- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Donald Trump: Crazy Like LBJ

The reaction to Bob Woodward’s new book Fear has been almost completely devoid of historical context. The very folks who are trying to convince us, based on Woodward’s account, that Donald Trump is unhinged are ignoring the fact that Trump is hardly the first American president to have temperamental deficiencies. Many of Trump’s alleged personality-related problems are not new in presidential history. Presenting his eccentricities as evidence of a constitutional crisis reflects a clear bias of omission by those doing the reporting.

Former CIA director John Brennan was among the earliest to call Trump “paranoid.” He was echoed by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who recently worried that an op-ed by an anonymous Trump administration staffer will make Trump even “more paranoid.” That op-ed used the term “erratic” to describe Trump. “Paranoid” and “erratic”—those terms have been used before, by top White House aides to describe another president: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Bill Moyers, who served as one of Johnson’s top special assistants and as White House press secretary, told historian Robert Dallek that Johnson was “paranoid” and “depressed,” as well as “morose, self-pitying, angry.” “He was a tormented man,” Moyers said, particularly after his decision to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965. Professor Dallek, in a 1998 essay in The Atlantic, also used the word “erratic” to describe LBJ.

Yet the reaction to the anonymous op-ed among journalists and pundits would suggest that erratic behavior in a president had never existed before now (other than in Nixon), leading to calls for the 25th Amendment to be invoked. But as Dallek noted: “I asked Moyers if Johnson was so continually depressed as to be incapable of rational judgments on Vietnam. ‘No,’ he answered. ‘Johnson was erratic. One day he would be down and the next he would be upbeat. But always when he returned to the subject of Vietnam, this cloud in his eyes and this predictably unpredictable behavior would recur.’” Moyers distinguished between erratic behavior and irrational behavior, a distinction that has merit.

Johnson was unquestionably an insecure man. A graduate of Southwest Texas State Teachers College, he’d forever felt inferior to anyone with an Ivy League degree, especially if their last name was Kennedy. Richard Goodwin, President Johnson’s chief speechwriter, elaborated on this theme in the New York Times, saying: “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.’”

Goodwin, like Moyers, used the word “paranoid” to describe Johnson. In his New York Times essay, he wrote: “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.”

Goodwin recorded in his diary that Hugh Sidey, the White House correspondent for Time, visited to tell him “there was an increasing worry about the President around town. A fear that his personal eccentricities were now affecting policy.” Yet the press at the time was remarkably silent about Johnson’s psychological fitness for office. Such restraint then, as now, seems warranted.

We are told that Trump is not just paranoid but that he sees conspiracies forming against him. Once again, he is in good company with LBJ. As Richard Goodwin notes: “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.”

And recall that Hillary Clinton, in a Today interview with Matt Lauer, spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” Conspiracy theories are apparently acceptable for Democrats to espouse but for Republicans it’s a manifestation of paranoia. Barack Obama even used the words “conspiracy” and “paranoia” in a speech clearly aimed at Trump at the University of Illinois on September 7. Presumably, these are the new Democratic Party talking points for the midterm elections.

change_me

Despite Lyndon Johnson’s purported paranoia and erratic behavior, he is ranked tenth out of the 44 presidents (through Barack Obama) in C-Span’s 2017 poll of 90 historians, political scientists, and journalists.

Woodrow Wilson ranks eleventh, despite having more in common with Trump psychologically than even Johnson did. Vanderbilt University professor Erwin Hargrove notes that Wilson’s “great weakness was that he tended to shut himself off from advice. He was unable to accept it on matters in which he had a great emotional investment.” Arthur Link, editor of the Wilson papers, concluded that Wilson, because of “his egotism, secretiveness, and urge to dominance,” thought he alone must make and control foreign policy. Hargrove adds that Wilson “often ignored expert advice when it challenged his own intuitive sense.” In particular, Wilson “distrusted” his brilliant secretary of state Robert Lansing because of Lansing’s “refusal to give the kind of loyalty that Wilson demanded. This meant intellectual submission and agreement as well as understanding, and Lansing was not the man for this.” (Note the tension between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who, like Lansing, refuses to be totally subservient to the president.)

Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s closest confidant, noted that Wilson’s tendency to ignore the advice of experts was a “temperamental” defect. In House’s view, Wilson had a “one-track mind” that could not cope with domestic and foreign policy problems simultaneously. In 1916, long before Wilson’s stroke of 1919, House discussed the president’s inability to organize his work effectively, writing: “No one can see him to explain matters or get his advice. The President does not know what is going on in any of the departments. …The President is not a man of action and seems incapable of delegating work to others.”

