Continuing to rely on tape recorded conversations, this chapter returns to the drama unfolding following the assassination. It describes how LBJ responded to the three challenges detailed in Chapter Two. In this critical situation, the evidence from the recordings suggests that LBJ concluded that the assassination gave the administration a new lease on congressional support. The President had an opportunity, then, to preserve this new resource by either allowing the congressional process to continue on with its regular routines. Or he could expend this new potential for congressional support on Kennedy's priority agenda items, at the moment stalled in the Congress. Consistent with the notion that the President would use such a resource in his bid to make a difference, LBJ committed his new administration to actively pursuing the Kennedy agenda. In so doing, the chapter argues, he made the administration the center of a new functioning leadership organization. He then redefined the White House organizational routine making it consistent with this new centrality, setting its pace to his own, and redefining its focus. Finally, using his constitutional position as head of state, he set a national course pulling away from the potential international disaster emanating from the assassination. The chapter concludes by arguing that the President's choices in that week illustrate a number of important elements of effectiveness. For example, how LBJ redefined the agenda emphasized the weaknesses of the congressional leadership, with its emphasis on accommodation and its reliance on a flawed system of intelligence gathering. And the manner in which the President diverted the assassination from the congressional and the public agendas illustrates the importance of the President's responsibilities as head of state. In addition, the story of creating the Warren Commission illustrates some clear examples of what the President says and does to persuade congressional leaders. (38 pages)
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From the introduction to "Inheritor"
When Liz Carpenter finally got to her home in Washington that fateful November night, she sat on her couch and dictated her thoughts into a tape recorder. One recollection of that day seemed so vivid to her then. And it seemed so apropos, even though it recalled another day. On that other day, she had traveled to Arizona with the Vice-President and Lady Bird. In the early morning, a phone call had awakened her. The caller said to wake the Johnsons and tell them that Lady Bird's brother, Tony, had suffered a heart attack. She had dutifully awakened the Johnsons and conveyed the disturbing news. Now, in her living room and alone after the Dallas tragedy, her mind settled on remembering that other event. Immediately, LBJ had taken command. From their Arizona hotel room and with the bank of phones set up in his suite, he had orchestrated doctors and seen to Tony's medical care. He had scheduled family visitors from across the country. He even had commandeered a private plane to fetch one physician the family particularly trusted, rearranging his schedule to make the consultation feasible. During that private crisis and with Lyndon furiously working the hotel phones in the background, Lady Bird had turned to Liz and uttered the perfect description of her husband. Now, sitting in her quiet house remembering the firestorm in Dallas, Carpenter recalled that description. Looking at her husband and then back to Liz, Lady Bird had simply said, "Lyndon is a good man to have in an emergency."
If Liz Carpenter could sleep that night knowing that Lyndon Johnson occupied the Presidency, what made Lyndon such a good man in this emergency? Thinking back on that crisis, many have ascribed the country's good fortune to the fact that of all the national politicians who could have become President, it had had Lyndon Johnson. They argue that LBJ had more experience in government than any other politician who could have stood in his place. Even the President would later underscore that judgment. Whenever he could, LBJ would tell a brief and seemingly unrelated story about "`Mr. Sam' and General Marshall." During the early part of World War II, when things had not gone well for America, he would begin, reporters had questioned Speaker Rayburn about General Marshall's qualifications as head of the military's Joint Chiefs. The reporters had hoped to fan a developing controversy in Washington over whether General Marshall had the qualifications to command the war effort. Knowing how Washington worked, the Speaker knew any comments he made would magnify General Marshall's immediate problems. To their queries, the Speaker had simply replied, "If General Marshall doesn't know more than I do about how to run this war, then we surely have wasted a lot of money on West Point." With this story, LBJ reminded people that he had also gone to school, 32 years of schooling in the arts and sciences of the possible. Surely that experience had served him well. Surely, LBJ had had the right background thrown into the right job at the right time.
Maybe so. On the question of experience, though, there seem a number of likely substitutes, all equally qualified, had they held the Vice-Presidency: Richard Russell from the Senate for one, Adlai Stevenson for another, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York for a third, Richard Nixon. Moreover, while LBJ had considerable experience, his trusted confidant Horace Busby noted that the Vice-President's staff at the moment of the assassination "…had minimum experience for a public role." Indeed, at that moment, LBJ did not even have Busby, himself, on the staff. As an advantage, then, one might conclude that LBJ's experience may have played a less important role than others have thought. If not just experience, though, then what else might matter?
