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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
And yet—although I could never forget LBJ’s war—I had also caught firsthand glimpses of his older allegiances. On another evening at the ranch the previous September, LBJ had invited me into his bedroom to watch the evening news. When I arrived, he was stretched out on his endless bed, and I perched on a chair next to him. He kept three television sets in his bedroom in order to watch the three nightly network newscasts simultaneously. That night’s news turned out to be notable, because Spiro Agnew, delivering a speech in San Diego, had seized the day to launch an all-out attack on the press. The networks repeatedly broadcast the section of the Agnew speech (written by William Safire) containing the famous line chastising journalists as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Johnson was silent as he watched the broadcasts, and I feared that he would join Agnew’s tirade. But when I asked for his thoughts about what we had just heard and seen, he replied, in a curt, dismissive voice, “Oh, him and his gang are a bunch of fascist pigs.”
I was struck by this glimpse of Johnson’s populist New Deal origins and sympathies, something that never came through in his appearances as a war President. Like people who knew him far better than I did, I could never quite reconcile the two LBJs.
Johnson and I had one other encounter revealing his origins, and it was the only time I ever heard the former President fly into one of his legendary rages. Unfortunately, his rage was directed at me. Some months before we published The Vantage Point , the Holt accountants told me that the retail price, which we had originally set at $10, would, because of the book’s length, have to be increased to $15.
When I called with the news, he shouted that he wanted the book to be read by ordinary people, “like the man who fills my gas tank.” That person, he said, could not afford to spend $15 on The Vantage Point . I reminded him that there would also be a later paperback edition, but that didn’t assuage him. Then, suddenly, he quieted and, echoing his mentor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said, “You’re nothin’ but an economic royalist.”
But in most of our exchanges his tone seemed paternal. One day in my office I received a message from Texas informing me that Johnson would be in New York and would like to see me. At the appointed hour I walked the few blocks from my office to the Pierre Hotel. LBJ himself opened the door to his high-rise suite; there was another man in the room, just about to depart. LBJ introduced him as the chief executive of one of the largest airlines in the world, and then came the possessive hyperbole about me. “This young man,” he said, “makes Clarence Darrow look like some bitty country lawyer.”
But the war was always a subtext in our professional relationship. On my final visit to the ranch, long after The Vantage Point had been published in 1971, the Johnsons and I were having an early dinner, and our conversation turned to the Nixon administration’s much-touted policy of “Vietnamization”—turning the war over to the Vietnamese. I asked LBJ what he thought of this. He replied it was useless, that the South Vietnamese military was incompetent and that if Nixon persisted in this, we would “lose Vietnam.” And then the Communists would go through the Philippines “like a knife through butter.” And after that, he continued, Hawaii would be next. “My grandson will fight in Asia,” he concluded morosely. I didn’t know what to say. Could he really believe all that?
Only then, after a long silence, did the wife of the man who had been President and Commander in Chief speak up. “But, Lyndon,” she said softly, “don’t you think that they, the Vietnamese, if they take over, will have so much on their plates that like the Russians and their détente, they’ll turn inward?”
The deferential phrasing of Lady Bird’s comment somehow intensified rather than diminished the provocative nature of the content; she was, after all, challenging the domino theory that had driven her husband’s every decision about the war. Fearful of being in the middle of a domestic explosion, I excused myself and left the room.
Much later, after LBJ had died and I was still trying to sort out the contradictions I had observed firsthand during my years as his publisher, I came to regret having missed whatever might have followed Lady Bird’s demurral from her husband’s views. For it is possible that this had not been the first time the Johnsons, in the privacy of their home, had disagreed about the war that was dividing families and communities throughout America.
But I had glimpsed Johnson’s better side—imagine a retired politician today worrying about charging people too much for his memoirs!—and more important, I could never discount LBJ’s record as the most effective liberal President since FDR.
As his publisher I had gained some insight into qualities I had never imagined he would possess. But his presidential memoir, destined from the beginning to be written by too many hands, was inevitably censored by its subject.