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Lyndon Johnson and his MENTAL COLLAPSE beginning in 1965

Guest Robert Morrow

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Guest Robert Morrow

LBJ was a nutty as a fruitcake with his finger on the nuclear button. Literally the man was a paranoid in disintegration. I think he was cracking under the pressures of the JFK assassination cover, (his participation in the event), and the pressures of escalating the Vietnam War.


August 21, 1988

President Lyndon Johnson: The War Within

By Richard N. Goodwin; Richard N. Goodwin was assistant special counsel to President John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1962, and special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965. This article is adapted from his latest book, ''Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties,'' to be published by Little, Brown next month.

Correction Appended

IN ONLY TWO BRIEF YEARS -1964 and 1965 - Lyndon B. Johnson did more to advance the cause of black Americans than any American President since Abraham Lincoln, and initiated a program for the enrichment of American life as revolutionary and far-reaching as the New Deal. ''We are entering a new era of good feeling,'' pontificated The Washington Post in 1964, ''and Lyndon Johnson is the gargantuan figure making it all possible.'' Yet little more than a year later, Johnson's own immense powers became an accomplice of his own destruction - propelling him into a war that would dissolve his vision and end his hopes. The story of that transformation, the beginnings of which I witnessed as one of the President's assistants, makes it clear that the war in Vietnam was not only a national tragedy but a personal tragedy for one of the most formidable men ever to occupy the White House.

Around midsummer 1965, about the time the decision was made to increase by more than 100,000 the number of American troops in Vietnam - a decision that transformed Vietnam into an American war - I became convinced that President Johnson's always large eccentricities had taken a huge leap into unreason. Not on every subject, and certainly not all the time: it was during this same period that Johnson was skillfully crafting some of the greatest triumphs of his Great Society.

But there is no question that the President's conduct during 1965 was, on occasion, markedly, almost frighteningly different from anything I had observed previously. My conclusion is that President Johnson experienced certain episodes of what I believe to have been paranoid behavior. I do not use this term to describe a medical diagnosis. I am not L.B.J.'s psychiatrist, nor am I qualified to be. I base my judgment purely on my observation of his conduct during the little more than two years I worked for him. And this was not my conclusion alone. It was shared by others who also had close and frequent contact with President Johnson.

Perhaps my first sign of this came in April, when the President of Pakistan, Mohammed Ayub Khan, and the Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, were scheduled to visit the White House. Both men had expressed opposition to our policies in Vietnam. Both visits were abruptly canceled. ''We didn't cancel the visits,'' Johnson falsely stated at a press conference, we just told them that because the President was ''very busy,'' this was not the most propitious time for a visit. And, Johnson patiently explained, ''When you put things that way, most people want to come at the time that would be most convenient to us, to the host . . . and the answer came back that they would accept our decision.''

But the foreign-policy pundits did not swallow Johnson's explanation. We had, they wrote, deliberately offended two of Asia's most important leaders because they did not approve our bombing of North Vietnam. A week later I sat beside Johnson as Air Force One carried us from the Texas ranch to the White House. Suddenly, Johnson leaned over to me, looked around, and, speaking in tense, almost whispered tones, as if he were confiding the highest secrets of state, said, ''Listen, Dick, do you know why there was so much trouble about Ayub and Shastri?'' ''No, Mr. President,'' I replied. ''Well, you ought to know about it, so you can keep on the alert. I had it investigated. Do you know there are some disloyal Kennedy people over at the State Department who are trying to get me; that's why they stirred things up?'' ''I didn't know that,'' I answered. ''Well, there are, and we can expect to hear from them again. They didn't get me this time, but they'll keep trying.'' In my diary entry of that date I noted that ''the President spoke in an intense low-keyed manner, characteristic of his most irrational moments.''