The previous chapter identified the challenges that confronted the new President. A mosaic of congressional leaders, compromises, commitments, investigations, communists, conservatives, Texans, evidence, spies, Russia, Cuba, Hoover, Castro, Boggs, Byrd, wheat deals, cotton deals, headcounts, votes, phone calls, meetings, security, suspicion, malaise, and inertia. Each required presidential decision and each suggested a path down which the administration could proceed. Some counselors preferred following the path of least resistance, avoiding choices and leaving the issues to the vortex of congressional committees and developing events. Others, particularly within the administration, seemed to prefer the path of greatest resistance, refusing to budge on congressional demands on taxes or refusing to commit to a frontal assault on civil rights.
This chapter reviews LBJ's choices in the week following the assassination. It builds a picture, from the President's perspective, of how he addressed each challenge, again not as a history of the events but as a window on presidential discretion, on how a president chooses. It begins with the question of LBJ's talents and the advantages of the Presidency, his gifts in an emergency and the President's focus and perseverance crafting a range of choices over which he could make a difference. It then considers those choices the President took up. Critical choices defining the way the administration would conduct itself. Choices setting the range of the administration's policy ambitions. Choices that signaled its willingness to adjust to the practical situation. Together these three kinds of choices - routine, reach, and compromise - make up a significant portion of the president's discretion. Taken in conjunction with the President's style of interacting with others define how a president matters.
The Litany of Speed and Frugality
The litany he recited in rapid fire, he had picked up from Joe Barr's weekend strategy memo on the tax situation. The Barr timetable began with Byrd's promise to close hearings December 6. Then, the committee would complete markup in five days (December 9-14), draft revisions, and report the bill in a week (December 20). Barr based his litany of speed on the fact that the Committee had worked such a schedule on the 1962 tax bill. That legislation entailed more complicating factors than the current tax cut proposal. Considering that fact, Barr seemed optimistic.
LBJ took that litany, though, and added a little LBJ twist - a gibe to motivate. "Now they tell me hearings close on the 6th," he would begin. And then he would unravel the full litany of speed actually speeding up his rhythm to mirror the litany: "We've been on it for a year and if they close on the 6th, it took them 4 or 5 days to write the markup last time.... Seems to me they can take a week markup and a week to consider the amendments and a week to pass it." Then he would bring in the gibe: "It's going to look mighty bad, all these fellows writing about the Congress unable to act...." LBJ advertised the Kennedy tax bill as a test of the institution's ability to respond to crisis, to rise to challenge. Talking with congressional leaders, like Minority Leader Dirksen, whose help he would need on civil rights as well as the tax, the President underscored the stakes for the institution: "We've got an obligation to the Congress and we've just got to show that they can do something."
While he worked the congressional leadership with this litany, LBJ made sure that others would work the gibe, as well. He encouraged editorialists and publishers and businessmen and industrialists, in short everyone who would listen, to think of the congressional agenda as a test of whether the institutions of government could work. In a very lengthy conversation with Kathryn Graham, for example, the President repeatedly encouraged her to consider the administration's agenda just such a test and to press the Post editorial staff to raise the challenge in their pages. He even described the themes they should use. He encouraged them to consider reporting on the fact that when the time came to make the momentous decisions, every congressional leader had gone on holiday. LBJ had become the "only human here" to set the course of state. For her information, he ran down a litany of absenteeism: Judge Smith - on his Virginia farm, Richard Russell - gone home to Winder, Minority Leader Dirksen - Illinois, Minority Leader Halleck - hunting turkeys, Majority Leader Mansfield - on the beach, Majority Whip Humphrey - hobnobbing with union leaders in sunny Florida. Interestingly enough, the President intended that the Post make the embarrassing point about both Democratic as well as Republican leaders. The underlying commonality to his criticism -- only the President had stayed at the helm. Only the President governed. To underscore his point, the President said he considered looking into where the congressional leaders had vacationed more important than figuring out their sex lives.