by CHARLES T. FENYVESI
THE mystery-man in this city is Lyndon B. Johnson. Over the past few months, he has rarely been seen here. Gone are the clays when he turned up unexpectedly in a crowded local department store or at the baptism of a minor Congressman's child. No more spur-of-the-moment visits to places like Wichita, Kansas or Madison, Wisconsin. The President prefers to stay in Texas, where he sulks in his new, expensively-appointed office in Austin or licks his wounds at his ranch by the Pedernales River.
The sad thing about LBJ is that he, the great consensus-seeker, should have
become everybody's favourite whipping boy. Journalists disbelieve him; he is blamed for the decline of the Democratic Party; he is charged with criminal obstinacy and worse for carrying on the war in Vietnam; he is accused of improprieties and ill manners at the time following the Kennedy assassination. There are now rumours that he may choose not to run in 1968 and withdraw from politics to tend his prize-winning cattle.
By all accounts, this most garrulous of U.S. Presidents in memory is brooding. The gracious gentleman farmer has become petulant and sullen. The master politician seems to have lost his touch.
OVERSEAS TOUR The Press has built up a case of "credibility gap" against him. He is not honest. it is said, he makes statements to prevent the nation from knowing how bad things are going. The curtailment of his Great Society plans is a favourite topic with cartoonists. The petering out of his ambitious poverty programme and the deterioration of the Vietnam situation are daily brought up against him on editorial pages throughout the country. "What has happened to his tall Texan promises?" Americans ask.
Democrats hold him responsible for the party's poor showing at the November elections. Instead of campaigning for embattled candidates in California and Illinois, Johnson barnstormed places like Samoa, Seoul and New Zealand. And when he came home, Democrats argue bitterly, he, the master politician, blundered by having himself operated on at the time of election.
The nation's leading political dynasty has also contributed to Johnson's difficulties. While it was always known that no love was ever lost between Johnson and the Kennedy clan, most Americans were quite unprepared for the bitterness and the whispered scurrilities of the present conflict.
With all this against Johnson, leading political figures like Michigan's
Governor George Romney recently expressed doubt if Johnson would be interested in running again. Others voiced similar sentiments.
OUT OF TUNE Perhaps the most damaging charge against Johnson is that he is out of tune with the times. This is a common accusation among Democrats, particularly on the liberal wing. Columnists have taken up the idea: they talk about a "generational gap" which divides Johnson from men like Robert Kennedy. (Also in the latter group: civil rights militants, anti-poverty activists, bright young Republicans like Oregon's Mark Hatfield.) For Johnson and his political generation, the U.S. is a finished product and, although pockets of poverty and injustice remain, the country has never had it so good. For the younger generation, this is eyewash;
The verdict that many people bring is devastating in a country which worships progress and which insists on the very latest in everything: Johnson is obsolete. He speaks for the past and time has come to switch to a peppier, with-it President.
The sentiment is growing that Johnson may lose in 1968. Liberal Democrats are thoroughly disenchanted with him. Many of them are ready to vote for newlyelected Illinois Senator Charles Percy or another fresh Republican personality.
There are not many people these days who speak up for the President. Just as the late Adlal Stevenson came to represent in two unsuccessful presidential campaigns all that was noble, civilised and liberal in American public life, Johnson has come to symbolise all that is hypocritical, backward and platitudinous.
NEW IMAGE Naturally, such polarisations are exaggerated. This is particularly so in a country where commercial advertising and publicity campaigns have made people keenly image conscious. Whether aware of it or not, the voter here sees his hero and anti-hero in prefabricated moulds. Marlborough is a Man's Cigarette, Ford is the Fun Car and Jade East is the Sophisticated Deodorant. Johnson is a Beer and Barbecue Man. He is Maladroit. He is Coarse, At this lowest ebb of his public esteem, President Johnson has a great deal to think about in his Texas retreat. He will have to do drastic things to recover his prestige. He will have to stop the downward curve of his popularity rating. He needs to build up a new image.
Those who have known him over the years do not doubt that Johnson will not succumb to all this adversity. He is a fighter. He may lack imagination but he certainly knows how to hit back.
He has less than two years to turn the tide.