The following day, I noted in my diary: ''Hugh Sidey came to see me. He said there was an increasing worry about the President around town. A fear that his personal eccentricities were now affecting policy. For example, he told me that in responding to criticism over the Ayub and Shastri affair, Johnson had said to reporters, 'After all, what would Jim Eastland [ the conservative Senator from Mississippi ] say if I brought those two niggers over here.' ''We agreed that it was such a stupid remark for L.B.J. to say - knowing that if it ever made its way into public print, he would be severely damaged - that he had to be a little out of control to say it at all.'' A few days later, Johnson received telegrams from our Embassies in Saigon and in New Delhi suggesting a visit from Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as a demonstration that our goodwill toward the nations of Asia remained unimpaired. I was sitting with Bill Moyers, then special assistant to the President, in the Oval Office when the telegrams arrived. Johnson read them; then, his face contorted in fury, he rose and slammed them onto his desk.

''I don't want telegrams like that,'' he said, almost shouting, then he picked up the phone. ''Get me Rusk. . . . Listen, Mr. Secretary,'' he began, softly sardonic, ''you know those telegrams about Humphrey?'' We couldn't hear Secretary of State Dean Rusk's reply, but listened as the President suddenly raised his voice: ''If they send me any more telegrams like that, I want you to call them back. Fire the bunch of them. I don't want any more telegrams like that.''

The President replaced the handset and turned toward Moyers. ''You know what it is, Bill, don't you, it's those damn Kennedy ambassadors trying to get me and discredit me.''

IT WAS NOT SURPRISING THAT THE ''Kennedy crowd'' should be the prelude to that swarming mob of ''enemies and conspirators'' that began to infect Johnson's mind. Not only had he felt humiliated - and with some cause -during Kennedy's Presidency, but the enduring shadow of Camelot -glamorous, popular, intellectual Camelot, enshrined in steadily growing myth - seemed to him to obscure the achievements of his own Presidency, preventing others from seeing how much more he was accomplishing than his predecessor.

Johnson once explained why Fulbright and ''all those liberals on the Hill'' were squawking at him about Vietnam. ''Why? I'll tell you why. Because I never went to Harvard. That's why. Because I wasn't John F. Kennedy. Because the Great Society was accomplishing more than the New Frontier. You see, they had to find some issue on which to turn against me, and they found it in Vietnam.''

For Johnson, the omnipresent ghost of that past was reincarnated in the person of Robert F. Kennedy and his followers. But understandable hostility would soon be displaced by the more ominous conviction that Robert Kennedy was not just an enemy, but the leader of all Johnson's enemies, the guiding spirit of some immense conspiracy designed to discredit and, ultimately, to overthrow the Johnson Presidency.

''Why does he keep worrying about me?'' Robert Kennedy once asked me. ''I don't like him, but there's nothing I can do to him. Hell, he's the President, and I'm only a junior Senator.''

''That's right, that's the reality,'' I replied. ''But we're not talking about reality. In Johnson's mind you're the threat. If he had to choose between you and Ho Chi Minh'' (to be his successor in office), ''he'd pick Ho in a minute.''

In May 1965, I drafted a speech that Johnson was scheduled to deliver in San Francisco on the anniversary of the United Nations Charter. Not limited to the standard plea for increased peace and understanding among the nations, it contained several tangible and far-reaching proposals for the control of nuclear arms. Johnson was delighted with the draft, approved it, and ordered that it be prepared for delivery. Then, shortly before the President was scheduled to go to San Francisco, Robert Kennedy addressed the Senate, calling for progress toward nuclear disarmament. The Kennedy speech received little public attention. But it infuriated Johnson.

''I want you to take out anything about the atom in that speech,'' he said. ''I don't want one word in there that looks like I'm copying Bobby Kennedy.''

''But, Mr. President,'' I protested, ''the Kennedy speech is very different from yours, and it's only his opinion. These are formal proposals from the President of the United States. The entire world will be listening.''

It was as if I hadn't spoken. Johnson picked up a newspaper. ''Here's Reston's column on Kennedy's speech. You make sure we don't say anything that he says Bobby said. I'm not going to do it.'' Thus all the arms-control proposals were excised, the American initiatives were canceled simply because Bobby Kennedy had made a speech.

Late that spring, alarmed at what I perceived to be the President's increasingly irrational behavior, I began to study medical textbooks. I learned that the paranoid personality may pass relatively undisturbed through a long and productive lifetime, manifesting itself only in subtle traits of behavior: a somewhat excessive secrecy and suspicion, a need for control over the external world. Because particular displays of these traits nearly all have some basis in reality - there are real adversaries, real reasons for an ambitious man to seek control over people and events - they are ordinarily perceived more as personal eccentricity than as a failure of reason or a distortion of reality. To the gifted few they may even be a source of strength, increasing their ability to achieve mastery over that always treacherous world they inhabit.

