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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
Johnson, having raised his own rhetorical question, promptly offered a lengthy response. “First, there is the quality of leadership in each of the branches. I’ll put the executive branch last. First, you have to take the pioneering, courageous, compassionate leadership of the Supreme Court—its decisions on Social Security, on AAA, on public power (the Duke Power case), the Brown decision.” I was struck by how readily he reached for examples from the 1930s, when he had been a New Deal zealot; “AAA” referred to the Agricultural Adjustment Act, FDR’s farm program. The President still seemed to be living in part in the age of Roosevelt.
He went on: “It has shown great leadership, compassion, foresight, courage. It has been given direction by men like Warren who came out of the West with a record as a prudent progressive, balanced by men like [Hugo] Black, out of the South, with a populist background—the people come first—and [Tom] Clark and Felix Frankfurter. So the Court did a lot of pioneering. Look at a decision like the Gideon case. I don’t think ever has a court been led by more balanced, judicious temperaments. Here are men who have sat in the Senate, in courts, who have a background of a lot of experiences.” (He pronounced the word court as “coat,” then caught himself and quickly corrected his pronunciation.)
The President seemed tired, distracted, as any man might be when called on to make conversation at day’s end with someone he did not know, but maybe with something else bothering him too. At the outset he had said he was thirsty and wanted a Coke. He asked if I’d like one, and when I said I did, he ordered a Coke for me, something else for Redmon and Cater, and a grape soda for himself. (Though he was known to be fond of Cutty Sark, his real addiction was to low-calorie soft drinks.) As he sprawled in his chair, sipping the soda pop, sniffing at an inhaler, looking white-faced, bone-weary, rather severe behind thick-rimmed glasses, he listlessly pushed the words out.
“Then there’s the Congress,” he continued. “There’s a geographical balance—leaders from Montana and Illinois [meaning Mansfield and Everett Dirksen]. And in the House, Oklahoma’s Albert, a Rhodes scholar, and McCormack from Massachusetts.” He boasted: “I came to Washington in 1928. Of the 435 men in the House, only six were there when I first came here—McCormack, (Joseph) Martin, [Emanuel] Celler, [Wright] Patman, Howard Smith.” He did not name the sixth. In fact there were only five, and his comment exposed his streak of grandiosity when he remembered the past. Johnson was still in school in 1928. He did not go to Washington until late in 1931, when he got a job on a Texas congressman’s staff. He was not himself elected to Congress, contrary to the implications of his statement, until 1937.
“McCormack knows the system,” he maintained. “He knows how to cooperate. At the same time,” the President remarked, smiling so broadly it was more like a smirk, “he knows how to protect his perquisites. He can cooperate, but he has no ring in his nose.” (Off the record, though, the White House staff told me that Johnson actually thought McCormack was a spent man who failed to advance the Great Society program with enough energy.)
“Never was anyone so well trained for this office,” President Johnson said of himself.
“For years, little got done,” he carried on, still speaking as though reciting a twice-told tale. “These ADA liberals like Hayes and Doug, they jerked, they talked. They were like the local bully in front of the barbershop talking of making a million and never getting it. Not since 1938, 1937, had much got passed.” Those sentences about the quarter-century of deadlock appeared to be leading him toward a paean of praise for Congress, but instead they reminded him who it was who had ended the stalemate.
“And now the executive branch,” he persevered. “Take the cabinet—it had gone through the Bay of Pigs. It had had its washouts. We plugged the holes.” 1 was startled by these words, which implied that he was deliberately comparing himself with John F. Kennedy and denigrating him and those around him, but before I had a chance to take that in, he was off on a different tack—with more recollections of the age of Roosevelt. “I remember the bonus army, and I think of FDR vetoing the bonus bill [which in 1936 Congress overrode, thereby demonstrating that Roosevelt had overestimated the strength of his following],” he said. “If you have great power, you mustn’t use it. This was one of the troubles with FDR. When I have to veto, I think of his bonus veto.” He then added enigmatically, “Since the time of the election, I have not talked of a mandate.” Apparently he meant that he had taken care not to bluster.