Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnsonby Irving Bernstein
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The presidency of Lyndon Johnson was a pivotal moment in twentieth-century American history. From the decisive social programs of the Great Society, to the triumph of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, to the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and domestic unrest, it was an era of dramatic accomplishment and wrenching tragedy. In Guns or Butter, renowned historian Irving Bernstein brings those five climactic years of the sixties vividly to life, from the moment Lee Harvey Oswald aimed a rifle from the window of the Texas School Depository to the tense ballot-counting that put Richard Nixon in the White House in 1968. Bernstein's book is a narrative masterpiece, filled with sharply drawn character sketches and swiftly moving accounts of events that range from deals cut in the Senate cloakroom, to police charging after protesters on the streets of Selma, to Vietcong commandos bursting into the American embassy in Saigon. We see Johnson ordering aides Bill Moyers and Richard Goodwin to strip and join him for a skinny-dip in the White House pool, where they formulate the Great Society. And we see a tired, distracted president pacing in his bathrobe around a table model of the besieged Khe Sanh garrison, examining aerial photographs and casualty reports. Equally important, Bernstein offers a deft assessment of Johnson's successes and failures, from his legislative programs to his futile pursuit of the war in Vietnam to his failure to boost Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign in 1968. The author not only retells the maneuvering that brought the president's plans into law, he also analyzes and explains their impact, from the Voting Rights Act to Medicare. The Great Society, Bernstein concludes, was a triumph, but Johnson's attempt to have both guns and butter, to pursue massive domestic initiatives together with a bitter undeclared war, led to runaway inflation that ultimately undermined his presidency. From the dark moments after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, to the heady days of legislative victories of 1965, to the bloody crescendo of riots, assassinations, and military battles in 1968, Johnson's administration was a defining moment in modern American history. In Guns or Butter, Irving Bernstein brilliantly captures both the events and the meaning of those momentous years. Aside from its historical value, this book has major current significance. The legislative program Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues introduced in 1995 was designed to repeal the Great Society. Before doing so, members of Congress and the interested public should understand Lyndon Johnson's vision and the legislation that was enacted during the sixties. Guns or Butter provides that critical information.
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Read an Excerpt
At approximately 1 p.m. on November 22, 1963, Father Oscar L. Huber administered last rites to John Kennedy, and Dr. W. K. Clark pronounced him dead. At that moment Lyndon Johnson became President of the United States, but he did not know it. A few minutes later presidential assistant Kenny O'Donnell came to the Johnsons and said, "He's gone." O'Donnell told the Secret Service that they should take the Johnsons to Washington immediately. Johnson asked him what Mrs. Kennedy's wishes were. O'Donnell said she would not move from the hospital without the body and was waiting for a casket. Johnson asserted that he would not leave without her, if that was her wish, but would go to Air Force One to wait for her and the body.
When Mac Kilduff addressed Johnson as "Mr. President," "I must have looked startled," Johnson wrote later. "I certainly felt strange." Kilduff wanted to announce President Kennedy's death and asked for Johnson's approval. With Secret Service assent he directed Kilduff to wait until they left the hospital. Surrounded by agents, the Johnsons were driven in separate cars to Love Field and hurried into the airplane.
Johnson immediately phoned Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who said that the FBI did not yet know whether the assassination was the act of an individual or part of a conspiracy. Johnson wanted to know whether he should take the oath of office at once and, if so, wanted the exact wording. Kennedy said he would check. He phoned back shortly to say that the oath should be taken now and that it could be administered by any judicial officer of the United States. DeputyAttorney General Nicholas Katzenbach dictated the oath to Johnson's secretary.
Johnson then phoned Irving Goldberg, a Dallas lawyer and old friend. They agreed that Judge Sarah Hughes, recently appointed by Kennedy to the district court in Dallas, should administer the oath. She was on the airplane in a few minutes.
Shortly a small plane approached. Bill Moyers, formerly on Johnson's staff and now deputy director of the Peace Corps, had been doing advance work for a big fundraiser in Austin the next day. As soon as he heard of the assassination, he chartered the plane and flew to Love Field to be at Johnson's side.
