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.
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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 Johnson was easy and cordial, based on a good deal of mutual respect and understanding.
BARRY GOLDWATER, U.S. senator, Arizona (R), 1953–1965 and 1969–1987, and Johnson’s opponent in the 1964 presidential election: I don’t think he ever liked the Kennedys. I don’t think he ever respected the Kennedys. I know we could get under his skin by saying, “You know, Lyndon, you said that just like Jack would have said it,” and then, God, he’d get red! I think there was sort of a natural resentment from a poor-born Texan toward a rich-born Massachusetts boy.
WARREN ROGERS, White House correspondent, Hearst newspapers and Look magazine: He was not treated too well as vice president under Kennedy, if you’ll remember—not by Kennedy so much as by the Kennedy supporters, the Kennedy followers. There were jokes about Lyndon Johnson being uncouth and not quite as smooth as some of the Harvard people thought he should be. I don’t think he got over that. I think he resented that at all times.
GEORGE MCGOVERN, U.S. senator, South Dakota (D), 1963–1981: Bobby had too much power to suit Lyndon, and, you know, he hadn’t earned it. He [had] earned it [only] because he was a brother to the president. . . . I think that Johnson kind of liked Jack Kennedy but didn’t like this little brat [who] was throwing his weight around.
JOHNSON: [With Bobby] I thought I was dealing with a child. I never did understand [him]. I never did understand how the press built him into the great figure he was.
Compounding Johnson’s resentment was the heroic glow that surrounded the Kennedy brothers. John and Robert were embraced by the media and the American public for representing the ideals that captured the best hopes of their era—civil rights and social justice—an impression deepened by their martyrdom. Yet after John was assassinated, it was Johnson’s remarkable political fortitude that put those ideals into law. Still, the same esteem never found its way to him. For a man who craved approbation, that may have hurt most of all.
HUBERT HUMPHREY, vice president, 1965–1969: [President] Kennedy became much more of a hero as he became more of a martyr. The fact is that his weakness and flaws were quickly forgotten, particularly by the Democrats. Johnson was constantly compared to Kennedy, and that was like comparing a heavyweight boxer to a ballet dancer.
Of course, every presidency has its own personality. Kennedy’s had great grace and charm and class. Johnson’s presidency was more like a developer moving into an area that needs rehabilitation, renovation, rebuilding. It isn’t pretty at times. There’s a lot of debris laying around, but all at once you see new structures coming up, and it may not be all quite finished, but the structures are there.
He was a builder above all. He was a muscular, glandular, political man. Not an intellectual, but bright. Not a talker, a doer. Kennedy was more a talker.
JOHNSON: The media was so charmed [by Kennedy]. It was like a rattlesnake charming a rabbit. But I believe men will look back on this era, fifteen years or so from now, they will look back and say, “Okay, how did we do it?”
After his brother’s death, Robert Kennedy hung on in the Johnson administration as attorney general for almost ten months before resigning, after which Johnson gave the position to Kennedy’s deputy.
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH, attorney general, 1965–1966, and undersecretary of state, 1966–1969: I know Bobby Kennedy did not like LBJ. But he told me, “I cannot fault the president on his domestic programs. He has been magnificent.” This was at the time he was criticizing him on Vietnam.
TED KENNEDY: I remember—I think it was in the middle part of the winter of 1964—[Bobby] mentioned to President Johnson his willingness to go to Saigon as an American ambassador over there. I know he had thought about this and made that offer, which President Johnson turned down. I heard afterwards it was primarily because he was concerned about the security of Robert Kennedy.
RUSK: [Bobby] volunteered to LBJ to go to Saigon as our ambassador, and I vetoed it on the grounds that this country could not take another Kennedy tragedy and that Saigon was too dangerous a post for Bobby. Ironically, look what happened. If I had let him go to Saigon, maybe he’d still be alive. Who knows?
