Power Trio

A new history of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency draws on memoirs, interviews, and oral histories to construct a revealing portrait. In this exclusive excerpt from LBJ Library director Mark K. Updegrove’s Indomitable Will, Johnson and the people who knew him best reveal how he really felt about John F. Kennedy—and why he and Robert Kennedy so bitterly despised each other.

Throughout his career as vice president and president, Lyndon Johnson would be inextricably tethered to the Kennedy family. It was John F. Kennedy’s decision to put Johnson on the Democratic ticket as his running mate in 1960 that ultimately propelled Johnson into the White House, and it was Robert Kennedy’s resistance to Johnson’s Vietnam policy that accelerated Johnson’s woes in the latter years of his presidency.

Johnson’s relationship with the Kennedys was marked by a resentment that ate away at him in his weakest moments. Fiercely competitive, he was one-upped by the Kennedys from the start. Their Ivy League polish, megawatt smiles, and acceptance by the Eastern establishment were advantages, to be sure, but nowhere more so than in Johnson’s mind. His resentment long predated John Kennedy’s attainment of the Oval Office. “Kennedy was pathetic as a congressman and as a senator,” Johnson reflected later. “He didn’t know how to address the chair.” Yet Kennedy’s image and connections helped the Senate backbencher leapfrog over the redoubtable Senate majority leader to capture the 1960 presidential nomination.

Johnson’s scorn was more than returned in kind by Robert Kennedy, as evidenced by Kennedy’s machinations at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, in Los Angeles.

JOHN CONNALLY, former Texas governor, 1963–1969, and Johnson adviser: At the 1960 convention, Jack Kennedy came down to see Mr. Johnson and offered him the vice presidency, and within fifteen minutes Bobby Kennedy came down to the Johnson suite.

Mr. Johnson did not see him. [House] Speaker [Sam] Rayburn and I met Bobby Kennedy, who said in effect, “Lyndon has to get off this ticket. Lyndon cannot be on this ticket. This convention is going to go crazy. It’s going crazy. He’s got to withdraw.” The Speaker listened to this for a while, and finally he just said, “Ah,” and spit, and walked out of the room.

Bobby left. He came back a second time. Nobody would see him but me. I went again into the bedroom and visited with him. He said that the convention was in an uproar, that [United Auto Workers president] Walter Reuther was leading a revolt, and that Johnson had to withdraw—that it was a terrible mistake that his brother had made in naming Johnson to the ticket.

I said, “Bobby, you’re talking to the wrong man. Your brother offered him the vice presidency. If he doesn’t want him to have it, he has to withdraw it. Johnson is not now going to withdraw from the offer. Jack Kennedy has to withdraw it if

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