Jack Valenti, who ran an advertising agency in Houston, had worked for Johnson on political campaigns and had done the advance work that produced big crowds for Kennedy in Houston the preceding day. He had then joined Johnson on Air Force Two for the flight from Houston to Dallas. The next morning he rode in a staff bus downtown behind the motorcade and wound up at the Parkland Hospital. Overcome with grief, he stood in a stairwell and wept. Cliff Carter, who ran Johnson's office in Austin, tried to console him and said, "The Vice President is waiting for us." A Secret Service agent drove them to Love Field and they boarded Air Force One.
Liz Carpenter, also on Johnson's staff, had been on the same bus following the motorcade at the time of the shooting. A veteran newspaper-woman, she realized that Johnson would need to say something when he landed in Washington. She penciled out a brief statement and she, too, got on the airplane.
Cecil Stoughton, a White House photographer, told Carpenter, "This is a history-making moment and, while it seems tasteless, I am here to make a picture if he [the new President] cares to have it and I think he should have it." She relayed the message to Johnson and he nodded. Kilduff came aboard and told her that a press poolMerriman Smith of United Press International, Charles Roberts of Newsweek, and Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcastingwanted to cover the event. She asked Kilduff what he recommended and he burst into tears. She shook him and demanded an answer. He recommended the pool. They asked Johnson, who said, "Of course, put the pool on board."
Some time after 2:00 Jacqueline Kennedy entered the cabin. "I was shocked by the sight that confronted me," Johnson wrote. "There stood that beautiful lady, with her white gloves, her pink suit, and her stockings caked with her husband's blood. There was a dazed took in her eyes." The Johnsons tried to comfort her as they,,saw her to a bedroom. The casket, accompanied by Kennedy's devoted assistants, Larry O'Brien and Kenny O'Donnell, was taken to the rear of the airplane. Shortly, Mrs. Kennedy returned.
Lyndon Johnson, with his wife to one side and the wife of the slain President on the other, repeated the words of Judge Hughes in what Roberts described as "a low, but firm voice." "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." He added, "So help me God." He noticed that the Bible on which his hand rested was a Catholic missal. Larry O'Brien had found it on the plane. Stoughton stood on a couch in a corner to take the photograph.
At 2:41 p.m. the new President ordered the plane to take off. He made calls to Rose Kennedy, the dead President's mother, and to Nellie Connolly to comfort them. Johnson asked Moyers, Valenti, and Carpenter to draft a statement and they seem to have come up with something like Carpenter's note. The President made a few changes. He also instructed Kilduff to see to it that the television cameras focused on him as he read the statement.
Johnson phoned national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and his own chief of staff, Walter Jenkins, to set up meetings for that evening. He had hoped to have a cabinet meeting and was disappointed to learn that Secretary of State Dean Rusk and five other members had been on an airplane that was beyond Honolulu on its way to Tokyo, though they had now turned back.
Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington at 5:59 p.m. A hastily summoned group of government officials and representatives of other nations waited on the ramp. Johnson read his statement for them and, more important, for television:
This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask your helpand God's.
When they got to the helicopter pad, Johnson cupped his hands to Valenti's ear against the roar of the engines and shouted, "Get in the second chopper and come to my office as soon as you land." Evidently, he gave the same instructions to Moyers and Carter. In A few minutes they were on the helipad on the south grounds of the White House. The President was already talking to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Under Secretary of State George Ball. Valenti, Moyers, and Carter joined them. Johnson strode through the Rose Garden to the West Wing. Valenti was surprised that Johnson did not enter the Oval Office. Rather, he walked down to the basement and took the underground passageway to the Executive Office Building and then went up by elevator to his third floor vice presidential office. The Johnsons would not occupy the White House until Mrs. Kennedy and her children moved out on December 7.
