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Lyndon Johnson -- Re-Thought, Re-Vitalized, Re-Appreciated, Warts and All

02/26/2015 11:45 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

"ONE of the very best presidential memoirs I have ever read," I wrote in Newsday back when Joseph A. Califano Jr. first brought out his book on Lyndon Johnson.

I raved then as a Texan who never cared much for LBJ and I am double raving now that this personal memoir The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years, is having a second life, being re-published.

Some of our presidents since LBJ haven't accomplished as much in their several terms as Johnson did in just one busy day. I realize now that when the 89th Congress adjourned in 1966, LBJ's legislative accomplishments were already monumental. He got 97 major measures passed of the 113 submitted. Reading this book is like being caught in a whirlwind. You almost can't believe the force of it. And Califano, who was the President's top Domestic Advisor, didn't try to avoid "the warts and all" aspects of this dynamic President, who so many resented at the time. (He had come to the presidency through JFK's assassination.)

• Unfortunately, I missed the excellent big party at "21" given recently by Jeanne and Herb Siegel for the kick-off of this second go around, when we can appreciate LBJ more and more. This version offers minor corrections and some extraordinary new facts. It includes a treasure trove of anecdotes about LBJ's White House. And these elicited a personal letter from his daughter Luci Baines Johnson, which she sent to Califano after she read his book. He had never contacted her for an interview.

Here's Luci.

I cried my heart out when I finished your book. It was a cathartic experience. Knowing my father's expectations, to rise to the occasion, never really allowed me that sort of purging of human emotion after his death. Meeting Daddy again on the pages of your book in the privacy of my current anonymity did. That was how real you made him.

• If you bother to read this unusual memoir, here is just an excerpt of LBJ's controlling instinct in the White House.

The telephone was Johnson's chosen instrument. He installed direct lines to his top assistants from the Oval Office (both desk and coffee table) and his bedroom. This line was easily distinguishable from the clear buttons on our phone consoles not only by its red colors, but by the letters POTUS (President of the United States) and by the fact that when the button lit up, our phones emitted a constant single ring until they were answered. These POTUS lines easily earned the term 'hot.' If there was a slight delay in picking up, the President conveyed the impression that the phone hadn't been answered promptly enough.

He was invariably annoyed if any of us were not at the other end to answer.

Soon after I arrived at t he White House, around eight o'clock one morning, Johnson called on my POTUS line. Down the hall from the Oval Office, my office had its own adjoining bathroom, which is where I was when he called. 'He's not here, Mr. President,' my assistant Peggy answered nervously. 'Where the hell is he?' the President asked. 'He's in the bathroom, Mr. President.' 'Isn't there a phone in there?' Johnson asked incredulously. 'No, Mr. President,' Peggy responded, just as incredulously. 'Then have a phone put in there right away.' 'Yes, sir.'

When I emerged from the bathroom, Peggy told me what the President had said about the phone. 'Like hell,' I responded. 'Just forget about it.'

The following morning, at almost exactly the same time, the President called me on the hotline. I was, unfortunately, again in the bathroom. 'I told you to put a phone in that toilet,' Johnson shouted. 'I want that phone installed this morning. Do you hear me?' 'Yes, Mr. President.' Within minutes, as I came out of the bathroom, Peggy was standing in my office, a little shaky, with two Army Signal Corps technicians from the White House Communications Agency. 'The President wants a phone installed in your john immediately, sir,' one of them said. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled, and surrendered.

The phone, complete with POTUS line, was installed and functioning in less than an hour.


Don't miss reading about LBJ and his astounding White House!

•NOW that he is getting ready to depart late night television, David Letterman is more interesting to watch than ever. He seems to be giving free rein to all his impulses. And it is sometimes vastly weird and entertaining.

But hooray, hooray for the great actress Dame Helen Mirren, who really nailed him the other night for his years of long upstaging his guests. By this I mean, he has arranged his desk so that the guest is sitting out in front of him and has to almost turn his or her back to the audience when speaking to Letterman. And while you get the full force of Letterman to the camera, you often get only the profile and back of the head of the guest who is addressing him over the desk. I have wondered about this for years. But this is the first time I ever saw anybody accuse him of it in person. Helen said, "You're upstaging me!" She insisted, he change position. So he got up, rather sourly, and moved around to sit next to her, side by side for the interview.

It was about time somebody called him on the carpet. And she was both merry and bright about it. Helen was on Letterman promoting her Broadway version of Queen Elizabeth's meetings with her many Prime Ministers over the years. The Audience, written by the brilliant Peter Morgan, is a big hit.

And Helen Mirren is a radiant addition to New York's Broadway glamour.