Yet if control is threatened, mastery undermined, enemies increasing in number and moving beyond reach, the mental apparatus so carefully constructed to transform potential weakness into external strength can begin to falter. The latent paranoia, liberated by the erosive pressures of misfortune and sensed helplessness, can take occasional control of the conscious mind, thereby transforming the most highly developed faculties into instruments of willed belief, even delusion.

Something like this began to happen to Lyndon Johnson during 1965, when he found himself - for almost the first time - surrounded by men and events he could not control: Vietnam and the Kennedys, and, later, the press, Congress, and even the public, whose approval was essential to his own esteem. As his defenses weakened, long-suppressed instincts broke through to assault the carefully developed skills and judgment of a lifetime.

It was during this period, in the spring of 1965, that I first noticed Johnson's public mask begin to stiffen. In his public appearances, the face seemed frozen, the once-gesturing arms held tightly to the side or fixed to a podium. Protective devices proliferated - Teleprompters, a special Presidential rostrum that traveled with him, even the careful excision of colorful or original language -all, I now believe, designed at least in part to guard him from spontaneously voicing inner convictions that he knew, in that part of his mind still firmly in touch with reality, would, if voiced, discredit him. ''You know, Dick,'' Johnson once told me. ''I never really dare let myself go because I don't know where I'll stop.''

In mid-June, Moyers entered the Oval Office to find Johnson holding a wire-service report torn from the teletype machine that stood close to the desk. The President said: ''Did you see this? Bundy'' - McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser - ''is going on television -on national television - with five professors. I never gave him permission. That's an act of disloyalty. He didn't tell me because he knew I didn't want him to do it. Bill, I want you to go to Bundy and tell him the President would be pleased, mighty pleased, to accept his resignation.'' Johnson paused. ''On second thought, maybe I should talk to him myself. . . . No, you go do it.'' Then, as if responding to some sensed hesitation on Moyers's part: ''That's the trouble with all you fellows. You're in bed with the Kennedys.''

Moyers wisely ignored the President's order, and left the White House to go home. ''At midnight,'' I noted in my diary, ''Moyers called me to talk about Johnson. He said he was extremely worried, that as he listened to Johnson he felt weird, almost felt as if he wasn't really talking to a human being at all.''

The next morning when Moyers entered the Oval Office, Johnson looked up at him. ''Did you speak to Bundy?'' ''No, I didn't, Mr. President,'' Bill replied. Johnson grunted, and returned to the memorandum he had begun reading. Bundy was to last another year.

A week later, Moyers and I were talking with Johnson in the Oval Office when, provoked by nothing more than my comment that his education bill had virtually complete support from liberal organizations, Johnson proclaimed: ''I am not going to have anything more to do with the liberals. They won't have anything to do with me. They all just follow the Communist line - liberals, intellectuals, Communists. They're all the same. I detest the United Nations. They've tried to make a fool out of me. They oppose me.

''And I won't make any overtures to the Russians. They'll have to come to me. In Paris, Gagarin'' - Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut - ''refused to shake hands with the astronauts. I sent those astronauts myself, and what he did was a personal insult to me.'' (In fact, Gagarin did shake hands, but later declined to meet with American officials, which Johnson persisted in inflating into a personal affront.) ''I can't trust anybody anymore. I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to get rid of everybody who doesn't agree with my policies. I'll take a tough line - put Abe Fortas or Clark Clifford in the Bundy job. I'm not going in the liberal direction. There's no future with them. They're just out to get me, always have been.''

I accompanied Moyers back to his office. ''We were both shaken, alarmed,'' I noted in my diary, ''not so much at the content of Johnson's statements - surely he didn't mean to halt all discussions with the Soviet Union or pull out of the United Nations - but at the disjointed, erratic flow of thought, unrelated events strung together, yet seemingly linked by some incomprehensible web of connections within Johnson's mind. He won't act on his words, but he believes they're true.''