That evening the President discussed international affairs with Senator Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Averell Harriman, Ball, and McNamara. The situation was, fortunately, calm and would remain so throughout his transition. He phoned former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. He wrote letters in longhand to the dead President's children, Caroline and John. He telephoned Edward Kennedy, the President's younger brother. He met with the congressional leadership, asking for their help and counsel during this trying period. He talked to Sargent Shriver, the dead President's brother-in-law and director of the Peace Corps, who was making the funeral arrangements on behalf of the Kennedy family. Johnson had a bowl of soup, his first nourishment since breakfast in Fort Worth that morning. The President and his assistants were then driven to the Elms, the Johnson's house in northwest Washington.
After they had left Air Force One, Mrs. Johnson and Liz Carpenter went straight to the Elms. In the car Liz said, "It's a terrible thing to say, but the salvation of Texas is that the governor was hit." Lady Bird replied, Don't think I haven't thought of that. I only wish it could have been me." When she got home, Mrs. Johnson instructed the cook to prepare a lot of fried chicken.
After the President arrived he sat in his big chair in the library and sipped orange juice. He lifted his glass to a photograph of his late great friend and mentor, Speaker Sam Rayburn. "I salute you, Mr. Sam, and how I wish you were here now, when I need you." Everyone went into the dining room for their first real meal since morning.
About midnight Johnson decided to go to bed. He led Valenti to a bedroom on the second floor and told Moyers and Carter to pick out bedrooms on the third. He told Valenti that he was going to be on the staff at the White House and that he should get some clothes from Houston and find a house for his family in Washington. He also told Moyers that he was going to work in the White House.
Valenti followed Johnson into his bedroom. The President got into his pajamas and lay down on his bed to watch TV. It was a program on himself, his background and fitness to be president. Moyers and Carter joined them. The President, Valenti wrote, "began to speak, almost as if he were talking to himself. He mused about what he ought to do and began to tick off people he needed to see and meetings he should construct in the next several days." Valenti picked up a pad and began scribbling notes, soon more than 30 pages of what was to become the agenda for the Johnson transition. It was almost 3:30 a.m. when the President said, "Good night, boys."
Moyers recalled later that Johnson had stressed three basic themes:
1. There must be continuity. There should be no hesitancy, nothing to indicate that the U.S. Government had faltered.
2. The programs of President Kennedy would be pushed.
3. The country must be united to face the crisis and the transition of power.
The assassination of John Kennedy devastated the American people. Perhaps the murder of Lincoln was comparable, but there was no one about in 1865 to ask people how they felt. Among the memories of living people in 1963 there were only two vaguely similar events that were mentionedPearl Harbor and the death of Franklin Rooseveltand each differed from Kennedy's assassination fundamentally.
As an historic event it made up a bundle of four days, from approximately 12:30 p.m. CST on Friday, November 22, when Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots, through the end of the day on Monday, November 25.
Many millions of Americans would remember as long as they lived exactly where they were and how they learned of the assassination of John Kennedy. The news spread faster than proverbial wildfire. Radio and newspapers gave the event enormous coverage. But it was television that had much the biggest impact. CBS started its Dallas coverage within 15 minutes of the firing of the shots; NBC was on the air only a few minutes later; and ABC soon followed. They then provided continuous live broadcasting, with neither regular programs nor commercials intruding, for the better part of four days. The networks pooled their stories.
According to the National Opinion Research Center study, by 1:00 p.m. CST on Friday, when Kennedy was pronounced dead, 68 percent of adult Americans had heard the news; by 6 p.m. it had swelled to 99.8 percent (only 2 of 1,384 respondents said that they did not hear the news till Saturday). In previous disasters at least 10 to 20 percent said they did not learn what had happened until much later.
The NORC study showed that Americans were profoundly grieved by the assassination, and were also concerned about the impact upon the United-states, both at home and with regard to its relations with other nations. During the four-day period Americans exhibited many symptoms of anxiety-depression, especially African Americans.
