Achilles in the White House

Achilles in the White House

Lee H. Hamilton & Jack Valenti

Two of Lyndon Johnson's closest aides, Harry McPherson and Jack Valenti, recalled the White House years at a Wilson Center Director's Forum last fall.

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Lee Hamilton: I'm going to take the privilege of asking the first question. I'd just like to know how it was to work for Lyndon Johnson. I knew Johnson very casually. He came to campaign for me in 1966, when I was running for reelection early in my career as a congressman. He came to the post office in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Not one of the major events of his administration, but it was a very important event for me. What was it like to work for Lyndon Johnson, one of the legendary figures of American history?

Jack Valenti: Working for Lyndon Johnson was like living on the end of a runway. He was the most formidable political leader I have ever known. I wrote a book about Lyndon Johnson called A Very Human President, published by W. W. Norton. I wanted to call the book "Achilles in the White House." I thought, of all the creations in literature, both fictional and mythical, the one who most mesmerizes me is Achilles, the leading figure in The Iliad. His anger and his pride, his commanding presence, fill that story, even when he's off-stage. It was his high energy and his leadership qualities that sometimes led him to an excess of flawed action.

Johnson more closely resembles Achilles than any other political figure I know. Almost anything you can say about Johnson had a tinge of truth in it, good or bad. He was vengeful and bullying. He was kind and thoughtful. He was petty and sometimes duplicitous. But he was also visionary, energetic, a man whose goal it was to be the greatest American president, doing the greatest amount of good for the American nation. He got caught up in a war whose commitments he could not break, whose tenacity he simply did not perceive, and whose end, with all of his efforts, he could not achieve. I would sum him up with the words of the novelist Ralph Ellison, who, two nights before Johnson left office, said to him, "Mr. President, because of Vietnam, you're going to have to settle just for being the greatest American president we've ever had on behalf of the undereducated young, the poor and the old, the sick and the black. But, Mr. President, that's not a bad epitaph." 

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About the Author

Harry McPherson, a former member of the Wilson Center's Board of Trustees, is chairman of the law firm Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson & Hand. Jack Valenti is chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.

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