Love is a Federal Highway

Commentary on David Foster Wallace, Girl with Curious Hair, chapter four (“Lyndon”).

Lyndon Baines Johnson is a man who has most likely been described as every type of person imaginable, “a man of contradictions, generous and selfish; compassionate and cruel; thoughtful and neglectful; charming and rude.” Wallace chooses to begin his own voyage into the mind of LBJ with a quote which sees Johnson campaigning from a helicopter for U.S. Senate in 1954, roughly – “Hello down there, this is your candidate, Lyndon Johnson.” This scene is described in more detail in Robert A Caro’s ‘The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent,’ who writes that Johnson was “following the rule that if it was moving, he shook its hand.” It is an account which somehow captures the essence of Johnson, his unrelenting drive, his un-self-aware extravagance and his tendency towards appearing almost as a parody of the Texan. Picturing Johnson demanding that his pilot stop for every other person across the vast expanses of Texas, without ever imagining that the fully ludicrous nature of the activity had crossed his mind, typifies the strive towards perfection and acceptance that he embarked on in both his personal and political life. Throughout Wallace’s portrayal of the enigmatic Johnson, he interlaces his text with both real and fictitious quotes from the man himself and those around him, creating a highly believable and human portrait that is considered in its representation.

Wallace’s invented Johnson’s introduction is similarly and unsurprisingly spectacular – “My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I own the fucking floor you stand on, boy.” The anxiety, which eventually manifests as laughter, that Johnson causes the fictitious David Boyd evokes an image of a man who controls conversation and can shift between mood erratically – one moment Boyd has his chin to the floor, the next he cannot control his laughter. Capturing these two Lyndon Johnsons, in helicopter and behind desk, make up part of an innumerable set of Lyndon Johnsons which have been accepted into the canon, but Wallace seems to have a good understanding of just how difficult it is to pinpoint what really makes the character. This characteristic of Johnson’s to be many people at once, or one after another, is what makes him so inviting as a topic for writing and debate.

In the chapter ‘Going Most of the way with LBJ’ from “In History’s Shadow: An American Odyssey,” John Connally writes of Johnson’s detractors that “they missed the fun that people around him often shared, they missed the very genuine beliefs that motivated him, they missed the best part.” This is something which Wallace manages to capture extremely well, and throughout the chapter there is a particular warmth about Johnson that translates to the reader. Whether it comes through in his father-like displeasure at Boyd, or his classic sense of romance, or his insistence that Boyd should write down each of his thoughts to which he attaches an over-inflated sense of importance. This LBJ, Wallace’s LBJ, is such an instantly recognisable character – somebody who despite so many blatant flaws is impossible to dislike, within each of his crude or over-bearing mannerisms lays a delicacy that characterises his well-documented need to be loved. At his very core, there is an impossible mission that he has given himself – to convert and improve everything in his path. If you are standing in the way of Lyndon Johnson, you should either move or accept that you will get hit.


The event which Johnson is inextricably linked with is the Vietnam War, “his curse, we knew it then and more so today, it kept the country from knowing Lyndon Johnson, from accepting and recognising his other works, his efforts to improve the quality of life for all.” Wallace’s LBJ reflects on Vietnam with both huge regret and unrelenting viciousness, he is portrayed as a man cornered by external pressures, lashing out at the youth of America in their naivety. “Take a look at them dancing across over there, boy, shouting fuck you like they invented both fucking and me, their President, take a look over across, and you’ll see what I see.“ In this long ending sequence Wallace explores the lingering self-doubt which permeates all of which Johnson worked towards. If his term as President is remembered as one of failure, then it’s because of this great and complex shadow of the Vietnam War.

The ending of this chapter broods over the complex relationship between love, responsibility, right and wrong. Responsibility is “like the sky,” says Johnson, who began by conquering it, he now has it towering over him. It is a fascinating ending in which Wallace takes on the psyche of both Johnson through his invented Lady Bird, who attempts to explain all of this to Boyd:

”Love is simply a word. It joins separate things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love one another anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a ‘love’ to span any distance. Lyndon says he shall cherish the day when love and right and wrong and responsibility, when these words, he says, are understood by you youths of America to be nothing but arrangements of distance. Lyndon is haunted by his own conception of distance.  His hatred of being alone is a consequence of what his memoir will call his great intellectual concept: the distance at which we see each other, arrange each other, love. That love, he will say, is a federal highway, lines putting communities, that move and exist at great distance, in touch. My husband has stated publicly that America, too, his own America, that he loves enough to conceal deaths for, is to be understood in terms of distance.”

To summarise Wallace’s own outlook on Johnson is difficult, mostly it appears that he has found his reputation similarly fascinating as have historians and biographers, but this ending that he builds towards is so cryptic, and so complicated, that it ends up summarising the difficult process that so many have embarked on with Johnson. The more you delve into the wealth of material surrounding him, the less you really find out. In this ending we feel Johnson’s ideas of duty and responsibility on a global, national and inter-personal scale, his “great intellectual concept,” that love is something tangible, which reflects his fixation on policy and legislation – proves these “arrangements of distance” not to be abstractions as they appear, but to be the motions that Johnson would attempt to put in place over the course of his political career. In each handshake or journey that he made there was real gut feeling that separates him from those who would lead him towards eventual isolation, Johnson’s tragedy is that he could not bridge this distance.

Photos: Wicked Local, LBJ Library

Conor O’Donnell

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