The New York Times
White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwritersby Robert Schlesinger
Veteran Washington reporter Robert Schlesinger opens a fresh and revealing window on the modern presidency from FDR to George W. Bush. White House Ghosts is dramatic, funny, gripping, surprising, serious-and always entertaining.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Schlesinger (political reporting, Washington Journalism Ctr., Boston Univ.), son of the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., has penned a detail-packed volume chronologically covering presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through the current Bush administration, with extensive insight into how these leaders have had their messages crafted and packaged. His short introduction does cover pre-FDR presidents (after all, even Washington got help with his speeches), but his focus starts with FDR as the first president to engage in communication through mass media. While some presidents utilized more speechwriters than others, and some accepted their writers' speeches as merely an "outline" from which to ad lib, all recognized the necessity of the speechwriter position. Schlesinger's chapters move from one administration to the next without transitional language and often jump midstream into the next term. Nonetheless, as a whole, the book succeeds as a perspective on the last 75 years of American history, albeit with lots of detail and less interpretation. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
"A president's words can frame an era or shape world history. That makes his speechwriters critical. Robert Schlesinger, son of one of the greatest, brings the flair of a storyteller and the insight of a scholar to the White House's obscure but glorious ghosts." -- Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
"Robert Schlesinger's White House Ghosts is a welcome addition to the literature on presidents. His book not only adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how presidential speeches were constructed but also deepens our knowledge of the way in which major policies were developed. Schlesinger has given us an altogether delightful and informative study that will become essential reading for anyone interested in the modern presidency." -- Robert Dallek, author of Nixon and Kissinger
"It's no surprise that the men and women who have written speeches for our presidents have stories to tell! What is a surprise is that Robert Schlesinger has dug up so many of them. White House Ghosts flows along with one rich anecdote after the next. All the major speeches (and several minor ones) are dissected. (Some presidents actually did some rewriting themselves. Imagine!) The book is fascinating. And funny. If you like reading American history, you'll love this book." -- Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes and author of Reporting Live
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
"Now That's What I Call a News Lead"
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
"The president is dead and the vice-president has been looking for you," Lyndon B. Johnson's chief political operative told Jack Valenti. "He wants you to come out to Love Field and get aboard the airplane." Cliff Carter and Valenti were standing in a basement stairwell of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Valenti, Carter, Johnson aide Liz Carpenter, and a Secret Service agent commandeered a car and careered toward Love Field and Air Force One. They squeezed into the office midplane with several Texas Democratic congressmen. When Johnson came in, they rose. "Mr. President, we are ready to carry out any orders you have," Representative Albert Thomas said. Soon Valenti was on the phone to the Justice Department, making sure that they had the exact wording for the presidential oath of office.
Valenti can be seen in the photograph of Johnson taking the oath, the stricken Jackie Kennedy standing next to the forlorn LBJ. To the new president's immediate right is his wife Lady Bird, to her right Representative Thomas, Valenti hunched next to him. Standing at the back of the cabin, eyeglasses catching the camera's flash, is Johnson protégé Bill Moyers.
At 12:42 that afternoon, Moyers was with state representative Ben Barnes and University of Texas regent Frank Erwin at the toney, all-white 40-Acres Club in Austin when he was called to the telephone. Minutes later, Moyers told them: "The president has been shot and is believed dead. The governor has been shot and is critically wounded. The vice president is believed to have been wounded."
The call was from the Secret Service. Johnson had summoned Moyers. Barnes called the head of the Texas state troopers about a plane, and when he dropped Moyers at the Austin airport, a state-owned twin-engine Cessna was waiting.
At Love Field, Moyers boarded Air Force One but was barred from the presidential cabin. "I'm here if you need me," he wrote in a note to LBJ and passed it through. He was quickly ushered in, and at 2:40 pm stood quietly in the back of the cabin as Johnson took the oath.
Johnson had reached out for a pair of trusted friends and advisers. Moyers and Valenti would be key administration players, each with a critical role in shaping the rhetoric of the Johnson presidency. Once the flight was airborne, Johnson turned to Valenti, Moyers, and Carpenter, to prepare some brief remarks for him to give upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
With Carpenter doing the writing, they put together a brief statement. "This is a sad time for every American," it read. "The nation suffers a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the nation, and the whole free world, shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy bears. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for God's help and yours."
