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.

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.

JOHN F. KENNEDY

JOHN F. KENNEDY

You can’t turn your back on anybody.

Take Harvard University, for example, an institution one might think of as a temple of virtue. It turns out that Harvard has been using the trade-mark laws to get control of common expressions. The university has an pending application, for example, to register the phrase “Managing Yourself.” The rationale is that the phrase is used by the university in promotional campaigns for one of its schools, and Harvard doesn’t want someone claiming a prior right to the words. As if.

If that sounds overly cautious, consider the fact that the university has filed a trademark application for the expression “The world’s thinking” based on the idea that the school may want to use those words in the future.

KAHLIL GIBRAN

KAHLIL GIBRAN

Among the items so highly treasured in Cambridge is the line “Ask what you can do,” used by the Kennedy School of Government in a variety of campaigns. Those words were, of course, a high point in the presidential inaugural address of a Harvard alum, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is said to be raising its corporate eyebrows over alma mater’s decision to nail down the clause.

There’s no word on whether Harvard has checked with the heirs, if any, of the Lebanese philosopher Kahlil Gibran, who wrote a remarkably similar “ask not” formula in his 1925 work entitled — cough, cough! — “New Frontier.”

Is it all very innocent? One Harvard professor, Harry Lewis, takes at least philosphical exception, expressed in the Boston Globe as follows: “Universities should not be in the business of locking words down. We’re in the business of enlightening the world. To lock down common English phrases seems to be antithetical to the spirit of what universities are supposed to be about.’’

Meanwhile, if Harvard intends to go on registering phrases for which it hasn’t yet found a use — well, Yogi, watch your back.

You can read the Globe’s account of this matter at the following link:

http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/08/01/dear_old_hahvahd_is_much_more_than_a_name/?page=1

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