Life with Big Daddy


Lyndon Johnson, as Gawker writes, was obsessed with his dick. According to a New York Review of Books review of Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate,

[Johnson] early became fabled for a Rabelaisian earthiness, urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building as the urge took him; if a colleague came into a Capitol bathroom as he was finishing at the urinal there, he would sometimes swing around still holding his member, which he liked to call “Jumbo,” hooting once, “Have you ever seen anything as big as this?,” and shaking it in almost a brandishing manner as he began discoursing about some pending legislation. At the same time, he would oblige aides to take dictation standing in the door of his office bathroom while he went about emptying his bowels, as if in some alpha-male ritual assertion of his primacy. Even on the floors of the House and Senate, he would extravagantly rummage away at his groin, sometimes reaching his hand through a pocket and leaning with half-lifted leg for more thorough access.

“As if in some alpha-male ritual assertion of his primacy” is exactly correct. There is a fascinating series of quotes about LBJ “behind the scenes” in this article, from some of his closest advisors and confidants. They paint a picture of a man who gravely abused his position of power and his understanding of human nature to command loyalty and dedication from those he tormented. He was an abuser; they were enablers. And they enabled him even when they realized they were being abused. Doug Cater, special assistant to the President, comments:

The notion that Lyndon Johnson was some new invention in having ego and vanity, in being able to bruise you—it never struck me as odd. I was not of a thin skin when I came [to work with him]. It didn’t bother me to see him burst out sometimes. It was life with Big Daddy, and Big Daddy could beat you one moment and then hug you the next and invite you to eat.

Some of the stories, I think, are intended to be heartwarming but unintentionally reveal the classic signs of abusive behavior. Take, for instance, this anecdote of Johnson trying to buy his way out of trouble after treating Press Secretary George Reedy badly:

The president’s acute insensitivity was evident in a January 25, 1964, phone conversation with his press secretary George Reedy, in which he berated Reedy for his slovenliness and suggested that he keep his obesity in check by donning a corset:

LBJ: I’m going to try to build you up. Build you up gradually but where you’re the—you’ve got some prestige and standing and not just Walter [Jenkins] or Bill Moyers—I want you . . . you’re entitled to prestige . . . you’ve worked for it harder than anybody else . . . so I want to do it but you’ve got to help me yourself. You don’t help yourself, you in those damned old wrinkled suits . . . and you come in with a dirty shirt . . . and you come in with your tie screwed up . . . I want you to look real nice . . . put on your corset if you have to . . .

George Reedy: Okay, sir.

There was also Johnson’s softer side. For all the accounts of his harshness and cruelty, there are at least as many stories of his generosity. “He never said, ‘I’m sorry,’” recalled Bill Foster, a navy officer who filmed much of Johnson’s public presidency as his official duty. “But he always made sure he made it up to you.” That desire to make amends may have explained the brand-new Lincoln automobile Johnson gave to George Reedy out of the blue, one of many cars Johnson gave to friends, aides, and employees through the years.

Equally noteworthy is the affection that Johnson aides show towards him despite the abuse. Here’s Cater again:

But there was a spirit of family with him. The people who didn’t observe that, if they had a one-shot experience, they could get an impression of a man who was overblown, that in this personality everything was too much by half.

We’ve got to get it written into history that it was a hell of a lot of fun working for this man. We did not cringe, although we took it and we didn’t answer back. I never saw anybody successfully talk back to Lyndon Johnson. But we learned to live with him on satisfactory terms.

“We took it and we didn’t answer back”. It reminds me of recent stories about our current Abuser-in-Chief.

The New York Times recently published this article about discord between Chief of Staff John Kelly and Trump:

President Trump was in an especially ornery mood after staff members gently suggested he refrain from injecting politics into day-to-day issues of governing after last month’s raucous rally in Arizona, and he responded by lashing out at the most senior aide in his presence.

It happened to be his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly.

Mr. Kelly, the former Marine general brought in five weeks ago as the successor to Reince Priebus, reacted calmly, but he later told other White House staff members that he had never been spoken to like that during 35 years of serving his country. In the future, he said, he would not abide such treatment, according to three people familiar with the exchange.

In the wake of Trump’s putrid Charlottesville press conference, Gary Cohn was reported to privately harbor similar sentiments:

Gary D. Cohn, the director of the White House Economic Council, wrote a resignation letter after President Trump blamed “both sides” in the deadly protest this month against a Charlottesville, Va., rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, according to three people familiar with the document.

Mr. Cohn ultimately changed his mind and decided in recent days to remain on as Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, said one person familiar with his thinking.

He debated for over a week with his wife and friends on whether to quit, according to the people familiar with his thinking. This week, Mr. Cohn decided to remain in his job, believing he could be more effective as a public servant inside the White House than out of it.

At some point during the past 10 days, Mr. Cohn penned a tentative resignation letter, said the three people familiar with the draft. It was not immediately clear what day the letter was written, or if Mr. Trump was ever made aware of it.

We tell ourselves stories to put up with abuse. That things will get better eventually. That everyone has flaws, and who are we, as flawed people ourselves, to judge others’? That we’re sacrificing ourselves for someone else’s sake – in the case of domestic abuse, the kids; in the case of politics, “the people”. That, as Gary Cohn said, it is better to work inside the system than outside of it. (Which reminds me of LBJ’s famous line, “[It’s] better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.). That the unpleasant state of affairs is only temporary, and that things will return to normal in 4 or 8 years. That we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That we should not let idealism overawe pragmatism. And, most crucially, that we still have standards: that we all have our own personal Rubicons that we will never allow to be crossed. We quiet that twinge of conscience by reassuring ourselves that we are still principled people at our cores. In John Kelly’s case, he allowed the president one misstep, one strike, one allowance. But never again. “In the future, he would never abide such treatment.”

I call bullshit. I come back, again and again, to this line from Josh Marshall: “Coming into the orbit of Mr Trump, taking his yoke as it were, requires not only total submission, a total relaxation of every muscle and defense but a farewell to all independence and dignity.” The choice is stark, almost Manichaean.

There are many parallels, on a personal level, between Johnson and Trump. But I think the most striking is this:

He [Johnson] seemed to have a preternatural capacity for quickly sounding the innermost truths of whoever was before him—the actual compulsions of vanity or ambition or grievance, submerged beneath whatever the man might be telling him. An old Johnson familiar told me once, “When it came to dealing psychologically with other men, he was like Bach playing the organ pipes. But it was also like he knew almost too much about human nature, too much about the way people are, to move to any higher perspective.”

Trump’s genius, if you can call it that, is that he also knows too much about human nature. After Trump humiliates you the first time and you acquiesce, after you “take it and don’t answer back”, after he brandishes his metaphorical dick and you watch silently, after Big Daddy beats you and unconvincingly makes amends, then he realizes that the Rubicon is more flexible than he imagined, and he thrills to the idea of exercising that power again and again.

In other words, there will be a next time, John Kelly. And I doubt you are as ready for it as you think you are.


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