Johnson moved quickly to overcome these troubled feelings. His task was much eased by the enormous TV viewing over the assassination weekend. Until that time Lyndon Johnson was a familiar figure in Washington and Texas, but, excepting for a minority of the politically sophisticated, was, as Vice Presidents invariably are, little known in the rest of the country. But now documentaries aired on television and he made several appearances in which he displayed compassion and dignity. By Monday night the public recognized that their new President held the reins with steady hands. A study of college students concluded that it was "possible for people fully to indulge their grief only because of the -smooth, automatic succession." On Air Force One Liz Carpenter had comforted herself, with the thought that "someone is in charge." She recalled Lady Bird telling her, "Lyndon's a good man to have in an emergency." But among the college students there was an undercurrent of resentment, in part because Johnson was a Texan and also because he seemed "to be somehow usurping the presidential role."
Johnson expected and understood this bitter reaction. He had not been elected President; he held the office by historical accident. He must legitimate his own presidency. A basic way to do so was by becoming the executor of the Kennedy legacy, wrapping himself in the mantle of the immensely popular fallen leader. He had, Johnson wrote,
a deep-rooted sense of responsibility to John F. Kennedy. Rightly or wrongly, I felt from the very first day in office that I had to carry on for President Kennedy. I considered myself the caretaker of both his people and his policies. He knew when he selected me as his running mate that I would be the man required to carry on if anything happened to him. I did what I believed he would have wanted me to do. . . . I was the trustee and custodian of the Kennedy administration.
The caretaker role took several forms. As suggested, Johnson was solicitous about the Kennedy family. He deferred to Shriver on the funeral arrangements. He immediately assented to jacqueline Kennedy's requests to remain in the White House with her children for two weeks and, by an executive order he issued on November 29, to rename the NASA launch facilities at Cape Canaveral the John F. Kennedy Space Center. In addition, Cape Canaveral with Florida's assent was designated Cape Kennedy. On January 23, 1964 he signed a bill "with great satisfaction" renaming the planned National Cultural Center in Washington the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Johnson knew that Kennedy had been extremely well regarded by top officials of his own administration, of whom Secretary of Defense McNamara was an example. He greatly admired JFK and both he and his wife had become close friends of the extended Kennedy family. On the day after the assassination he instructed his aide, Joe Califano, to meet Bobby Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. They paced the 3.2-acre site in a heavy rain. When Califano returned to the Pentagon, McNamara said, "Joe, I want to tie up that land for President Kennedy so that no one can ever take any of it away for any other purpose." Califano pointed out that it was in the national cemetery. "I don't give a damn. Get a title search made. Write a legal opinion nailing down the title to the land. I want to sign the deed that sets this land aside forever.",the papers were ready the next day and Califano took them to McNamara in the cemetery, who was checking to be sure that the site was right in the center of the view from the Arlington Bridge. He insisted on signing the order, which was not necessary. "He was so distraught," Califano wrote, "that he had to do something to relieve his sense of helplessness."
Johnson had to transfer this loyalty for the fallen President to himself. He not only invited but insisted that all members of the Kennedy administration stay on with him. This, of course, extended to the Attorney General, with whom he had a strained relationship. The White House staff, both the "Irish Mafia"Larry O'Brien, Kenny O'Donnell, and Ralph Dunganand the "intellectuals"Ted Sorensen, McGeorge Bundy, Pierre Salinger, and Arthur Schlesingerwere old associates and devoted friends who were devastated by the assassination and many were expected to leave. Johnson was particularly anxious that O'Brien remain. He said, "I need you, Larry. I want you to stay and pass jack Kennedy's program. How can you better honor jack's memory than to stay and help to enact his program?" O'Brien agreed with him and stayed.
In inviting these people to serve, Johnson was motivated in part by the fact, as he wrote, that "by remaining on the job they helped give the government and the nation a sense of continuity during critical times." And, as he later told Doris Kearns,
I needed that White House staff. Without them I would have lost my link to John Kennedy, and without that I would have had absolutely no chance of gaining the support of the media or the Easterners or the intellectuals. And without that support I would have had absolutely no chance of governing the country.
But there was more. Some of the Kennedy people, he noted, were "extraordinary men" and all had now had almost three years of experience in their posts. He could hardly have matched them. But he was insecure about the White House staff. Johnson did not know whether all of them would be able to transfer their loyalty to him, and in several cases, Sorensen and Schlesinger in particular, there could be little doubt that they would depart after a decent interval.
