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The Thirty-First of March
An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson's Final Days in Office
By Horace Busby
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Scott Busby, Betsy Busby, and Leslie Busby
All rights reserved.
Prologue: The Sunday Shift
Shortly after midnight, on Sunday, the thirty-first of March, in 1968, the telephone rang at my home in rural Maryland, twenty miles north of Washington, D.C. An operator at the White House was calling. Her message was brief.
"The president," she said, "would like for you to be here this morning at nine."
Did she have any idea why? "Not a clue," she confided, her voice cheery and conspiratorial, "not a clue." Were others also being summoned? Was there, perhaps, to be a group meeting for some purpose? "Nope, no evidence of it, not from the calls through the switchboard tonight." The operator had no other information: Before retiring for the night, the president had asked her to relay the message about time and place; that was all she knew. I was prying, of course, as one learns to do, and the operator laughed understandingly.
"It's like old times, Mr. Busby," she said. "You've drawn the Sunday shift again."
In other years, while still serving as one of the president's special assistants, I frequently drew what the staff referred to as "the Sunday shift." That meant being called in by the president to share with him the loneliest hours of his week. Sometimes the summons came from Camp David, the secluded retreat of presidents in the cool mountains of Maryland, not far from Washington. A Sunday there meant long walks through the deep forests; a few games of bowling, at which the president competed intensely, determined to win; and at twilight, a quiet time before the log fire, listening as he reflected on the problems the week ahead would bring. At other times, during vacations, the calls came from his ranch home, and one knew to expect a day of casual driving over the dry southwestern hills, admiring his cattle, as westerners expect guests to do; counting the young deer when they broke from the underbrush and went leaping across the open pastures; and occasionally, when he yearned to leave the ranch, the president would ask you to take the wheel and drive past the reporters watching at every gate while he ducked from sight, hoping to escape to freedom beyond the fence. But when he was alone at the White House, the patterns of such Sundays with the president seldom varied.
At the start of the morning, one expected a quiet hour in the refuge of the small, square bedroom on the second floor of the Executive Mansion. Lying beneath the covers of the high canopy bed, out of sight of the constant eye of security, servants, and staff, the president invariably began his day turning through the thick Sunday newspapers. He glanced over the pages, reading aloud columns and editorials which caught his eye, chuckling at some, fuming at others.
Several times each morning he was likely to pause, coming alive with some fresh idea the news suggested. "Why can't we do this?" he would ask, laying the papers aside. Then he would excitedly sketch out his thoughts for a new government program to meet some need identified from the morning reading. While the exuberance still ran strong, he would reach eagerly for the telephone and rouse a surprised cabinet officer. "It has been suggested," he usually began, carefully avoiding — as presidents must — what might be construed as a direct command. However, after he had outlined the idea and begun to listen, his face would gradually show deepening dejection: he was hearing that, for one reason or another, the idea could not be implemented. The president might try another line of argument or start calling around in search of a more amenable official, but the answers would continue to be discouraging. At last he would put the telephone down, grumbling, "Who in the hell is supposed to run this government, anyway?" With a shrug, he would usually pour another cup of Sanka from the silver pot on his breakfast tray, take a warm sip, and return to his reading.
After a while, he would glance at the clock and come bounding out of bed. "We're going to be late for church." With the practiced timing presidents acquire from their many public appearances, he would race through the morning rituals: shaving, showering, and dressing. All the while he could be confident that a limousine awaited at the entrance, engine running, right rear door open, the temperature inside adjusted to the exact degree of his preference. The route through the downtown streets — cautiously different each Sunday — was planned and rehearsed to the minute, so that he arrived just as the church doors were closing for the morning services to start. Whoever drew the Sunday shift could expect to hear the president whisper, as you hurried down the aisle beside him, "Be sure to put some folding money in the plate; everybody'll be watching." And later, when the collection plate began passing along the seat rows, he would whisper again, "Slip a bill to him," nodding toward the Secret Service agent seated at the end of the pew, "so he'll have something to put in, too."
If his mood was buoyant and the weather favoring, he would delay the return to the White House as long as he could. The weekend automobile, smaller and less conspicuous than the regular limousine, would turn down through Washington's Rock Creek Park and follow the Sunday traffic out toward the residential neighborhoods. He would press a button at his side, raising a glass between the rear seat and the front seat, where the two Secret Service agents sat, and in privacy, he would talk of many things. But his eyes were always on the people outside, going freely and unrestrainedly about their Sunday lives.
