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 indeed he wants it withdrawn. And it has to come directly from him.”

Bobby came in a third time—I won’t repeat the conversation, but essentially with the same purpose. I said, “Look, let’s don’t kid ourselves. Jack Kennedy could control this convention, Walter Reuther notwithstanding. Don’t give me that. If there is some reason John Kennedy wants Lyndon Johnson off the ticket, he has to call him.” [That call never came.]

LYNDON JOHNSON: Prior to this, the president said, “Can I sell [you as my running mate to Sam Rayburn]?” Rayburn [ who was a key player in Johnson’s ascension to the position of Senate majority leader ] 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, New England, but no Southern state unless we have something that will appeal to them.” He asked, “Do you want Nixon to be president? He called you a traitor.”

Rayburn always thought Nixon called him a traitor. . . . Rayburn came in that morning and said, “You ought to [take the vice-
presidential nomination].” I said, “How come you say this morning I ought to when last night you said I shouldn’t?”

He said, “Because I’m a sadder and wiser and smarter man this morning than I was last night.”

After Kennedy’s assassination, histories of his administration, many of them written through a gauzy Camelot veil, reflected little glory on Johnson. This was particularly evident in accounts of Kennedy’s crowning moment, his cool leadership in outmaneuvering the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.

DEAN RUSK, secretary of state, 1961–1969: One curious thing [about] LBJ is the way those who have tried to re-create the Cuban missile crisis have ignored LBJ’s role in it. He spent long periods of time with Kennedy alone in the Oval Office during that week of the crisis. He played a much stronger role in that crisis than has been noticed. Now, part of that [1974 ABC special] The Missiles of October was clearly based on Bobby Kennedy’s little book Thirteen Days , and for all sorts of reasons that little book does not highlight in any way LBJ’s role.

JOHNSON: Bobby’s story on the missile crisis was another Manchester deal [ William Manchester was the author of a laudatory JFK biography and a book about the Kennedy assassination that drew an unflattering portrait of Johnson ]. He said, “Also on occasion Johnson came in.” They had thirty-seven meetings, and I was in thirty-six of them. I missed one. I was in Honolulu at Kennedy’s request.

Though Johnson’s relationship with Robert Kennedy was strained early on, by some accounts—though hardly all—his relationship with John Kennedy was less charged and evolved into one of admiration, even affection. But there was no such rapprochement between him and Robert.

JOHNSON: [President Kennedy and I] were not like brothers, we were not constant companions. I don’t recall that we ever had an element of bitterness or deep feeling enter into any of our discussions. I don’t think . . . that I ever saw any indication of anything but friendship and respect.

TED KENNEDY, U.S. senator, Massachusetts (D), 1962–2009: I always was under the understanding that the relationship between President Kennedy and

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