- Historic Sites
A Visit With LBJ
An hour and a half of growing astonishment in the presence of the President of the United States, as recorded by a witness who now publishes a record of it for the first time
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
On an otherwise unremarkable evening early in September 1965, when, for the fourteenth time, I was preparing lectures for the start of the fall term at Columbia University, the phone rang, and I heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice saying, “This is the White House.” I knew any number of historians for whom a call from the White House was routine. One of them, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., had shortly before been an assistant to President Kennedy, and at the moment another, Eric Goldman, turned up for work each morning at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a member of the staff of President Lyndon B. Johnson. But such experiences had not been mine, and I was excited, and also a bit puzzled, until the woman added, “Stand by for Mr. Redmon.”
Unlike some of my friends in the profession, I did not walk familiarly through the corridors of power, but I had become accustomed to having in class any number of students who were destined for the public realm, or, like E. Hayes ReDmon, were already there. Among the students in my graduate courses at Columbia at about this point were Stephen J. Solarz, subsequently a congressman from New York and a high-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Thomas Kean, who was to become the governor of New Jersey; and Aleksandr Yakovlev, who is today Mikhail Gorbachev’s right-hand man and said to be the second-most-powerful man in the Soviet Union.
Redmon, an Annapolis graduate who had been sent to Columbia to be trained to teach at the new Air Force Academy, had, he once confided mysteriously, earlier lived in Berlin as “a spy who came in from the cold.” More than that he did not say. He was, at the time he phoned me, serving as deputy to Bill Moyers, the Special Assistant to the President who had recently been appointed Lyndon Johnson’s press chief. Redmon had been a student in my graduate lecture course, but apart from having an impression of him as a bright young man with an engaging smile, closely cropped auburn hair, and the trim appearance and erect bearing of an officer, I hardly knew him. Once before, he had phoned to ask about an FDR reference for a Johnson speech, and I assumed when I heard he was the source of this call that he simply wanted another piece of information.
In fact, he had a great deal more in mind. He had been talking to Moyers about the historic importance of the first session of the Eighty-ninth Congress, now drawing to a close, and about the possibility of my writing an analysis of it from a historian’s perspective. The administration had been working on the story of LBJ’s foreign policy with my Columbia colleague Henry Graff, and I would be asked to concentrate on the domestic side. Moyers had replied that he knew of my books and liked the idea. What would I think, Redmon inquired, of coming to Washington to talk to the top White House staff, Johnson’s legislative aides, and the congressional leadership on the Hill, with my visit capped by an interview with the President?
I was delighted, and for more than one reason. Ever since 1938, when Congress had enacted FDR’s proposal for a wages-and-hours law, liberal reform in America had been stymied by a bipartisan conservative coalition. Harry Truman had not been able to get through his Fair Deal, and at the time of his death in November 1963 John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier was foundering. It had become commonplace in the early sixties to grouse about, in the words of James MacGregor Burns’s book of the same title, “the deadlock of democracy.” But in 1964 under Lyndon Johnson the stalemate ended as Congress passed a strong civil rights bill, a tax-cut measure, and the rudiments of LBJ’s war on poverty. In 1965 new laws came thick and fast—federal aid to education, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, a new cabinet department (Housing and Urban Development), the Twenty-fifth Amendment (presidential disability)—and more, including a highway-beautification bill favored by Lady Bird Johnson, were nearing passage.
I wanted to understand, both as a writer on contemporary history and as someone who worked in the civil rights movement as well as for the national liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), how this breakthrough had occurred. But there was an even more compelling reason. 1 had never spoken to a President at the White House, and I was eager for the opportunity to meet the incumbent of an office that ever since grade school civics lessons I had been taught to respect.
As we talked about the proposal on the phone, thoughts for two articles emerged. One would be a piece on the origins of the Great Society, especially the work of the task forces of intellectuals and social activists that had been set up to advise Johnson. The other would be a study of the President as chief legislator. I told Redmon that I had just attended a convention of the American Political Science Association at which I thought speakers underestimated not only the originality of some of the Great Society but also Johnson’s contribution to getting the program enacted. They assumed that the great spate of laws could be wholly explained by the 1964 election, which had so greatly swelled the Democratic margin in Congress, but Franklin Roosevelt had enjoyed an even bigger advantage in 1937 and had not achieved nearly so much that year. The country, I firmly believed, did not properly appreciate Lyndon Johnson.