Through the long telescope of history, then, the ground between Reagan and Johnson appears vast, the distance between two opposite visions from two opposite moments in time. And it is the distance, as well, between two opposite types of men. It is hard to think of two Presidents in modern history, after all, who approached the office more differently than Reagan and Johnson. Johnson was among the most hyperactive executives the White House had ever seen, always seeking to put his fingerprints on every last scrap of administration business no matter how large or small…
…That would never be Reagan — an actor learns early the benefits of a good night’s sleep. From his earliest days in politics, Reagan was supremely confident in his own abilities as an executive. He had come to prominence in a career in which he constantly had to give up control — to producers and directors and studio bosses, to makeup designers and camera operators and press agents, to critics and millions of anonymous strangers who would form consequential opinions of him as they watched on distant screens. When he began his political career in the mid-1960s, he took to the disaggregated life of a political candidate quickly. Most first-time candidates struggle to adapt to the existence in which they must surrender control of their lives to other people. Reagan had been doing it for years. He understood an important distinction that Johnson never grasped: being in control and being successful aren’t always the same thing…
Each was a gifted performer and raconteur who could captivate an audience. But they excelled in different settings. Johnson was best in person. He was overwhelming, always, and his conversations hummed with transactional momentum. He told involved and engaging Texas tall tales, but he usually told them in order to drive home a pertinent point. He made use of his large girth and six-foot-three-inch frame. All the clichéd metaphors of politics — glad-handing, buttonholing, back stroking, arm twisting — were things Johnson actually, physically did in order to get his way. His greatest asset was his intuitive sensitivity to human emotion, his unmatched ability to spot people’s highest ambitions and their darkest fears. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious racial demagogues, found himself mesmerized by an impassioned Oval Office conference with Johnson in the midst of a tense 1965 standoff over racial protests in Wallace’s home state. “Hell,” said Wallace afterward, “if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.”
A conversation with Reagan, on the other hand, was usually pleasant and entirely superficial. In his early days as a politician, supporters would often walk away from first encounters with candidate Reagan disappointed. He’d told funny jokes, they’d laughed heartily, they’d had a ball. But they couldn’t remember much if any substance to what he’d said. The problem wasn’t that Reagan was an empty suit; rather, he struggled to connect with people when they came too close. Even his own children encountered a fog in their father’s eyes when they greeted him in a room. He was friendly, but he gave the impression that he was meeting them for the first time.
He was better with an audience watching him. Better still if they were watching him on a television screen from the comfort of their own homes. In these moments, he was great. He launched his 1966 campaign for governor with a thirty-minute television advertisement in which he pensively strolled around a comfortable living room. It was all so wonderfully familiar and authentic. There were pictures on the wall and a fire in the fireplace; Reagan’s sharp, pithy summation of California’s and the nation’s problems seemed to come to him spontaneously, a kindly father figure opining on issues of the day. None of it was real — the sentences were scripted and the living room was a studio set. But Californians didn’t mind; they were starting to expect their politicians to be great performers on TV.
Television was taking over politics in the midsixties. Anyone who’d lived through the Kennedy years could see that. Johnson could see that, and he worked tirelessly to adapt, but never with much success. As President, he obsessed over his televised press conferences, bringing in a shifting cast of experts for coaching on his diction, his posture, his eyewear. But his problem was fundamental: performing for a TV camera, he could never do what he did in person, he couldn’t see his audience and adapt his personality accordingly. And that introduced a terrifying possibility: that the people watching would see him as himself.
Johnson and Reagan, then, were both stars, but stars of different eras. It is difficult to fit them inside a single picture — when the mind focuses on one of them, the other becomes a blur. Even in the lore of practical politics, where both names have assumed vaunted status in recent years, they inhabit separate realms. Reagan is the President that politicians from both parties publicly say they admire — principled, noble, and strong. But Johnson is the President they secretly long to be — ruthless, effective, a man who got big things done.
I think Nixon always believed that he had been railroaded for things that other Presidents had done (taping conversations, dirty tricks, political strong-arming), and he had a chip on his shoulder — not just because of his political career, but because he genuinely had a difficult upbringing that took a toll on him. The fact that he actually rose to the heights that he did is remarkable — a testament to his brilliance and his capabilities, especially when you consider the fact that Nixon really disliked every aspect of politics outside of policy. That’s what made his eventual fall from power so disappointing. He will always be a polarizing figure — endlessly fascinating and eternally frustrating.
As for the best books about Nixon, there is no absence of them, even if you remove the hagiographies (such as those by Pat Buchanan or Roger Stone) and the hatchet jobs (such as those by Anthony Summers or Don Fulsom). Even though it’s obviously slanted in his favor, I’ll always recommend Nixon’s own autobiography, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (BOOK | KINDLE), because it definitely has value and it is one of the best-written Presidential autobiographies or memoirs. I’d also suggest both of Monica Crowley’s very favorable books on Nixon — Nixon Off-the-Record and Nixon In Winter — because Crowley was a research assistant and close aide to the former President in the last years of his life and both books include extraordinarily candid thoughts from Nixon about everyone and everything shortly before his death in 1994.
