A Visit With LBJ

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No sooner had the President hung up the phone than he picked up the thread of what he had been saying to me despite the lapse of time. “We could be progressive without being wastrels,” he resumed. (He stopped for a moment as Brinkley mentioned the drafting of doctors and dentists.) “We put in a cost-conscious program. We saved three and a half billion on defense and put it on liberal projects.” As he spoke, he switched to ABC to hear Bill Lawrence report on the President’s role in the Kashmir dispute, but the channel hopping did not halt the flow of words, especially since he was back to talking about himself. “We knew what we wanted to do and how to do it,” he said proudly. “I was like the jet pilot who has flown a plane a thousand times across the Atlantic. After all those times I’d know how to close the door of a plane and open the throttle. You couldn’t do it. But then I couldn’t do what you can do—write. You find it easy to sit down at a typewriter, and you know where the subject and predicate are.”

“I if the livelihood of The New York Times depended on its accuracy, they would be shot at sunrise.”

NBC now featured an account by Nancy Dickerson of Luci Johnson’s first days in college. The President got out of his chair to dim the lights to get a better look at her. All conversation stopped as Johnson gazed intently at his daughter. I later had a nice encounter with her in Austin, where she impressed me as being good-hearted and gracious; on this night, though, she was awful—giggly and self-important. When she prattled about dating and wanting a private life, the President chuckled. But having seen her, he immediately returned to his monologue on putting together the task forces for the Great Society. “But how do you know what to do?” he asked. “We got the best thinkers in fields that had been neglected—transportation, fiscal policy, science, medical care. We got the Mayos, men from Johns Hopkins, Columbia Presbyterian. It wasn’t drafted by Corcoran and Cohen. [This was yet another gibe at the venerated FDR, for Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen had collaborated on New Deal legislation.) It came from the best thinkers. Quality went into it.”

At this point he interrupted himself once more to lash out at the press. “We had a few people around town cutting at us,” he sneered, his voice suddenly bitter, his lip thrust out. “When I came on as President, the Times said the one thing sure to happen is that we would have a closer election in 1964. If the livelihood of The New York Times depended on its accuracy, they would be shot at sunrise. When we went to Texas in November 1963, Kennedy and I were running 50-50 against the Republicans generally and against Goldwater as the likely candidate, 52-48.” His voice was now very loud and resentful, as he instructed me, “Look at the kinds of things the Evanses and Pearsons say,” alluding to the syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Drew Pearson. He gestured toward Redmon: “Get him the Busby memo on all the things these fellows said wrong, the memo prepared for Holmes Alexander.”

Thought of the press had him fuming, to such an extent that he had a hard time concentrating on his presentation. He made an effort to keep going on the task forces, but without getting rid of a nasty element in his voice. “So we had thinkers,” he continued. “Some ran and talked to the press and got famous. So we had to scrap them. Others did their jobs faithfully, and we got bills.” These bills were enacted, he asserted, because the nation favored them. “We’ve kept the people with us, so we’ve gone from 61 percent to 69 percent. And in New York last week it was 78. No one’s had this before.”

The press, though, had gotten his goat, and he returned to his attack on “these superficial, shaller [shallow] columnists.” He added, as if communicating less to me than to himself: “But they don’t have much influence anywhere. I’ve started keeping record. If there are five lies in a newspaper, I write them. One day last week the Washington Post had eleven lies. They talk about ‘well-informed sources.’ That just means what they want to say. Someday we’ll have to pass a law stopping them from using ‘well informed.'” He hammered out that sentence as though it were more than an idle threat, and then, still bristling, clench-jawed, he added, “They don’t have the horsepower to really defeat me or they would.”

Having gotten riled up against the press, Johnson turned to vent his wrath on the Republicans in Congress. He said with a peculiar smile, as if getting pleasure from letting me in on a sneaky trick people were playing that he well knew they were playing: “The Republicans don’t vote against a bill. They vote to recommit . But that means killing it. Then on the final vote they all turn around and vote for it. Ford keeps shifting from a vote to recommit to voting for it on the final roll call.” (The House minority leader, Gerald Ford, appeared to be a particularly irritating thorn in his side, for the White House staff later sent me a memo showing that Ford got four percentage points better support from the Republican members of the House than Johnson received from the Democrats.)