- Historic Sites
“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
This allusion to the Kennedys was a striking example of the often-noted mixture of discomfort and awe LBJ felt toward the Eastern establishment, especially the holdover Kennedy advisers who had done so much to mislead him about the prospects for American victory in Vietnam. I sensed in him a man who was more humane and compassionate than people like me had imagined.
Now I began saying that I had made a mistake and would certainly rearrange my schedule so that my wife and I could gladly—would be honored to—attend the library dedication. Then, at the last moment before we hung up, I remembered those credentials I had so cavalierly discarded, and I had to tell LBJ that I had misplaced them. All he said in return was that he and Lady Bird would be happy to see the two of us and that another set of credentials would be in the mail. And so they were.
I was not punished for my original reluctance. On the contrary, we received the following note from Lady Bird:
“Dear Aaron and Mrs. Asher:
“Lyndon and I are thrilled you will be coming to the dedication… . we are suggesting that some of our special friends with adventurous spirits be housed together… . you may find a wild left-over poster or two, but frankly I think you’ll have fun in your ‘personal campus weekend.’ …”
She was speaking of Hardin House, a newly built apartment-dormitory near the University of Texas, where we arrived in the late afternoon with just enough time to dress and leave for drinks and dinner at Austin’s Westwood Country Club. There we found ourselves on a balcony overlooking an Olympic-size pool and a scene straight out of a 1940s Esther Williams movie: an aquacade of beauties swimming in exquisite unison.
Now, having descended from the balcony, we spotted LBJ, dapper in a dazzling white dinner jacket and bending over an old man in a wheelchair. Johnson beckoned us, and I realized that the old man was my boyhood hero, Omar Bradley, the World War II general adored by GIs not only for his military competence but for his calm decency as a man—the anti-Patton.
LBJ introduced us, saying in what I had come to recognize as his possessive way, “This is my great publisher and his wife.” Then he looked at Linda and at me and said, out of nowhere, “This one’s a lot better-lookin’ than the last one you brought down here.” We laughed in appreciation of the joke, but by then, still shy in the presence of our presumed sophistication, he was already launching into an apology, explaining that years ago, when his “daddy” was a member of the Texas legislature, that was the kind of thing the part-time politicians liked to say to one another when they regrouped in Austin for a new session.
The next morning, Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, flew in from Washington. The ceremony, on Saturday, May 22, 1971, was held in the open air, in the still not fully landscaped area near the imposing library building. I was unhappy to be sitting among some 3,000 guests and to hear, from the distance at which the uninvited had been kept, the faint chanting of protesters.
Uncomfortable finding myself on the wrong side of an antiwar demonstration, I stayed seated amid the applauding throng as Nixon reached the podium. I absorbed not a word of what that newer President had to say.
Nixon’s speech was mercifully brief, and he left almost immediately. But my social and professional duties still lay before me, and Linda and I joined a luncheon line forming in the drying dust. The word was that these caterers made the best barbecue in Texas; someone in the line said, “That means in the world.”
Standing all around us, paper plates in hand, were America’s most renowned politicians and other celebrities, among them Hubert Humphrey; Barry Goldwater; Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President and a future felon; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the High Court; Hugo Black, the white Southerner who had left his racist past behind after his own elevation to the Supreme Court; and, surprisingly, former members of the Johnson administration, including Bill Moyers and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who had broken with LBJ over the war. Dean Rusk, Johnson’s hawkish Secretary of State, stood just ahead of us, and nearby were James A. Farley, FDR’s Postmaster General; Treasury Secretary John Connally, who had survived the fire from Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle; former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of the war; Averell Harriman, éminence grise in foreign affairs; 181 members of the Texas legislature; and the evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, who gave the invocation.
The faint, forlorn cries of “No more war” stayed with me for a long time.