Johnson scrawled on it. "Every American" became "free men" and then "all people." He struck "the nation suffers" in favor of "we have suffered." He trimmed "the nation, and the whole free," leaving the more economical "I know the world shares..." Finally, he inverted the last sentence, finishing with the request for God's help.
At Andrews, Johnson had to raise his voice to be heard. Insecure about his speaking abilities, probably mindful of his predecessor's great skill, Johnson thought he sounded strident and harsh. Almost immediately he regretted making the statement.
Johnson had a more important statement to make five days later before a joint session of Congress. He wanted the speech to make clear, he told Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, that his administration's goal was to move past the tragedy, to promote justice, equality, and plenty, to look forward and start to move on.
Johnson asked Ted Sorensen to write the speech, and John Kenneth Galbraith to contribute. Sorensen and Johnson met on the evening of Monday, November 25. Johnson said he liked Galbraith's draft, but quickly reversed himself when Sorensen said that he did not. "I didn't think it was any ball of fire," Johnson said, secret recorders picking up the conversation. "I thought it was something that you could improve on."
When Sorensen's draft came in the next day, only a handful of Galbraith's sentences were left, including a couple in the contrapuntal style that Kennedy and Sorensen had favored: Galbraith's "The strong can be just. But the defense of justice requires strength" became the assertion that "the strong can be just in the use of strength and the just can be strong in the defense of justice." He also kept "In this age when there are no victors in war, but when there can still be losers in peace" almost intact. This sentiment would get a small but key tweak before the final draft, becoming "In this age where there can be no losers in peace and no victors in war..."
Johnson took the draft back with him to his home, a French chateau-style house called The Elms in the Spring Valley neighborhood. He fiddled over it with Valenti and his friend Abe Fortas. Fortas told Adlai Stevenson that he had "corned it up," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recorded in his diary. "The corn is, so far as I am concerned, alien."
Used to having the final pen on a presidential address, Sorensen was displeased. "He is very hurt," Katharine Graham told Johnson some days later. "This is of course a new experience for him (though not, as Feldman and Dick Goodwin somewhat grimly remarked, for others in the White House who used to have to turn their manuscripts over to Ted)," Schlesinger noted in his diary. Sorensen did not see the speech again until it was set and thought it repetitious and poorly organized.
On the car ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to deliver the speech, LBJ turned to Kennedy aides Larry O'Brien and Pierre Salinger, who were in the car along with Sorensen. This is a fine speech, Johnson said, and it's 90 percent Sorensen, only 10 percent Johnson. Sorensen demurred: No, sir, that's not accurate, not more than 50 percent Sorensen.
Johnson replied that Sorensen's 50 percent was best. On that point, Sorensen told the president, they agreed. ("We spent the whole time [going up to deliver the speech] arguing," Johnson told Katherine Graham.)
They should have split the difference: roughly two thirds of the given speech (1,170 of 1,630 words) can be found in Sorensen's first draft, including its mournful opening: "All I have ever possessed I would have gladly given not to be here today." (This was changed slightly in the final speech to become the simpler, more elegant "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.") Sorensen's draft followed the sentence, "For the greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time," with " and I who cannot fill his shoes must occupy his desk." This latter clause was crossed out.
Overall, the speech was true to the Kennedy-Sorensen style. "In this age when there can be no losers in peace and no victors in war, we must recognize the obligation to match national strength with national restraint. We must be prepared at one and the same time for both the confrontation of power and the limitation of power. We must be ready to defend the national interest and to negotiate the common interest. This is the path that we shall continue to pursue. Those who test our courage will find it strong, and those who seek our friendship will find it honorable. We will demonstrate anew that the strong can be just in the use of strength; and the just can be strong in the defense of justice." One of the speech's signature lines, "Let us continue," appeared in Johnson aide Horace "Buzz" Busby's November 26 draft.
Sorensen stayed on into January, and helped draft the 1964 State of the Union, but resigned to work on his Kennedy memoir. Schlesinger did much the same thing. Mike Feldman ascended to Sorensen's special counsel position, but did not assume his speechwriting responsibilities.
As Johnson started his first full year in the White House, he had to assemble a new team.
