Chief of Staff to the President is perhaps the most important political appointment in our nation's government. Aside from handling the myriad of day to day details that keep the White House running, the Chief of Staff is often the President's closest confidante and gatekeeper--anyone who wants access to the Oval Office goes through the Chief of Staff.
President Lyndon Johnson bestrode the American political scene as a colossus of energy, ambition, and purpose. He attempted to achieve no less then the total eradication of poverty and expended every last ounce of his political capitol with Congress to pass Civil Rights legislation. And, throughout, he was--as he knew better than anyone else--being destroyed by a war he inherited, detested, and could do nothing to stop.
With W. Marvin Watson, his Chief of Staff and most intimate adviser, finally revealing what he knows about this extraordinary figure, readers are taken, firsthand, inside the presidential life and times of Lyndon Johnson.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
In 1958 W. Marvin Watson created one of the first Johnson-for-President clubs in Texas. As a result of his early work on Johnson's behalf, Watson was appointed a White House special assistant in 1965 and assumed the job of White House chief of staff after Bill Moyers resigned that position in 1966.
Sherwin Markman was a special assistant to LBJ until 1968. He went on to work as a senior trial lawyer for Hogan&Hartson until 1992. He is the author of a novel, The Election, and the editor of Lyndon Johnson Remembered: An Intimate Portrait of a President.
In 1958 W. Marvin Watson created one of the first Johnson-for-President clubs in Texas. As a result of his early work on Johnson's behalf, Watson was appointed a White House special assistant in 1965 and assumed the job of White House chief of staff after Bill Moyers resigned that position in 1966. He is the coauthor, with Sherwin Markman, of Chief of Staff: Lyndon Johnson and His Presidency.
Read an Excerpt
Chief of Staff
Lyndon Johnson and his Presidency
By W. Marvin Watson, Sherwin Markman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 W. Marvin Watson
All rights reserved.
The telephone rang. It was 4 P.M., December 31, 1964, New Year's Eve. Excusing myself from my family, I picked up the receiver. It was Lyndon Johnson, the President of the United States, his voice so familiar to me with its unmistakable Texas hill country drawl, forceful yet — always with me — infused with intimacy and kindness, the voice of a man so used to command that it compelled the listener to bend to his will.
"Marvin!" he said, without preliminary. "Bird and I want you and your lovely wife, Marion, to come on down to the ranch tonight. We need you to celebrate the New Year's Eve with us."
"I don't think we can do that, Mr. President," I said. "We thank you and we're honored, but we just can't. Not tonight."
"Why not?" the President demanded.
I looked around the living room of my home in the small Texas town of Daingerfield. All of my family was sitting there staring at me — my wife, her mother, my own mother and father, and my three children, Winston Lee, Kimberly, and my one-year-old son, William. Winston Lee, our older son, had flown home from New Mexico Military Institute to be with us. I explained this to the President, but he was having none of it.
"It's too late," he interrupted. "My airplane is already on its way to pick up you two. It should be landing at Longview airport within the hour. You and Marion should leave as soon as you can. We will all have dinner when you arrive."
I looked at Marion, who was frowning. As always, she understood exactly what was happening. But I could also see that she had resigned herself to the inevitable.
"Yes, sir," I told the President. "We'll be there."
"Good!" the President responded, then added, "By the way, bring some clothes. You two will be flying back to Washington with us tomorrow. There's a lot we need to talk about."
"All right," I said, feeling both helpless and excited as I hung up.
I turned to Marion and repeated the President's invitations. "I suppose you had no choice," she said. "Just make sure we have a hotel reservation before we leave."
"Absolutely!" I assured her. "Now please go pack enough clothes for several days because we need to get going."
Marion hurried to do so while I made sure that while we were away someone would look after William as well as Kimberly, our thirteen-year- old daughter, and would also make sure that eighteen-year-old Lee got back to New Mexico. Then, after hugging and kissing our family good-bye, Marion and I rushed off to Longview and the President's airplane.
Other than the crew, we were the only passengers on the sleek little air force jet that flew us the 360 miles from northeast Texas to the LBJ Ranch seventy miles southeast of Austin. A runway long enough to accommodate the Jet Star had been built at the ranch and, when we taxied to a stop, sitting there alone in his golf cart, his face wreathed in a welcoming smile, was the President of the United States, waiting to greet us.