Thus, Johnson began gradually to build up his own staff, starting with the young Texans, Moyers and Valenti, recruited on the day he became President. He would increase their number. He also began consulting immediately with three notable Washington lawyers with broad government experience who were now private citizensAbe Fortas, Clark Clifford, and Jim Rowe. In the case of Rowe, this involved repairing a breach and, something extraordinary for Lyndon Johnson, offering an apology for causing it.
A myriad of questions swirled about the assassination, challenging the continuity and legitimacy that Johnson sought. Where had the FBI been when the plan for the murder had been laid? Was it significant that the event had taken place in Texas, particularly Dallas? The arrested Oswald had said virtually nothing and his mouth was now sealed forever by jack Ruby, the night-club operator who killed Oswald two days after the assassination. What might Oswald have said? Did he have an accomplice? Was he the hit man for an international conspiracy? What about his strange visit to the Soviet Union and his Russian wife? Why was he so interested in Castro's Cuba? These questions stirred up rumors and they, in turn, encouraged those who wanted publicity for themselves. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote,
The Dallas authorities fed everything, good or bad, to the news media. The attorney general of Texas proposed having an open hearing before a justice of the peace, which meant television, radio, and newspaper coverage, regardless of how disjointed or crisis-like this atmosphere for a trial might be. Several committees of the Congress were flirting with public hearings that would proceed in similar manner. The result would have been chaos. The world was ready to believe almost anything, and indeed it did. A current Gallup poll showed that more than half the American people were convinced that Oswald had not acted alone.
On Sunday, November 24, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sent word to Johnson through his friend, Congressman Homer Thornberry of Austin, that he was "very concerned that everyone know that Oswald was guilty of the President's assassination." He wanted to head off the gathering rumors. Katzenbach recommended an independent commission to make aft investigation. He suggested two retired judgesformer Supreme Court Justice Charles Whittaker and former court of appeals judge E. Barrett Prettymanalong with former Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, "to make it non-partisan." Implicit in this group of names was that no sitting judicial officer of the United States should serve on such a commission.
The next day, Monday, Katzenbach wrote a memorandum setting forth his ideas more carefully. He urged the President to act immediately "to head off speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort." Katzenbach was convinced and wanted the public "to be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial." Two wild theories were now being floated: the Dallas police were saying that it was a Communist plot, and the Iron Curtain press was reporting that it was a right-wing conspiracy. Both "ought to be cut off." Katzenbach was upset over the fact that the matter was being handled with "neither dignity nor conviction." "We can hardly let the world see us totally in the image of the Dallas police when our President is murdered." A "complete and thorough FBI report" might be helpful immediately. The alternative would be "the appointment of a Presidential Commission of unimpeachable personnel to review and examine the evidence and announce its conclusions."
Johnson brought in Abe Fortas. They both approved the proposal. Fortas then met with Katzenbach, who had consulted with the Attorney General, and they agreed on a seven-member commission of the following distinguished citizens: Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Representative Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Representative Gerald Ford of Michigan, former CIA director Allen W. Dulles, and John J. McCloy, former president of the World Bank and high commissioner for Germany. Five were Republicans; only Russell and Boggs were Democrats.
Anticipating difficulty with Warren, Johnson first got the assent of the other six to serve if the Chief Justice would accept. On Friday, November 29, Katzenbach and Solicitor General Archibald Cox on behalf of the President went to the Supreme Court and asked the Chief Justice to accept the chairmanship. Warren replied that the President was acting wisely in adopting this procedure, "but that [he] was not available for service." The Court had discussed extra-judicial appointments, and, while there had never been a vote, he was certain that the justices supported his position unanimously. Warren thought that such service defied the spirit of the constitutional separation of powers. Going back to Chief Justices John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth in the early days of the republic and, more recently, with Justices Owen Roberts on the Pearl Harbor commission and Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg trials, outside activities had distracted the court. Finally, no one could predict the litigation such a commission would spawn, and, if a case reached the Supreme Court, he would have to disqualify himself. Warren told Katzenbach and Cox, "I must respectfully decline the honor."
