Books in Review

a monthly column on books by Emory authors

LBJ: To Know Him Better
compiled by James C. Cain and J. Willis Hurst
edited by Robert L. Hardesty and Ted Gittinger
(1995) The LBJ Foundation

Books about presidents can be like books about movie stars: gossipy, misinformed and desperately seeking meaning where it does not exist. LBJ: To Know Him Better gracefully steers clear from these potholes at the same time that it announces that it does not pretend to be historical or political commentary. This is a book about stories as much as it is a book of stories. These are tales from the front lines, stories from the people who know them firsthand and at times were a part of the history that they record. It celebrates Lyndon Baines Johnson and the times in which he lived with a sense of nostalgia and pride.

The compilers of the book, J. Willis Hurst and the late James C. Cain, can certainly say they knew Johnson both inside and out. They were his attending physicians for 18 years. Hurst, a cardiologist, was professor and chair of the Department of Medicine from 1957-1986 and remains a consultant to the Division of Cardiology.

The book's informal format, with anecdotes strung together and separated by the announcements of the storyteller and his/her connection to LBJ, becomes immediately conversational and comfortable. With the ease of a coffee table book or a magazine, one might flip to any page in the book and begin reading. Order hardly matters here. Like a reunion of LBJ associates, one might walk into any discussion or hear any snippet and get the point of the story.

The stories range from three sentences to three pages. And the authors' ranks include cattle ranchers, speechwriters, former cabinet members, fellow politicians such as Lloyd Bentsen, and celebrities such as Gregory Peck.

Perhaps the most poignant tales are the ones that detail LBJ's humanity. The fact that there are so many such stories, enough to fill a book, is a comment within itself. Alabama civil rights advocate Virginia Foster Durr writes of her persecution in the spring of 1954. She recalls simply, "I believed that if anyone could stop [Senator Jim] Eastland, LBJ could. And he responded; how I never learned. But he stood by his friends, and we did not go to jail. In the Joe McCarthy atmosphere of the times, it was a remarkable act." Humorist Cactus Pryor tells the story of LBJ hosting Cantinflas, the famous Mexican comedian, at his ranch. He remembers, "In the midst of all the finely turned-out guests, the vice president [Johnson] brought into the room the Mexican cowboys and farmhands, with their families, who worked and lived on the LBJ ranch. Their clothes were simple, and some of them held their hats clutched tightly in their hands." Such simple acts of humanity pervade the memories of the people who recall Johnson.

Interspersed throughout all of the remembrances of the hard political battles and serious issues of the day are recollections of Johnson's humor. And although the humor of the moment becomes stale in the retelling, the chorus of voices recalling the jokes and laughs that they shared with Johnson are resounding and celebratory in a way that the reader can understand, if not experience the moment.

The sweetness of these stories lies in the retelling. That, finally, is the point. It becomes apparent that each encounter, no matter how brief, has become a cherished one and the recollection makes it new. Sometimes it is enough just to acknowledge the past.

In the Epilogue, Hurst explains why he wanted such a book to be published. "Lyndon Johnson was a man who lived to translate dreams into reality. He also, in the midst of his grinding schedule, found time to be funny and humane. We were with him, and we know."

Some of the writers admit at times that they do not know the full truthfulness of their stories. There are holes that can't be filled in such a format. And yet there they stand, reminding us that even in fiction, we can find truth; even in remembrance, we can find something new.

--Matt Montgomery