The 'Chic' Complex
From MURRAY KEMPTON
AA YOUNG lady from Texas was wishing aloud ,h.the other night, less from spite than from ill-used sense of justice, that people would give over thinking that it was the Keimedys who had brought Pablo CasaIs to the White House.
`It was,' she said, 'these friends of Mrs. Johnson. . . .' She was distracted at that point and her auditors were never to know whether CasaIs was the private fetish of a cult so obscure he had to be explained to that Mr. Kennedy or whether the White House is an address so mean that CasaIs could only turn to this friend of Mrs. Johnson' to find out just who this was who had invited him.
John Bainbridge has instructed us* that Texans are only Americans outsize; and it is Texan and American, to a degree less feverish, to be embarrassed about not being something that no one has any right to expect you to be. We want, and the Texans especially want us, to be- lieve not just that we have acquired something pretty substantial in Mr. Johnson but that we have lost nothing irreplaceable in Mr. Kennedy.
That hope suffused the literary editor of the Washington Post in a recent portrait of Mrs. Johnson as bluestocking. 'The First Lady,' she explained, 'not only reads books; she buys them. Not only does Mrs. Johnson buy books; she spreads them around.' The First Lady's zest for sharing the peaks of her journey through the novel impelled her, as an instance, to buy and present to her friends dozens of copies of Mr. Allan Drury's Advise and Consent. And she used, in the days before her husband's succession, to carry a copy of the newest James Michener novel in her shopping bag to exercise the muscles of the mind while waiting to open bazaars.
Hagiography, in a secular society, may well be the one literary form from which its object can- not possibly recover. That Mrs. Johnson is a woman brisk, kindly and generous is an estimate to which we have no witnesses more fervent than the very enemies her husband used to have in the days before protocol deprived him of a normal man's quota of such. How does it add to that testimony for us to be told with a reverence that fairly commands the knees to quake about an interest in letters which, on the citation of the two authors who have most recently inflamed its enthusiasm, would seem to be the most rudi- mentary in aspiration, and that, if Oriane de Guermantes has gone into the shadows, Germaine de Stael has taken her place?
But what is offensively called culture is not a thing to be worked at. One special strength of Mr. Kennedy's style in [esthetic matters was that it had the proper proportion of indifference. A musician said not long ago that he found himself missing Mr. Kennedy with a poignancy that was actually increasing because he had just begun to understand that he was unlikely ever again to live under a President who never pronounced the word 'culture.' Mr. Kennedy would not have thought himself deficient in duty if he did not think about musie from one day to the next; but, when State occasions demanded, he expected the music to be as worthy of a decent car as the food was of a refined palate.
* In The Super Americans, a profile of Texas, and, without affecting to be such, the definitive descrip- tion of the tone and style of the succession, Still, these are irrelevant comparisons; and President Johnson, if happiness does not seem to him an immoral aspiration, will be happier if he ceases to trouble about them. Mrs. Truman did not feel compelled to go down into coal Mines because Mrs. Roosevelt had; yet she established a cherished place in the American memory. And then, even if he insists on troubling himself, Mr. Johnson might reflect that he came to the office with a place in the national letters which no predecessor could claim. He would seem to be the first of our Presidents to have come to office already the model for the hero of a novel. John- son seems markedly unappreciative of the honour; yet he could, if he would, draw the strength to understand that a man who is a piece of literature is hardly required thereafter to cultivate letters. It is clearly more an achievement to have interested a novelist as a subject than to have entertained him as a host.
William Brammer's The Gay Place is a Texas novel held together by the immense mythic force of a Governor Arthur Goddamn Fenstermaker whose model, beneath some splashes of paint for gaud, is substantially Lyndon Baines Johnson. Brammer worked five years on the staff of the then Majority Leader of the Senate of the United States; his was a family with nearly one hundred members, ranging in commitment from the absolute, as embodied by Bobby Baker, secretary to the majority, whose habit it was to begin all converse with Senator Johnson with the noun of address 'Leaduh,' down to the disengaged, as represented by those who referred to their captain as 'The Big Pumpkin.' Brammer seems to have lodged himself somewhere slightly below the middle rung in this ladder of devotion; he was never an intimate nor did he pretend to be; The Gay Place is enjoying a minor vogue in Washington at the moment, but it must be dis- appointing to gossips. Mr. Johnson is only the model; Governor Fenstermaker-Johnson is one of those characters who quite escapes his creator, being older, kindlier, less compulsive and wildly more antic than his prototype, and an infusion of fantasy into the reality which seems to have left the Johnsons contemplating their elevation into the American novel with no emotion except the wound of having entertained angels unaware and having been wrongfully used in return.
His reaction to The Gay Place goes far, I am afraid, to explain why Mr. Johnson finds him- self having to work so hard to achieve a style and tone which he, more than the rest of us, seems to think essential to his duty: A certain indifference, even a certain laziness, was special to the Kennedy tone. His style depended on that sense of proportion only possible to a man who had limited his pride to those parts of himself he judged important enough to be proud about. Shortly before he died, he seems to have read J.F.K.---the Man and the Myth, an almost spiteful biography, with complete equanimity so far as he bothered to get into it.