On June 28, I recorded in my diary that Johnson had ''asked me and Bill if we thought Tom Wicker [ of The New York Times ] was out to destroy him, if Wicker was caught up in some sort of conspiracy against him. We said no, that he writes some favorable and some unfavorable stories, but we couldn't convince him. . . .''

GRADUALLY, AS Johnson moved closer and closer to the crucial decision of July 28 -when he would raise the number of American troops in Vietnam by more than 100,000 - circumstances began to overwhelm him, elude his grasp. The decision to transform the war, which he knew was potentially fatal to his public ambitions, could no longer be evaded or postponed. Increasing opposition from the press and critics on the Hill could no longer be controlled by his hitherto almost irresistible power of persuasion. The somewhat frightening, always puzzling outbursts became more frequent.

No longer satisfied with impugning the motives of his critics (''That Fulbright,'' he told me after Senator J. William Fulbright had joined the ranks of dissent, ''he never was satisfied with any President that wouldn't make him Secretary of State''), or attributing his difficulties to ''those Kennedys'' or ''those Harvards,'' Johnson began to hint privately that he was the target of a gigantic Communist conspiracy in which his domestic adversaries were only players - not conscious participants, perhaps, but unwitting dupes.

Sitting in the Oval Office on July 5, Johnson interrupted our conversation on domestic matters: ''You know, Dick, the Communists are taking over the country. Look here,'' and he lifted a manila folder from his desk. ''It's Teddy White's F.B.I. file. He's a Communist sympathizer.''

A few days before, I had been sitting in Bill Moyers's office, when Bill walked in, visibly shaken, his face pale. ''I just came from a conversation with the President,'' he said. ''He told me he was going to fire everybody who didn't agree with him, that Hubert [ Humphrey ] could not be trusted and we weren't to tell him anything; then he began to explain that the Communist way of thinking had infected everyone around him, that his enemies were deceiving the people and, if they succeeded, there was no way he could stop World War III.''

''Suppose he really does go crazy,'' I said. And then, answering my own question: ''I tell you what would happen if we went public with our doubts. They could assemble a panel of psychiatrists to examine the President, and he would tell them how sad it made him that two boys he loved so much could have thought such a thing, and then explain his behavior so calmly and reasonably that when he was finished, we would be the ones committed.''

Shortly thereafter, I talked with a psychiatrist who was also a close personal friend. After he agreed to treat our conversation as privileged, I described the President's behavior in detail as I had observed it. At the time, I did not even inform Moyers of this step; nor did he tell me, until years later, that he had independently followed the same course, speaking with two different psychiatrists.

All three doctors offered essentially the same opinion: that Johnson's behavior - if the layman's descriptions we provided were accurate -seemed to correspond to a textbook case of paranoid disintegration, the eruption of long-suppressed irrationalities. The disintegration could continue, remain constant, or recede, depending on the strength of Johnson's resistance, and, more significantly, on the direction of those external events - the war, the crumbling public support -the pressures from which were dissolving Johnson's confidence in his ability to control events.

On July 14, Johnson walked into a staff meeting, took a seat, listened a while, then said: ''Don't let me interrupt. But there's one thing you ought to know. Vietnam is like being in a plane without a parachute when all the engines go out. If you jump, you'll probably be killed, and if you stay in you'll crash and probably burn. That's what it is.'' Then, without waiting fora response, the tall, slumped figure rose and left the room.

If that's how he feels, I thought as I watched the door close behind him, then why are we escalating the war? What's the point if he thinks it's hopeless?

Admittedly, there was, by now, no easy way out. We had raised the stakes and increased our commitment: American boys were dead and American resources wasted. But still there were choices - to continue the unwinnable war, to withdraw, or to seek some kind of jerry-built compromise. These choices were all unpleasant, but they were not, equally, disasters. Yet Johnson's assertion that there was no escape from the doomed plane may well have been true -for him, for that part of him already encircled by enemies.

Weeks later, sitting around the pool at his Texas ranch with some members of the staff, Lady Bird Johnson at his side, the President gloomily proclaimed: ''I'm going to be known as the President who lost Southeast Asia. I'm going to be the one who lost this form of government. The Communists already control the three major networks and the 40 major outlets of communication. Walter Lippmann is a Communist and so is Teddy White. And they're not the only ones. You'd all be shocked at the kind of things revealed by the F.B.I. reports.''