With the post in Saigon a closed door, Robert Kennedy set his sights on the U.S. Senate, just as his brothers had done. Benefiting from Johnson’s considerable help on the campaign trail, Kennedy secured a seat from New York in the fall. (“This is ma boy,” Johnson told jubilant crowds as they appeared together. “I want you to elect ma boy!”) The position, however, did not fulfill Kennedy’s ambitions. Throughout the bulk of Johnson’s tenure in the White House, those ambitions and the differences between the two men would create problems for Johnson.
HARRY MCPHERSON, special counsel to the president, 1966–1969: It must have been very difficult for [Johnson]. Here is this lightweight who hadn’t done much of anything and this heavyweight who had been the all-powerful Senate majority leader and who had accomplished so much. . . . And the lightweight heaps contempt on the heavyweight, and Johnson regarded him likewise. Then Bobby crosses the finish line in the New York Senate race due to a gale-force wind called LBJ.
Just as Johnson felt a responsibility as a “caretaker” of President Kennedy’s people and policies, so too he felt an obligation to Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline. In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, the Johnson family stayed at their home, the Elms, for eleven days to allow Mrs. Kennedy and her two children to remain at the White House, as a means of easing the pain of their transition. On November 26, four days after the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy penned an eight-page letter thanking Johnson for the kindnesses he had extended her.
JACQUELINE KENNEDY: Most of all Mr. President, thank you for the way you have always treated me—the way you and Lady Bird have always treated me—before, when Jack was alive, and now as President.
I think the relationship of the Presidential and Vice Presidential families could be a rather strained one. From the history I have been reading ever since I came to the White House, I gather it often was in the past.
But you were Jack’s right arm—and I always thought the greatest act of a gentleman that I had seen on this earth—was how you—the Majority Leader when he came to the Senate as just another little freshman who looked up to you and took orders from you, could then serve as Vice President to a man who had served under you and been taught by you.
But more than that we were friends, all four of us.
After Mrs. Kennedy and her children moved out of the White House, Johnson remained attentive. Even Lady Bird Johnson recognized that he could get a little “mushy” when it came to Mrs. Kennedy, as is evidenced in this December 2, 1963, phone conversation.
JOHNSON: I just wanted you to know you are loved and by so many and so much—
JACQUELINE KENNEDY: Oh, Mr. President—
JOHNSON: —and I am one of them. . . . And when you haven’t got anything else to do, let’s take a walk. Let’s walk around the backyard and let me tell you how much you mean to all of us and how we can carry on if you give us a little strength.
The chummy White House stroll would not come to pass. Despite Johnson’s effusive attempts to win her approval—hers would have been a big feather in his cap—Mrs. Kennedy politely withheld it. Undoubtedly influenced by Robert Kennedy and pained by seeing Johnson in the role that had been so elegantly filled by her late husband, Mrs. Kennedy pulled away from Johnson. Conversations with the historian and Kennedy White House aide Arthur Schlesinger, recorded in March 1964 and released last August, reflect her less than charitable private view of Johnson, whose legacy, she knew, would one day compete with President Kennedy’s. Far from characterizing Johnson as Kennedy’s “right arm,” she described him as a do-nothing vice president and held little hope for him as president.
JACQUELINE KENNEDY: You know what’s going to happen. Lyndon can ride on some of the great things Jack did, and a lot of them will go forward because they can’t be stopped—civil rights, the tax bill, the gold drain stuff [a reference to concerns that foreign countries were laying claim to large parts of the nation’s gold reserves]. And maybe he’ll do something with the Alliance [an apparent reference to NATO] and everything, but when something really crisis happens [sic], that’s when they’re really going to miss Jack. And I just want [the people] to know that it’s because they don’t have that kind of president and not because it was inevitable.
Mrs. Kennedy’s failure to recognize that Johnson had already admirably faced a series of crises engendered by her husband’s death was understandable. Regardless, as the seeds of Kennedy’s legend began to be sown, there would be many crises ahead that would test the mettle of Lyndon Johnson.
LIZ CARPENTER, White House press secretary and staff director for Lady Bird Johnson, 1963–1969: I have always thought that you could describe presidents in almost a word. Kennedy inspired, which Johnson was not capable of doing, and Johnson delivered.