Dick Goodwin, having feuded with Sorensen all the way out of the White House in the early Kennedy days, had come to bureaucratic rest in the Peace Corps and was contemplating his next move. One afternoon in mid-March 1964, he was in the White House when he encountered the president, who drew him into the Oval Office. Soon Goodwin was writing a statement to help extricate Johnson from a diplomatic spat of his causing with Panama.
"He's got good sentence structure," Moyers, who knew Goodwin from the Peace Corps, had told Johnson days earlier, when they were contemplating bringing Goodwin in. "He'll balance it, weigh it, make it rhyme here and there.... Not as good as Sorensen, of course, but pretty good."
The Panama speech a success, another assignment followed, for a Democratic Party event. By the end of the month, Goodwin was reinstalled in his old West Wing office as the president's principal speechwriter. He saw an opportunity, in the tradition of Rosenman, Clifford, Hughes, and his mentor and rival Sorensen, to help influence not only how but what the president communicated. "The two roles writer and policymaker were symbiotic," he later wrote. "Active participation made accurate articulation likely; personal contact with the president made it far easier to ensure that his public statements reflected his thoughts and philosophy, the natural cadences of his voice, and his distinctive mannerisms of expression."
Goodwin became skilled and dogged at controlling speech drafts. He later advised one new speechwriter to wait until the last possible moment before submitting a text: that way you can make your ideas a fait accompli. There would be no time to secure an alternate draft.
Johnson admired and appreciated Goodwin's skills as both writer and ideas man, but was uneasy with him. "Almost from the outset the president had an instinctual kind of recoiling from Goodwin," Valenti recalled. "He had a feeling fixed neither in specifics nor fact that Goodwin was not the best influence and that Goodwin might at some time turn on him. He was unable to put this in more specifics, but it was that occult instinct of the president working overtime. He searched out Goodwin's character through some dimly lit passageways that I wasn't able to navigate."
Goodwin, though, was delighted to be back in the fray and to be working for Johnson, a president whose political views seemed to match his own. "Nor were any of my ambitions modest," he later wrote. "Naturally, writing this or any speech would not make me a world-historical figure. But it was a chance to help make history." And from the simple point of view of a writer, he enjoyed working with Johnson more than he had with Kennedy. "It was great working for Johnson. I didn't feel bound by any of the kind of stylistic imperatives of the Kennedy style," he said. "All [Johnson] wanted was a kind of forceful, eloquent, straightforward [speech] and a lot of that was easier to do."
Not immediately. Goodwin sifted transcripts of the speeches that the president had been giving and realized that whoever had written them was trying "to make Johnson a rhetorician, a turner of ornate phrases." Goodwin resolved to strive for something simpler.
"There's no question about that. Johnson was always intimidated by Banquo's ghost, this specter of Kennedy, this urbane, cool, witty, marvelously elegant man," Valenti recalled. "Johnson always knew he would live under that glistening shadow and it did have some effect on him." The problem was compounded by Johnson's conflicted, contradictory personality. He admired a well-turned phrase and yearned to achieve that level of presidential eloquence. But he portrayed himself as a simple Texas farmer. "While he did not speak that way personally, he wanted his speeches to have sentences...march in serried ranks with movement, emotion, feeling," Valenti recalled.
The struggle to find the right balance in Johnson's rhetoric would go on for the course of his term. His insecurities and moods, skills as an extemporaneous speaker and deficiencies with a text, and his inability to adapt to television had push-pull effects on the speechwriting process.
As the remains of the Kennedy legislative agenda gave way to the flood that was the Johnson program, the president was looking for a phrase to encompass the rising flow of proposals moving down Pennsylvania Avenue. Sitting for a television interview with reporters from the three major networks to mark the conclusion of his first hundred days in office, Johnson was asked if he had settled on a slogan to encapsulate his burgeoning legislative program, à la New Deal, Fair Deal, Crusade, or New Frontier. "I have had a lot of things to deal with the first 100 days and I haven't thought of any slogan, but I suppose all of us want a 'better deal,' don't we!" he replied.
Johnson had been "badgering" Goodwin to come up with something. Goodwin had consulted with Eric Goldman, a Princeton historian who had replaced Schlesinger as White House professor-in-residence. Goldman later recalled to Robert Dallek that he suggested to Goodwin the title of Walter Lippmann's book, The Good Society (1937).
