Love, War, and LBJ

Two new volumes signal a reawakening of interest in the former president.

November 1997By Comments

It was eleven o’clock on Wednesday morning, May 27, 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson was finishing a long conversation on the telephone. “I love you, and I’ll be calling you,” he said to . . . Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.

It was a moment of intimacy, truthfulness, and yes, love between two powerful men. This conversation is one among the many treasures to be found in the just-published Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963–1964, edited by the historian and television commentator Michael Beschloss. As is now generally known, Johnson taped many of his phone calls and private meetings during his years in the White House. In 1993 the Johnson Library in Austin began releasing the tapes. Beschloss has taken on the task of editing and annotating them. In Taking Charge, the first of three volumes, Beschloss has published annotated transcripts of about 10 percent of the tapes Johnson made during his first year in office. The book is intended as source material for scholars and historians, exactly as a collection of a famous person’s letters would be. Beschloss does not interpret. He simply presents the conversations with notes identifying the people, bills before Congress, contemporary events, and so on that are mentioned. Valuable as Taking Charge will be to students of the era, it can be tedious at times for the general reader. But there are enough veins of gold to keep one prospecting on.

Judging just from these tapes, Johnson seems to have had, for all his multitude of staff, advisers, and acquaintances, only four real friends in all the world, only four people to whom he can reveal himself without fear of some betrayal large or small. One is Lady Bird. Another is John Connally, although he and Johnson have a falling out that seems to be quickly patched up. A third is A. W. Moursund, a small-time Hill Country politician, businessman, and domino player who was Johnson’s crony. And the last is Richard Russell, Johnson’s brilliant mentor in the Senate whose career then and place in history now are tainted by his unwavering commitment to segregation. All the clichés of Johnson’s character are in vivid display throughout the tapes. He is demanding, overbearing, cajoling, bullying, and corny—except with these four. His words to them often read like ruminations written by a classical dramatist.

Johnson had several constant concerns. He wanted to pass a civil rights bill and to win the 1964 election. He betrays some misgivings here and there, particularly about the intentions of Robert Kennedy, but on the whole he is confident, on his home ground, and in control. Despite their great historical interest, I found these conversations less intriguing than the ones about the other subject of his obsessive interest—Vietnam. He had inherited an American presence in Vietnam from President Kennedy. The situation there was deteriorating, and Johnson had to either pull out or send in significantly more troops. He did not know what to do. He feared being blamed for “losing” Vietnam and for destroying American prestige if he withdrew. On the other hand, he thought more troops would intensify problems rather than solve them. The long conversation in May with Richard Russell had been about Vietnam, beginning with Johnson saying abruptly, “Got lots of troubles.” A few moments later Russell says, “I just don’t know what to do.” Johnson answers, “That’s the way that I’ve been feeling for six months.” Near the end of the conversation, Johnson and Russell express the unsolvable dilemma succinctly:

Russell: If we had a man running the government over there that told us to get out, we could sure get out.

LBJ: That’s right, but you can’t do that…. Wouldn’t that pretty well fix us in the eyes of the world though and make it look mighty bad?

Russell: I don’t know [chuckles]. We don’t look too good right now. You’d look pretty good, I guess, going in there with all the troops and sending them all in there, but I tell you, it’ll be the most expensive venture this country ever went into.

LBJ: I’ve got a little old sergeant that works for me over at the house and he’s got six children, and I just put him up as the United States Army, Air Force, and Navy every time I think about making this decision and think about sending that father of those six kids in there. And what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it? And it just makes the chills run up my back.

Russell: It does me. I just can’t see it.

LBJ: I just haven’t got the nerve to do it, and I don’t see any other way out of it.

Taking Charge demolishes the theory, promulgated by the movie JFK so successfully that it is widely accepted, that Kennedy was killed so that greedy capitalist warmongers could profit from a war that Johnson, in their clutches, was eager to expand. It’s true that some of these conversations, which only Johnson knew were being taped, were self-serving. But his agonizing over Vietnam is too frequent and too wrenching to be anything but real. Johnson had always known how to use power, but here he was powerless. The problem was with him from the first day of his presidency, and he never solved it.

