The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part 11


Leading up to 1960 Lyndon Johnson wanted to become president of the United States, but for some reason didn’t want to be seen seeking the nomination. He had assembled a team to help him, but then refused to enter any primaries. His friends and allies kept urging him to run, but he wouldn’t do so publicly.
One reason may have been that he was a Southerner, and feared the reception he would get in the North. He was also always a secretive man, more comfortable with working behind the scenes than out in public, though he was also a very able campaigner. Another part of his reluctance may have been that he underestimated what turned out to be his main competition.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was arguably the most handsome of all the presidents, and his wife Jacqueline arguably the most beautiful of the president’s wives. I remember his campaign, though I was too young to understand the issues to any extent, and also too young to fall under the spell of “Camelot”. I found out more about the Kennedys in later years, but since I was less interested in them than many, there were a lot of things I didn’t know, and about John in particular.
Lyndon Johnson dismissed him as a weakling, which on the surface he was, during the 1940s and much of the 1950s. Johnson was usually a very accurate reader of men, but in this case he hadn’t taken the time to look beneath Kennedy’s surface.
Sometime in the years since, I had read that he had Addison’s disease, a failure of the adrenal glands, but didn’t know the symptoms. One was (unsurprising in a disease of the adrenals) was that he appeared fatigued most of the time. What I didn’t know was that the disease also gave him GI symptoms: frequent nausea and vominting, which didn’t improve his energy level, and made him look like a boy because he couldn’t gain weight. On top of that, he wasn’t accurately diagnosed for TWELVE YEARS!
Add to that a severe back injury, for which he had to wear a corset, and you have the picture of a man with every excuse not to pursue a career. But John Kennedy never complained, and always tried. He should never have been a member of the armed forces, because of his physical condition, but got a position because of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy (who had, among numerous other things, been ambassador to England), and after becoming commanding officer of PT109, became a genuine hero when his boat was attacked and badly damaged by the Japanese. Kennedy did everything he could, successfully, to save the men who were left, including swimming long distances. That must have tried his back, but so did the kind of vessel he served on, which provided a very bumpy ride.
John Kennedy’s father Joseph had had a plan for his sons. His oldest, Joseph Jr, he planned to make president. John was expected to be a writer. But Joseph was killed during the war, and John showed an unexpected talent for politics. During the war, his conversation was frequently about political problems, and it became obvious that he thought about politics often and deeply. He wasn’t so sure about campaigning, but made the effort, and discovered that not only could he light up a room, but was both witty and able to think on his feet. He won his first campaign, and entered the House of Representatives.
He didn’t do anything outstanding there, largely because his illness was still undiagnosed, but was able to run successfully for the Senate a few years later. By that time his illness had finally been diagnosed, he had started treatment with regular doses of cortisone (later switching to cortisol), had finally been able to gain weight, and live a far more normal life. He wasn’t outstanding as a Senator either, but in this case it may have had more to do with his desire to avoid taking unpopular stands that might foreclose his further ambition. He too wanted to be president.
Despite their very different backgrounds, he and Johnson had more in common than appeared on the surface. Both were strong men (Kennedy deceptively so) who had had to struggle. Johnson was more robust than Kennedy, but had also had health problems. Kennedy, of course, had the advantage of family wealth (though Johnson by this time had become wealthy), and also the advantage of two brothers who were politically astute, and worked hard for him.
Robert Kennedy was the runt of the family, and also had to struggle, first for the attention of his father, who didn’t immediately see his qualities, and also to get through college and law school. He wasn’t a natural scholar as John was, passing with only mediocre grades. His most notable characteristic as a young man was his determination, which often manifested as meanness.
At one point, during college or law school, he was celebrating his birthday in a restaurant, and one of his classmates was celebrating his too. Robert hit him over the head with a bottle. His father said (probably not about this incident) that he had begun to respect Robert because they both hated in the same way: neither would easily forgive.
Robert’s first encounter with Lyndon Johnson was in the early 1950s when he was working for Senator Joe McCarthy, who had made a name for himself through allegations of Communism throughout the government. This is an aspect of his career many of the people who later idolized him either didn’t know, or didn’t care to remember. At the time, he agreed with McCarthy about the menace of Communism.
He first met Johnson in the Congressional dining room. Johnson had become master of the Senate by this time, so had a lot of status. Kennedy didn’t, and he had disliked Johnson before they met, because Johnson was critical of both his father and brother. Johnson shook hands with all the group around McCarthy, but Robert didn’t want to shake his hand. Johnson virtually forced him to, looming over him (Johnson was both a tall and big man) until Robert shook his hand. Neither liked each other. Someone compared it to two strange dogs meeting: whatever the rational explanations, the dislike was visceral, and set up a pretty bizarre drama later on.
By the late 1950s Robert Kennedy had garnered some respect, having served on John McClellan’s anti-organized crime committee, and having acquired a great dislike for Jimmy Hoffa, whom he was determined to put in prison. That took a number of years, but eventually he was successful.
After trying for the vice presidential nomination, and failing, John F. Kennedy’s organization began setting up an organization to elect him president in 1960; his father’s money came in handy here, but so did his own political ability, and that of his brothers Robert and Edward. Edward (Ted) Kennedy was only just beginning in politics, but showed ability there too, as John and Robert did. Their campaign organization was very effective.
