Look at the above photograph, one of the most famous pictures ever depicting the Presidency. All you need to know is that the man hunched over the desk is Lyndon B. Johnson, and the photo was taken in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. Your mind fills in the rest, doesn’t it?
The story behind this photo is quite interesting. It was taken by Jack E. Kightlinger late on the evening of July 31, 1968, apparently after a meeting of Johnson and his advisers. LBJ’s presidency was at its nadir in the summer of 1968. Vietnam had gone terribly wrong. Cities were seething with racial tensions which often exploded into violence. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated months earlier, and it seemed the fabric of American society, strained by the war, violence and social unrest, was beginning to unravel. If you were President under these circumstances, wouldn’t you feel as anguished as LBJ looks here?
The key feature of the photo is actually the tape recorder on the table. Johnson was listening to a tape sent to him by his son-in-law, Charles Robb, then a captain in the Marine Corps. Robb met LBJ’s daughter Lynda while serving as a military aide at the White House. Johnson had asked Robb to send him reports of what was really happening on the ground in Vietnam. Though certainly the experience of leading the U.S. through Vietnam was anguishing, at this moment Johnson appears to have simply been resting his eyes while listening to Robb’s tape. Robb later went on to be a Senator and Governor of Virginia.
Almost no filmed documentary about the Vietnam War omits the “Johnson anguish picture.” It communicates in an arresting visual way the awesome burden of the presidency and how it can break even a very strong man, as Johnson was.