But like many others, Johnson may have thought there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, although Mrs. Johnson currently insists that he did not. Johnson, who had created the Warren Commission to answer every question about the assassination, did not believe its conclusion at the time. He had browbeaten Russell to serve on the commission. In September 1964 Johnson called Russell, who said, “…the commission believes that the same bullet that hit Kennedy hit Connally. Well, I don’t believe it.” Johnson said, “I don’t either.”

Johnson worried that somehow the Cuban government had been involved, a fact crucial to a second new book about Johnson, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade, by Jeff Shesol. This feud, which seems to have faded from memory now, was so well-known in its day that it was the frequent subject of jokes and political cartoons. In this excellent book, Shesol not only brings the feud back to life but also shows how it was emblematic of the changes happening throughout the country, Johnson representing of course the old order and Kennedy representing the new, each with its grievous faults.

The assumption has always been that the source of the hatred between Johnson and Kennedy was their differences in size, background, accent, and culture. All those differences were certainly contributing factors, but Shesol looks deeper. In a particularly intriguing chapter, he theorizes quite convincingly that each man came privately to blame the other for JFK’s death. President Kennedy came to Texas to mend a dispute between Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough that was disrupting the state Democratic party in a way that could affect the 1964 election. Later Robert Kennedy would tell friends that before JFK had gone to Texas he had said “how irritated he was with Lyndon Johnson, who wouldn’t help at all in trying to iron out the problems in Texas, and that he was an S.O.B….” because this was his state and he just wasn’t available to help out. So for Robert Kennedy, if Johnson had done what he could and should have done, his brother would not have gone to Texas and would not have been murdered.

Johnson always contended that the trip to Texas was JFK’s idea. And after Johnson became president, he learned about various clandestine activities in Cuba, including attempts to assassinate Castro that, if Robert Kennedy had not truly instigated, had been carried out with his tacit approval as attorney general. Johnson once told a reporter from Time that Robert Kennedy had been “operating a damned Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean.” If the assassination of JFK were linked to Cuba, as Johnson thought possible, then it could only be a response to Robert Kennedy’s adventurism against Castro and his regime. Thus, to Johnson it was in the end Robert who was responsible for his brother’s death. Perhaps Kennedy, disconsolate for so long after the murder, brooded himself on that possibility. If so, blaming Johnson was self-preservation buttressed by one incontrovertible fact—JFK had flown to Texas alive and returned dead. Such thoughts in the minds of each man make their hatred, mistrust, and evasiveness of each other more comprehensible than even the decided differences of region, education, and family.

The third volume of Robert Caro’s massive biography of Johnson, which will cover the years between Johnson’s election to the Senate in 1948 and the assassination in 1963, will not be ready for publication until 1999. But these two books are signs of a reawakening of interest in Johnson since the first two volumes of Caro’s biography. Michael Beschloss is 41; Jeff Shesol, at 28, had not even been born when Johnson was president. When I asked each one what had drawn him to the subject, their answers were practically identical. Beschloss said, “Now, with prosperity and peace, politics seems rather like a video game. Then, everything was hanging in the balance. Political leaders had real convictions, and today people are starved for that.” Shesol said, “For all the brutality of the decade, it still had grandeur. I don’t have political stories to tell my kids. I yearn for the grand scale of Kennedy and Johnson.”

They’re right. Reading these two books, one can’t help comparing the politicians of those days with their contemporary equivalents. The wrangling between Clinton and Gingrich seems like a sandlot squabble compared with the battle between Johnson and Kennedy. But more important, Does Clinton ever express the anguish that was so unexpectedly common with Johnson? Is there a crusty old senator Clinton knows well enough to say, “I love you”? And would he, and the country, be better off if there were?

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