22 JANUARY 1972, Page 11

Henry Fairlie on

The Secondary World of LBJ

The book*, like the man, is big. It is It is them, difficult, in considering either of to avoid sentences like that, so much se that one begins to think that one is, after all, Anthony Sampson; and that one must write a compendium. I have been an admirer of Mr Sampson's work for many a year: no one else could have adapted the methods of the Sears and Roebuck — in America — or the Selfridge's — in Britain catalogue and turned them into a literary form. We need him again. Since it is now vain to look to John Gunther to write " Inside Lyndon Johnson," will not Mr Sampson give us an Anatomy? For the moment, dear reader, you must be contented with me. In his odd little book about Harold Macmillan, who is a complex figure, Mr Sampson showed us how to avoid the complexity by saying that there are two Harold Macmillans, or Was it three? It seemed to me that he had, for once, missed his boat, and that he could have had the verve to give us two books, an "Anatomy of Mac," and an "Anatomy of Millan." I have been a student of Harold Macmillan for most of Y adult life, as they say, and when the last volume of his memoirs has appeared, I Will be heard contentedly chanting the dirnittis. But the reason why I find a source of endless fascination is that there is only one of him, that each side of lin is, at one and the same time, all the other sides; that he cannot be divided, but is individual and whole. t The many little biographers of our time r to evade the complexity of their subj'Y ects by telling us that there were two or three or four of them, either at war or coexisting in the same frame; and it h is ugely rewarding to pick up the work of a real historian, like Lacey Baldwin Smith's new life of Henry VIII, and find that he tean) from the first page to the last, handle he complexity of his subject without divid . t, anatomising it, cutting it up, annihilatingit._ We are not given eight Henrys, but a single Henry VIII, whole in his time.

These thoughts occur because the fourth. volume of Harold Macmillan's memoirs has appeared in the United States just after the single volume of Lyndon Johnson's memoirs; and some reviewers have contrasted them. I happen to find Lyndon Johnson as endlessly fascinating as Harold Macmillan — or Henry VIII — and so, following their lead, my own thoughts have drifted in that direction. The first thing to be said is technical, but important. Harold Macmillan began at the beginning, Lyndon Johnson begins at the end.

Under various pressures — including the wish that their memoirs will be serialised in Life or the Times — most of our public . figures today begin telling their lives from the climax: even Anthony Eden saw the end of his career as a climax, and wrote his autobiography back to front. But not not — Harold-Macmillan. He began at the beginning, and has unwrapped his life from there.

Some people may think that it is like one of those parcels which one used to give to one's schoolboy friends: inside the first box is a smaller box, and so on and so on, until one comes to the last of all, and it is still only a box. I find it different. He set out to write the narrative of his life as a work of art, and he seems to me to be triumphantly succeeding.

Even more than biography, autobiography should be regarded as what W. H. Auden, by courtesy of J. R. R. Tolkien, calls a Secondary World, created by its author, as distinct from the Primary World, the given circumstances "in which we are born, live, love, hate and die." In creating this Secondary World, it is essential that the author should start at the beginning, not only so that we may see the whole life unfolding, but so that we may see how the author himself sees his whole life unfolding. In this way — and in this way only — can one avoid the banality of imagining that there are two — or more — Harold Macmillans.

In the first volume of his memoirs, one could watch Harold Macmillan as he picked up the — remembered — skein of his life at its beginning; in the succeeding volumes, one has been able to watch him as he has gradually wound it into a ball. When it is complete, it will be as satisfying as the ball of wool which one remembers one's grandmother making out of a skein. It was an art, making that ball; she would feel it at the end; it was seldom too tightly wound, seldom too loosely; if it was, she would say, "Tut! tut!," and begin again.

This is the gift which we have from Harold Macmillan: one cannot read the fourth volume of his memoirs without recalling hints which he gave us in the first volume. As one held the skein for one's grandmother, there came a point at which one had to be very careful because as the ball in her hands became larger and firmer, the skein in one's own hands became thin and one could easily pull it apart. This is the point at which we have arrived in the memoirs of Harold Macmil lan, and we can be sure that, in the final winding and unwinding, he will be completely in charge.

The only fault which I can find in the memoirs of Lyndon Johnson is that, in the modern fashion, he begins at the end. We have neither skein nor ball. Again and again — as he did in conversation — he reverts to the years before he became President: recollections of his previous experience, of lessons which he had learned, of the men who had taught him, of triumphs and of hurts. These are hints but, since they are given to us outside the narrative of his life, they remain only hints, and do not become the clues which we can follow in the memoirs of Harold Macmillan, or even in the marvellously cunning reverie of R. A. Butler. (There is a work of art, indeed, there is a Secondary World!) The book is therefore big, but it is much smaller than the man.

Lyndon Johnson had a remarkable — and important — political career before he became the President; and he always turned back to it at critical moments while he was the President, as he does in this account of his Presidency. He •learned much of his trade from Sam Rayburn, a member of the House of Representatives for forty-one years, and its Speaker for seventeen of them; and it is as illuminating as it is moving that, in this volume of memoirs, he talks of Sam Rayburn — and of no other politician — as "Mr Rayburn." We are told what Mr Rayburn once said; we are told the advice which Mr Rayburn once gave. But one needs the picture from the beginning, one needs Lyndon Johnson from the beginning, one needs his first meeting with Mr Rayburn.

