By BOB HARDESTY
On Sept. 23, 1966, 150 Democratic candidates for Congress sat in the State Dining Room of the White House and waited for a military aide to announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
The candidates were there for a campaign workshop. In strode the President, his long legs propelling him across the room. Wherever Lyndon Johnson went, he was in a hurry. But he spoke slowly and quietly.
As he warmed up, he came alive – so did his audience.
The candidates were caught in a whirlwind of rhetoric. Lyndon Johnson was in control and ad-libbing in a vintage LBJ performance. He was presidential, partisan, hilarious, compassionate, outrageous, and reflective.
He talked about politicians always being against change. “We used to have folks like that in Johnson City. When they put the railroad in, an old man said, ’They’ll never get the damn thing started.’ It started going about 20 miles an hour and he said, ‘They’ll never get the damn thing stopped.’”
LBJ cited his domestic agenda as a response to the needs of people: “P-E-E-P-U-L, not the special interests, not corporations, but for folks.” He spoke of basic goals. “… to put food in peoples’ stomachs and clothes on their backs…all the education their minds can take…and all the health their bodies can get from modern knowledge.” There wasn’t a sound in the room.
When he spoke of the new minimum wage bill he would sign the next day, he said: “It doesn’t take care of Rockefellers or Duponts or Melons; it takes care of 8 million people.
“Some reporter asked me recently, -- do I consider myself a president in trouble. They kind of hoped I was. And I said, “Well, what do you think a President’s for?”
“A president not only has to fight domestic problems, and foreign problems, and the weather, and the Viet Nams, but a good portion of his own folks – he has to carry them on his back, too. And anybody who criticizes the President always gets attention.”
Afterward, one of the candidates said to me, “I’m totally drained. I’ve never witnessed a performance like that. Why doesn’t he do it more often?”
But to White House staff, a Johnson tour de force was almost a daily occurrence. He was one of the funniest, most spellbinding, outrageous, captivating, persuasive speakers to ever occupy the Presidency.
And the question was asked again and again: “Why doesn’t he come across like that to the nation?
Why did one of the great story tellers come across as stiff, humorless, not particularly likable? But often LBJ did rise to great oratorical heights.
His voting rights speech to a Joint Session of Congress in 1965 -- in the aftermath of the bloody Selma, Ala., incident -- was one. When, speaking on the need to overcome the “crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice, he leaned toward the senators and representatives and said in a slow, deliberate voice: “And…we….shall overcome.”
His somber, ringing, “Let us Continue” address to Congress – five days after Jack Kennedy’s assassination – had a profound healing effect on the nation and spurred Congress to action.
His first State of the Union Address made it clear he was going to force us to look at poverty, injustice, illiteracy, hunger.
“I do not believe that the Great Society is the ordered, changeless and sterile battalion of ants. It is the excitement of becoming – always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, trying again and always gaining.”
LBJ succeeded a most eloquent president. Following the lilting New England tones of JFK, Johnson’s flat, Southwest dialect disappointed some who tended not to think he was not sophisticated and, hearing the accent -- wrote him off without listening to what he had to say.
But people didn’t “hear” LBJ’s accent when they were in his presence – when his charm and magnetism overpowered everything.
And many Americans didn’t want to focus on the poor and minorities.
And he had difficulty “being himself.” He had a notion to be “presidential” and the result was that he was stiff, formal and sermonizing. But he needed to touch people, to interact with them. When he told a funny story, he needed to hear people laugh. When he talked about the poor or sick or elderly, he needed to see tears.
In effect, he was a stage actor not at home in front of a camera and could not make the transitions from Broadway to Hollywood. Being easy to work for was also not one of his traits. It started for me in 1965 with a call from Bill Moyers at the White House. Would I be interested in writing speeches for the President? He warned that LBJ was difficult to write for. “You know,” he later said, “John Steinbeck tried writing speeches for LBJ in the ’64 campaign. It was a disaster.”
If Moyers had told me that earlier, I’d have gone back to the Post Office Department. In due course, I was summoned to the Oval Office for the “Johnson treatment.”
“You have to have a passion for anonymity. Keep out of the newspapers” he said. “If you are going to write speeches for me, you’ve got to stay close to me.”
And LBJ had opinions about speeches: “Four-letter words, 4-word sentences, 4-sentence paragraphs.”
He told one writer his work was “the worst anyone ever wrote for me.” “Why?” the writer asked. “You filled it with words I can’t pronounce, like ‘eons,’ ” replied LBJ.
In one speech he was suspicious of, he actually counted the words. I’ve had difficulty since conjuring up the image of the most powerful man in the world going through his night reading and counting words.
A White House speech writer has to be an investigative reporter, to find out what is going on in the bureaucracy. Finding new ideas for a presidential speech can give birth to a new program costing millions of new dollars. But LBJ could launch some far reaching programs himself.
When he named Robert Lafollette Bennett in 1966 as the first full blooded Indian to head the Indian Affairs Bureau in nearly a hundred years, he delivered a speech suggesting we were going to make amends for wrongs done to American Indian.
“Let’s write laws so we can remove the blush of shame that comes to our cheeks when we look at what we have done to the first Americans,” he began. The audience cheered as he ticked off wrongs to be righted.
Jim Dusenberry of the Council of Economic Advisers, rushed over and said, “Holly God, someone run over to the Budget Bureau and get Charlie Schultze. Lyndon’s going to give the country back to the Indians.”
In 1966, I was called to write remarks accepting the Robert H. Goddard Space Trophy. He shot my draft back with a note, “no news lead.” If he wanted a lead, by God, I will give him one, I thought. Though we’d been careful to not say we’d get to the Moon before Russia, I did insert: “We intend to land the first man on the surface of the moon and we intend to do it in this decade.” I thought he’d kill the line.
When I turned on the news at 1 p.m., I heard, “President Johnson has announced for the first time the U.S. will beat the Russians to the moon.” Hair stood up on the back of my neck.
Had he delivered the speech without reading it? I decided he had. Then I got a call from the chairman of the National Space Council. Did I know I had thrown the space program into chaos?
I decided the safest course was to stay out of sight. But as I was leaving at 7 p.m, Jack Valenti called me to his office next to LBJ’s. “This is it,” I thought. But Jack wanted to talk about next day’s schedule.
As I left, I sighted a tall figure in the doorway of the Oval Office. I hurried toward the elevator. But I had been seen.
“Robert,” came the booming voice. This was it. “Aren’t you even going to stop along enough to shake hands with your President?” I walked toward him, he grinned and said, “Now that’s what I call a news lead.”
He knew what he was doing all along. That “news lead” was his way of re-energizing our space effort, of building a fire under the bureaucrats.
One day speech writer Will Sparks and I were called to the Oval Office to meet a new staffer: “I wanted you to meet Bob and Will because they are the best speech writers any president could ever have.”
I thought to myself, “Well, he finally recognized the eloquence of my prose and the brilliance of my ideas.” Then he continued.
“They’re not temperamental. They don’t miss deadlines and they don’t get drunk the night before a major speech.”
In retrospect, I wouldn’t mind having that on my tombstone. If nothing else, I would be remembered as a professional – who worked for one of the greatest professionals of them all.”Edited and condensed by Bob Mann