The Chief Justice considered the matter closed, but he underestimated Lyndon Johnson. He was immediately called to the White House. The President said that he was deeply distressed over the wild rumors arising from the assassination. Because Oswald was dead, there could be no trial. He then named the other members of the commission ("all of these men . . . distinguished and honorable," Warren wrote), all willing to serve on condition that he become chairman. Nevertheless, the Chief Justice declined and repeated his reasoning.
Warren then became the object of the famous Johnson "treatment": "You were a soldier in World War I, but there was nothing you could do in that uniform comparable to what you can do for your country in this hour of trouble." Johnson went on about rumors circulating the world and the danger of nuclear war with a first strike taking the lives of 40 million people. "Mr. Chief Justice," he concluded, "you were once in the Army. . .As your Commander-in-Chief, I'm ordering you back into service." Warren was a pigeon for an appeal to his patriotism. "Mr. President," he said, "if the situation is that serious, my personal views do not count. I will do it."
When he got home for dinner, Mrs. Warren had already heard the news on the radio. Johnson had immediately issued Executive Order No. 11130 creating the Warren Commission, officially the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
One of the first people Johnson had called was former President Eisenhower. He drove down from Gettysburg on Saturday, the day after the assassination. They visited for the better part of an hour and then Eisenhower composed a memorandum of "the things he would do if he were in my place." Among the most important was that "you call a Joint Session of the Congress to make a speech of not over ten or twelve minutes." Johnson readily agreed on the need for such an address because he must talk directly to the American people.
But, according to Michael Amrine, there was a good deal of fussing over this speech. Several advisers urged Johnson to speak to the people over television from the Oval Office; others agreed with Eisenhower. Senator Humphrey argued that Congress "is really Lyndon's home. . . . He feels natural there and at ease." The President concurred and, indeed, said so in the address: "For 32 years Capitol Hill had been my home." He had Sorensen, John Kenneth Galbraith, Adlai Stevenson, and Horace Busby of his own staff work up drafts. On the night before the delivery Johnson invited Humphrey and Fortas for dinner and he read from these versions. Finally, he said, "Hubert, you and Abe go ahead and redraft these speeches and get me one that will be suitable for tomorrow." They worked on it till 2 a.m. and Lynda Bird, the President's daughter, typed it. Johnson made some changes the next morning.
The President addressed the joint session on November 27. He opened with a glowing tribute to President Kennedy, including the memorable opening line, "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today." He, of course, stressed continuity. In his inaugural address Kennedy had said, "Let us begin." "Today," Johnson said, "in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue."
He then struck the note of unity. He urged the passage of the civil rights bill in order "to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color." It was time for "Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another." They must turn a deaf ear to "the apostles of bitterness and bigotry." "I profoundly hope," the President concluded, "that the tragedy of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow."
He spoke slowly in a,serious and dignified manner. The address, according to Amrine, was an "enormous success" with both the Congress and the American people.
In pursuit of his goal of unity, Bill Moyers said, Johnson spoke to 3000 important people in his first month in office, some alone, some in small and others in large groups. He ran his staff ragged preparing him with background information and suggested topics for discussion in these meetings. He tailored his message to those who heard him. He told businessmen how well industry was performing and how much better it would do if the tax reduction was enacted, and he told labor about declining unemployment and the prospect for even more jobs with lower taxes. But, like all the others, he stressed to both that he needed their help to pull the nation together.
Johnson made a special pitch to Republicans. Eisenhower had urged him to confer with Robert Anderson on subjects of "a fiscal and financial character." Anderson had been Secretary of the Treasury, was a rich and very conservative Texan, and shared Eisenhower's pristine views of the balanced budget. Johnson dutifully met with Anderson and, as will be noted, doffed his hat to the conservative position during the debate over the tax bill. He also spoke with the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress and particularly with the minority leader in the Senate. Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen were old and close friends, understood each other perfectly, and had wheeled and dealed for years. The President wanted Republican support in the Senate for the tax bill and, more important, would depend upon it critically in the cloture vote on the civil rights bill. Dirksen was capable of supplying the votes. Johnson later wrote,
I asked [Dirksen] to convey to his Republican colleagues, in the Senate and throughout the nation, that it was essential to forget partisan politics, so that we could weather the national crisis in which we were involved and unite our people. There was a long pause on the other end of the [telephone] line and I could hear him breathing heavily. When he finally spoke, he expressed obvious disappointment that I would even raise the question of marshaling his party behind the President.