There was no small irony in the suggestion: Lippmann's Good Society was not only a broadside against Johnson's hero, FDR, but against the New Deal and activist government generally, which he equated with fascism. "Men deceive themselves when they imagine that they take charge of the social order," he wrote. "A directed society must be bellicose and poor. If it is not both bellicose and poor, it cannot be directed." Society could have "no blueprints," Lippmann noted, but should instead be guided by "the really inexorable law of modern society" the free market. Lippmann's "good society," with its emphasis on the market and disdain for activist government, bore little resemblance to the raft of legislative proposals for which Johnson was seeking a name.
Goodwin tweaked Goldman's suggestion, and produced a draft for the March 4 presentation of the first annual Eleanor Roosevelt Award to Judge Anna Kross that included what he described as a "fragment of rhetorical stuffing" "great society" (which had not yet achieved capitalization). The phrase immediately caught the attention of both Johnson and Valenti. "It was evident that there was meaning in this phrase far beyond just the phrase 'Great Society,'" Valenti said. "You could fit a lot of what we were trying to do within the curve of this phrase."
As had happened to another Goodwin invention four years earlier Alliance for Progress "great society" was held for a more important moment. In the meantime, Goodwin built a whole speech around it: a public expression of the philosophy underlying the Johnson program.
The University of Michigan's commencement address on May 22 was selected. But in the meantime, Johnson could not resist "fondling and caressing this new phrase," as Valenti put it. Starting with Rose Garden remarks to the Montana Territorial Commission on April 17, he used the phrase twenty times before the Ann Arbor speech. The press began to notice. "Johnson Pledges 'Great Society'; Will Visit 4 Needy Areas Today," The New York Times reported on April 24. And on May 10, the paper ran a story headlined: "President Urges 'A Great Society.'"
Goodwin pored over policy papers and proposals, consulted with Johnson, Moyers, and anyone else who might have something to contribute. His goal was not to produce a list of programs but an overarching "assertion of purpose." "The country was alive with change: ideas and anger, intellectual protest and physical rebellion," he later noted. "Without this ferment the formulation of the Great Society would not have been possible, not even conceivable." Reading over the final text in the Oval Office the morning he was to deliver it, Johnson's reaction was that it was satisfactory. "It ought to do just fine, boys," he told Goodwin and Moyers. "Just what I told you."
Standing before a crowd of 80,000 at the University of Michigan's stadium, Johnson outlined his vision for the United States:
Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.
The Great Society, he told the students, would emphasize quality of life, starting with equality and justice for all and extending to all aspects of life. "But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."
For better or worse with conservatives deploying the phrase as a term of derision Johnson's Great Society endured, becoming a symbol of ambitious and well-intentioned government programs.
Weeks after the Ann Arbor address, Hugh Sidey of Time asked the president about Goodwin's role in drafting the address.
"I can tell you, the Ann Arbor speech came as the result of a book I read by Barbara Ward," Johnson said, referring to The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations. "Dick Goodwin, as far as I know, never saw it. It doesn't make any difference, but I just want to show you that somebody is trying to appear important to you, and I resent that to hell. People on the outside, on the edge, they want to appear that they know something that they don't know." To drive home his point, Johnson drew an organizational chart for the reporter. The name "Goodman" an intentional misspelling of Goodwin appeared at the bottom under "Miscellaneous."
The torrent of new programs also increased the need for presidential words. Johnson had demanding standards for his speeches, whether they were given to a commencement audience of 80,000 or a bill-signing crowd of 80.
Douglass Cater was a soft-spoken reporter from Montgomery, Alabama, who had spent fourteen years as an editor at The Reporter, a weekly newsmagazine. In 1963 he was at a party at the Women's Democratic Club in Washington when Vice President Johnson pulled him aside.
"Doug, I want you to come 'thank' for me," Johnson said.
Cater replied: "What's that? Thank?"
"T-h-i-n-k!" Johnson said, perhaps regretting his offer. "Don't you know the word?"
Cater declined. The following February, he was about to have lunch with Moyers when Johnson invited them both to swim sans bathing suits in the White House pool and have lunch. This time Cater was receptive to Johnson's overture, and he started in the administration in May 1964. "Nothing compares with my waterlogged birthday-suit interview with the president," Cater said later. He became Johnson's top education adviser, overseeing the various initiatives in that area, and also in health. A writer with a knack for clear prose, he was involved in virtually all education speeches. He told people that he was a journalist, while speech composition was a job for playwrights.
