Lyndon Johnson was a great original, a man whose energy and personality knew few bounds, the polar opposite both of Richard Nixon’s rootless ambition and Gerald Ford’s Midwestern blandness. Only he had the presidential perspective on his controversial years, but his own memoir, The Vantage Point, sets down everything except the man himself. What was LBJ like? A few of his colleagues, aides, and rivals try to give us some idea. The remarks from Joe Frantz, Robert Allen, and Peter Benchley are from the oral history collection of the LBJ Library. General Westmoreland adapted his anecdote for us from his upcoming book, A Soldier Reports. Bill Moyers, Tom Johnson, Ralph and Opal Yarborough, and Bob and Mary Hardesty gave us their recollections directly; they have never appeared before.
Cleaning His Plate
Not long after my return from Saigon, President Johnson told my wife, Kitsy, that he understood that Quarters 1, the Chief of Staff’s residence at Fort Myer, has a spectacular view of the federal city. When, he asked, was Kitsy going to invite him to a little family dinner? Kitsy could hardly believe the President was serious. In any event, what did he mean by a “little family dinner?” She procrastinated until in another meeting some weeks later, the President repeated the question with obvious determination to have his way.
Kitsy finally concluded that a little family dinner might be construed to mean the President and Mrs. Johnson; their daughter Lynda (Luci was away); and, because of the President’s high regard for Bus Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Mrs. Wheeler. She invited them for the evening of October 8, 1968.
Delayed by business at the White House, the President was over an hour late, leaving Kitsy with considerable concern over how her dinner would fare. Yet all turned out well. The view from Quarters 1 was much as the President had pictured it, and the dinner proved a success, especially when it came to a dessert that was apparently a presidential favorite: rum pie.
The President, having finished his pie, noted that General Wheeler had eaten only a few bites of his.
“Buzz?” the President whispered, getting the chairman’s attention. He pronounced the nickname “Bus” as if it had to do with a bumblebee, and used a tone of voice that seemed about to introduce some monumental business of state.
“Yes, Mr. President?” General Wheeler responded.
“Are you through with your pie?” the President asked.
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“May I have it?”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
Whereupon the President, under the eaglelike gaze of Mrs. Johnson, ate what remained of General Wheeler’s pie.
General William Westmoreland
Leaving on a Jet
I particularly remember a visit to the LBJ ranch in 1968 when all six Hardestys, one speechwriter-father, one nervous wife-mother, and four enthusiastically impressed children were being given the famous “treatment” by their famous host. The President himself was undecided about his plans for the following day. We were definitely programmed to return to Washington, but the problem was a tentatively scheduled stop on the way in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the President to address the National Governors’ Conference being held there.
Johnson called his unpredictability “keeping my options open,” and on this occasion he used that excuse to probe his friends and aides at dinner for reasons to go or not to go to Ohio. The next morning, my husband and another speechwriter wrote a tentative address to the governors, while yet another aide tried to explain the uncertain situation to some agitated people in charge of scheduling at the Conference.
The Secret Service, seasoned by years of sudden and traumatic Johnson departures, and fortified with the knowledge that when the President boards his airplane, it takes off, told us to pack our bags before breakfast.
After lunch, most of us were sitting around the swimming pool area in the front yard, relaxed, talking in low voices, suspended in the still, clear Texas summer, waiting for the decision from Above about when we would go.
All at once the door of Johnson’s bedroom, which was situated in a wing of the main ranch house, opened. Down a walk leading from his bedroom door to the pool came the President, wrapped in a bathrobe from which he emerged in trunks, ready for a swim.
Johnson swam around a while—he really paddled more than exercised—going occasionally to the side of the pool where he would converse with one of his aides, or talk on the telephone with someone in Washington about national and international problems, or with equal concentration to someone in nearby Fredericksburg about buying cattle. But not about the trip. To anyone.
The rest of us began to relax, as Johnson was doing in the pool. We, the audience, pretty much realized that since Johnson wasn’t even dressed, there just wasn’t going to be time to leave immediately as would be necessary in order to make dinner in Cincinnati. We began to think about how to spend our last leisurely day in the Texas sun before our return to Washington that evening.
Finally, casually, the President strolled up the steps of the pool, put his robe back on, glanced around, and started off.
Instead of going back up the walkway to his bedroom, Johnson took another path which went across the front of the ranch house. We figured he was going to his ranch office which occupied the wing opposite the bedrooms. After all, he was in his bathing suit and bathrobe, he had to enter the house somewhere to eventually change clothes. If that happened, it might mean we were going to Ohio after all, and, with so little notice, there would be come scrambling to be ready to leave when he was.
But Johnson continued past the front door, past the last side door, rounded the corner of the house, and headed out towards the runway where his small jet sat, the one used to transport him to and from Bergstrom Air