Lyndon Baines Johnson, An American Original

updated 02/02/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 01:00AM

As a public man, Lyndon .Baines Johnson was America's biggest, boldest, loudest political power since the rip-roarin' days of Teddy Roosevelt. A canny country boy with jug ears and a nose as long as his drawl, Lyndon was a caricaturist's dream, the populist who brought the thigh-slapping jawboning of his native Texas hill country into the halls of Congress and the bathrooms of the White House. He tried to bench-press the Great Society into being, even as Vietnam disfigured his Presidency. The private LBJ was as outsize as the public one. Restless, impatient, overbearing, often boorish, he was a man of great appetites—or so say his admirers and detractors alike (see following pages). "He loved women, he loved a good earthy story," noted Johnson's onetime Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey. "There was nothing delicate about him. He was like a cowboy making love."

His Presidency certainly roused great passions, which were at their most intense when his term ended in 1969. Now, some 14 years after his death at 65, TV is ready to take its first look at the political buckaroo who could have stepped straight from one of its overheated melodramas. This Sunday NBC will air its three-hour LBJ: The Early Years, with Randy Quaid as Lyndon and Patti LuPone as his wife, Lady Bird. "If you turn Lyndon Johnson into a saint," explains director Peter Werner, "you're going to get killed by the critics. If you turn him into a devil, people aren't going to be that interested. But if he's black and white—and I mean black and white—then you're really creating an interesting dramatic character."

That shouldn't be hard with LBJ, but at first Quaid, 36, was queasy about portraying one of the most complex figures in American history. Used to playing big-oaf yokels on Saturday Night Live and in a string of movies from The Last Picture Show to National Lampoon's Vacation, the 6'4" Houston native says he was afraid his portrayal would resemble the LBJ caricature he once perfected for a nightclub act. "I'd have mah glasses on," he recalls, slipping into the Johnson's mah-fellow-Amurricans dialect, "and ah'd pull them down on mah nose, and kinda look over 'em and do mah face like that...."

While filming on location at a Thousand Oaks, Calif. ranch last July, LuPone, a Tony winner for her Broadway Evita role, confessed, "I'm terrified that I can't handle it. I'm not a Southern lady who grew up when Lady Bird did, and I haven't had a husband like Lyndon Johnson." Fortunately, both actors have a physical resemblance to the Johnsons, who are shown from the time Lyndon was a 26-year-old congressional secretary in 1934 to the time he assumed the Presidency aboard Air Force One after John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. "When I first saw Randy's screen test," Werner recalls with a smile, "I told myself, 'Now just don't screw it up.' "

Werner says that the less-than-worshipful film "is going to surprise viewers. They think they know who Johnson is, and they're going to find out that they don't." One scene has freshman Sen. John Kennedy coming hat-in-hand to Majority Leader LBJ, seeking a committee assignment. Johnson, after making a Boston-bean gas joke, strong-arms Kennedy and makes clear who's top dog. In other scenes, LBJ carries on an affair with Texas socialite Alice Glass, played by Morgan Brittany.

Executive producer Louis Rudolph says the show has the implicit approval of Lady Bird Johnson. In 1982 he and co-producers Sandra and John Brice videotaped seven 90-minute interviews with her, toured the LBJ ranch and scoured the Johnson archives. Before leaving, Rudolph screwed up his courage and asked Lady Bird about Lyndon's womanizing. "She looked at me for a minute, then said, 'You have to understand, my husband loved people. All people. And half the people in the world were women. You don't think I could have kept my husband away from half the people?"

Lady Bird "lived up to a destiny," says LuPone of her role as the long-suffering wife. "She was an educated woman and came from wealth, but I think her inner strength allowed her to rise to the occasion. She said, 'History came thundering down the corridor.' " Some flavor of that history follows.

Love It Or Loathe It, Here's The Wit And Wisdom Of L.B.J.

On being President: "Sometimes it's like being a jackass in a hailstorm. You just have to hunker down and take it."

On persuasion: "You have got to give a man a good reason to vote with you. Don't try to force him. A man can take a little bourbon without getting drunk, but if you hold his mouth open and pour in a quart, he's going to get sick on it."

On the 1965 Inaugural Ball: "Never before have so many paid so much to dance so little."

On the White House as a home: "It's not a home. It's a place where you go when you finish work. Airplanes flying in and out of National Airport wake you up at 5 a.m. And if that doesn't happen, tourists are going right under your bed by 8 in the morning. And if you try to take a nap in the afternoon, Lady Bird and Laurence Rockefeller and 80 women are in the next room talking about how the daffodils are doing on Pennsylvania Avenue."

On keeping J. Edgar Hoover as FBI chief: "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in."

LBJ's Rules of Life:

1. "Never trust a man whose eyes are too close to his nose.

2. "Always be sure to have 25 percent cotton in your undershirts; otherwise your titties will itch.

3. "Remember the CIA is made up of boys whose families sent them to Princeton but wouldn't let them into the family brokerage business.

4. "The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.

5. "When you are handshaking on the campaign trail, never let the other fellow grab your hand first—grab his hand and elbow and throw him past.