Several other books about Richard Nixon that I wholeheartedly recommend include:
-The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House by H.R. Haldeman (Nixon’s loyal Chief of Staff whose diaries from the time of Nixon’s Presidency are very insightful about the inner workings of the Nixon Administration)
-President Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves (BOOK | KINDLE)
-Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein (BOOK | KINDLE)
-The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein (BOOK | KINDLE)
-Nixon and Kissinger: Partners In Power by Robert Dallek (BOOK | KINDLE)
-Nixon, Volume I: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962 by Stephen E. Ambrose (BOOK | KINDLE)
-Nixon, Volume II: The Triumph of a Politician, 1963-1972 by Stephen E. Ambrose (BOOK | KINDLE)
-Nixon, Volume III: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 by Stephen E. Ambrose (BOOK | KINDLE)
-Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon by Theodore H. White
The simple answer — and most accurate answer — is all of them. I’m interested in learning about every bit of history, so I like reading about pretty much everybody.
Narrowing it down really depends on where my particular interest is directed at any given moment. I go through phases where one area of history piques my interest more than others, and those phases are always shifting. Of course, Presidents are always on the top of that list, but I’ve become more-and-more interested in the Papacy over the past few years, so the Popes are also high on the list.
Besides Presidents and Popes, I’m especially interested in the Cuban revolution and it’s leading figures: Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Celia Sanchez. I could list scores of people that I don’t hesitate to read about and invariably leave out a ton of names, but the names that immediately come to mind include Jesse James, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Simon Bolivar, Saladin, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Malcolm X, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and on and on and on. There’s no way to do the list justice and I wouldn’t even know where to start a complete list because important historical figures aren’t limited to Presidents, monarchs, or military, religious, and political leaders. The list also features a ton of literary figures, poets, philosophers, explorers, musicians, legendary athletes, etc, etc, etc. If you removed every book about Presidents from my library, there would still be an extensive library of biographies that have no pattern other than the fact that they lived lives. As I’ve said many times, history is just stories about people, so there is no limit on who or what interests me.
I think all of the Making of the President books are must-reads. So is Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon.
Anyone interested in modern Presidential politics should read each of the books in the Making of the Presidents series:
-The Making of the President 1960 (BOOK | KINDLE)
-The Making of the President 1964 (BOOK | KINDLE)
-The Making of the President 1968 (BOOK | KINDLE)
-The Making of the President 1972 (BOOK | KINDLE)
-The Making of the President 1980 (BOOK | KINDLE)
-America In Search of Itself: The Making of the President, 1956-1980
I am embarrassed that it has taken me so long to start reading In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (BOOK | KINDLE) by Hampton Sides.
What an absolutely incredible book. It’s been sitting on my “To Read” pile for two months and I wish I had picked it up when I got my copy in July. If you haven’t read it yet, do so as soon as possible.
Yes, I have read Bruce Murphy’s Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, and I agree with you about it being a great read, and Douglas being a fascinating subject. The story of Douglas trying to hang on to his seat on the Supreme Court after his severe stroke and the rest of the Court basically deciding to just wait it out until he either resigned or died is worthy of a book of its own. Douglas is surprisingly forgotten (or overlooked) in American history despite the fact that he’s the longest-serving Supreme Court Justice in history. Most people don’t realize how close Douglas came to becoming President — in 1944, when FDR dumped Vice President Henry Wallace prior to running for his fourth term, his VP choice came down to Douglas and Harry Truman. Truman didn’t want the job, but Douglas definitely did, and it was pretty obvious that FDR wasn’t going to survive a fourth term. If FDR had chosen Douglas, he’d have been the President who had to decide whether or not to drop the atomic bomb.
It does seem odd how you can appreciate or admire someone’s actions while being so repelled by them personally, as you are by Justice Douglas. But I’ve found that to be the rule, not the exception with great historic figures, and I don’t know why. Lyndon Johnson is one of my political heroes (obviously), but he certainly wasn’t the greatest guy in the world. LBJ was terrible to work for, didn’t have many close friends, and certainly wasn’t ever a contender for husband of the year. Many great historic figures were deeply-flawed human beings.
(And to bring things back around to William O. Douglas, when he was a member of FDR’s Administration, he played a significant role in LBJ’s meteoric rise in Liberal politics by working to steer New Deal funding of projects to LBJ’s district when he was a freshman Congressman from Texas.)
I’ve read Margaret Truman’s book about First Ladies — First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives (BOOK | KINDLE) — and her book about the White House — The President’s House: 1800 to the Present: The Secrets and History of the World’s Most Famous Home (BOOK | KINDLE) — and found both of them to be interesting. I especially liked the White House book since she had a unique perspective as someone who lived there, but didn’t allow her personal experiences to dominate the book.
I’d recommend both of the books. I’m not sure about her murder mystery novels, but she must have been doing something right since she wrote a ton of them.
And exactly what do you mean by "those people"?
In a way, yes, I do carry a copy of the Constitution around with me. I have an app on my phone of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. Why? Well, the question should really be “why not?” But, I have it in case there is something I need to quickly reference for my writing or for a discussion. I’m pretty well-versed in the Constitution, but it’s always helpful to have the exact wording so that you can shoot down some of the ridiculous interpretations that people often have about it. Plus, it’s the Constitution! (and the Federalist Papers!) You should have a copy, too.
You should also have your own edition of this beautiful replica of the copy of the Acts of Congress, featuring the Constitution and Bill of Rights, presented to George Washington by the first Congress in 1789. It is a gorgeous replica of the actual book, which is in George Washington’s collection at Mount Vernon and features Washington’s annotations in the margins. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Andrews McMeel Publishing did an amazing job with the replica and it’s not something you’ll carry around in your pocket, but it’s definitely something you’d want on your bookshelf or coffee table.