Using LBJ's tape recorded conversations and internal memoranda, this chapter describes how the transition to power following the Kennedy assassination confronted the new President with three challenges. First, the suspicions swirling around the assassination undermined the mutual accommodations necessary for politicians to govern. Second, the book describes how LBJ discovered that the rhythm of congressional routine threatened to repudiate the "Kennedy legacy," and thereby damage the Johnson reputation before the administration could even get started. In addition, the chapter details how LBJ discovered that newly begun congressional investigations of the assassinations would place the nation in mortal danger, possibly invite a worldwide calamity. Third, the chapter describes the general sad state of White House organization after the assassination. The staff stood by, inert, lacking the judgment and routines necessary to address the problems facing it. The chapter concludes by arguing that each of these challenges - suspicion, malaise, inertia - underscored the significance of the President's position of constitutional dependence on others. In turn, this dependency underscored how understanding congressional policy predispositions affects leadership and how the rhythm of organizational routine pushes out a coordinating leadership. The incidents of that transition also highlight the kinds of choices LBJ faced: choices about how to conduct the business of the presidency, about how far to go in securing the Kennedy legacy and initiating a Johnson agenda, about how far to come in accommodating the interests of others, and about how to energize the Executive apparatus. (44 pages)
Return to Summary of Descriptions
Return to the Table of Contents.
From the "Reins of Power"
If you bring together a group of adults and ask them about their shared memories you can count on one thing. Not that they will recall where they were when the Berlin Wall fell, even though its falling marked the end of the Cold War, which had dominated their world history. Nor will they remember what they had been doing when the Challenger spaceship exploded during launch on nation-wide television or the night mankind set foot on the moon. At least half of them won't remember where they proposed marriage. Without doubt, though, without hesitation, and without exception they will recall where they were and even what they were doing when they heard the news - someone had shot President Kennedy. As a measure of its universal recognition, even those old enough to remember the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, even those adults will recall Kennedy first. They all know instinctively that no other event in modern times has defined American history or has revealed so much about America's political process as that one calamity. In its bright light, they know they saw the strengths and weaknesses of their government, its constitution, its singular presidency and its plural Congressional institution.
We know the public scenes - America's sense of the ordinary torn asunder that day. Grizzled police officers, hardened by the streets, nevertheless sobbing. In a parking lot at Harvard, a graduate student dodges a car. Its driver, immobilized by the radio's news, misses his regular parking spot and idly and in slow motion careens into the next car over. In America's cities, big and small, her citizens standing dazed in the streets; hushed groups outside appliance stores watching TV through the front window. And through it all, we remember the Kennedy family in its own moments of "private" tragedy - Jackie in blood-spattered pink stepping from Air Force One beside the casket of her husband, the dead President. John John's poetic salute. No one who lived through those days, however remotely associated with these scenes, survived them unchanged.
Now, we know from newly released records that behind the public scenes and in official circles the tableau appeared even more disturbing, almost apocalyptic. Those who maintained the American government found themselves in the midst of a tremendous crisis, gripped by suspicion, by malaise, and by inertia. The suspicion of a terrible conspiracy challenged the direction of government. The institutions of decision-making stood adrift in time. Every possible public impulse, including a horribly destructive rage on a global scale, seemed an imminent possibility. The potential for that rage grew as the legislative institution became the first to stir, directed as if on autopilot by its own regular order of business, its rarely idle machinery. From a presidential perspective which had already seen the horrible potential for such rage the year earlier, the legislative machinery thus stirring seemed more a danger than a comfort. The congressional leaders, trapped in an institutional malaise, appeared unable to fathom the institution's course. And those who might lend direction to its machinery or to the rest of the government stood inert, dumbfound, and drained of the spirit that had guided their activism.
This chapter plumbs the assassination crisis as it confronted President Johnson. It does so not as a history of the events but as a commentary on the character of governing. It describes three central challenges to his transition - suspicion, malaise, and inertia. As it has since the beginning the President's assassination undermined a sense of political sensibility. The evidence of conspiracy, loose and fragmented, suggested terrible possibilities, from domestic coup up to and including imminent world war. The potential complicity of domestic elements undermined confidence in the mechanisms for making policy. And the countervailing force of the Presidency seemed immovable. The chapter's story also highlights the important elements of the president's job and its place within the structure of governing - the responsibilities as head of state and chief magistrate, in building cooperation, and in creating organizational routines. These elements represent the "reins of power" President Johnson felt determined to grasp.