6. "Before getting into a motorcade, always go to the bathroom and pee.

7. "Don't tell a man to go to Hell unless you can send him there.

8. "When things haven't gone well for you, call in a secretary or a staff man and chew him out. You will sleep better and they will appreciate the attention."

Bess Abell, a Johnson Administration social secretary, says her boss loved to dance and at the first diplomatic reception held after he became President, he was having a fine time dancing. Suddenly he looked around, then told Abell, "Get me somebody from every continent to dance with." Frantic staffers were soon asking, "Did he dance with somebody from Europe yet? Is Australia a continent or part of Asia? What about Great Britain and Northern Ireland?"

John Steele, a former TIME Washington bureau chief, recalls that he frequently had lunch with Johnson in the Capitol building. Johnson used to have a cookie cutter in the shape of Texas, and he would serve luncheon guests hamburger patties shaped that way. Steele says Johnson would always tell him, "Eat the panhandle first, John. Eat the panhandle first."

When LBJ was Senate Majority Leader, he had a teasing, friendly relationship with his Republican political foe, Sen. Everett Dirksen. Johnson was thrilled when he was the first in Washington to have a car phone. Dirksen, to keep up with LBJ, wanted one too. Finally one day, when Johnson was riding around in his limo, he got a call from Dirksen, who proudly informed him that he was calling him from his new car phone. Without skipping a beat, Johnson replied, "Hold on a minute, my other phone is ringing."

Former White House correspondent Marianne Means says that Lady Bird always tried unsuccessfully to get Johnson to diet. One night at the White House, Mrs. Johnson was awakened by a suspicious clicking noise. She traced it to the kitchen and caught LBJ eating one of his favorite foods—tapioca—with a metal spoon from a bowl. The next day, the President instructed an aide to go out and buy him a wooden spoon. "If one thing didn't work," says Means, "he'd try another."

"Johnson took steps to cultivate us to some degree," economist John Kenneth Galbraith told author Merle Miller for Lyndon: An Oral Biography. "He would have various people, myself included, down to the ranch. In the case of Arthur Schlesinger, he got Arthur down to his office—spent a whole morning with him—from half past 9 in the morning till half past 1. Johnson went over every member of the Senate—his drinking habits, his sex habits, his intellectual capacity, how you manage him. Arthur said, 'Most informative morning I ever spent. Never got a word in edgewise.' Not long afterwards Johnson and I spent a weekend together down at the Ranch. Johnson said, 'I've been meeting with your friend, Arthur Schlesinger. Really had a very good meeting. We had a long talk. He's a right smart fellow. But, damn fellow talks too much.' "

"He took me to the family burial plot," journalist Sam Shaffer told Miller of his visit to the Ranch. "Grass doesn't grow green in the Hill section of Texas, but it was green here, a very carefully tended little graveyard. There was his father's headstone, a few other relatives were buried there—and he said, 'Sam, this is where I'm going to be buried.' And the next thing I know, and so help me God, this is a true story, he's got his fly open and he's urinating a stream as if it came from a horse, and all the while he continues talking to me."

"Sometimes, in the middle of a meeting, Johnson declared a swimming break. Everyone followed him into the White House pool. To save time, Johnson said, he often swam in the nude. Stripping down by the side of the pool, he invited others to do the same. Some found it difficult. Those who didn't want to undress in front of everyone else, however, were badgered and mocked until they complied. After the swim, the grudging swimmers were given towels. Standing in quarters so close that the drops from one body would splash onto another, they were expected to rub themselves dry, put on their clothes and return to the meeting."—from biographer Doris Kearns' Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

"When I was a little boy I heard a politician tell a story about a public hanging over in Louisiana," said Johnson. "The sheriff told the condemned man that under the state law he would be allowed five minutes to choose whatever words he cared to speak as his last act. The prisoner promptly responded and said, 'Mr. Sheriff, I haven't got anything to say, so just get on and get it over with.' But a man way back in the audience jumped up and said, 'Well, if he doesn't want those five minutes, Sheriff, I'd like to have them. I'm a candidate for Congress.' "

Johnson, remembering a desperate man: "The schoolteacher came to apply for a job during the Depression in my little town of Johnson City. The school board was divided on whether the world was flat or round, and they asked him how he taught it. The poor fellow needed a job so much he said, 'I can teach it either way.' "

"One of our local boys was inducted into the service," said Johnson in one of his favorite stories. "When they were trying to determine his aptitudes, figure out just where he would be assigned, they were giving him an IQ test. They asked him what he would do if he saw a train coming over the hill 100 miles an hour from north to south and one coming from south to north going about 80 miles an hour and they were two miles apart on the same track. Without hesitating a moment, he said, 'I would run and get my brother.' The induction officer said, 'Well, why would you want to go get your brother?' And he answered, 'Because he ain't never seen a train wreck.' "

Once Johnson landed at an Air Force base and a young officer directed the President over to a helicopter while saying, "Sir, your helicopter is over here." Johnson replied, "Son, they're all my helicopters."

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