When possible, Cater passed the work on to one of his assistants, often Ervin Duggan, a former Washington Post reporter who joined the staff in 1965. Duggan was particularly good at capturing Johnson's rhetorical voice "because I was from the South and had kind of a wave link I didn't know the president, but he reminded me...of an uncle I had," he recalled. "And in a Method acting way, I could get inside his head.... There's a kind of subculture of the South that has to do with the King James Version of the Bible and all sorts of things that southerners at that time were steeped in, and Johnson started recognizing those resonances."
"Get Doo-gan," Johnson would say (mispronouncing his name, which sounds like "Dug-in") when he wanted that southern touch.
The process of helping Johnson find his style moved haphazardly into the 1964 election year. Horace Busby sent a memorandum to Johnson in September fretting about the direction of his speeches. They used to be straightforward arguments for a proposition, but "this approach has been frequently jettisoned or compromised in favor of language uses which read rhythmically but do not always come through effectively or persuasively to the ear.... The concept of the words in a speech must fit the man and personalize the man.
"The people are not nearly as responsive to 'sophistication' in Presidential oratory as Washington has come to assume and believe in the last three years," he went on, and appealed to the president through his political hero. "FDR won his hold on the American people not as an old-school orator, but as a President 'explaining things simply' in his broadcasts from the White House or elsewhere. In this day of complexity, simplicity would be welcomed in this campaign."
Days later, W. J. "Bill" Jorden, a former New York Times reporter who had joined the State Department, sent similar advice to Cater. "Too often there is a Kennedy or pseudo-Kennedy tone in prepared remarks," he noted. "I recognize that the President undoubtedly has looked over and approved the message I refer to. This does not change my opinion that the authentic Johnson often is not coming through to the listeners and readers of his words."
Johnson occasionally reached beyond the White House for help with speeches. John Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and who had received a Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, had written a Johnson pamphlet for the 1964 Democratic National Convention. He was solicited for a draft of LBJ's 1965 inaugural address. Valenti passed Steinbeck's draft on to Goodwin, who was composing the address, but when he produced his first draft, there was no Steinbeck. "Tell Goodwin that either Steinbeck is in, or Goodwin is out," Johnson told Valenti.
"The Great Society, as I see it, is not the ordered, changeless and sterile battalion of the ants," Steinbeck had written. "It is the miracle of becoming always becoming, trying, probing falling, resting and trying again but always gaining a little not perfect but perfectible." Goodwin included that phrase.
And while this would prove the extent of Steinbeck's participation as a presidential ghost Valenti later told a prospective speechwriter that Steinbeck "fell flat on his face" it did not mark the limit of his relationship with the administration. He would continue to send Valenti, and by extension Johnson, a stream of policy advice on a range of subjects.
A five-page handwritten letter on April 20, 1964, for example, focused on the problem of "the drop outs, the delinquents, the unemployed and uninterested boys who are flooding the market with directionless misery, with restlessness and in many cases with destructiveness and violence." "It is far from a small problem," Steinbeck stressed. "There is a terrible unspent energy present in the destructiveness of these boys. They are bored, cynical and hopeless." Steinbeck proposed creating "Disaster Units," which would be populated by boys between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, some voluntarily and some at the instruction of the courts and other legal authorities who deal with delinquents. These units would deal with the aftereffects of not only natural disasters but "civic difficulties having to do with civil rights, poverty, and other misfortunes." They would be "the President's Own," a sort of juvenile, disaster-oriented Praetorian Guard. "The strongest of these boys are drawn to violence," Steinbeck pointed out. "Alright, then let's give them or some of them some real violence, but creative violence, not the causing of it but the control of it."
And he was full of foreign policy suggestions. On May 19, he suggested testing Cuban antiaircraft batteries with drones or high-altitude balloons carrying a large square of aluminum. "It makes a lovely picture on the radar screen."
As for Southeast Asia, he suggested that because Red Chinese troops had aided North Korea, Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek ("a rascal," but "our rascal") might deploy troops to assist in Vietnam.
Johnson's initial public communications strategy on Vietnam had essentially been to ignore it. Goodwin had drafted dozens of foreign policy speeches in the 1964 campaign but none focused on Vietnam. The 1965 State of the Union spent a total of 132 words on the issue.
