americans. Historians can spend eternity speculating whether all of that could have been achieved in the America of the 1960s without an SOB of Shakespearean proportions in the White House.

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Bill in August 1965. Although previous legislation had guaranteed the franchise to all citizens, this bill was actually enforceable.

Abraham Lincoln meets with Maj. Gen. George McClellan in October 1862, following the Battle of Antietam

The recent decision by President Obama to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan in favor of Gen. David Petraeus prompted a lot of people to reflect on the analogous event involving President Truman and Gen. Douglas McArthur. My mind reached back further, however, because I happened to be reading Lincoln and McClellan, a recent book by John C. Waugh about another president and general whose relationship came to grief.

GEORGE McCLELLAN

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan is remembered today mostly for his reticence on the battlefield and for the effect that had on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln finally removed the general from command of the Army of the Potomac after the carnage at Antietam. It’s hard to say that there was a winner or loser in that awful battle, but Lincoln’s frustration was that McClellan let Robert E. Lee and his army slip away without pursuit — this after McClellan had repeatedly resisted Lincoln’s urgings to attack or pursue the enemy.

In a way, McClellan, like so many of his contemporaries, was one more victim of the Civil War. He was a charismatic and erudite man who was well trained at West Point — but not as a fighter. McClellan had served in the Mexican War and had left the army for a lucrative executive position with a railroad, but he returned to arms when secession made war inevitable.

ROBERT E. LEE

Lincoln called on McClellan after the disaster of First Bull Run, and McClellan used his considerable skill to, in effect, create the Army of the Potomac and mold it into a formidable fighting force. His personal qualities endeared him to the troops, and that sentiment spilled over to the Northern public. McClellan was lionized as a new Napoleon. He believed his own publicity, but he fell short of its promise. Among his errors were that he was never quite satisfied with the readiness of his army and that he wildly overestimated the size of his enemy with the result that he ended up being embarrassed by much smaller forces than his own.

Although McClellan ran for president in 1864 and in later life served as governor of New Jersey and campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates Winfield Scott and Grover Cleveland, he hated politics and despised politicians.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

He resented any interference in military affairs by civilian authorities, and that put him on a collision course with Lincoln who, for better or for worse, had his own ideas about strategy and let the general know about them. There were bitter exchanges between McClellan and both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was something of a troublemaker in his own right.

This condition was complicated by the fact that McClellan came from an elite Philadelphia family and regarded people with humbler pedigrees as his social and intellectual inferiors — and that included, one might say especially, Abraham Lincoln. In letters to his wife, Ellen Marcy McClellan, the general dismissed Lincoln as “an idiot” and “a gorilla.” This was consistent with a pattern in McClellan’s life in which he usually regarded his superiors as incompetent.

GEORGE McCLELLAN circa 1880

Like many or maybe most northerners, McClellan was not concerned about the institution of slavery or about the slaves themselves, and he insisted that they were not a factor in the war. He maintained that the war should be conducted with the least possible impact of southern institutions and property – and he pointedly included slavery and slaves in that philosophy. As as result, he was scandalized when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that Lincoln insisted that the proclamation was a war measure didn’t mitigate McClellan’s disgust.

McClellan has often been brushed off as an almost comical figure who dithered while Lincoln fumed, but passing easy judgment on the men and women who lived through and participated in the war and the events surrounding it is a disservice to them. That’s why I appreciate books like this one, in which John Waugh presents a balanced view of the life and career of a complicated man caught up in a complicated epoch.

EDWIN BOOTH

I had an opportunity this week to talk to William Henline, a young playwright who is about to introduce a drama about Edwin Booth, the most prominent American actor of the mid and late 19th century and the brother of John Wilkes Booth. The focal point of the play is Edwin Booth’s effort to come to terms with what his brother had done. The dynamics are not the obvious. Edwin and Wilkes Booth lived at politically opposite poles. Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer and operative who despised Abraham Lincoln, as many people did at the time. Edwin supported the Union, and Henline’s research shows that the only two times Edwin Booth is known to have voted, he voted for Lincoln. The brothers’ political differences ran so deep that they were incapable of discussing the subject.

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

Still, Henline discerns that there was a fraternal love that underlay this fissure between the brothers and that survived even Edwin’s revulsion and humiliation over the murder of Lincoln. Edwin, it seems, was constitutionally incapable of rationalizing or excusing Wilkes Booth’s crime, but was equally incapable of casting off his sibling — even if he did once say that he didn’t want Wilkes Booth’s name mentioned in his presence.

Edwin Booth’s rooms at the Players Club in New York have been preserved as they were on the day he died in 1893. Near his bed is a portrait of John Wilkes Booth.