Wilson reached his decisions by himself after “solitary deliberation.” Once an opinion was formed in his mind, “it became a moral position for him, and those who opposed him were either ignorant or immoral or both.” During the League of Nations debate after World War I, Wilson “translated a substantive fight into a personal one” in which his opponents “would have to bend their wills to him completely.” It became clear, Hargrove notes, that Wilson “intended to bypass the Senate as much as possible.”

Wilson may well have succeeded in achieving ratification of the League of Nations with “modest compromises.” Instead he declared that the treaty could not be amended, saying: “Anyone who opposes me in that I’ll crush.” Wilson’s “messianic vision and Calvinist moralism contributed to his rigidity,” according to Hargrove, though his stubborn behavior and lashing out at opponents ultimately resulted from deep insecurity. James David Barber, in his book Presidential Character, suggests that Wilson’s domineering and perfectionistic father, who had ridiculed Wilson as a youngster for not meeting his high expectations, had much to do with his rigid, compulsive behavior.

A final historical parallel with Trump is worth noting here. Jill Abramson’s Washington Post review of Bob Woodward’s Fear says ominously that the book “is full of Nixonian echoes, including Trump’s childishly short attention span and refusal to read briefing papers.”

Short attention span and an aversion to position papers sum up quite accurately the words used by National Security Advisor McGeorge “Mac” Bundy when he reprimanded John F. Kennedy for inattention to serious matters in a fully declassified memorandum written in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Bundy said: “We do have a problem of management…. We can’t get you to sit still. The National Security Council, for example, can’t work for you unless you authorize work schedules that do not get upset from day to day.”

Bundy continued: “Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozens in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet with you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings for about 8 minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day. Moreover, 6 of the 8 minutes were given not to what I had for you but what you had for me from Marguerite Higgins, David Lawrence, Scotty Reston, and others. The newspapers are important but not as an exercise in who leaked and why; against your powers and responsibilities, who the hell cares who told Maggie?”

Bundy concluded his memo as though he were still the dean of Arts & Sciences at Harvard reprimanding a wayward faculty member: “Right now it is so hard to get you with anything not urgent and immediate that about half the papers and reports you personally ask for are never shown to you because by the time you are available you clearly have lost interest in them.”

As Bundy’s memorandum clearly illustrates, other presidents have been guilty of impatience, short attention spans, a refusal to read position papers, and intolerance of leaks to the press. Clearly, none of these factors rise to the level of invoking the 25th Amendment.

As noted previously, Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson are ranked among the top 11 presidents in American history. Yet how much did their personality flaws actually inhibit their overall records of accomplishment? The same question must be asked of Donald Trump.

Dr. Phillip G. Henderson is associate professor of political science at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His books include Managing the Presidency: The Eisenhower Legacy and The Presidency Then and Now.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Donald Trump: Crazy Like LBJ"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On October 3, 2018 @ 12:36 am

But LBJ was effective. He could make the Congress do what he wanted.

#2 Comment By DrivingBy On October 3, 2018 @ 1:10 am

” Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson are ranked among the top 11 presidents in American history”

Either we have had 34 miserably bad Presidents or we have 90 delusional academics. It’s possible the explanation is both.

#3 Comment By DennisW On October 3, 2018 @ 1:16 am

That LBJ and Wilson were ranked 10th and 11th in that poll says much more about the left-wing biases of those historians polled than it does the actual merits of either President.

#4 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On October 3, 2018 @ 2:23 am

Heh, speaking about manners, Donnie is almost a milquetoast when compared to LBJ. But, I guess, liberals are too shy to remember that. Because, you know, Great Society. And a foreign war which makes Dubya’s Middle Eastern endeavors look like school bullying.

#5 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 3, 2018 @ 6:48 am

The full subtitle should be “Trump isn’t the first president to have peculiar personality flaws, and he won’t be the last”.

Settle-down, folks. The republic is sound and will go on for many years. Trump is not the wackiest resident of the White House, just the worst for over a century. And he is one of the first in the age of open 24/7 media, so his peccadilloes look more egregious.
I cannot stand him and never could, but let’s keep some perspective.

#6 Comment By mrscracker On October 3, 2018 @ 9:48 am

I think LBJ sincerely meant well in his social reforms but he didn’t live long enough to see some of the negative outcomes.