As the President spoke, his manner became more intense, his body stiffened. Mrs. Johnson leaned over, tenderly patted his hand, and at her touch tension seemed to seep from his body.

''Now, Lyndon,'' she said, ''you shouldn't read them so much.'' ''Why not?'' he asked. ''Because,'' she replied, ''they have a lot of unevaluated information in them, accusations and gossip which haven't been proven.''

''Never mind that, you'd be surprised at how much they know about people,'' Johnson told his wife. ''Why, that draft protest last week that got everyone so excited. According to the F.B.I. report, out of the 256 who were supposed to have burned their draft cards, a substantial number were crazy people who had a previous history in mental institutions. . . . One of our informants in the Communist Party . . . reported that the Communists decided to do all they could to encourage demonstrations against the draft.''

Johnson removed his hand from his wife's grasp, leaned forward, the intensity returning: ''Now I don't want to be like a McCarthyite. But this country is in a little more danger than we think. And someone has to uncover this information.''

DURING THAT SUM-mer, Bill Moyers and I - often accompanied by one of Bill's assistants -met every few days to discuss the President's increasingly vehement and less rational outbursts. We agreed that Johnson was changing, that some invasive force was distorting his perceptions, infecting the entire process of Presidential decision. Although we were reluctant to acknowledge it, the signs of aberration were too obvious to be ignored or rationalized as typical Johnsonian exaggerations.

''It's all a few intellectuals and columnists,'' Johnson confided to a few members of the White House staff sitting with him in the Oval Office. ''The people loved me, and they believed in me. You just go down to the White House basement. You'll see them. Boxes full of letters, all praising me for doing the right thing. They spread the doubt - every morning I wake up and see another column attacking me, or some professor on television. Naturally, people get confused with all these voices shouting and hollering about how awful I am.

''Bobby saw his chance. He saw I was in trouble, so he put [ Martin Luther ] King on the Kennedy payroll to roil up the Negroes. That's why we had the riots. After all I've done for the Negroes, they never would have attacked me if they hadn't been put up to it.

''Bobby gave the Communists the idea. Now I'm not saying he's a Communist, mind you. But they saw they might be able to divide the country against me. They already control the three major networks. So they began to complain that we were killing civilians, that we ought to stop the bombing. That got back here, and my critics took it up.

''Not just in the press. I was always getting advice from my top advisers after they had been in contact with someone in the Communist world. Hell, you can always find Dobrynin's car'' -Anatoly F. Dobrynin, then Soviet Ambassador - ''in front of a columnist's house the night before he blasts me on Vietnam.''

AT THE BEGINNING of June, I had told Moyers in confidence that I intended to leave the White House later that year. ''He won't let you,'' Bill responded involuntarily. ''Why not?'' I answered.

Then we both began to laugh, recognizing the absurd outburst of some hidden perception that Johnson's will could not be denied.

On July 5, I made a diary note: ''It has been a wild and unbelievable week - dinner with Bill and his assistant and another long discussion of Johnson in which we agreed on his paranoid condition. I asked Bill if he thought I should talk to anyone before I left, perhaps to Bob McNamara,'' - the Secretary of Defense - ''whose position might let him keep things from getting out of hand. Bill seemed to think that it might be a good idea . . . But I don't know if we can trust McNamara. He is intelligent and skilled, could understand our fears, but is also very ambitious. . . .''

If the world was beginning to slip from his control, Johnson would construct a tiny inner world that he could control, barricade himself not only from disagreement, but from the need to acknowledge the very existence of disagreement except among the uninformed and the hostile.

In those days, Johnson's conversations with his Cabinet would often begin with: ''What are you doing here? Why aren't you out there fighting against my enemies? Don't you realize that if they destroy me, they'll destroy you as well?'' The meetings themselves, no longer a forum for debate, were largely confined to reports by each secretary on the affairs of his department. Questions about Vietnam were discouraged, and, if asked, went unanswered.