Henline also called my attention to the fact that there is a recording available of Edwin Booth reciting part of a speech from William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The quality is as poor as one might expect from such an early recording, but if you listen to it at THIS LINK, you can follow the text on the screen and understand most of the speech. Considering who Edwin Booth was and when he spoke these words, it’s a stirring experience to sit at a laptop in 2010 and hear his voice.

John Wilkes Booth, left, as Marc Antony; Junius Brutus Booth Jr. as Cassius; and Edwin Booth, right, as Brutus, in a production of “Julius Caesar” in New York in 1864. It was the brothers’ only joint appearance on stage.

Children at Theresienstadt. Yad Vashem Archives.

It’s been a good reading season squeezed in between semesters. The pace will slow down when classes resume next week, though I just started a fascinating book about Isaac Newton’s little-known career as the scourge of counterfeiters. Of that, more later.

I just finished “The Girls of Room 28” by Hannelore Brenner, which describes the lives of children who were incarcerated at the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1944. An estimated 13,000 children passed through there; 25 survived. Some died of disease or other consequences of neglect. Most died in the concentration camps further east. Brenner presents first-hand accounts from some of the survivors as well as material from diaries and other such documents. She also records how the Nazis bamboozled the International Red Cross  into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model community for Jews, founded on the benevolent nature  of Adolf Hitler. There is a lot of information and photographs about the ghetto on the YAD VASHEM web site.

Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad.

I can’t read too many books about Abraham Lincoln, and I was delighted with “Lincoln, Life-Size,” a volume that includes digitized reproductions of all 114 known photographs of Lincoln, most of them portraits. The book was assembled by three descendants of Frederick Meserve, one of the best-known collectors of Lincoln images. The authors used high technology to calculate the size of Lincoln’s head. The head was cropped from each of several dozen photographs and reproduced on the facing page in life size. The result is fascinating and, at times, unsettling. The authors also accompany each photograph with texts drawn from a variety of sources, some putting the photo in context, others illuminating some aspect of Lincoln’s public or private life.

GERTRUDE EDERLE

“America’s Girl” is a biography of Gertrude Ederle, a young woman from New York City who, in 1926, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but far surpassed the previous record — set, obviously, by a man. Ederle did not lead an exciting life in the long term, but in the weeks and months after her achievement, she was a celebrity of proportions that have only rarely been exceeded —  even in our own age of instant notoriety. More  important, really, is that her accomplishment had a significance that transcended her personal fortunes. Ederle confounded the widely accepted assumption that women were not capable of feats like the one she performed. Her crossing helped to accelerate brewing changes in how women were regarded and what they were permitted to do in a society in which only men were allowed to vote until only five years before. The book was written by Tim Dahlberg with Mary Ederle Ward – the swimmer’s niece – and Brenda Green.

Yogi Berra jumps into Don Larsen's arms after the last out of the perfect game.

“Perfect” by Lew Paper, is based on Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Paper examines the well-worn but still fascinating fact that this feat – achieved only once since the World Series was inaugurated in 1903 – was carried out by a mediocre pitcher whose name would long have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for that day. But Paper makes his book good winter reading for baseball fanatics by devoting each of his 18 chapters to one the half-innings in that game, and focusing each chapter on one of the players who participated. In one instance only, he profiles two players – Jackie Robinson and Gil McDouglald – in a single chapter. In each case, Paper recounts the personal history that brought the player – Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese – to that historic moment in sports. Not the least of these figures is Dale Mitchell of the Dodgers who was pinch hitting for starting pitcher Sal Maglie in the top of the ninth when he took the called strike that sealed Larsen’s place in history. Mitchell, who had one of the best batting eyes of his era, thought  the pitch was high. So, according to Paper, did most of the Yankees on the field. But, as one baseball wag observed, when the umpire calls strike three on you, even God can’t get you off.

Authorities estimated that a third of the population of New York City - about two million people - turned out for this ticker-tape parade for Gertrude Ederle. It remains the largest such event to honor an individual athlete. (© Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)

The relationship between baseball and presidents of the United States has been well documented; in fact, there is a room devoted to the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The earliest association seems to be with Abraham Lincoln and it is most graphically represented by this Currier & Ives political cartoon, published in 1860, after Lincoln had outlasted three opponents to win the presidency. Lincoln is saying, “Gentleman, if ever you should take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat to strike a fair ball and make a clean score and a home run.”

ANDREW JOHNSON

How close Lincoln was to the game seems to be a matter of debate, but it is documented that his successor, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to witness an intra-city game and the first president to invite a baseball team into the White House. Among his papers are several honorary membership cards in baseball organizations.

Another president who had a particular connection to baseball was Dwight Eisenhower, who loved the game and said more than once that he would have liked to have played professionally. There is a lingering discussion about whether he did, in fact, once play semi-pro ball under an assumed name — something that would have fouled the amateur status under which he played football at West Point. A number of prominent witnesses said that Eisenhower had admitted to this in later life, but Eisenhower never publicly owned up to it.

