“I Reckon You’re One Of Them New York Doves”

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At 10:00 sharp on the morning of November 19, 1969, I entered Austin’s new Federal Building, was waved into an elevator by a man I assumed was a Secret Service agent, and, reaching the top floor, walked into LBJ’s office. Here was LBJ, the man with the prominent ears, looking just as he did on television and in the newspapers, standing tall, and coming toward me with an outstretched hand.

LBJ’s eyes fixed steadily on me, and perhaps he was seeing a twinge of mistrust—his and mine—in the reflection. My hand was enveloped by his big one, and then he sat down on a couch and waved a bottle of Dr Pepper at me to signal that I too could sit down and have one, an offer I shook off, stifling the ungracious urge to say that I had been exposed to more than enough of that nose-clogging beverage as an Army draftee in the South.

Johnson’s first words to me were, “I reckon you’re one of them New York doves.” For the first time in my life, I said, “Yes, Mr. President.”

His voice was almost comically familiar, as if he were one of the many comedians still making a living by imitating him. He seemed paternal, and I recall being struck by the seemingly preposterous thought that he might be afraid of me .

Johnson with his grandson Patrick Nugent and his dog Yuki in the pool at the ranch.
 
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Johnson’s expression was not one of fear, of course, but it certainly conveyed wariness, the wariness of a man who found himself out of his medium, a man mistrustful of the press. Although LBJ surely understood the difference between the daily press and book publishing, he undoubtedly saw me, not entirely inaccurately, as a kissing cousin of those newspaper reporters and editorial writers who had helped drive him from office. LBJ also mistrusted prominent universities, and he knew that I was the product of one (although one point in my favor, I hoped, was that the University of Chicago was not part of the Ivy League). It would not be long before LBJ made sure to tell me that he had attended a “cow college.”

I sat down next to him and felt him gently rest his big hand on my thigh. “Well, let me tell you why you doves are full of it,” he said. Clutching a legal pad, I’d been ready to take notes about his book, but he was intent on defending himself and his record. He began speaking to me as if I were, at the very least, a visiting Scandinavian foreign minister or a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He asked me why journalists had begun hounding him so soon after President Kennedy’s assassination. This startled me, and I found the temerity to suggest that on the contrary, the press had rightly lauded him for his performance when he suddenly ascended to the Presidency. He countered rather oddly by reminding me that very early on, Time magazine had run a story reporting that when he showed his ranch to guests, he drove them, beer in hand, at 90 miles per hour. “I don’t drink beer,” he informed me. “I drink bourbon.”

I felt Johnson gently rest his big hand on my thigh. “Well, let me tell you why you doves are full of it,” he said.

We turned to business, and I recall only that we discussed whether Lady Bird’s diary should be published before or after the first of LBJ’s books. Then one or two of Johnson’s ghostwriters and the former National Security adviser Walt W. Rostow arrived. By noon we had disposed of our so-called work, and expecting to be dismissed, I was thinking about what I would do in the hours before my flight back to New York. But an aide arrived with a hot lunch, and LBJ hospitably signaled me to take a seat beside him.

At lunch he took to telling country stories, “both bawdy and charming,” according to the notes I took very much later in the day. He made it clear that his love for his home Texas Hill Country and its people was deep and genuine. But when I ventured to say that I hoped that something of the flavor of what I had just heard would enter his own writing, he waved his arm in dismissal: “That barnyard stuff will stay right here.”

The Vietnam War went unmentioned.

We broke from lunch, and LBJ briskly headed for his helicopter and the ranch, offhandedly inviting me—to my astonishment—to come spend the night there. Over the racket of his departure, I turned to one of his aides and asked, “What do I do now?” The obvious answer was that I cancel my flight to New York and rent a car for the hour-long drive from Austin to Stonewall, Johnson’s village birthplace and the location of his ranch.

I hit the road soon after changing my airline tickets but failed (in the world before answering machines) to reach Linda, my wife, and inform her that I would be returning home later—much, much later —than planned. On the drive through the Hill Country, with its surprisingly (to me) varied landscape, its abundant greenery, and lakes, rivers, and orchards, I wondered if the FBI had cleared me and if the Secret Service had a presence on the ranch.