Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Was LBJ Bipolar? The Case Against ...

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?

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.

More to come ...

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