On his own orders, the president's automobile observed all traffic lights. "You only lose votes," he liked to joke, "when you turn on sirens and red lights and make people get out of the way." Frequently, while the driver waited for a signal to change, children in a car alongside would recognize the tall man in the rear seat of the shining black Lincoln. He readily returned their waves and smiles, and the children would shout, "It's the president!" But their harassed mothers would neither believe the children's cries nor dignify the foolishness by turning to look for themselves. "Watch this," the president would say playfully, lowering his window, and as the limousine pulled away when the traffic light changed, he would lean out to make a gallant bow toward the unbelieving mother so that the kids would be proved right.
The Sunday drive might go everywhere or nowhere. Wherever the black car went, however, Halfback, the unmarked Secret Service chase car, followed one length to the rear, carrying six alert young men over the quiet Sunday streets, their hands resting lightly on the out-of-sight firepower of a Marine platoon. The office was never far away. One of the agents in the front seat would signal for the president to answer the telephone concealed in the armrest at his side. He usually answered tersely and listened intently. Most of the time only a few words were sufficient in reply. Sometimes, though, as he returned the telephone to its cradle, the president rapped on the glass, pointed with his finger, and the driver turned back toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The duties of the presidency do not observe Sunday as a day of rest.
Back at the White House, if there was no crisis to attend to, you joined the president for lunch in the second-floor dining room: soup, a meat course, and salad, served always on the fine china identified by the names of the presidents whose First Ladies had brought it to the mansion. The afternoon usually brought a long walk, around and around the great circular South Drive, and the president's mood would become ebullient in the open air. Sometimes he would decide to lead a boyish expedition through the silent White House, exploring the historic rooms, discovering concealed doors and hidden stairwells, lifting up chairs and tables to search for the makers' marks; and at the end, the two of you would stand for a long while in the hush of the Lincoln Bedroom. Or there might be a mischievous tour of the empty staff offices in the West Wing with the president reading through his assistants' unanswered memoranda or searching around the secretaries' desks for boxes of candy, from which a forbidden sweet could be taken without the First Lady present to frown sternly about the calories.
But still the duties of the office were never far away. Wherever the president might go on his Sunday afternoons, messengers found him, silently handing him brown envelopes from the Situation Room. He would stop to read the contents, sometimes handing the message to you to share with him, other times somberly folding it into his coat pocket and striding rapidly to his Oval Office to begin telephoning the officials who could tell him more of the developments involved.
At nightfall, if the world had not intruded on the presidential day, invited friends — a cabinet officer and his wife, an old friend from the newspaper world, someone from his home state, perhaps a prominent person in town for the weekend, people with whom the president could be at ease — usually gathered on the family floor. Everyone came determined to be relaxed and informal, to keep talk away from serious concerns. But amid the laughter and trivial talk, you could watch his face and see that the duties of the office were beginning to call again. At the theater downstairs, after dinner with the guests, he might try to be interested in the movie, and occasionally he would be. Twice he sat through Seven Days in May, the story of a president fighting to prevent a military takeover of the United States; and when a guest asked his reaction, the president said, without smiling, "It scares me." But on most occasions, the unreality would be too much. In the darkness, the man with the burdens would slip away, back to the bedroom, and you would go with him. There, in silence again, you would stay for two hours — or maybe for much longer — reading, as he handed them over, each of the day's accumulated memoranda and reports.
The items in "Night Reading" — some secretaries called it the "Pillow Pouch" — came from throughout the executive branch. Heads of departments and agencies knew they could always reach the president — and obtain his decision — through these communications placed beside his bed. Many nights the items numbered into the hundreds, and each required a penciled answer before the chief executive slept.
At midnight, or at one o'clock — or sometimes after two — the light would go out. He would thank you for coming, say good night, and you would call the White House garage for a car to drive you home.
Since morning, you would have been at the side of the most powerful man in the world, listening as he talked of prime ministers and kings, of senators and congressmen, of preachers and charlatans; of war and peace, of live dreams and dead hopes; of happy times past and other times ahead; and of the proper size for cuff links, of the respective merits of various hair tonics, of the price of sirloin as opposed to club steak.
But when you reached your own house and your wife awakened to ask what you and the president had been doing all day, you could answer only "Nothing" and fall off to sleep. The Sunday shift was over.
On this last day of March, however, I knew that the Sunday shift at the White House would mean a very different kind of day.
At the White House, history would be made before midnight came again.