Hail Mary on Taxes
On the phones after the first morning, the new President began with the Kennedy tax cut, the administration's top priority. Talking with Senator George Smathers, a key member of the Senate Finance Committee, LBJ learned that the hold-up on the tax cut, Kennedy's top priority, centered around the Committee's Chair Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia and a gesture. People described Byrd as the quintessential "southern gentlemen." He even wore white suits. Harry Byrd appeared "pleasant," "charming," and most of all "courteous," they said, but they also would say, "he's in another world." As Governor of Virginia during the Great Depression, Harry Byrd had rode herd on the State legislature determined to keep the State's budget balanced. In his conception of things, the government came to no one's aide, no matter the circumstances. Critics complained he cared more for his apple orchards, to which he would regularly escape, than he did for the poor of his State or any other. In Virginia, and for decades, liberals refused to buy apples fearing that they would inadvertently support Byrd's orchards. Hoping to build some kind of a working relationship with him, though, President Kennedy had made a surprise pilgrimage, helicoptering out to the Byrd farm to see the precious apples. Larry O'Brien had made the same visit repeatedly and he characterized Kennedy's relationship with Byrd as, "persistent, pleasant but unproductive." Byrd stood as the bulwark, protecting the conservative virtues of the rural, white South. He lived in another century and he dedicated himself to protecting it and preserving its heritage.
Earlier in the fall, Byrd began what threatened to become interminable hearings on the Kennedy tax cut, with the apparent goal of considering the President's bill to death. In collusion with Byrd, Senator Albert Gore, Sr. of Tennessee, rounded up dozens of witnesses to parade before the committee. In September, when he and President Kennedy reviewed the Senate situation, O'Brien recounted an earlier meeting in which Gore had predicted their efforts would make it so difficult that the administration "won't even be able to function at the end of the year!"
Byrd's ability to tie his committee in knots, however, derived not simply from the procedural difficulties that he could generate as chair. Over the weekend, Assistant Secretary Henry Fowler, Fowler's assistant Joseph Barr, and Senator Smathers had worked to clarify the strategic situation. In two memos on Monday, the day of the state funeral, they summarized the situation for Dillon and through him for the President. Out of the seventeen on the Senate Committee, only four really opposed the tax cut on substantive grounds: Byrd, Gore, Williams, and Curtis. Senator Bennett waffled. Byrd's procedural maneuvers worked because they magnified the individual objectives of the other twelve members, who saw personal policy advantages in Byrd's stalling tactics. Like Gore, others of the twelve saw a delayed tax bill as leverage over civil rights. Some saw the delay as leverage for programmatic promises - Senator Ribicoff, for one, wanted support for his tuition tax credit scheme. He told Smathers and the White House should consider him as "deadly serious" in making his demands. Still others wanted to undermine the administration's expected mass transit legislation or its expected federal subsidies for public education, etc..
Chairman Byrd's opposition derived from a strategic problem as well. He surely recognized the political appeal of the tax cut in an election year. If Senators saw his stalling tactics as an untoward attempt to block their credit with voters for lowering taxes, then, his general tactics might pose a threat to his own Senate position. But, in lowering taxes Byrd ran into his political history - he had to avoid responsibility for financing any increase in the national debt. His committee, however, had jurisdiction over only one side of the budget - it only controlled the tax cut side of the equation. Spending came under the control of others. Hence his proposed gesture. To avoid responsibility for debt, Byrd required a promise from the administration to propose a budget in 1964 that totaled under 100 billion dollars. Byrd reasoned that such a promise would prevent others from identifying his committee's tax reduction with the host of spending increases anticipated as part of Kennedy's New Frontier programs.
Of course, a real spending cap required just the kind of coordination difficult to come by in the congressional system of accommodation. It required bringing to heel the two Committees on Appropriations. The House and Senate Committees adamantly protected their own jurisdictions and would not look kindly to such pressures from another committee. And members would respect Appropriation's insistence on the sanctity of its jurisdiction, on its own merits. Additionally, members would respect the resistance because it involved the Appropriations Committees. "They all have their projects in over here," one Appropriations member would say menacingly when asked about the Committee's sources of influence, "and they all know what we can do with them." Given this strategic situation, the White House became the only likely target for Byrd's scheme. As he had done as Governor, Byrd expected that if the President's budget would propose the required cuts that would seem less intrusive into Appropriation's jurisdiction. In short, then, the only way for the administration to get its tax cut out of Byrd's grasp required the President not only to cross over the constitutional boundary between Executive and Legislative Branches, but it also required White House collusion in violating the jurisdiction and prerogatives of congressional committees. Smathers reported to LBJ Byrd wanted the President to propose a federal budget for the next fiscal year containing less spending than the administration had planned for. Kennedy had refused to generate such an estimate or make such a commitment.