On February 9, 1965, Moyers sent Johnson a memorandum suggesting that the president devote his first speech outside of Washington since the inaugural an address at the University of Kentucky to Vietnam. "It will be difficult in light of all that has happened in the last few days were you not to mention Vietnam," Moyers noted, probably referring to a Northern Vietnamese attack two days earlier that had killed seven U.S. soldiers and wounded eighty others. Moyers advocated for a "White Paper"-type speech, which would lay out the situation in detail. "Here is a chance to use the Office as an instrument of education, not just as a means of inspiration.... I honestly believe it would reinforce your hand, be a source of renewed energy to freedomloving peoples around the world, and give the American people a rare glimpse into the real nature of the struggle in which we are involved in Southeast Asia."
Speaking at the University of Kentucky on February 22, Johnson discussed the importance of the United States engaging with the rest of the world. He did not mention Vietnam.
Five days later, Busby weighed in. "I have some concerns about continuing public silence on Vietnam," he wrote in a memorandum. "If the people could hear you speak to the small groups at the White House, I am certain the confidence and support they would extend to you would be overwhelming and would be effectively felt in the Congress itself. The consequences of the public not hearing you speak in this manner and spirit disturbs me."
The images charged the nation: Peaceful marchers, many in their Sunday best, trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. They were confronted by vicious thugs in law enforcement garb. There was the tear gas, the frenzied swinging of clubs, and the sickening noise of wood slapping into flesh. These shattering scenes focused the nation's attention once again on the civil rights struggle.
Alabama governor George Wallace met with Johnson in the Oval Office on Saturday, March 13, at Wallace's request, to discuss how best to maintain order in his state. Gripping his guest's arm, Johnson led him to a low-slung couch by the fireplace, taking for himself a high rocking chair. Having achieved the physical high ground, Johnson leaned in close, lowering his six-foot-four bulk over the governor. "Well, governor, you wanted to see me."
This was the "Johnson treatment," the president's full-body persuasion technique. An accomplished debater and tactician, Johnson was adept at physical persuasion as well invading personal space, literally putting his interlocutor in uncomfortable positions whatever it would take to keep the other person off balance. Matching the physical treatment with alternating flattery, persuasion, bullying, Johnson would wear his target down.
In intimate settings, Valenti recalled, Johnson "was like an avalanche: irresistible." Wallace received the full treatment for hours that day. "What do you want left after you when you die?" Johnson asked the governor. "Do you want a Great...Big...Marble monument that reads, 'George Wallace He Built'?...Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, 'George Wallace He Hated'?"
"Hell, if I'd stayed in there much longer, he'd have had me coming out for civil rights," Wallace would tell the press.
The upshot was that Wallace asked the federal government to intervene. Johnson had decided that the moment had come to press the attack on voting rights. He summoned congressional leaders to the Cabinet Room on Sunday, March 14, to consult with them on the timing for a voting rights bill an exercise designed to elicit an invitation to speak before a joint session.
Dick Goodwin and his wife were at dinner at Arthur Schlesinger's Georgetown home when word arrived that the president was going to address the Congress the next day. Goodwin was apprehensive upon his return home. Would he be summoned? But no word came.
Valenti was camped outside Goodwin's second-floor West Wing office when he arrived the next morning. "He needs a speech from you...right away," Valenti said.
Horace Busby had been preparing a written message to accompany the legislation up to the Hill, going through five drafts from late February into mid-March. Valenti had selected Busby to draft the statement, but when Johnson found that out Monday morning, LBJ sat bolt upright in his bed: "The hell you did. Don't you know a liberal Jew has his hand on the pulse of America? And you assign the most important speech of my life to a Texas public relations man? Get Dick to do it. And now!"
Goodwin would have to complete the speech by midafternoon to get it onto the TelePrompTer. He locked himself in his office, telling Valenti that he must not be disturbed. He was interrupted once, around 3 pm. Speaking softly, calmly, Johnson reminded Goodwin of his youth teaching Mexican-American schoolchildren in Cotulla, Texas. "I thought you might want to put in a reference to that," the president said.
Goodwin knew that he was participating in an historical moment. "There was, uniquely, no need to temper conviction with the reconciling realities of politics, admit to the complexities of debate and the merits of 'the other side,'" he recalled. "There was no other side. Only justice upheld or denied. While at the far end of the corridor whose entrance was a floor beneath my office, there waited a man ready to match my fervor with his own. And he was the president of the United States."