GERALD FORD

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has looked into the subject of presidents and football — specifically, which president was the best player. The candidates are Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

Even after one gets over the image of Nixon playing football, the answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

If you can’t guess, you can read about it at THIS LINK.

2It’s hard to imagine in our time any amount of hype being dismissed as “too much,” but that’s how former President Bill Clinton’s handlers have described the marketing of a planned joint appearance by Clinton and former President George W. Bush. The event, which was to have taken place at Radio City Music Hall on February 25, has been cancelled on the grounds that it was oversold as the toughest face-off since Leo the Great and Attila the Hun.

Ticket prices for this event, in which the two former chief executives were to have discussed various issues of domestic and foreign policy, were to range from $60 to $160.

s-OBAMA-INAUGURATION-largeThis would not have been the first time the two men have shared the same platform; they did it in Toronto in May. Although there were some reports that each was paid $150,000 for that gig, that has not been confirmed, nor has any information been forthcoming about what they might have been paid if the Radio City event had gone on as planned.

News reports of the Toronto appearance indicated that Clinton and Bush did not sharply disagree on many issues, so the language used to promote the New York appearance struck me as odd from the outset. The context is that Clinton and the first President Bush have formed a good post-White House relationship, and the younger Bush hasn’t been at all politically combative since he left office. If Harry Truman could make peace with Herbert Hoover, why not Clinton and the Bushes. This was looking like a love fest despite the marketing lingo.

I was especially amused by the description of the encounter that has now been cancelled as “the hottest ticket in political history.” I wonder what Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas — wherever they now repose — think of that.

Lincoln-Douglas

 

 

RUDOLPH VALENTINO

RUDOLPH VALENTINO

I noticed references to a public wake for Michael Jackson, and that got me to thinking about the manner in which previous celebrities of that magnitude have taken their leave, as it were.

I should qualify this observation immediately inasmuch as I’ve been hearing for several days that there has been no other celebrity of that magnitude — and today I heard the Chicago Tribune music critic say that there won’t be another, at least not among singers. These are meaningless statements, of course, because the magnitude of any person’s celebrity is affected by multiple factors, most of them subjective. Enrico Caruso, for example, was treated all over the world as if he were royalty — even by people who had never heard him perform, and 88 years after his death he is still the standard by which male singers are measured. His name, in fact, is a synonym for “male singer.”

BABE RUTH

BABE RUTH

A man whose status as an international celebrity was emerging just as Caruso died was Babe Ruth. He transcended the sport that his fame was based on to such a degree that Japanese soldiers during World War II, nearly a decade after his career had ended, would shout “to hell with Babe Ruth” as an insult to American servicemen. Like Caruso, Ruth remains the model to whom his successors are compared.

When Ruth died, he had been retired for 14 years. His body lay in state at Yankee Stadium where an estimated 100,000 people of every age and description bid him a solemn farewell. When Francis Cardinal Spellman celebrated Ruth’s funeral mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, a crowd estimated at 75,000 filled the church and spilled out into the rain-swept streets.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

It is likely that no outpouring of grief in this nation, at least, has exceeded that which followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln. In retrospect, the reaction was not out of proportion to the importance of his death; in some respects, one might argue, the country has not yet fully recovered, given the debacle of Reconstruction and its aftermath.

Contemporary accounts describe the American people, including many who recently had excoriated Lincoln and his policies, as either numb with shock or crazy with anger. Millions of people stood along the right-of-way as the funeral train carried Lincoln’s body over the 13-day journey from Washington to Springfield.

RUDOLPH VALENTINO

RUDOLPH VALENTINO

Perhaps the instance that will prove the best analogy for the case of Michael Jackson is that of Rudolph Valentino, the silent film actor whose life and career were as tumultuous and controversial as Jackson’s. Valentino died in 1926 at the age of 31 from complications after surgery for appendicitis and gastric ulcers. His funeral, which was something of a circus, attracted an estimated 100,000 people in the streets of New York, a large number considering the limitations on travel at the time. The crowd erupted in a riot that lasted most of one day and required more than 100 mounted policemen plus police reserves to restore order. Several of Valentino’s fans committed suicide and the actress Pola Negri sent to the funeral home 4,000 roses in an arrangement that spelled out her name. During the wake period, Negri announced that she had been Valentino’s fiancee — something no one else was aware of — and promptly collapsed on his coffin in a fit of hysteria. She followed the funeral train from New York to California and was composed enough to stand for photographs whereever the train stopped.

POLA NEGRI and RUDOLPH VALENTINO

POLA NEGRI and RUDOLPH VALENTINO