I visited the LBJ ranch in TX with a couple of my children a few years ago. The park ranger told us that LBJ would enjoy pranking 1st time guests by driving them full speed into the Pedernales River in his convertible. His terrified guests were unaware there was a cement low-water bridge just a few inches below the waterline but not visible from the riverbank.
🙂

#7 Comment By Argon On October 3, 2018 @ 10:08 am

To be sure, LBJ never claimed he was a stable genius.

#8 Comment By Sid Finster On October 3, 2018 @ 11:08 am

The difference between LBJ and Trump is that LBJ had a vision of what he wanted the government to do and a roadmap how to get the government to where it wanted it to go. We can argue later whether that was the right vision, but you can’t say that LBJ didn’t have one.

Trump clearly doesn’t. His strategy consists of half-baked ideas that he fails to follow through on and declaring victory, bizarre and pointless insult contests, and retweeting whatever it is he saw on Fox and Friends.

#9 Comment By CLW On October 3, 2018 @ 1:57 pm

If anything, applying some much-needed historical context to our assessments of and reactions to Trump would demonstrate just how noxious, narcissistic, incompetent, and delusional he is.

#10 Comment By Clyde Schechter On October 3, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

LBJ worked effectively with Congress to pass his domestic agenda. Trump has put several things successfully through Congress, but they are more Congressional Republicans’ agenda than his own.

Notwithstanding the differences, I think the similarity is important. But I have a different take on it. I think the world today would be a different, and better place, if LBJ had been removed from office before he escalated the Vietnam war.

Our nation’s problems are far more due to the incompetence and perfidy of our presidents than they are to any overzealous scrutiny or harassment of them. We don’t remove them from office nearly often enough.

#11 Comment By EarlyBird On October 3, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

Stop.

Trump is more than an eccentric, as this apology piece wishes to make him out to be. LBJ never said reckless, destructive, divisive things.

Trump was having another one of his strong man rallies yesterday, not campaign rallies, just his “Love me!” rallies, the kinds that autocrats have all the time. And here’s what this President of the United States said:

“They (Democrats) want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”

and:

<b."The Democrats — and I say this — and I've dealt with it — the Democrats are the party of crime."

Forget whether you like his policies or not. This – the man, his character – are what make him so wretched. And we wonder where the polarization comes? Trump is the anti-Lincoln.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 3, 2018 @ 4:51 pm

The only aspect about this article I might buy into is that those presidents who managed to get into office outside of the ivy league jets set pool of usuals have issues with their cabinets and that presidents since Washington have all had their issues to unique psychologies.

I support and defend the current executive when possible, but I have no illusions about where we stand on on morality, ethics or standing on the same – come what may.

Trying to make hay out of the short attention spans of presidents consumed with national and international affairs as though one could actually make a case against one based on that — is laughable.

Here’s the one salient truth that I have come to accept, the presidents that have been ranked among the top are usually those that loved the office despite its daily grind. All of the mayhem, politics, inside and outside seemed as water to them even when difficult they thrived on it.

Had it not been for the fact that George Washington was the man in military command after the revolution and our first president, he might not be revered as he currently is and that luster is finally beginning to fade in light of actual data.

Pres. Johnson was smothered by his own. He delivered and yet the recipients fixated on a far away land in a very strange backwards logic about who the aggressors were —

The ideological malestrom of the 1960’s and 1970’s unraveled truth into fiction and fiction into truth. Where post modern thought moved from the classroom to practicum and has eaten its way through to the upended constant emotionalism devoid of argument of sense we are experiencing today. President Trump is a product of that era and that maelstrom. The hope was that he could overcome it, restrain it and perhaps even use it to push back to something less liquid, but it appears now that if the US has reached it’s zenith, he will only accomplish smoothing the transition to the inevitable — being like all others . . . exceptionally unexceptional.

That is my pessimistic take.

But I hold out hope for something more. That someone can reach inside the essence of the old dream and awaken with vigor its pursuit as opposed to its mere skin.

#13 Comment By Thrice A Viking On October 3, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

The trouble with comparing a POTUS with an average person suffering from paranoia is that, unlike John or Jane Doe, any POTUS is bound to have millions of actual enemies. Some of them may even form conspiracies against the POTUS, though few if any will bear fruit. Only if (s)he thinks that everybody in the world is against her/him is a diagnosis of paranoia appropriate for a POTUS. BTW, haven’t there been 43 of them through Obama, rather than 44? Remember that Grover Cleveland is counted twice, as he both preceded and succeeded Benjamin Harrison.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 4, 2018 @ 9:03 pm

“The trouble with comparing a POTUS with an average person suffering from paranoia is that, unlike John or Jane Doe, any POTUS is bound to have millions of actual enemies.”

