W. Marvin Watson and Sherwin Markman will be in Austin to discuss Chief of Staff October 7.
texasmonthly.com: When and how did you decide to write this book?
W. Marvin Watson: Sherwin Markman came to see me in Dallas and told me that he and his son-in-law were going to write a book on Lyndon Johnson. He suggested that I might write a chapter of it. I told him I was thinking it was time for me to consider writing a book. Sherwin was most helpful in helping me put it together and doing the research. You have to go back, way back. I have always been one of those who thought that the staff of President Johnson should not write books [about the president]. I thought that he should write the book, and he did write a book. But he’s been so misquoted in so many publications. I thought that some things I had information on that I know were the facts could humanize President Johnson because he was very human in all aspects, a very emotional man. That is why I wrote the book.
Sherwin Markman: That was four and a half years ago. My son-in-law, Tom Cowger, professor of history, and I put a book together that was published a year ago called Lyndon Johnson Remembered, which was a series of essays by the people who knew Johnson best. We wanted Marvin to write an essay, and we did come to him in January 2000. Marvin said he had a better idea, so he never wrote an essay for the book. Marvin has been described as the “mystery man of the White House.” He has never before spoken or written about his experiences. He is the man who Johnson said was the closest person to him besides family. His files were sealed in the library, and there are nineteen file cabinets. When Marvin gave me exclusive access to those files, it was such an opportunity to flesh out the historical picture of Lyndon Johnson. Everyone else who has been involved with the president has written a book. This is decades late, but luckily Marvin is still with us and he can tell the story of the president as he knew him.
texasmonthly.com: In your book, you talk about how difficult it was to leave Texas for Washington, D.C. What is it that you love most about Texas?
WMW: Being born there and knowing the people. My relationships with friends there were so close, so great. We’re Texans at heart, in spirit, in emotions, and we always will be.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think a politician like LBJ would be successful in today’s political world?
WMW: Oh, certainly. He outworked anyone that I ever met by far. He had a memory that was unsurpassed. He could remember words that were spoken, phrases from thirty years prior. He was a personality. He felt that in life, the people who could be teachers, preachers, or politicians all had the same characteristics—they had to love people. You have to love people—that was the basis of his personality.
SM: He had this unique genius of being able to work with the Congress, with that I mean both Democrats and Republicans. If you look at today’s Washington, I see this very bitter partisanship, very emotional partisanship that seems to prevent things from being accomplished. The unique genius of Lyndon Johnson, which would be so valuable in today’s Washington, was not only his knowledge of the Congress but also his ability to work with people and compromise with them, thus getting things done. His overwhelming legislative accomplishments came because he was able to work with both Democrats and Republicans. Partisanship was laid aside until things got accomplished, such as Medicare and the Civil Rights Act.
texasmonthly.com: Are there any legislators today who remind you of LBJ in any way?
WMW: I have found no one in Congress when he was there or since that was so dedicated to legislation as he was. That was his thing, his pleasure: to pass legislation for the benefit of the people.
texasmonthly.com: Would LBJ have sought a second term if he had not had to deal with all the unpopular Vietnam issues?
WMW: No, I do not think so. In the book, I try to outline how early he said to me that he was not going to run. I really did not believe him at the time.
texasmonthly.com: What was LBJ’s greatest achievement as a politician?
SM: I think the Voting Rights Act was the single most important piece of legislation. If it had not been for Lyndon Johnson, that act would not have come to be. That act franchised African Americans throughout the United States, absolutely changed the political complexion of this country. It led all Americans to vote. The president had that enacted with the full knowledge that by doing so he was going to lose the South to the Republicans at least in the short run. He knew that it would turn to be mostly Republican, and it did. The fact of the matter is that he was totally committed to making all Americans, regardless of race and color, equal. That single piece of legislation is a banner to the man’s presidency.
WMW: He is the only president that I am aware of who passed civil rights legislation, except Lincoln. A lot of people have talked about it, but talking about passing legislation and actually enacting it are two different things. We look at civil rights and we rightly so think of it as an African American case, but when he thought about civil rights, he thought about Hispanics as much as blacks because he had never lived as a boy among any blacks as far as I know, if so there were so few. He did grow up with Hispanics, and he taught Hispanics down in the valley. They gave him a feeling of the great despair of their life. When he got older and started traveling, he became acquainted with African Americans, but through college and into his teaching days, most of his emotions ran to the Hispanics. He was just glad to be able to do these things. The first civil rights legislation that he ever touched was done by President Eisenhower when he was the majority leader. He kept the Senate in session to pass the first civil rights bill since Lincoln. There was none other passed until Johnson became president. As far as I know, he had his hand on every piece of legislation passed since Lincoln that had to do with civil rights. If you were looking at the most important thing he did in the legislative field, it would be civil rights. In his mind it would be the right to vote and the right to attend schools. He thought that education and health all went hand in hand. He thought you could not raise a deprived part of our population with just the right to vote. He thought they had to have an education, and they also had to have good health.
SM: You have to remember that is was Lyndon Johnson who gave birth to Medicare and Head Start. That is the beginning of a very long list.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think was Lyndon Johnson’s biggest failure as a politician?
SM: I always thought that Lyndon Johnson was most effective in dealing with people face to face in smaller groups and in larger groups. For some reason or another, he could never transfer that magnetism through the television camera. I thought it was a terrible blow to his ability to communicate with the nation.
WMW: His inability with the mass media was definitely one. I suppose what you are really asking is, Was his foreign policy a failure? I don’t believe that history has really written that yet. I do know that during the Cold War, when the Russians and the Communists had their meetings, they planned to have all the countries under the control of Communism, including the United States. They made a plan to chip away and get a few people a year until it was inevitable that the world would be Communist. I don’t know how many people it takes to get under it before you can say we’ve won the world. But, they didn’t get it because we took a stand as a nation in Europe and southeast Asia. There are 36 treaties in which the United States was partners in, but NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and SEATO [Southeast Asia Treaty Organization] are two where the nation was tested. The Russians and the Communists’ theory was that if they could get southeast Asia, they would eventually get India, and those numbers would be roughly four billion people. They never got southeast Asia, so I think the stand there kept the dominoes from falling.
texasmonthly.com: Could both of you reduce the complex character of LBJ to one sentence.
SM: He was a man—with all of the strengths and flaws of a complex human being—who cared about his country.
WMW: He loved people.