One could chop this book to pieces. It is filled with what, in the Primary World, can only be regarded as half-truths, and some barefaced lies. But he does not pretend that he is offering us the Primary World. He says outright: "I have not written these chapters to say, This is how it was,' but to say, 'This is how I saw it from my vantage point'." This is perhaps much the same method as was used by John Kennedy after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, when he said that the responsibility was solely his own, and so effectively stopped all serious examination of the event. It seemed so big of him; any man is entitled to make a mistake. But the fact is that, by the standard which he sets, Lyndon Johnson's memoirs are truthful and therefore valuable. This is how he saw it at the time, and we therefore know why he thought he did what he did.

So, in reviewing this book, it seems most useful to say how I think it should be read. In the first place, anyone who is interested in politics, and not in the apocalypse or the Second Coming, should buy this book and read it closely, fast or slow, preferably both. He should re-read as he reads, first at the pace of the man, and then at his own pace. He will learn as much about the nature of political decision — what a jumble it is — from this volume as from any other political memoir of our time. Here it all is, the chances and the digressions of political life, the fact that one can rarely find when, or how, or by whom, any decision was taken; indeed, if one was taken at all.

Harold Macmillan once said that power was like a Dead Sea fruit, that one fought for it and then, when one got it, found that there was nothing there. Hugh Gaitskell once told me that I should write a book about power, "because it simply does not exist." These seem to me to be fragile statements, but to contain a truth which we too often ignore.

I challenge anyone to read Lyndon Johnson's memoirs, to read the twelve official volumes of what are known as the Pentagon Papers, to read the four volumes of 'The Senator Gravel Edition' of them — I have done all three—and then to say, with any confidence that he is speaking the truth, how the United States landed itself "waist deep in the big muddy" of Indochina. One picks one's way, as Lytton Strachey says in the famous passage on Gladstone, up the side of a volcano, following the flames and the sparks which it is emitting, and then, when one gets to the top, one looks down into the darkness of the crater within. There is nothing to see; there is no tale to carry back home.

Ignorant people today like to see their politicians as black or white — especially black — but what one finds in Lyndon Johnson's memoirs, and this is why the book is honest and valuable, are plain men, few of them even tuppence-coloured, struggling to grasp what is not there to be grasped. This is exactly the same feeling which I have, writing from the United States, about the events in Northern Ireland, and the reader of Lyndon Johnson's pages might bear them in mind.

One must take his words at their face value. One may smile as one reads his e):: tended descriptions of his doubts shoe running for office in 1964, and of his deci' sion not to run in 1968. It is a highly kr probable picture which he gives us of a man with a distaste for power and plabli, city. But one should read them also withoni a smile, because it is clear that he thought that there were "doubts," and he thought that there was a " decision " to take, in5,1 as we who write about politics also thin" so. It is these which matter, and he luminates their nature.

One of the moving things in the book and it is a moving book, as he was 8 moving human being to meet — is the totally un-false figure of Lady Bird J°h°. son which passes through the chaptels and the picture which emerges of hie totally un-false relationship with her. Shiei was much admired, and much liked, bY 81 who met her while she was still in the public eye; and here, in print, she is. One should read with care the astonishing memoranda which she wrote to her line: band when he was filled with " doubt: and wondering what " decision " to take.

For these are undeniably tTd documents, and they take the doubt all the decision out of their quotation mar° much as do the letters of Thomas More They tell us — as does Harold Macmillan in spite of himself, as does R. A. Butler what is at the core of the Dead Sea fruit. So much in politics hangs on chance' Lyndon Johnson tells us that, in 1964, he telephoned Eugene McCarthy with tit! idea that he should run as his Vice-Pt' dent. ‘" But McCarthy said it was too late; he had already given the press the text his telegram to me," announcing that ili`f was taking himself out of the running. the call had been made an hour earlier. ..; So much in politics also hangs on idee'; One should read with patience the chante, entitled, 'The New Age of Regionalisnl It was this bogus idea, which sprang fr°11.1, the minds of men such as Walt Rostov, and of dames such as Barbara War! which captured informed opinion througe out the world in the late 1950s and tild early 1960s, and persuaded the United States that it should pour its treasure aft its men into the farthest regions of th,` world: all the rubbish about " Emerginie Nations" and the "Decade of Devei:' 'opment " and the "Alliance for Progress 'A It is all over, now, it is all past; it seems grotesque, whether in the rhetornf of John Kennedy or in the prose ()i Lyndon Johnson. William Stafford, one ire the most individual of America's rernarr'; able breed of poets, has a poem about woman dying of cancer, in which he saY: that, as she pursued her private goodnes,; "the great national events danced thee' grotesque, fake importance." It is tlit value of Lyndon Johnson's memoirs Oa, page after page, we can feel this groteai queness, but can at the same time 9reet, what politics — the real politics of Rayburn — can do which is real. Mr Rayburn would never have sent tino a million men to South Vietnam; Lie. would Mr Johnson, when he was a Ile presentative or a Senator. That is why should have started this intriguing book its proper beginning. We could have see more clearly how it happened.