Nor could the National Security Council be trusted. ''Those National Security meetings were like a sieve,'' Johnson remarked. ''There's that Arthur Goldberg'' (then representative to the United Nations) ''with a direct pipeline to The New York Times. . . . And those fellows from Defense were the worst of all. . . . Every time I saw some Department of Defense official's picture in the paper with a nice story about him, I'd know it was the paper's bribe for the leaked story.''

Those who attended security council meetings were sometimes told they should not use the occasion to voice doubt or disagreement. The President didn't want to hear it. ''I know how you feel, Arthur,'' the faithful Robert S. McNamara told Ambassador Goldberg before one meeting, ''but it would be better if you didn't say anything. The President has already made up his mind, and you would only embarrass him.''

Gradually, all meaningful discussion and decision were confined to the small, carefully chosen inner circle: Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Robert McNamara; the Director of Central Intelligence, William F. Raborn Jr.; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, and, occasionally, others who could be trusted to maintain complete secrecy.

Meanwhile, dissent from the outside - press or Congress or public - was discounted, rejected as the malignant tissue of ignorance, political ambition, disloyalty, or even a multiplying conspiracy. The only effective restraints were Johnson's judgment of the limits of public and Congressional tolerance, and his fears that certain uses of American military force might precipitate Soviet and Chinese intervention.

Later, after he had left the White House, Johnson spoke of ''secret treaties,'' formal documents committing the Soviet Union and China to go to the aid of North Vietnam should the United States transgress defined limits. ''I never knew when I sat there approving targets one, two, three, whether one of those three might just be the one to set off the provisions of those secret treaties. I kept asking myself, what if one of those targets you picked today triggers off Russia or China?'' There was, of course, no evidence that any such treaties existed. But Johnson needed them to justify his acts, and so he believed in their reality.

The incursions of paranoia - a kind of guerrilla warfare of the mind - are subtle, carefully establishing their chimerical, delusive outposts on still-firm remnants of reality. There was aggression in Southeast Asia, and opposition at home. These things were true. But the transformation of disagreement into disloyalty, political opponents into personal enemies, spreading dissent into a gigantic conspiracy, the rebels of Vietnam into the advance guard of world conquest, were the work of mental processes that bent and twisted the clay of reality into menacing fantastical shapes.

For much of the time, certainly during 1965, Johnson retained a large measure of control over his immense political skills. Congress, despite increasing dissent, did not cast a single vote against the war or the money to fight it. Johnson not only defeated efforts to roll back the Great Society, but succeeded in enacting a dwindling flow of legislation.

In Vietnam he could, at first, truthfully assert his consistency with the commitments of Kennedy and Eisenhower. In Vietnam he had, at first, the support - more than support, the persuasive advocacy - of that foreign-policy establishment he secretly despised - thinking that they regarded him with contempt as the ignorant boy from a small Texas town accidentally come to power -but on whom he relied, believing their approval was a warranty that he was doing the right thing. And even as those who had guided and urged him on from the beginning reconsidered and fled, Johnson, finally almost alone among the powerful, never departed from the conviction that he was acting in fulfillment of his obligations to the country and the future of its freedom.

Johnson hoped, at first, to retain public support for his cherished Great Society by concealing the necessities of war, flourishing false estimates of rapid ''progress'' soon to be followed by ''victory.'' In the side pocket of his jacket he carried cards on which were inscribed the latest ''intelligence'' - statistics demonstrating our accelerating control over the population, shrinkage of the Vietcong forces through death and rising desertions. It was, you see - couldn't you see? - only a question of time. He grotesquely understated troop commitments already made in secret, and had his Secretary of Defense underestimate the cost of the war by a factor of at least 50 percent. This was not simply lying - although there were many lies; it was as if Johnson thought that by saying these things, then urging them upon others with his immense persuasive power, he could somehow transform his misstatements into truth.

And, for a long time, Johnson succeeded: not in changing reality, but in deceiving much of the country and, perhaps, himself. Because of the office he held, his access to media, his control over information streaming into Washington from Vietnam, Johnson was able to transmit his own confused - but never purposeless - distortions to the public. His optimistic public reports, the accounts of Hanoi's intransigent refusal to negotiate, were instantly and without qualification published and broadcast throughout the land. Many of the reporters, even some chieftains of the press, knew better, realized they were carriers of deception, but felt compelled to print and broadcast official public reports simply because they were official and public.

