- 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
Though our conversation ended on a cheery note, I realized that a lot still had to happen before the plan could become a reality. Redmon told me to call him when I arrived in Washington the following Monday for a meeting as adviser to the Social Security Administration, and when I did, he invited me to the White House to chat with Bill Moyers. Only thirty-one, Moyers, in the most engaging manner, conveyed an impression of mature judgment and serene competence well beyond his years, and he could not have been more welcoming (he remarked that his wife was reading my book on Roosevelt and the New Deal). But even at this stage I was informed that the arrangement would come off only if “the Boss” approved. Years afterward I found in the archives of the LBJ Library a memo from Moyers to Johnson outlining the proposition, with yes and no options and, in the yes space, the President’s big check mark.
On September 22 I experienced a Walter Mitty day as uniformed officers waved me past the White House guard post and a sleek black limousine whisked me out of the White House gates up to Capitol Hill and down again. I spent the first four or five hours in highly instructive interviews with Douglass Cater, the articulate, soft-spoken architect of LBJ’s federal aid-to-education program; with the two men who were Johnson’s liaisons with the Senate and the House; and, following lunch with Redmon in the White House mess, with the Treasury’s head of congressional relations.
It was not until I reached Capitol Hill in midafternoon, though, that I fully sensed the excitement the Great Society was arousing, the biggest stir since the halcyon days of the New Deal. In the House I had the good luck to run into two AFL-CIO lobbyists I knew (one of them the former congressman Andrew Biemiller), and in the midst of their busy rounds to push a revised minimum-wage bill, they stopped briefly to fill me in on what labor thought of Johnson’s achievements, then raced on. As I took in the frantic pace (Speaker John McCormack went scurrying past me), I realized why the House majority leader, Carl Albert, could not see me until that weekend.
The United States Senate, which I moved on to next, seemed to be even more engrossed in the President’s agenda. A glance at the Senate floor revealed a vigorous debate with some familiar figures taking part (at one point Eugene McCarthy hurried by), but promptly at four o’clock, when the White House had scheduled an appointment for me, the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, walked off the floor, greeted me pleasantly, and took me to his comfortable office, where he made me a cup of coffee and, with the easy grace of a man who had himself been a professor of history and understood my mission, conversed about the Great Society. “Johnson has outstripped Roosevelt, no doubt about that,” he said. “He has done more than FDR ever did or ever thought of doing.”
After some twenty minutes an aide came in to tell the majority leader he was needed back on the floor. Sen. Spessard Lindsey Holland of Florida was speaking, and some of “our” people were harassing him. “Who?” Mansfield asked.
The aide whispered, “The Kennedys and—” (I did not hear the rest).
The majority leader said a hasty good-bye and walked out onto the floor, and I was chauffeured down Pennsylvania Avenue for yet another engagement, this time with Lawrence O’Brien, an honest-faced Irishman from Massachusetts who had been appointed as Postmaster General. As he filled me in on the details of the congressional liaison operation he had been heading since the Kennedy era, the phone rang, and he repeated the message he had just been given: “Seventy-six to eighteen.” Instantly he relayed the news over the intercom: “Is he there? . . . Seventy-six to eighteen. Forward it.” I had no doubt from what I had seen that afternoon what those cryptic numbers meant—still another victory in the Senate for LBJ: enactment of the historic immigration-reform legislation ending racist quotas.
At a little before five-thirty, Hayes Redmon came in to break off my discussion with O’Brien upstairs in the White House and take me down to be ready for the President. We waited what seemed interminably in a lovely room with a Remington over the fireplace, a Whistler, a French impressionist, the room brightly painted and suffused with light. Nearly thirty minutes went by, and to the last I feared that Johnson would not be able to see me, since this was the day the India-Pakistan crisis over Kashmir was peaking. The President had had a long phone talk with the Pakistani leader Muhammad Ayub Khan that very morning. But a buzzer rang, an aide came in to announce that the President was on his way, and some minutes later the aide reappeared to say we should go in. It was now a little after six. I crossed a corridor to a small office, and there was the President.