Lyndon Johnson was a big man, towering over me by at least half a foot, and although I was far from slender even back then, he seriously outweighed me even during those times when he was dieting. In that respect, from month to month one never knew whether he would be in his "heavy" or "light" condition. He was so aware of his considerable fluctuations of weight that he maintained two separate wardrobes for himself so that properly fitting clothing was always instantly available to him.
Like every politician I have ever known (and most of the rest of us), Lyndon Johnson was vain about his appearance. He took pains always to be photographed on his left side because he believed he looked better from that angle. But his most attractive characteristic was his unreserved animation. Energy simply flowed from him and engulfed everyone in his presence. He was also quick with his laughter and he could tell a story as well as anyone, complete with devastatingly accurate mimicry. In person he was immensely compelling and likable, and one of the great tragedies of his life as a leader was that so much of his personal warmth seemed to disappear whenever he appeared on television.
Many have commented about the forceful manner in which Lyndon Johnson presented himself to others, the way he would come close invading your physical space, leaning over you, touching you, grabbing your elbow or arm — all creating the impression of a dominating presence even larger than his actual size. That was all true and it was his natural method of communicating his will and bending you to it.
Somehow, with me, although he was so obviously bigger, his manner always softened and often was accompanied by a smile that seemed to say, "You are my trusted friend, Marvin, and I love you." Which was precisely how I felt about him.
Now, on this New Year's Eve, he drove us directly to the ranch house and announced, "We want you to stay upstairs in one of our spare bedrooms." Then he led us inside where we joined Mrs. Johnson and a dozen others, all close friends of the Johnsons — and of ours.
"Now that the Watsons have finally arrived, let's share some dinner," the President stated. And indeed we did, followed by an evening of animated conversation among happy people celebrating a new year full of endless promise for the President and First Lady. He had, after all, just won a massive electoral victory — his 61.9 percent of the popular vote exceeded even Franklin Roosevelt's 60.8 percent to become the largest majority in American history — and carried with him into office an extraordinary majority of his political party in both houses of the incoming Congress.
The next afternoon, Marion and I joined the Johnsons on the short helicopter ride from the ranch to Bergstrom Air Force Base where Air Force One awaited him. As always — so radically different from commercial flying — the engines started as soon as the President was on board and seated, and we were on our way to Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington. There, another helicopter — this one called Marine One because it is operated by my own former service, the Marine Corps — was waiting to whisk us to the south lawn of the White House. As many times as I have made that journey — before and since — the thrill of flying on these aircraft never disappeared.
I should make it clear that on this New Year's Day, I was not an employee of the President or a member of his staff. I was a devoted volunteer — no more or less than that — who, since first meeting and campaigning for him in 1948, had become his trusted friend. I had a perfectly good job as Executive Assistant to the President of Lone Star Steel Company. I was not only happy with my work, but Marion and I were content with the life we had in Daingerfield and Dallas.
Of course, none of that deterred the President from asking me to come work for him. He had started making that offer when he was a Senator, and he had become increasingly insistent with each passing year. I had always declined. Now, however, he was President of the United States, and during that flight to Washington I knew that he had planned all this to at last bring me onto his staff.
During the flight to Andrews, the President left no room for doubt about his intentions. He called Marion aside and informed her that he would be keeping me busy for a few days. Then he smiled, and said, "I don't want you to get bored while I'm using Marvin, so I have arranged for a nice real estate lady to meet you and take you around Washington."
"That's really not necessary," Marion protested.
"Of course it is," the President answered. "She will show you some homes you might want to buy or rent. I told her not to waste your time looking at anything more than five to ten minutes away from the White House because I want Marvin to live close to me."
Surprised, because I had promised Marion that we would never need to leave Daingerfield, she asked the President, "Has Marvin agreed to come work for you?"
Still smiling, the President said, "Not yet, but I believe he will."
When Marion returned to our seats, she told me what the President was planning.
"I don't know," I said, but I knew as well as she did that the inevitable was closing in on us. To that end, it was symbolic to us that the Johnsons would not hear of us staying in a hotel on this trip to Washington. They insisted that we remain at the White House as their guests. At that moment, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, we felt that but for the honor of it, we would rather not. But, of course, we did. In the end, we knew we had made the right decision.
