George W. Bush, at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, April 10, 2014
Man, I have to admit that I sure am enjoying George W. Bush more-and-more as a former President — and not just because he is no longer President.
Andrew Johnson wasn’t winning any congeniality contests. But we might have to give the award to Benjamin Harrison, who was nicknamed the “human iceberg” and Theodore Roosevelt (who was appointed to the Civil Service Commission by President Harrison) said of Harrison, “Damn the President! He is a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician!” And TR was a SUPPORTER of Harrison’s! William Howard Taft, another supporter who was appointed U.S. Solicitor General by Harrison, said of him, “The President is not popular with the members of either house [of Congress]. His manner of treating them is not at all fortunate, and when they have an interview with him, they generally come away mad.”
(“Obviously”? You must have read a history book that I mercifully skipped. I must admit that this isn’t an area of expertise for me. However, it’s worth noting that LBJ had a name for his: “Jumbo”. And once, while taking a leak outside on his ranch a friend asked LBJ, “Aren’t you afraid a rattlesnake is going to bite it?” LBJ responded, “Hell, it IS part rattlesnake.”)
I doubt it would have made much of a difference. Truman and LBJ were Democrats and would have distanced themselves from Nixon — particularly Truman, who hated Nixon (“Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in,” is just one of the many things Truman said about Nixon). Even though Eisenhower and Nixon had grown closer personally towards the end of Ike’s life (helped in part by the marriage of Nixon’s daughter to Eisenhower’s grandson), I imagine the General would have kept his distance, too, had he been alive during Watergate. Although all three of those Presidents you mentioned (Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ) taped phone conversations and some meetings in the White House, they didn’t cover up crimes while being taped. Had any other Presidents been alive at the time, I don’t think it would have helped Nixon.
In fact, it might have hurt him even more. It might have been a case where one or all of those former Presidents spoke out and said, “Hey, you are tarnishing the office of the Presidency and you need to go,” and it would have dealt Nixon a devastating blow. After all, it wasn’t until Republican leaders of Congress came to the White House and told Nixon that they couldn’t support him and that he was going to be impeached that he finally stepped down. Had Truman, Eisenhower, or LBJ been alive, they might have had the gravitas to nudge him out of office even more quickly.
By the way, LBJ had some prophetic words in 1969 after Nixon was inaugurated as President: ”I may not know much, but I know chicken shit from chicken salad…(Nixon’s) like a Spanish horse who runs faster than anyone for the first nine lengths and then turns around and runs backwards. You’ll see — he’ll do something wrong in the end. He always does.”
Our enemies have always made the same mistake. In my lifetime — in depression and in war — they have awaited our defeat. Each time, from the secret places of the American heart, came forth the faith they could not see or that they could not even imagine. It brought us victory. And it will again. For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965
I now know the difference between a cactus and a caucus — in a cactus, all the pricks are on the outside.
Lyndon B. Johnson, to reporters, after meeting with the Senate’s Democratic Caucus following LBJ’s election as Vice President, January 1961
As a Southerner, I am happy to know that a fellow Southerner is in the White House who is concerned about civil rights…LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that LBJ seemed far more willing to fight for civil rights than JFK ever had, following a one-on-one meeting with President Johnson less than two weeks after the Kennedy Assassination
The Presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.
Lyndon B. Johnson
No President ever came to this office on a platform of doing what was wrong. Most of us have made decisions that were wrong. But every man who ever occupied this office, or sat at this desk, or reclined in this chair, has been dedicated to doing what he believed was for the best interest of the people of this country. I am utterly convinced that any man who takes the oath of office as President is determined to do right, as God gives him the wisdom to know the right.
Most people come into office with great dreams and they leave it with many satisfactions and some disappointments, and always some of their dreams have not come true. I’m no exception. But I am so grateful and so proud that I have had my chance. And as to how successful we’ve been in doing the greatest good for the greatest number, the people themselves, and their posterity, must ultimately decide.
Lyndon B. Johnson, October 1968
[Senator Fulbright] is a revolving son of a bitch. You know what a revolving son of a bitch is, don’t you? That’s a son of a bitch any way you look at him.
Lyndon B. Johnson, on Senator William Fulbright, according to George Christian
Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Neither of them were the two men who actually served as President on that tragic day — John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson.
