Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is a regular commentator on ABC news and PBS’s The Newshour With Jim Lehrer and the author of the just-published Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965. He is also the host and narrator of Lady Bird, a PBS documentary on Lady Bird Johnson that will air on December 12.
After Richard Nixon was inaugurated in 1969, former president Lyndon Johnson returned to the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall and set about writing his presidential memoirs, The Vantage Point, with the help of two of his speechwriters, Harry Middleton and Bob Hardesty, and a young political scientist named Doris Kearns, who had served as a Johnson White House Fellow. Middleton recalled that when they got Johnson to reminisce, he was “at his storytelling best … relating affairs of state as if they had happened in Johnson City.” He and his colleagues had hoped to capture LBJ’s language and idiom to give readers a sense of the appealing inner man. But not Johnson. As Kearns remembered, when he saw his words on paper, he said, “Goddammit! … Get that vulgar language of mine out of there. What do you think this is, the tale of an uneducated cowboy? It’s a presidential memoir, damn it, and I’ve got to come out looking like a statesman, not some backwoods politician.”
It was Johnson’s book, not theirs, and he got what he wanted. The result, published in 1971, was so leaden that much of it read like a parody of a presidential memoir. The New York Times observed that, from reading the book, LBJ’s life and administration must have been no more eventful than Calvin Coolidge’s. Johnson historians have always wished that some record of LBJ’s storytelling sessions while creating his memoirs had survived. I have always presumed that they must have had the flavor of the private Johnson I have been hearing on the secret White House tapes that I have been transcribing and editing since 1994.
As luck would have it, this summer Middleton found the transcript of one such session. He is retiring as the director of the LBJ Library in Austin in January 2002 and came across it while cleaning out his office. On August 19, 1969, at Johnson’s temporary office in the federal building in Austin, LBJ ranged over his whole life in front of a tape recorder. During later sessions, when Middleton and Hardesty tried to record him again, Johnson glared at the machine and barked, “Turn that thing off!” But thanks to this never-before-published transcript, we have an astonishing window on the real Johnson. Here are some of the best excerpts.1
Getting on the Ticket in 1960
More than forty years after John Kennedy chose LBJ as his Democratic running mate in Los Angeles, we still don’t know for certain how it actually happened. According to LBJ’s nemesis Robert Kennedy, JFK made a pro forma offer to Johnson, who was then the Senate majority leader, expecting him to refuse. When Johnson accepted, JFK sent RFK to Johnson’s Biltmore Hotel suite to get him to withdraw. Here is Johnson’s version:
In 1960 I knew I couldn’t get nominated [for president]. But there were lots who didn’t think so. Mr. Rayburn 2 called me a candidate for president and opened an office. I closed that office. There were several reasons. One, I’ve never known a man who I thought was completely qualified to be president. Two, I’ve never known a president who was paid more than he received. Three, my physical condition. 3 I just couldn’t be sure of it. I’ve never been afraid to die, but I always had horrible memories of my grandmother in a wheelchair all my childhood. Every time I addressed the [Senate] chair in 1959 and 1960, I wondered if this would be the time when I’d fall over. I just never could be sure when I would be going out.
Bobby [Kennedy] was against my being on the ticket in 1960. He came to my room [at the Biltmore Hotel] three times to try to get me to say we wouldn’t run. I thought it was unthinkable that [John] Kennedy would want me—or that I would want to be on the ticket as vice president. [After he won the presidential nomination John Kennedy] called me and said he wanted to see me. He came in [the next morning] and said he wanted me on the ticket. I said, “You want a good majority leader to help you pass your program.” I didn’t want to be vice president. I didn’t want to be president. I didn’t want to leave the Senate.
Rayburn told me the night before that he had heard they were going to ask me to run on the ticket. He said, “Don’t get caught in that one.” I said I had no plans to run—and that he must have been drinking to think that I had. So I told Kennedy, “Rayburn is against it, and my state will say I ran out on them.” Kennedy said, “Well, think it over and let’s talk about it again at three-thirty.” Pretty soon Bobby came in. He said Jack wanted me, but he wanted me to know that the liberals will raise hell. He said Mennen Williams 4 will raise hell. I thought I was dealing with a child.
I said, “Piss on Mennen Williams.”
He said, “You know they’ll embarrass you.”
I said, “The only question is, Is it good for the country and good for the Democratic party?”
Prior to this, [John Kennedy] said, “Can I talk to Rayburn?” Rayburn was against it because the vice president is not as important as the majority leader. The vice president is generally like a Texas steer—he’s lost his social standing in the society in which he resides. He’s like a stuck pig in a screwing match.
Kennedy talked Rayburn into it. He said, “Mr. Rayburn, we can carry New York, Massachusetts, and New England but no Southern