Caught in the Kennedy Shadow
IN HIS STEPS: LYNDON JOHNSON AND THE KENNEDY MYSTIQUE. By Paul R. Henggeler, Ivan R. Dee, 225 pp., $27.50.
JUST how do you go about evaluating the performance of an American president? By comparing one president, say, Herbert Hoover, with another, say Franklin Delano Roosevelt? By measuring their deeds against the challenges of their times? Their deeds against their promises? Or do you measure their performance against a roster of "great presidents," say, the legacy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln somehow rolled into one grand standard?
The question of presidential measurement is difficult, and not just for historians and political scientists. In recent times perhaps no authority figure has run into more measurement problems than Lyndon Johnson. And the reason is clear: The voluble, supercharged Johnson followed an articulate and youthful president who was deeply loved by the American people, but assassinated just a year before he probably would have gone on to renomination and re-election. Try as he might, LBJ could never capture the a
llegiance or love of the John F. Kennedy camp, not to mention the deep love of the American people, although he did win their respect, as indicated by Johnson's landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.
"In His Steps," by Paul R. Henggeler, a historian at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, grapples with the knotty issue of presidential measurement - and political mystique. Johnson, says Henggeler, was haunted by the Kennedys; LBJ felt genuine regard for John Kennedy. Yet, LBJ also felt antipathy towards the other Kennedys, particularly Robert Kennedy. Henggeler shows how LBJ tried in vain to establish popular legitimacy but ultimately failed because of the charismatic personality of his predecesso r
, as well as the growing popularity of the Kennedy heir apparent.
"Johnson," writes Henggeler, "was wedged between two brothers;" he could neither emulate nor attack them without suffering personal repercussions. One of Henggeler's theses is that in terms of leadership, Johnson was impulsive, emotional, sentimental, corny, but able. Kennedy was Eastern, youthful, intellectual, sophisticated, and charming.
Johnson, writes Henggeler, refused to accept that his own behavior had something to do with his poor image. Thus, he looked for scapegoats, including the White House press corps, which he was convinced was prejudiced against him.
In refusing to run in 1968, Johnson believed that everyone had turned against him - from rioting blacks to antiwar demonstrators to professors and reporters. Johnson's greatest fear, tantamount to an obsession, had materialized: Robert Kennedy had decided to reclaim the White House for his family - and in honor of his brother.
Henggeler's book, which is his first, leaves perhaps as many questions unanswered as answered; given LBJ's political temperament, was there really anything he could have done to command the deep affection of the American people, in the personal way that John Kennedy had done? And did Johnson really need to try?
Much of Henggeler's material is derivative, culled from prior accounts. Moreover, his prose is not always gripping. Still, he has performed a useful service in showing that when it comes to actually judging their presidents, Americans adopt measurements that go beyond performance, or what the academics call "substance." And his background notes and sources add up to an excellent bibliography on the presidency, Lyndon Johnson, and the Kennedys.
Most vividly, Henggeler shows us that the people at the very pinnacle of power are often terrified of the approaching footsteps coming up the mountain!