Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams, told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
Lyndon Johnson 1: Paralysis
“[H]e began having, night after night, a terrifying dream, in which he would see himself sitting absolutely still, in a big, straight chair. In the dream, the chair stood in the middle of the great, open plains. A stampede of cattle was coming toward him. He tried to move, but he could not. He cried out again and again for his mother, but no one came.”
In Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 32.
Lyndon B. Johnson served as President from 1963-1969. He told this and the following three dream reports to former White House aide and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography of Johnson referred to the dreams as meaningful reflections of his deeper character. This one appears to be the earliest dream Johnson ever remembered, from around the age of five, and it’s a horrifying image of titanic danger and existential vulnerability. Goodwin’s interpretation moves in a psychoanalytic direction, treating the recurrent nightmares as symbolic indications of Johnson’s oedipal attachment to his mother. His strenuous effort to deny these powerful desires, Goodwin says, gave him a lifelong fear of paralysis and a corresponding impulse toward restless action and movement. I won’t dispute her references to Johnson’s personal life, but I think the dreams can also be interpreted as expressions of a precocious awareness of human finitude and weakness in the face of powers vastly beyond his or anyone’s ability to control. Whatever he may or may not have felt about his mother, Johnson’s recurrent nightmares can be seen as reflecting the primal glimmers of mortality that have haunted the sleep of children throughout history, and that often reappear at moments of crisis later in adulthood.
Johnson told Goodwin that the paralysis dreams came back after his heart attack in 1955, when he was forty-six years old. He had just been elected Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and the months of recuperation required following the heart attack seemed to create the conditions for the titanic terrors to reappear. He said, “They [the nightmares] got worse after my heart attack. For I knew then how awful it was to lose command of myself, to be dependent on others. I couldn’t stand it.” This sounds like a pretty good self-analysis of the dreams, more convincing to me than the psychoanalytic approach.
Lyndon Johnson 2: Chained to His Work
“In the dream, I had finished signing one stack of letters and had turned my chair toward the window. The activity on the street below suggested to me that it was just past five o’clock. All of Washington, it seemed, was on the street, leaving work for the day, heading for home. Suddenly, I decided I’d pack up and go home, too. For once, I decided, it would be nice to join all those people on the street and have an early dinner with my family. I started to get up from my chair, but I couldn’t move. I looked down at my legs and saw they were manacled to the chair with a heavy chain. I tried to break the chain, but I couldn’t. I tried again and failed again. Once more and I gave up; I reached for the second stack of mail. I placed it directly in front of me, and got back to work.”
Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 167
Johnson said this dream came in the early 1960’s, when he was serving as Vice-President to John F. Kennedy. It merged his recurrent paralysis nightmares with his current political dissatisfactions. The Vice-Presidency carries enormous prestige but little actual power (until recently, at least), and Johnson’s acute fear of losing control meant he found the position frustrating in the extreme. His unhappiness with his job resonates, of course, with the multitude of work-related nightmares discussed in previous pages. Like many, many other American workers, Johnson felt trapped in his job, cut off from his family, and too weak to escape the greater powers that controlled his life.
Lyndon Johnson 3: The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson
“[H]e was lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House….His head was still his, but from the neck down his body was [a] thin, paralyzed body….”
Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 342
This version of his recurrent dream started in 1967, when Johnson was reaching the end of his first full term as President. He associated the awful vision to 1) his grandmother, whose frail body frightened him as a child, and 2) Woodrow Wilson, President from 1912-1920, a fellow Democrat whose failures Johnson saw as emblematic of weak, impotent leadership. Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 that effectively ended his presidency. Johnson worried about his inherited vulnerability to strokes (many in his family had died from them), and he had good reason to fear that his administration would be judged, like Wilson’s, as a failure given the worsening war in Vietnam and the terrible race riots flaring up in several American cities. His emaciating physical transformation in the dream signaled, I suspect, Johnson’s growing awareness that he would soon be joining the ranks of the presidential ancestors. Goodwin says that when Johnson had these dreams he would get out of bed and walk through the White House with a small flashlight until he reached Wilson’s portrait, where he would physically touch the portrait in hope of consolation, or sympathy, or perhaps forgiveness.
Lyndon Johnson 4: Swimming in Circles
“In the dream he saw himself swimming in a river. He was swimming from the center toward the shore. He swam and swam, but he never seemed to get any closer. He turned around to swim to the other shore, but again he got nowhere. He was simply going round and round in circles.”
Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 344
Johnson faced a truly paralyzing situation in 1968, the time when he reported having this dream. The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese marked a terrible setback the American war cause, the urban racial unrest was intensifying all over the country, student protests were growing in size and passion—if Johnson tried to run for another term he would face a terrible battle against his opponents for the dubious prize of four more years of the same, and yet if he simply gave up and retreated to his home in Texas he would be roundly denounced as a shameless coward. According to Goodwin, this new variation of his paralysis dream helped Johnson find his way beyond the either-or dilemma. He decided he would not campaign for a second term so he could better serve the country as a non-partisan leader and peacemaker during the dangerous months ahead. Goodwin says Johnson connected this dream with a story his grandfather told about cattle getting caught in river whirlpools, which I believe deepens the thematic relations with his early childhood paralysis nightmares of the thundering herd of cattle. In this dream, more than fifty years after the bad dreams first started, Johnson discovers that even the mighty cattle are vulnerable to the greater power represented by the whirlpool—just so, even the mighty President of the United States must yield to the greater power of historical forces beyond his individual ability to control. I see the image of the circles as key here. Johnson decided to devote his final years to the cause of historical continuity, carrying on the legacy of leadership from one President to the next, responsibly ending the service of his administration in order to prepare the country for the next cycle of political decision-making. He stopped trying to fight against his existential weakness, and chose instead to
embrace the final stage of his political career as an opportunity to immerse himself wholeheartedly in the swirling currents of history.