Kennedy had a strategic problem, too. While taking testimony from Kennedy's Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon on August 13, House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (Byrd's counterpart in the House) had broached this 100 billion dollar gesture as a quid pro quo for the tax cut. The administration seemed taken aback by the idea. Later that day, at a strategy review, Dillon reported to the President:
[Mills] said that [the estimates] should never be above 100 billion dollars or we'd be in bad trouble. ...[T]he real point is that we heard that, ah... the other day, speaking to some Democratic congressmen from... conservative congressmen from Virginia, ah... he indicated that it might be useful, if after the House passed the tax bill, if ah... Senator Byrd, ah... ah... delayed final action on it in the Senate until after your budget went up in January so that, ah... he could see that, ah... you haven't, ah... proposed to spend too much money in 1965.Dillon's report set off an immediate, critical review of administration strategy. In effect, this emergency review had set in concrete the Kennedy administration's response to the strategic situation on the tax cut.
At that meeting's climax, Kennedy decided to continue with estimates between 101.5 and 103 billion dollars rather than commit to the smaller figure proposed by Byrd and Mills. His strategy rested on two points: the one a conundrum and the other a prayer. When it had first developed its 1965 expenditure projections during the summer of 1963, the Kennedy staff had parsed out the changing federal budget into the biggest winners and losers. Agriculture dominated the losing side with declines totaling $700 million. Sensing something afoot, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman had made himself a pest trying at every turn to insert his participation in White House budget deliberations. On the winning side: space dominated with a $1.5 billion increase, followed by defense and military assistance. Then came Health, Education, and Welfare at $500 million and Labor at $350 million. Of these last two, totaling around $850 million, both HEW's and Labor's increases derived exclusively from anticipated additions to civil rights enforcement. Kermit Gordon, the President's Budget Director, explained that in devising its plans the Bureau of the Budget had simply taken any program that seemed doomed in 1964 (like the civil rights program) and had carried that program over into the 1965 projections, assuming then that the program would pass eventually. In effect, Budget's projections had created a conundrum tying the President's top priority tax cut to the civil rights program.
This budget strategy came as a complete surprise to Kennedy and his White House operatives, though the Treasury staffers and the President's Council of Economic Advisors who attended the meeting seemed aware of the assumption and its implication for the tax cut. As this connection to the budget became more apparent in the meeting, Kennedy made a strategic decision. Instead of questioning whether Budget's assumptions seemed reasonable, Kennedy asked rhetorically, "...now how can we hold this so that it won't seem, you know, a struggle all fall?" In effect, then, he ratified Budget's conundrum. The President then answered his own rhetorical question: "Just gonna have to keep everybody in separate compartments on this...." he said. Obviously, Kennedy did not want to complicate further the policy connections between his top priority issue and civil rights. So many had already complicated these connections with so many other policies. But, in effect, Kennedy had done just exactly that. He had set in concrete the connection between the two.
The new connection in planning between these two issues could easily make it impossible to get either passed through the Congress. Civil rights, in particular, had a way of dealing a blow to the administration at every turn. In some ways, given their experiences with civil rights as an issue, it seemed quite reasonable to try and avoid connecting that experience with the tax cut. At that specific moment, acquiescing to Budget's agenda of assumptions, President Kennedy decided they would adopt a tactical way out of the conundrum they faced. Instead of explicitly linking civil rights to the tax cut and hence necessarily limiting themselves on civil rights and possibly scuttling the tax cut entirely, Kennedy decided to pin his hopes on a tried and true politician's ploy - "assume a miracle." They would keep quiet on the linkage and they would keep quiet on a commitment for a lower budget and they would wait until the winds miraculously changed. Kennedy summarized his "Hail Mary" strategy at the meeting's conclusion: by waiting for House passage, the administration would receive a benign current of "...public pressure on the Senate, business pressure to act." "...Enough, ah... alarm signs in the wind," the President said, to force a favorable Senate reaction that would free the tax cut from Byrd's committee. Hence, Kennedy conjured up an undeniable public pressure in order to avoid violating his basic premise about maintaining distance from the congressional process and to avoid limiting the connection with civil rights. As often happens when counting on it, the miracle made no appearance. House passage of the tax cut came and went on September 24th, and still the Senate Committee deliberations wended on. Not even a public breeze arose to push Byrd's Committee for an early decision. No miracle. Byrd had succeeded. Kennedy's strategy of waiting and hoping had fizzled. Now, on that Saturday in November, LBJ came to face the results of being one of those left in separate compartments while Kennedy had assumed a miracle.