- 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
Johnson had now been lecturing, relentlessly, for an hour and twenty minutes, and either the strain of that effort or the thought of Democrats’ abusing his wife triggered a new explosion. For a moment he remembered what he had been arguing and tried to keep going. “So we’ve been holding these meetings,” he said. But swiftly his countenance darkened, and he muttered resentfully, “Just because this Republican couldn’t get what he wanted, he says I’m applying pressure. [William] Cramer. Florida. I wouldn’t waste time on him.” He continued: “That kind of attacking’s not going to get them anywhere. A party’s going to be successful if it builds a better mousetrap. If the other man says, ’I’ll educate your kids better, I’ll build better houses, give you more pretty parks,’ only then can he beat us out.” That sounded more reasonable, but Johnson could not free himself from a consuming egocentricity. “I passed one bill yesterday, 378-0,” he boasted.
Though these remarks were ungratifyingly disjointed, they created enough space to give me a chance, after all this time, to open a second line of inquiry. “Mr. President, people have been telling me today that this Congress is going to be so successful that at the end of the next session, the cupboard will be bare,” I ventured.
“No,” he replied, “the twentieth century has too many problems for that.” He expounded: “Next year will be a year of administration. There won’t be as many new laws. I have got to go out and see the folks and see whether they are against more education, whether they are against parks, whether they are against . . .” and he listed several other items. “I don’t think they are. Even the Republicans are voting for them.”
It seemed incredible to me that in talking to an utter stranger he would be so indiscreet.
My comment had diverted him from his rancor enough that for a few moments he calmed down; but the word Republican set him off again, and in the closing minutes he came close to losing all control of himself. “They all said that I was going to destroy the UN, just because I wouldn’t go to San Francisco and make a fool of myself, but I got that man off the Supreme Court and put him in the UN,” he said. (I did not need to be told that “that man” was former Justice and now Ambassador Arthur Goldberg.) “And [referring to his role in supporting the United Nations in resolving the India-Pakistan controversy] tonight the UN is stronger than at any time since it was created.” Those comments, delivered in high dudgeon, put him in mind of the source of these allegations, and he got up a full head of steam. “We treat those columnists as whores,” he shouted. “Anytime an editor wants to screw ‘em, they’ll get down on the floor and do it for three dollars. That’s the price of [naming to me two of the best-known Washington correspondents]. We don’t pay any attention to it.”
Once again I could not believe what I was hearing. 1 had, of course, heard such language before, but I did not expect to, or want to, hear it from the President of the United States. Furthermore, it seemed incredible that in talking to an utter stranger, let alone someone who was writing an article about him, he would be so indiscreet. Did the President not know I was taking all this down? Yes, he did. In fact, at one point he looked right at me, as though waking himself from a self-induced trance, and said, after I’d been scribbling rapidly for quite some time, “You go ahead and take notes if you want.”
By seven-thirty the interview had been going for almost an hour and a half, and we began stirring to leave. Even when we stood up, though, Johnson went on talking for a few minutes more, particularly about the dinner meetings he had been holding at which businessmen drew numbers for a chance to speak. We walked together into the outer office, the President grasping me by the arm. I managed a good-bye and a thank-you and departed, profoundly disquieted by what I had just seen and heard. The President had been comparing himself with others, past and present, and finding no peer. I was reminded of something Barry Goldwater had said: that LBJ had so much power the Democrats could plug him in.
In the mercifully brightly lit press office afterward, I said to Hayes Redmon, “You don’t have to tell me I can’t use ninety percent of this now.”
“Better make it ninety-five percent,” he answered. “Especially about Kennedy.”
Though the White House had no control over what I might ultimately do with my notes, I could not quote directly without permission so long as Johnson was in the White House. 1 did piece together an article from the other interviews 1 had conducted that day, from subsequent sessions with Bill Moyers, Richard Goodwin, Carl Albert, and the Council of Economic Advisers, and from materials such as minutes of cabinet meetaings Moyers had sent to me; published in The Reporter , it has become a standard source on the origins of the Great Society. But the main purpose of my visit—to write about Lyndon Johnson—had ended in what appeared to be a disappointing anticlimax.