Goodwin borrowed from Johnson's past statements and from Busby's draft, but mostly he drew on his own knowledge of Johnson, built up over almost a year of close collaboration. "Although I had written the speech, fully believed in what I had written, the document was pure Johnson," Goodwin would write. "My job was not limited to guessing what the president might say exactly as he would express it, but to heighten and polish illuminate, as it were his inward beliefs and natural idiom, to attain not a strained mimicry, but an authenticity of expression. I would not have written the same speech in the same way for Kennedy or any other politician, or for myself. It was by me, but it was for and of the Lyndon Johnson I had carefully studied and come to know."
As each sheet was torn from his typewriter, Goodwin handed it off for presidential review. Valenti and especially Moyers gave the speech a careful edit, as did other presidential aides, likely at Johnson's direction. When Goodwin finished the final page, he looked at his watch and saw to his astonishment that it was six o'clock. He had not made the TelePrompTer deadline. Johnson would have to read the first dozen pages from his looseleaf binder while Valenti crept across the House floor to the machine. "I almost died a thousand deaths getting it here," Valenti whispered to the TelePrompTer operator.
"I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy," Johnson began. He fixed the civil rights struggle, and specifically the recent Selma confrontations, as historical turning points, like Lexington, Concord, and Appomattox. Framing the battle as neither partisan nor sectional but a moral fight that bore into the soul of the country, Johnson made a moral appeal. "This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose," he said. "The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: 'All men are created equal' 'government by consent of the governed' ' give me liberty or give me death.'"
These words and their underlying ideas that all men should enjoy the benefits of liberty and democracy had been sanctified by generations of Americans who in many cases died defending them, he reminded his audience. A failure to apply them evenly, he said, "is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom."
Passage of a voting rights bill would not be the end of the struggle. "Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice," he said, pausing. "And we shall overcome."
There was a single clap and then a torrent as the realization washed across the room that the president of the United States had adopted the slogan of the civil rights movement (the spiritual hymn the protestors sang) as his own.
The speech's signature line arrived organically, Goodwin recalled in 2007. "It flowed naturally from the language of the preceding sentences," he said. "It's not like it was deliberately put in there, stuck in there, it just came out of the writing.... Did we say we're going to put in a civil rights anthem? No. But that's how it came out and of course that was all on all our minds. How do you know what controls or contrives? What is deliberate or what's accidental? That was in everybody's mind."
The country was electrified. Martin Luther King, Jr., told aides that while he had never before been moved by a white man's speech, he now felt that the cause would succeed. Johnson would sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law on August 6.
Letters and telegrams poured in to the White House in the days following the speech. "Perhaps more than any other Negro American, I have reason to rejoice over your historic and eloquent Civil Rights message to the congress and the nation on Monday night," former Eisenhower aide Frederic Morrow, the first black presidential staffer and speechwriter wrote Johnson two days later. "It is hard to describe the feeling that came over me as you spoke. It was like hearing the Star Spangled Banner played, or seeing the flag raised somewhere, far away from home."
At the White House, Johnson and Valenti were making sure the spotlight remained fixed on the president. Valenti sent LBJ a memo explaining that he had told any inquiring reporters that the speech was a presidential composition. "He talked out what he wanted to say and as drafts were prepared in response to his dictation, the President personally edited and revised."
Valenti refused even to disclose which aides had taken notes as Johnson dictated. "I mention this to point up the interest and to caution our people NOT to mention names of anyone who had anything to do with the speech else they will take that as evidence of someone doing the principal creative effort." The memo (presumably focused on one specific staff member) reflected Johnson's belief that the White House ghost should remain unseen and unheard by the public. "Remember those assistants of FDR who had a 'passion for anonymity,'" Johnson told speechwriter Robert Hardesty when he joined the staff. "That's what I want you to have: a passion for anonymity. Speechwriters especially."
"Send this to all staff members," LBJ scribbled on the bottom of Valenti's memo.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Schlesinger
Meet the Author
Robert Schlesinger is a veteran Washington reporter. Formerly political editor of the insider publication The Hill and a Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, he has written for The Washington Monthly, Salon.com, The Weekly Standard, and People. He teaches political journalism at Boston University's Washington Journalism Center. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
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