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

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As an American President presides over a divisive war without an apparent end, for the second time in my life, my thoughts have been drawn back nearly four decades to another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his war in Vietnam. In 1969 a strange twist of history—his and mine—made me, by then an antiwar activist, the publisher of a retired President whom I both respected and hated.

Lyndon Baines Johnson at his Texas ranch in 1972.
 
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As an American President presides over a divisive war without an apparent end, for the second time in my life, my thoughts have been drawn back nearly four decades to another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his war in Vietnam. In 1969 a strange twist of history—his and mine—made me, by then an antiwar activist, the publisher of a retired President whom I both respected and hated.

Although I had seen the polls indicating that a substantial majority of the public had lost confidence in Johnson’s conduct of the war, I was nevertheless shocked when, in March 1968, he announced that instead of running for another term as president of the United States he would retire and return to his home in the Texas Hill Country.

I had once admired him as the man who had pushed through the legislation that for the first time since Reconstruction enabled all eligible African-Americans to vote. I respected him as the leader whose Medicare legislation fulfilled the early promises of the New Deal, as the President who wanted to fight a war on poverty.

But the escalation of his other war had overwhelmed my earlier admiration. In 1967, when I was an editor at the Viking Press, I joined a group of publishing people who walked out on Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, as he began a speech at that year’s National Book Awards in New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall). We were called militant, a comically strong word to apply to book editors turning their backs to a politician, in a page-one story in The New York Times, then trying to decide if it should continue to condemn opponents of the war.

One day in the early autumn of 1969, while I was still working at Viking and the war was still going strong, I got a phone call from Alfred C. Edwards, the board chairman of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and a man I barely knew. He surprised me with an offer of just about double my salary and the grand title of “vice-president and director, general books division,” meaning that I would effectively become the publisher of the company’s fiction and trade nonfiction books.

A year or so before, Holt had been bought up by CBS, which was surely interested less in the generalbooks division, over which I would preside, than in the company’s much more lucrative textbook divisions. Thus Holt gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first major publishing house to be gobbled up by a corporate entity.

I was happy at Viking, and was trying to decide whether to accept Holt’s generous offer, when Edwards revealed a much greater obstacle. He told me that CBS had made an as yet unannounced agreement with the Johnsons, consisting of the then-huge advance of $1.6 million, for the rights to three books by the former President, the first to cover his White House years, the others to be devoted to his career in Congress and his youth in Texas. The contract also included Lady Bird’s White House diary.

I would have to publish Johnson’s rationalization for the war.

I said thanks but no thanks and began to hang up the phone, but Edwards did not let me off so quickly. He said that although he didn’t agree with me about the Vietnam War, he understood how I felt. He wanted me for the job. Moreover, he concluded, I wouldn’t have to deal with Lyndon Johnson.

The ranch in 1967; today it is part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park.
 
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Impossible, I replied. Not at all, Edwards told me. A Holt editor, a Southerner to boot, had already been to the ranch and established a bond with Johnson. I would not be expected to edit his books or to deal with either him or his wife.

And so, reader, I took the job.

After all these years I still cannot fathom how the two of us, Edwards and Asher, reasonably intelligent and worldly men, could have thought we might get away with this. And sure enough, the word soon came down from CBS that the President, as of course I learned he was always to be called, was displeased that he had not met his publisher’s “new vice-president, etc.”

Feeling a traitor to both myself and my friends, I prepared to go to Austin, Texas.