The next day, starting promptly at 8:30 in the morning and continuing for several days, Marion and the real estate agent visited houses within the President's prescribed perimeter. Each day, Marion returned in an advanced state of sticker shock. We knew the prices of East Texas homes, and we were not prepared for the inflated costs of living in Washington.
In the meantime, the President put me to work. He assigned me the White House office next to his and handed me a list of names and a stack of FBI reports. "These are the people the former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and his deputy, Nick Katzenbach, recommend I nominate as federal judges," he explained. "As you can see, there are a lot of vacancies to be filled. Well, these are their suggestions. I think they may be Kennedy people. My guess is there's not a Johnson person in the whole bunch."
"I don't doubt it," I replied, having already experienced Robert Kennedy's ambition and penchant for intrigue.
"What I want you to do is check out each one of these people. Read their FBI files. Then call our friends, especially Senators, Congressmen, and Governors. Ask them about these names and ask them to suggest people who would be loyal to us and our program."
"Yes, sir," I replied.
"I don't intend to stack the courts with Kennedy people," the President added.
"What about Republican Senators?" I asked. "Should I talk to them?"
"Of course — when they are our friends. Especially Everett Dirksen. Never ignore him! He will always return the courtesy. When you finish, give me a list of people I can rely on."
I went right to work on a task that was not totally unfamiliar to me. While Johnson was Vice President, his agreement with President Kennedy was that all presidential appointments in and from Texas would be channeled through Johnson's patronage. President Kennedy had been meticulous in keeping his word — in many instances, I am certain, overriding the objections of others, including his volatile brother. In all those cases, the Vice President had asked me to clear each potential nominee for loyalty to him and his beliefs. After that, of course, the names would have to pass muster with Texas's U.S. Senators as well as the American Bar Association. My job now would be essentially the same, only the area covered was nationwide.
Also on my agenda during that stay at the White House was to assure that the Texas delegation to the President's inauguration was properly housed and included in all the festivities. The President wanted it to be no less than perfect. There were already a large number of the President's friends hard at work on the momentous event, but the President wanted me as the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party to coordinate all activities of the Texas delegation with the inauguration officials. So, as I had done for him in many previous instances, I accepted this additional project as well.
As soon as these assignments were completed, Marion and I returned to Daingerfield. Then, almost immediately, we were on our way back to Washington to attend the President's inauguration on January 20, 1965. It was a grand affair and we were proud to be a part of it. Apparently, however, the word had leaked out (probably by the President himself) that he was planning on bringing me to Washington to work for him. It seemed that almost everyone we knew, especially those from Texas, was congratulating me, telling me what an honor it was to be asked and what a great experience it would be to serve the President of the United States. I kept denying the "rumor," but quite obviously nobody believed me.
Early the next morning, the President asked me to come to his bedroom where he got right to the point. "You and I both know that the time has finally come for you to come work for me."
"I don't want to leave Texas," I told him, not for the first time.
"Marvin, this is your President talking to you! Your President needs you! You cannot refuse your President any more than you refused to serve your country when you joined the marines."
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Since Walter Jenkins left me, I haven't found anyone to take his place," he continued. "You are the person I want. I know I can't order you to come. I can't draft you. But what I am asking you is far more important to your country than that. Your President is asking you to serve your country. Now, all you have to do is say yes."
I told him I would think about it very carefully, talk to Marion, and that I would give him my answer very soon. The President did not press me further that morning because, I have no doubt, he knew what my answer would be.
I wanted to talk to someone who had worked for the President, so I immediately sought out Texas governor John Connally, a longtime friend of the President — and of mine. I thought the views of the Governor would be especially valuable since he had served as an aide to Johnson when he was a member of Congress. As soon as we returned to Texas, I met for dinner at the governor's mansion with Governor Connally and his wife, Nellie. I explained the President's offer and asked for their counsel.
"You know you won't be able to refuse him again," Connally said.
I realized that, and told him so.
As we discussed the options, we decided that I would not work for the President as anything less than his chief of staff, although we agreed that he did not want to give anyone that title.
