DID LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON live with bipolar disorder? His accomplishments clearly illustrate he was no ordinary man while his failures point to a tragic figure out of touch and out of control. The diagnosis has been loosely bandied about in relation to the 36th President of the US. But is it accurate?
Bipolar - The Case Against
Doris Kearns Goodwin in her 1976 Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream offers some excellent insights. Goodwin had a ringside seat into LBJ's descent into his dark side when she joined his staff in 1968 in the waning months of his Administration. LBJ took a fatherly interest in his young intern, and she became his confidante and student, a relationship that continued into his retirement in 1969 to his death in 1973.
The B-word is not mentioned in Dr Goodwin's account (it would have been the MD-word back then), nor does she even suggest that LBJ had any diagnosable condition. But she does make ample reference to his legendary mood swings, unquenchable drive, over-bearing nature, and times of despair.
Bipolar, along with any mental illness, is a hindsight diagnosis, only applied after things have gone horribly wrong, never in anticipation thereof. Walk into any DBSA support group and you will hear accounts of busted lives, careers derailed, relationships gone sour, intense psychic pain. While Abe Lincoln could have easily pulled up a chair and made himself at home (as one with depression, not bipolar), LBJ would have been out the door in nothing flat.
Bipolar? We are talking about a man with an unbroken career arc that began as a congressional aide in 1931 and culminated in his ascent to the Presidency in 1963. In between, he served in the House, the Senate (where he reshaped the institution as Majority Leader), and Vice-President. Along the way, there was nary a hiccup to his career, no crisis of faith, no time in the wilderness, no gap in his resume. On top of that, his marriage to Lady Bird held rock steady.
Sound like the kind of person you would run into at a support group? I didn't think so. Yet, as Goodwin is quick to point out, behind the mask of success was a man with many insecurities, sometimes barely able to hold it together. At one point, in a deep funk, he instructed an aide to alert the press that he was dropping out of his race for the Senate. The aide, in consultation with Lady Bird, ignored the request.
Johnson was in his element when he was in control, whether as a college student seizing the moment or as a young politician on the make or as a wheeling-dealing Senator who was arguably the most powerful man in Washington outside of Ike. Then he made the seemingly disastrous career move of serving as JFK's Vice President. Even though he was given numerous important responsibilities, it was Kennedy's show, not his.
Dr Goodwin gives us the impression of a man dutifully showing up for work, loyal to his boss, but not engaged, almost in a stupor. Had JFK served out his full term in office, with the strong probability of another, LBJ may well have had his time in the wilderness, but an assassin's bullet changed everything.
What follows is the stuff of legend. A reanimated LBJ, with a singular sense of purpose, led a bereaved nation through crisis and on a mission to complete what his martyred predecessor had started. Then he initiated the most ambitious effort ever to reshape the face of the nation with his Great Society programs. Civil rights, voting rights, housing rights, Medicare - the scope of his achievements was unprecedented. Education, the war on poverty, model cities, clean air, clean water - there was no end in sight.
Alas! All of us who lived through the sixties know the tragic ending to this story. Many attribute Johnson's decision to expand US military involvement in Vietnam to an act of madness, but, as Goodwin points out, Johnson's key advisers from the Kennedy Administration were thinking the same way.
The policy may have been mad, but it was a rational act conducted by rational men, very much in character with how America did business. But Goodwin points to some complicating elements. The key one was that it was impossible to run both the Great Society and an overseas war at the same time. Johnson went ahead with both anyway.
Something had to give. Major understatement.
Bipolar - The Case For
Bipolar is as much defined, if not more so, by its context as its symptoms. Call it the Zen koan disease: If a crazy person is leading a fully productive and enviable life, does he have a mental illness?
Of course not.
Yes, LBJ had a lot of characteristics you could describe as bipolar, but at age 58, in 1966, he was indubitably the most successful man in the world. He assumed the Presidency in 1963 following the assassination of JFK, then was elected in his own right in 1964 by what was then the widest margin in history. Two years later, with a string of Great Society initiatives, he was on the cusp of being regarded as the greatest President ever.