"Well, Mr. President," he said, "you know I will." And he did.
Johnson also moved to reunite lines to the left. Jim Rowe was a former supporter and a New Deal liberal, and the President quickly brought him back into the fold. The wooing of Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., was far more complicated. He was an ideological liberal, the leading white lobbyist for civil rights, Washington counsel for Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers, and a pillar of Americans for Democratic Action. Rauh had been at war with Johnson for years in the Senate over cloture against a southern filibuster and over the 1957 Civil Rights Act. "It. was perfectly clear," Rauh said, "that Johnson was trying to appear as an all-out conservative in Texas and as a moderate in national politics." When Kennedy picked Johnson as his running mate at the convention in 1960, "nobody was any angrier about the Johnson nomination than I was." Rauh said on the floor, "the Democratic Party shouldn't have for Vice President a gas and oil, anti-civil rights senator."
Senator Herbert Lehman of New York, one of the small band of dedicated supporters of civil rights, died on December 5, 1-963. Johnson invited Rauh to join him on Air Force One for the trip to the funeral in New York City. Though certain that the President was making an "appeal to the liberal forces," Rauh accepted. A few days later he was in the Oval Office. As Rauh put it, Johnson said, "Let's let bygones be bygones. If I've done anything wrong in the past, I want you to know that's nothing now. We're going to work together." They went right to work on the civil rights bill.
On the fifteenth day of his presidency, December 7, 1963, Johnson held his first press conference. He, of course, picked up his two major themes. "We think we have made very good progress in showing the continuity in our transition. We have tried to, second, give a sense of unity in the country and in the world." This brought Lyndon Johnson's presidential transition to a close.
It had been a formidable performance. The American people, the Congress, the interest groups, and the world at large had been convinced that Lyndon Johnson had legitimated his presidency and that he would be a strong President in the twentieth-century tradition of the Democratic party. George Reedy, who worked for Johnson and whose admiration for his boss was severely restrained, wrote,
His performance following the assassination fully justified the use of the overworked word "magnificent." He eased his fellow citizens over the shock of losing their President; he set the wheels of government in motion again; he unified the American people as they have not been unified at any point since Eisenhower stepped down.
Doris Kearns agreed. Johnson had effected a transfer of government that was "smooth and dignified" by -a brilliant display of leadership and political skill." He himself seems to have been most pleased by the fact that on Tuesday, November 26, the first day the New York Stock exchange was open after the assassination, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average staged the biggest rally in its history. The Gallup poll in interviews conducted during the week of December 12-17, 1963 confirmed the public's judgment. The way Johnson was handling his job won the approval of 79 percent; only 3 percent disapproved.
Perhaps most interesting was the letter Liz Carpenter received from her friend Tom Hatfield in Texas. He had gone south to Gonzalez, west to San Antonio, and on to Banderra and Kerrville for political sampling. "Conversation and overt concern about the- assassination has subsided remarkably, as though the people have been exposed to all of the horror their minds can bear." A number of the 25 or so people he talked to said LBJ reminded them of FDR. Hatfield was "astonished" to learn that no one opposed Johnson and only one person seemed lukewarm. Kerr County was the most Republican county in Texas. A woman in Kerrville who had not voted for a Democrat since 1936 said, "I'm not just for him, I'll fight for him!" An elderly gentleman in San Antonio who had not voted for a Democrat since 1916 said he would vote for Johnson in 1964. As every political observer quickly realized, Lyndon Johnson himself not least among them, he would easily gain the nomination and win the election the next year.
But that lay in the future. Now the new President must confront the Kennedy legislative legacy, and he immediately set to work.
Meet the Author
About the Author:
Irving Bernstein is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier.
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