Thirty seconds past the hour of nine tonight, the President of the United States would be going before the television cameras to address the nation. His purpose, as announced to the press on the previous day, was to review American policy in Southeast Asia, where the combat forces under his command were engaged in the nation's longest and most divisive war. His actual purpose, however, was far more specific. The president intended not only to review American policy but to reverse it. Seated at his large desk in the Oval Office of the West Wing, the president — speaking as commander in chief — would stun the nation and surprise the world by announcing that, after three controversial years, American bombing of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was being halted north of the twentieth parallel.
It was a high-stakes gamble. Thus far, since the start of American intervention, the government of North Vietnam had consistently rejected overtures leading to the conference table. Officials at Hanoi made it clear that there would be no negotiations until the bombing ended, unconditionally. Now, hoping to open the way for the start of peace talks, the president was largely meeting those terms. If the move succeeded, it could mean, in time, the return of American troops from the burned and bloody jungles half a world away.
On Saturday, when the president himself telephoned unexpectedly, I had learned for the first time of what was to be announced. For a moment, I was jubilant. Such a startling reversal of American policy must mean Hanoi already had sent assurances that the proposal would be accepted.
"No," the president replied, when I asked the obvious question, "we have heard nothing from Hanoi, not a whisper, not a wink." I was taken aback. If there were no assurances, how did the president rate the chances for success? "I don't know, I don't know," he said, his words coming slowly and heavily. "It's only a roll of the dice." After a moment he added, with a sudden tiredness, "I'm shoving in all my stack on this one."
The world of power is an emotionless world. Whether at the center or on the periphery, one never registers shock or surprise. I was thoroughly stunned by what I had just learned, and by the words and tone I had just heard, but I said nothing.
The decision was final. All the president's advisers and associates close to the heart of national policy were undoubtedly in concurrence. It would be no help to the man in the White House for anyone so far from the center to badger him with questions. When he asked if I would take time on a Saturday afternoon to read the draft proposed for his television address, I readily agreed — and began to wonder, as one does, whether that was the only reason for the president's call.
The start of the last March weekend was bright and warm; spring had arrived just in time for the beginning of Washington's annual cherry blossom week on Sunday. When the president spoke on the call from his desk, he dwelled on the sunshine, the blossoming of the trees, and the coming of the new flowers, which he could see in the garden outside his Oval Office. He would have been more acutely aware than anyone else that the speech on Sunday night might be the most important of his presidency. His countrymen could accept the decision and applaud it, or just as easily, the decision could be construed a thousand ways that were not intended. A president can never know the consequences of his words at home or in the world. Yet listening to him speak, I sensed that other thoughts must be stirring in his mind.
A long silence came into our conversation. I made no move to interrupt it. When he spoke again, the softness was gone from his voice. Very firmly, he asked, "What is your judgment on how we are doing?"
Over many years, at many stations in his career, I had heard that question often. This was not the President of the United States asking for opinions about war or peace or high national policies; this was the man in the presidency asking for — and expecting to receive — the candid answer of a friend about the state of his national leadership. It was not easy to give.
The office of the presidency does not encourage directness in addressing its occupant. However long and durable the friendship with the man, one is careful in addressing the president — careful about being presumptuous, careful about being too authoritative, careful about saying, "You should do this" or "You should do that." But in this instance, I thought I knew what must be stirring in the mind of the president. For him, 1968 was a year of crucial decision. Already he had occupied the office for four years: his achievements were many, and his pride in those achievements was very great. But as it does on all presidents, the office had turned on the man. America's agonies abroad and torments at home were centering squarely on him. He stood at the eye of a strange and swirling storm of unrest and division, and with him stood the future of the office he held, the nation he led, and the causes he had chosen to champion in the world. The year of 1968 was pressing him to decide how he could most faithfully keep the trust that was his.
Two courses were open to him. In this year of national elections, he could go to the people seeking a renewal of their mandate for another term in the presidency. No one realistic in his appraisal of the powers of the office could doubt that such an effort by the president would succeed. If success served him, though, would it also serve his trust? Would his victory be the nation's victory? Or would it only set the storm to swirling more angrily through a society already anxious and tense? Only the president himself could answer questions such as these. Only the president himself could raise for consideration the other course open to him — the course of laying down his political life.
Once, in a time that now seemed long ago, the president had been considering that course, and I had been privileged to sit with him, listening as he debated away an afternoon, trying to decide if he should relinquish the powers he held. But from that day, two and a half months earlier, until now not another word had been spoken of the matter. Now time had almost run out. Because of the inexorable schedule of American politics, if he was to make this decision — and take this step — he must do so soon, before the month of March ended.
Excerpted from The Thirty-First of March by Horace Busby. Copyright © 2005 Scott Busby, Betsy Busby, and Leslie Busby. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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