Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Thursday, May 03, 2012


Newton Leroy Gingrich goes into history now to join Lyndon Baines Johnson, two men of outsized appetite for power who served as Speaker of the U.  S.  House of Representatives decades apart and in different worlds of heart, mind and spirit.

Johnson later passed a civil rights law to free a race from psychological chains after physical captivity and started an ambitious War on Poverty before losing his presidency over an unpopular distant war.

Gingrich takes with him  a government shutdown and a failed effort to unseat a President for lying about extramarital sex while he himself was committing  adultery and his own censorship by and resignation from the House, followed by a decade of self-enrichment and an ugly now-ending run for President.

The two figures share a media link in a review by that 42nd President,  Bill Clinton,  of the fourth volume of a massive  LBJ biography by Robert Caro.  Clinton cites an ally's advice "against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination  on a hopeless cause" such as civil rights and Johnson's response ,  “Well, what the hell’s the presidency  for?”

Gingrich would find such an attitude puzzling as he and his third wife go back to a former life of Mediterranean cruises and Tiffany accounts, leaving his campaign to deal with massive debt. Yes, but what else is self-puffery for?

There is an answer in Johnson's final years that the shameless Gingrich and his admirers would find unfathomable.  During that time, I visited LBJ at his Texas ranch where he had withdrawn to write his memoirs but, with heavy heart, was not making progress--a proud man struggling with shame at what he saw as failure.

On January 22, 1973, two days after Nixon's second inaugural and the day after a cease-fire in Vietnam, the former President went up to his bedroom for an afternoon nap and had a massive heart attack. He was alone when he died.

King Lear. The Lion in Winter. Theatrical images come to mind for the most self-dramatizing of Presidents. Reagan, the professional actor who came later, was by comparison low-key, a supporting player trained never to chew up the scenery.

On the plane trip back from a visit to Austin, I recalled LBJ's assessment of his successor, Nixon.

"Not too much here," he had said, tapping his head. "Even less here," touching his chest. Then lowering his hand below the belt:  "But enough down there."

Lyndon Baines Johnson had enough heart and mind to have been a great President. His downfall was a war that obsessed him with the dark question of whether he had enough Down There. But he will be an important chapter in the American Story long after such nasty little footnotes as Newt Gingrich are gone.

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