That nice discrimination about what is truly important was one feature of Mr. Kennedy's style that his successor might profitably consider an example. Mr. Johnson seems to have trouble for- giving Brammer because Governor Fenstermaker- Johnson emerges as a man so vulgar. Yet Senator Johnson used, in his quiet way, to be rather a vulgar man himself; we may assume that, if decorum had meant so much to him. he could long ago have shaped himself to be stately, measured and empty. But what was really important to Lyndon Johnson was to be recog- nised as a large man; nothing besides patriotism could have carried him through a political career which was, for years, more chancy than comfort- able except the dream of being known at the end not as a graceful or a cultivated man but as a truly big one.
Bainbridge observes that the oil industry controls all of Texas and its politics; in Brammer's Texas, this is a condition so taken for granted that the oil industry is never a subject for public discussion; a controversial issue there would be a proposal to temper the practice of usury.. In all this darkness, there is no light but Governor Arthur Fenstermaker-Johnson.
Just to get the legislature to appropriate money to build hospitals and schools demands of him prodigies of Lyndon Johnson's technique as a Senator. 'Do me a favour,' he tells the only radical editor in Texas: 'Oppose me; but don't oppose me too violently, because 1 need the votes of your crowd. Oppose me on principle.' He enlists a wandering liberal legislator to lead the debate for his education Bill, a meagre thing by pure standards, but Governor Fenstermaker-Johnson's standards are: 'Something's better than nothin'. Half a loaf. Slice of Goddamned bread even.' His recruit is surprised to find that the Speaker of the Legislature has been won over. 'He's a reasonable and honourable man,' the Governor explains. 'All I had to do is threaten to ruin him.'
'There is old Fenstermaker,' an uneasy ally reflects. 'Could he be corrupted--had he been corrupted? He hadn't time. Too busy tending to things. He could corrupt all right—he sold things . . . people but never himself: . . . The Fenstermakers ... fakirs, medicine men, illusion- ists—making miracles with mirrors.'
Fenstermaker-Johnson finds a forgotten• ex-. legislator and appoints him a United States Senator and, through trickery, contrives his re- election. Only Fenstermaker remembers how this exile had been driven from the legislature be- cause his brother had been called a Communist. Now he is salvaged. 'You can go to Washington,' says the Governor, 'and vote that economic aid and lower the interest rate and maybe even get a Nigger Bill through.' He listens in on the tele- phone calls of his enemies, he lies and he black- mails; he goes down into the pit every day for no reason except personal and social benevolence. We define the sort of despair that a sensitive young man can feel after a life in Texas ■■ hen he has come to no hope except in this old necro- mancer and, quite against his own expectations, to no redeemer except one who has to look and sound and plot and contrive as Senator Johnson used to have to'do. In his Texas, few have good ends and none can afford proper means.
But Arthur Fenstermaker is not Lyndon Johnson. For one thing, he is luckier. The little tricks he executes for mere benevolence were for Senator Johnson the devices of, survival. For Arthur Fenstermaker can be believed only if he is made older than Lyndon Johnson and resigned to being elected nowhere except in Texas and preserved because he belongs to a time before the millionaires came. But Lyndon Johnson has had to engage and survive a time when Texas was no longer a region set apart from urban America hut was coming to be different fromthe rest of the country only, as a wide-colour screen is different in gaud and proportion from an ordinary black- and-white. Right in the middle of all the digestive disturbances consequent upon the national struggle to absorb this great whale, Lyndon Johnson decided to be not a regional but a national politician.
It was a time when every respectable Texas politician of his generation had bolted to Eisen- hower; yet Lyndon Johnson had, for national survival, to stay with the Democrats. He came into 1953 distrusted by those with whom he had remained and scorned by those who had left him for the Republicans. Yet he survived, almost alone, not because of his nobility of principle, but because the oil men who controlled Texas politics decided not to oppose his return to the Senate because there was no one they knew who could wangle and wheedle for them as Lyndon Johnson could. He is with us still only because those who could have mounted his destruction weighed him and found him useful on the measure they would have applied to a sales representative.
He was a proud man forced to live by his wits
in a hostile country and there must be a part of him that hates Texas. He conies to us free at last and scarred as few Presidents before him have been. It is sad that those scars are not a source of pride; but, whether from love or hate, he must live out his life a Texan.
'Dallas has a "chic" complex,' an architect who had fled from there once told John Bainbridge. The need to be made over, new and shining and entirely up-to-date, must begin somewhere on that horrid road beneath that horrible burden so many i4xans have carried upward. Mr. Johnson comes to us from the wars; we look upon him with a respect which is owed not just his uniform but the scars he bears. Still he has been there; for him it is not a romantic memory; it is hard to blame if he wants so much and so unnecessarily to wipe off every trace of what he has come through.