I think we use the term paranoia very loosely. i have a very healthy dose of mistrust. Everything from dead rabbits on couches, stolen computers opened packages to moved vehicles – lol.

I am loathe to question people’s histories and more how they are suppose to respond to them. I would lend some breathing room to people as well as presidents on who may consider themselves targets. I use to be much tougher on such things, until I learned that there are entire strategies to unbalance people by certain human resource depts.

Look there’s a reason why most people keep their heads down — because we have become increasingly aware that firestorms have a life all their own and some people foster them. Trust anyone in my neighborhood, not on a bet. I used to be neighborly — but one learns – something very unnerving flitters on the edges. By all accounts Justice Kavenaigh was an average intelligent hardworking successful guy — in a matter of minutes he has been assailed as a drunken brawl inclined not only rapist, but gang rapist.

It’s going to change him. Being falsely accused in such a manner — changes how you see the world whether your an average person on the street, a supreme court nominee or the president of the US. Being mocked by large groups of people publicly — it can change you. Unrequited justice it can change you

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 4, 2018 @ 9:04 pm

“The trouble with comparing a POTUS with an average person suffering from paranoia is that, unlike John or Jane Doe, any POTUS is bound to have millions of actual enemies.”

I think we use the term paranoia very loosely. i have a very healthy dose of mistrust. Everything from dead rabbits on couches, stolen computers opened packages to moved vehicles – lol.

I am loathe to question people’s histories and more how they are suppose to respond to them. I would lend some breathing room to people as well as presidents on who may consider themselves targets. I use to be much tougher on such things, until I learned that there are entire strategies to unbalance people by certain human resource depts.

Look there’s a reason why most people keep their heads down — because we have become increasingly aware that firestorms have a life all their own and some people foster them. Trust anyone in my neighborhood, not on a bet. I used to be neighborly — but one learns – something very unnerving flitters on the edges. By all accounts Justice Kavenaigh was an average intelligent hardworking successful guy — in a matter of minutes he has been assailed as a drunken brawl inclined not only rapist, but gang rapist.

It’s going to change him. Being falsely accused in such a manner — changes how you see the world whether your an average person on the street, a supreme court nominee or the president of the US. Being mocked by large groups of people publicly — it can change you. Unrequited justice it can change you

one goal not to be as they are

#16 Comment By mrscracker On October 5, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

“Being falsely accused in such a manner — changes how you see the world whether your an average person on the street, a supreme court nominee or the president of the US. Being mocked by large groups of people publicly — it can change you. Unrequited justice it can change you”
***************

I think the repulsive spectacle we’ve watched from Washington over the last couple of weeks has changed many people’s view of our society & govt.
It will probably serve to get more voters out on both sides for the midterm elections. And I don’t believe that’s what the Democrats intended.

#17 Comment By Sarah On October 7, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

I’ve long suspected this — the more I learn about American history, the more relieved I am, not that things are as they are at the moment but that we’ve proven we can, as a nation, rise above what feels like unprecedented absurdity.

I do wonder how all the past presidents cited would have used their twitter accounts.

#18 Comment By polistra On October 8, 2018 @ 8:47 am

Too much Freud in this article. Wilson had a “domineering and perfectionistic father”, and Wilson was also domineering and perfectionistic. You don’t need fancy Oedipus complexes and insecurity to explain this similarity. Just genes.

#19 Comment By mrscracker On October 8, 2018 @ 10:22 am

polistra says:

“Wilson had a “domineering and perfectionistic father”, and Wilson was also domineering and perfectionistic. You don’t need fancy Oedipus complexes and insecurity to explain this similarity. Just genes.”
*************
And a good dose of Calvinism.
🙂

#20 Comment By Raymond George Hughes On October 8, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

I am NOT a crook! Nixon. I did NOT have sex with that Wo-man Clinton. I used coke/grass lots of drugs you name it, obama… the first White/Black president.. but they ignore his white side imagine if they ignored his ‘Negro’ side? called him an AA

I’m a good head…if Ya’ll like Cabbage. Donald Chump

#21 Comment By Dn N On October 16, 2018 @ 9:50 am

This is “whataboutism” masquerading as scholarship. An exercise in defining deviancy down, as Patrick Moynihan put it.