Johnson had an effective campaign organization too, but wasn’t letting it function, apparently because of ambivalence about his presidential goal, and his preference for operating in the background. He thought that no Democrat would be able to gain a commanding lead, and the national convention would be deadlocked, where he could become a compromise candidate. By the time he began campaigning nationwide, he found that the Kennedys had usually been there first, and had locked up a lot of the votes he needed. This became evident when the convention began, and Kennedy was able to win the nomination pretty easily. That set up the beginning of the drama that the relationship between the Kennedys and Johnson would have.
Once Kennedy had the nomination the question became who would be vice president. Most people in Washington thought the job of vice president was a miserable one. The vice president might preside over the Senate, but couldn’t really exercise power there. He had no real power of his own, and usually had mostly ceremonial duties the president was too busy to perform. Sam Rayburn wanted Johnson to be president, but not vice president, exactly for those reasons, and urged Johnson not to accept the office if it was offered. But Johnson had been calculating, and explained his calculations to Rayburn. Johnson also said that “power is where power goes.” He expected to be able to exercise power as vice president because of who he was and the relationships he’d built up.
If he didn’t take his chance now, he might not have another until 1968, when Kennedy was through with the White House. Being vice president would keep him in the public eye and give him a chance at the presidency when it was his turn. And men in his family tended to die relatively young, of heart trouble. Johnson was 52 in 1960, had already had a major heart attack, and would be 60 in 1968. He also noted that a number of presidents had died in office, with their vice presidents succeeding. His chance might be slim, but he had gambled before, and won. He decided it was worth gambling again.
John Kennedy did indeed ask Johnson to become vice president. He knew that he was weak in the South, and needed someone who could bring in Southern votes. Johnson agreed in principle, and this is where the drama began to kick in. Robert Kennedy may or may not have known that his brother wanted Johnson as vice president, but he vehemently disagreed. The day the vice presidency was offered Johnson was meeting with John Kennedy and Sam Rayburn, among others. In the midst of these meetings, Robert Kennedy came to see him to urge him to withdraw from the ticket. Several times. We can imagine that Johnson wasn’t exactly thrilled with Robert’s antagonism, but John Kennedy reaffirmed that he did want Johnson, and Johnson accepted.
It was a good thing for Kennedy that he did. Southerners were suspicious of politicians from Kennedy’s part of the country anyway, and were more inclined to be suspicious at a time when the civil rights movement was inflaming passions. When Johnson first went to Texas to campaign, in his first stop there was a crowd calling him a traitor. He faced the crowd, and the next day the attitude towards him had changed. He campaigned hard all over the South, and Robert Caro says that though charges of crooked elections subsequently centered around Illinois, especially Chicago, there was a lot of shady business in south Texas too. The election was very close, but Kennedy won, and he probably wouldn’t have won without Johnson. Johnson felt like an important member of the team.
That feeling didn’t last. Johnson had expected to retain some power in the Senate, even though he was no long Majority Leader, but had either forgotten or not realized how jealous the Senate and individual Senators were of its and their status. He was no longer on the inside, so he wasn’t included in what was happening.
He also wasn’t much included in what the administration was doing. Robert Kennedy didn’t like him, and probably both Kennedys thought he was a power-grabber, and resolved to keep him away from any sources of power. Johnson may have tried to intimidate John Kennedy, but found that Kennedy didn’t easily intimidate.
Johnson was included in some of the deliberations on the Cuban missile crisis, but was among the people who wanted an armed response to the Russian missiles being set up in Cuba. Robert Kennedy was on the other side of the question, wanting to neither show weakness, nor make mistakes that could launch a nuclear war. His brother agreed with that stance, and sent several messages to Russia and Khruschev to indicate that the US was willing to negotiate, but only within limits. They gave Khruschev and the other Russians time to think about the consequences of their actions, and the Russians also decided the risks were too great. That was probably the greatest of the Kennedy administration’s accomplishments.
Through the rest of Kennedy’s presidency Johnson became depressed. He was a man used to exercising power, but now had no power to exercise. He was excluded from the Senate, which had been his kingdom, and excluded from the administration he had helped put in power. He was very different from the other people the Kennedys had gathered around them: people who had gone to Ivy League schools, studied literature and art. Johnson knew nothing about those things, and acutely felt the third-rate education (at best) he had obtained at his college. The northeastern culture of the Kennedy White house was at the opposite extreme from Johnson’s Southwestern culture. Johnson tried to make it look like he was a presence at the White House, and frequently consulted, but not many were fooled. When he was interviewed, now infrequently, he said he was Kennedy’s firmest supporter, and that he just wanted to be the best vice president he could be.
A recent article focused on Johnson’s relationship with Robert Kennedy, how toxic it was, and how much better it could conceivably have been. Both men had negative sides, expressed in meanness and arrogance, and they evoked those negative sides in each other. But each had a positive side as well. After Robert Kennedy married and had become successful, a much more positive side of him emerged, an idealistic and moral side. It was primarily he who had influenced the president to forebear, and not make a hasty response to Russia during the Cuban crisis, and he also increasingly felt strongly about civil rights. After his father had a stroke, and could no longer talk, Robert Kennedy, with some difficulty, saw him almost daily, spent time with him, fed him, talked to him. He was the Kennedy always there when needed.
Both Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were tough men, but also compassionate men. Johnson usually kept his compassion buried beneath his ambition and arrogance, but it was there. And the thing he had that neither Kennedy had was the ability to get legislation passed. If he and Robert Kennedy could have gotten along, he might have made the Kennedy administration a lot more effective than it was. Unfortunately, that never happened.


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