"The title really doesn't mean a thing," Connally said. "What counts is that you will be his chief of staff because your actual duties and responsibilities will add up to that."
We concluded that I should insist on some symbols of authority that nobody else can duplicate, such as having the President agree that I could attend any meeting he may have — without exception and without prior authorization by him.
The Governor said, "I'm sure you won't abuse the privilege, and he will know that. But you will always have that right. Also, you should request the opportunity to give your opinion regarding any subject or person prior to the time he makes his decision. Next, and you probably already know this, make sure that your office is next to his and physically closer to him than anyone else except maybe his secretaries. If the President agrees to these things, then it makes no difference what your title may be. You will be his chief of staff."
I nodded my head.
The Governor continued, "Marvin, if he wants you as badly as I think he does, he will agree to all of it. I know he likes you. More importantly, he trusts you. You won't have any trouble."
For the next week, Marion and I agonized over the matter. I was not exaggerating when I told the President that neither of us wanted to leave Texas. Our roots there were deep. Finally, Marion said that she was willing, in spite of the fact that Washington was a strange, foreign place to her and she would be leaving many friends and family behind in Texas. Her eyes were filled with tears when she said to me, "Marvin, if you feel that we must move, I am going with you. I know we will have a wonderful, exciting, and learning time."
Thus, we had reached our conclusion by the time the President called me on January 29, a Friday. "Are you coming up here?" he demanded.
"Yes, sir," I said. "But may I ask if we can agree on a few things first?"
"Tell me what you want," he said, and I repeated the essence of the conclusions I had reached in my meeting with Governor Connally.
The Governor's prediction was accurate. Without hesitation, the President agreed to my requests, although he added, "Of course, you need to understand that along with a few others who work for me up here, you will have the title of Special Assistant to the President. But you and I understand that you will operate as my Chief of Staff." Then the President said, "I also know that neither of us will ever regret this decision."
Excerpted from Chief of Staff by W. Marvin Watson, Sherwin Markman. Copyright © 2004 W. Marvin Watson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The 1950s: Public Service, Politics, and Lyndon Johnson,
From Leader to Vice President,
Vice President to President (1961-1964),
TEXAS ELECTS A NEW GOVERNOR,
LYNDON JOHNSON AS VICE PRESIDENT,
VIETNAM UNDER KENNEDY,
THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY,
THE 1964 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION AND ROBERT KENNEDY'S ATTEMPTED COUP,
CAMPAIGNING FOR PRESIDENT,
LONG DAYS AND NIGHTS,
WHITE HOUSE OPERATIONS,
LEAKS AND LEAKERS,
THE FIRST YEAR OF THE 89TH CONGRESS: A MAGICAL TIME,
THE PRESIDENT CONSIDERS RESIGNATION,
A DEEPLY RELIGIOUS MAN,
RUNNING THE GOVERNMENT,
THE WORKINGS OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY: VIETNAM THEN AND NOW AS RELEVANT,
THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE,
THE 1966 MIDTERM CONGRESSIONAL CAMPAIGN,
TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS WITH THE PRESIDENT: A MISTAKE IN OHIO,
IOWA GOVERNOR HAROLD HUGHES: WHAT CONSTITUTES A LOYAL FRIEND?,
BILL MOYERS: A PRODIGAL SON LOST,
A PRESIDENCY IN FULL STRIDE,
GHETTOS AND RIOTS,
RIOTERS, DEMONSTRATIONS, AND MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.,
TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS FOR THE PRESIDENT: SURINAME,
ISRAEL: THE SIX-DAY WAR AND THE U.S. RELATIONSHIP,
TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS FOR THE PRESIDENT: GLASSBORO,
TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS FOR THE PRESIDENT: WILLIAMSBURG,
SEEKING REELECTION WITHOUT A CANDIDATE,
FALSELY MALIGNING A DECEASED PRESIDENT,
SOME VINTAGE MOMENTS,
"CAMPAIGNING" FOR REELECTION,
MARCH 31, 1968,
THE NATION MARCHES ON: HORROR, HOPE, AND HORROR AGAIN,
THE 1968 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION AND NIXON'S ELECTION AS PRESIDENT,
Also by Sherwin Markman,