As he felt himself compelled to plunge even farther into the insatiable jungles of Vietnam, Johnson began to magnify the stakes of the war. ''Why, Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in Southeast Asia,'' the President told a small group of staff members, ''are as much a threat to our national security as Hitler.''

Later, after he had left the White House, Johnson expanded on this theme, telling his biographer, Doris Kearns, ''I honestly and truly believe that if we don't assert ourselves and if Chinese Communists and the Soviet Union take Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, it seriously endangers India, Pakistan, and the whole Pacific world. . . . We'll lose all of Asia and then Europe and then we'll be a rich little island all by ourselves. That means World War III. And when that comes to pass I'd sure hate to depend on the Galbraiths and that Harvard crowd to protect my property or lead me to shelter in the Burnet caves'' (a local tourist attraction near Johnson City, Tex.).

YET IT WOULD BE A mistake to attribute Johnson's poignant disintegration wholly to the inward disruptions of his mind. He also had the misfortune to be trapped between two Americas - the one in which he had grown up and the one he came to lead.

He was fond of quoting Sam Rayburn as saying that ''A man who can't size up another person when he walks in the room had better be in another profession.'' No one could do that better than Johnson. His greatest gifts of leadership - the ability to understand, persuade and subdue - depended on connections and relationships that existed on a human scale.

''I always believed,'' he once said, ''that as long as I could take someone into a room with me I could make him my friend. And that included anybody, even Nikita Khrushchev. From the start of my Presidency, I believed that if I handled him right he would go along with me. Deep down, hidden way below, he too wanted what was good, but every now and then this terrible urge for world domination would get into him and take control and then he'd go off on some crazy jag, like putting those missiles in Cuba. I saw all that in him and knew I could cope with it so long as he and I were in the same room.''

Later, as the enigmatic Ho Chi Minh loosed forces that threatened to destroy him, he would remark: ''If only I could get Ho in a room with me, I'm sure we could work things out.''

It was true that there were few who could totally resist the influence of Lyndon Johnson's personal presence. ''I can't stand the bastard,'' Robert Kennedy once told me after a private meeting with the President, ''but he's the most formidable human being I've ever met.''

Yet now this man of such intensely personal gifts was set at the head of a gargantuan bureaucracy, managed by people he could not know or observe; compelled to reach for his constituency while sitting in an empty office staring at the curved, blank lens of a television camera.

Often he would awaken in the middle of the night and -clad in pajamas, feet encased in thickly padded slippers -go down to the Situation Room of the White House, where he would sit for hours receiving the latest reports of bombing raids and missing planes, captured villages and fresh casualties, as if, somehow, in this way he could establish contact with the struggles, the secret desires, of living flesh.

But it could not be done. A master of men, the invulnerable genius of the small town had become the servant of technology. His perceptions confused, judgment distorted, no less shackled because he believed in the power of that technology, the mathematical accuracy of transistor computation, he even liked the machines with their illusion of control, but liked them as a small boy likes a mechanical toy - never fully trusting, but with no other choice. His increasingly angry, increasingly baffling frustrations were a manifestation of America's own transformation.

During the next few years, as I campaigned with Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy, I never disclosed -even to my closest friends and colleagues - the wild surmise that had preoccupied my final days in the White House.

Later, I was to question my failure to disclose what I knew of Johnson's mental condition: was I, through misplaced loyalty or personal cowardice, betraying my obligation to the country? Yet such disclosures would undoubtedly not have been believed. After all, what credentials did I have? I could not have proved my judgment then. Indeed, I cannot prove it now, although the subsequent escalation of an unwinnable war in Vietnam - an escalation fueled by self-deception throughout - added testimony far more persuasive than my own observations.

Still, to this day, I have never overcome the suspicion that my secrecy may have been a very large mistake of judgment or of timidity.

Photos of President Johnson in 1966 (pg. 34); Bill Moyers and Johynson in 1965 (Y.R. Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library) (pg. 35); President Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy in 1965 (George Tames/NYT) (pg. 36); antiwar demonstrators picketing the White House in 1965 (Pictorial Parade) (pg. 36)

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