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His entire public life prior to that was three unbroken decades of stellar achievement. His talent and drive would have made him most-likely-to-succeed in any situation, but LBJ was also the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck. At certain critical points in his career, key opportunities would open up - a Congressional or Senate seat becoming vacant, a leadership position in the Senate ...
His lucky streak continued into his Presidency. Change was in the air, and the public willingly placed its faith in their new President, who was uniquely qualified to get things done. Johnson knew he had a rare window of opportunity that would close fast, and he acted without hesitation.
The Great Society was a calculated risk. A major tax cut - which pleased the business community no end - stoked the economy, which in turn filled government coffers. As long as prosperity increased, no one was about to question how the wealth was distributed.
But raised hopes also ignited pent-up frustrations. A six-day race riot in Watts LA in the summer of '65 signaled that racial divisions ran far deeper than anyone had ever imagined. As African-Americans became more assertive, white backlash deepened. The "Solid South," which had faithfully voted Democratic, was shifting to the Republican side.
Meanwhile, baby boomers, who had grown up in far different circumstances than their parents, were now beginning to make themselves heard. By any standard, LBJ was by far the most progressive President in history, but an increasingly vocal population on the other side of "the generation gap" viewed him as a relic.
Nevertheless, the situation was manageable. A booming economy and a successful Great Society overseen by an attentive President would see America through its crisis of identity.
That's when LBJ's luck ran out.
In 1965, LBJ decided to increase troop levels in Vietnam from 75,000 (mostly in a limited role) to more than 200,000 (as full-scale combatants). His strategy was based on the misplaced notion that the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, in the face of overwhelming US military might, would come to his senses and seek a peaceful settlement. He didn't.
By 1966, Johnson's position was untenable. The one thing that hawks and doves could both agree upon was there was no end in sight to this war. Doris Kearns Goodwin's 1976 Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream at this stage portrays an increasingly irrational President for the first time in his life at a total loss.
Johnson's War had a zillion fall-out effects. Among them, it overheated the economy and kick-started inflation, which would hobble economic growth for decades to come. It also drained vital financial resources from the Great Society, as well as diverting crucial executive oversight, virtually killing the infant in its crib. This set the scene for disenchantment over "big government" programs and the right-wing counter-revolution to follow.
Finally, resentment over Vietnam brought all of society's underlying divisions to the surface. The nation may not have been in anarchy, but to a casual observer of the TV news in 1967 and 1968 it certainly seemed that way.
As the situation grew increasingly worse, LBJ retreated into his shell, taking advice from only a small cadre of trusted and sycophantic advisers. Instead of making the necessary course corrections, he only justified his disastrous decision-making. At this stage, in the last year of his Presidency, Goodwin gives us the impression of a country being run by a mad man. She uses the terms "obsessional" and "delusional" to describe his thinking:
In the past, Johnson had displayed a fine sense of discrimination about his political opponents, recognizing his enemies today might be his allies tomorrow. Now he became unrestrained and reckless, creating a fantasy world of heroes and villains. Members of the White House staff who had listened to the violent name-calling were frightened by what seemed to them signs of paranoia.
Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, the President's voice would become intense and low-keyed. He would laugh inappropriately and his thoughts would assume a random, almost incoherent quality as he began to spin a web of accusations.
On March 31, 1968 - virtually unable to govern and with his popular support eroding by the day - Johnson announced that "I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
LBJ left office at the beginning of 1969, never to return to public life. He died Jan 22, 1973, an embittered and broken man, two days following Nixon's inauguration to a second term, one day after the announcement of a Vietnam cease-fire and the announcement of a Nixon plan to dismantle the Great Society.
So there you have it, the bipolar Zen koan revisited. A man who lost his mind, his job, public affection, and his legacy. Would it be fair to describe this man as living with bipolar? You tell me ...
Reviewed July 15, 2016
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