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“I Reckon You’re One Of Them New York Doves”
What happened when an anti—Vietnam War activist met his new client—Lyndon Johnson
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
Finally alone, I phoned Linda in New York. Assured that I was all right, she began to speak breathlessly about the party she had just attended, an anti–Vietnam War fundraiser. A $25 dollar contribution had bought her a photo sitting with none other than Richard Avedon, and now I was wondering what the Secret Service (I was sure someone was monitoring us) was making of the seditious chatter from up there in New York. I tried to change the subject by telling Linda that I was about to go to sleep on the Johnson ranch. She wisely bade me good night. I then made some notes but, beyond exhaustion, soon went to bed. My last thought, as I lost consciousness, was: Aaron Asher slept here.
I got up early the next morning, heard no one stirring, and walked outside through unlocked French doors into a fine day. After idly examining the parked helicopter, I went off exploring into high grass. Only a few minutes later I heard my host shouting urgently, “Git outta there, outta there.” As I obeyed and came toward him, he said dryly that he didn’t want to lose his publisher “so soon,” and when I still looked blank, he called me a tenderfoot and informed me that the field I’d wandered into was home to a batch of rattlesnakes.
Not long after I returned to New York, portions of the LBJ manuscript began to arrive at the Holt offices, and as I should have known I would, I plunged, along with several colleagues, into editing what eventually became a book of 636 pages. Earlier Johnson had expressed fear that in the hands of his publisher, the pages might fall victim to editorial sabotage in one form or another, but by now the worry had disappeared. He readily accepted my suggestion of The Vantage Point as the title, and we continued to send our comments back and forth between Texas and New York. (Lady Bird’s book, A White House Diary , would be published in November 1970—an altogether easier editing job, given that Mrs. Johnson had already committed her impressions to paper and that her subject matter was naturally considered much less sensitive than her husband’s closely held manuscript.)
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I met with some of LBJ’s ghostwriters during several subsequent visits to the ranch, though I never again slept in the main house but rather in the smaller building that served the visitors who came to the home of the self-dethroned President. Communication between New York and Austin went smoothly, and my suggestions for improvements in the text were accepted more often than not.
How then did I feel about the difference between my beliefs and the contents of the manuscript I was assiduously but skeptically editing? Would I be justifying the Johnson administration’s work in Vietnam (and perhaps abetting the ongoing work of the Nixon administration) by publishing The Vantage Point ? I consoled myself with the conclusion that the war, having largely lost the backing of the American public, was in its last stages.
One morning in May 1971 a substantial package from Texas arrived in my office. Inside was an invitation, addressed to my wife and me, to come to the dedication ceremonies of the newly built Lyndon Baines Johnson Library—and the credentials that would allow us to attend. In a thoughtless fit of anger at myself, I threw the package into my wastebasket. I was publishing the man’s book, but damned if I would participate in his triumph. He had built his library, much of it financed by CBS and Holt, and I thought that enough was enough. But by the time I got home from my office that day, I was beginning to regret my impetuousness and to hope that somehow the next morning I would find the package still in my office. Linda let me know that I had made a huge mistake—which only caused me to insist sullenly that the package was gone and that should be that.
Arriving at my office the next morning, I saw that the wastebasket was empty, and I sat down and wrote a letter conveying our regrets. A phone call came for me from Austin a day later—much too soon, I thought, for my letter to have arrived. I was relieved when I heard LBJ merely ask me about a minor matter regarding the manuscript.
After watching Spiro Agnew on television, LBJ said to me, “Oh, him and his gang are a bunch of fascist pigs.”
I was off the hook! He didn’t care whether we turned up or not! But then, as our conversation seemed to be ending, he said, “We’re lookin’ to see you and Miz Asher at the library ceremony.” He added hyperbolically, “You folks made it happen.” I began to murmur something about “a previous commitment,” but he cut me off. He expected his publisher to participate in this important event; moreover, no one but my wife and me—no one from CBS and no one else from Holt—would be coming.
Then he commented acidly, “I reckon you’re goin’ to be sailin’ in Cape Cod instead.”