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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
”Kennedy didn’t have rapport with Congress. And Congress felt he didn’t know here the ball was.”
The mention of Schlesinger may have started him thinking of Kennedy again, for abruptly he switched topics. He said, his voice turning mean: “No man knew less about Congress than John Kennedy. He never even knew enough to know how to get recognized. When he was young, he was always off to Boston or Florida for long weekends. I never saw him in the cloakroom once. I never saw him eating with another congressman once. [Speaker Sam] Rayburn never knew him. The only way Rayburn thought of him at all was as a very young-looking man who might be going to die of malaria. He was a Joe College man. He didn’t have rapport with Congress. He didn’t have affection for Congress. And Congress felt that he didn’t know where the ball was. Then, when he became President, all Kennedy had was leftover programs from Roosevelt, Truman, and Elsenhower.” I sat there on the green settee getting this all down on paper, but I could not believe what I was hearing. How could he be so careless as to say that about John F. Kennedy at a time when, less than two years after his assassination, grief at his murder was still raw?
Nearly half an hour had gone by, and to my surprise, Johnson still showed no sign of terminating the interview. I knew from my work on FDR that if you were granted twenty minutes with a President, you could count yourself very fortunate. Indeed, earlier that day, I later learned, the minister of state for external affairs of Nigeria had been cut off after eighteen minutes, His Imperial Highness Prince Mikasa of Japan and his family after fourteen minutes, and a Texas state senator after two minutes. But Johnson plowed straight ahead.
I had not noticed during this time when the President never stopped talking that the room had three television consoles, for they were blank as he spoke, but at six-thirty Johnson snapped on the TV sets with a remote-control device that enabled him, while scrutinizing all three at once, to switch the sound from channel to channel. He first watched David Brinkley on NBC reviewing the India-Pakistan situation, and as the network focused on the UN, he peered intently at his ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, on the screen. When an Indian spoke, the President broke his brief silence to say: “I met with ninety-three leaders of foreign nations. I gave them the model of what we wanted.” He stopped precipitately when he observed that the ABC screen was on Vietnam, turned up the sound briefly, then went back to NBC for interviews with Mike Mansfield and a Pakistani. For most of the next hour the sound was on very loud. At times the President listened; at other times he spoke against it, for the TV only diverted him spasmodically from his talkathon.
“So we had a base,” he recapitulated. But he could not build on that summary because he was riveted to the TV.
On CBS a congressman was explaining the compromise on home rule for the District of Columbia, and that may have prompted LBJ to return to his main theme. “This isn’t just the Eighty-ninth Congress,” he recommenced. “We started out on November 23, 1963. There’s really three things contributed to what the country has done. I won’t say what I have done.” Brinkley was now reporting on U.S. casualties in Vietnam, but that did not disrupt his soliloquy. “First, confidence in the country on the part of labor and management,” he said, getting himself caught up on what he had been telling me several minutes earlier. “Second, I showed you can be both prudent and progressive.” He leaned toward me earnestly. The early lackluster tone had now vanished, and he was communicating spiritedly. “This is my PP program. You don’t have to be wasteful to be liberal. I kept two budgets under a hundred billion.”
At this point the phone rang, and the President spoke in a very low voice for perhaps six or seven minutes. I could hear only snatches, the word 1962 repeated, and one sentence, “Have you ever found who represents them here?” As he murmured on the phone, the TV continued to blare, “Of course Nytol is safe,” and to sing the praises of Dristan. I scanned the pictures in the room—photographs of the last five Presidents, starting with Hoover and including one of FDR shaking hands with a boyish-looking LBJ. (Only many years later, when I got hold of the White House daily diary for that day, did I discover who his caller was—Abe Portas, Johnson’s fixer extraordinary and later his aborted choice to be Chief Justice of the United States. But I still do not know what their conversation was about.)