The 37th President of the United States, 50-year-old Richard Nixon, had arrived in Dallas on November 20th for a conference of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages on behalf of Pepsi-Cola, a company that his New York law firm was representing. On November 21st, Nixon sat down with reporters in his room at the Baker Hotel, where he criticized many of the policies of President Kennedy, his 1960 opponent, who would be arriving in Dallas the next day. That night, Nixon and Pepsi executives including actress Joan Crawford, who had been married to Pepsi’s chairman, Alfred Steele, until his death in 1959, were entertained at the Statler Hilton.
In the early morning of November 22nd, a car dropped Nixon off, alone, at Love Field, the Dallas airport that would host President and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife in just a few hours. Nixon later remembered the flags and signs displayed along the motorcade route that Kennedy would soon follow. Nixon approached the American Airlines ticket counter to check-in for his flight to New York City and told the attendant, “It looks like you’re going to have a big day today.”
Nixon landed several hours later in New York at an airport that would be renamed after John F. Kennedy a month later. He described what happened next in his 1978 autobiography, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon:
Arriving in New York, I hailed a cab home. We drove through Queens toward the 59th Street Bridge, and as we stopped at a traffic light, a man rushed over from the curb and started talking to the driver. I heard him say, “Do you have a radio in your cab? I just heard that Kennedy was shot.” We had no radio, and as we continued into Manhattan a hundred thoughts rushed through my mind. The man could have been crazy or a macabre prankster. He could have been mistaken about what he had heard; or perhaps a gunman might have shot at Kennedy but missed or only wounded him. I refused to believe that he could have been killed.
As the cab drew up in front of my building, the doorman ran out. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Oh, Mr. Nixon, have you heard, sir?” he asked. “It’s just terrible. They’ve killed President Kennedy.”
The close 1960 Presidential election changed the relationship between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, but they had once been very close. When they first entered Congress together in 1947, they considered each other personal friends, and when Nixon ran for the Senate from California in 1950, JFK stopped into Nixon’s office and dropped off a financial contribution to Nixon’s campaign from Kennedy’s father. Nixon would later write that he felt as bad on the night of Kennedy’s assassination as he had when he lost two brothers to tuberculosis when he was very young. That night, he wrote an emotional letter to Jacqueline Kennedy:
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, the 41st President of the United States also woke up in Dallas, Texas. George Herbert Walker Bush was the 39-year-old president of the Zapata Off-Shore Drilling Company and chairman of the Harris County, Texas Republican Party, and had stayed the night of November 21st at the Dallas Sheraton alongside his wife, Barbara. Bush was planning a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and making the rounds to line up support amongst many Texans who considered him far too moderate. One of the groups that was strongest in opposition to Bush was the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, which had recently been lodging vehement protests against President Kennedy’s upcoming visit to Dallas.
Conspiracy theorists claim that there were far more sinister motives for George Bush being in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Some claim that Bush was a secret CIA operative involved in planning or even carrying out the assassination of President Kennedy. Some even argue that a grainy photograph of a man resembling Bush taken shortly after the assassination proves that Bush was actually in Dealey Plaza at the time of Kennedy’s shooting.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t even in Dallas. We know where George Herbert Walker Bush was at the time of JFK’s assassination — we have plenty of eyewitnesses who can confirm it. While Lee Harvey Oswald was shooting President Kennedy, George Bush was about 100 miles away from Dallas, in Tyler, Texas, speaking at a Kiwanis Club luncheon. Like Nixon, Bush and his wife, Barbara, had also boarded a plane that morning in Dallas — a private plane that transported them to Tyler for the Kiwanis Club event. While Bush was speaking, word of the President’s assassination reached the luncheon and the local club president, Wendell Cherry, leaned over and gave the news to Bush. Bush quickly notified the crowd, and said, “In view of the President’s death, I consider it inappropriate to continue with a political speech at this time.” He ended his speech and sat down while the luncheon broke up in stunned silence.
Bush’s wife, Barbara, wasn’t at the Kiwanis Club luncheon. While her husband was speaking, Barbara Bush went to a beauty parlor in Tyler to get her hair styled. As her hair was being done, Barbara began writing a letter to family and heard the news over the radio that JFK had been shot and then that the President had died. In her 1994 memoir, Barbara included the letter, part of which said:
I am writing this at the Beauty Parlor, and the radio says that the President has been shot. Oh Texas — my Texas — my God — let’s hope it’s not true. I am sick at heart as we all are. Yes, the story is true and the Governor also. How hateful some people are.
Since, the beauty parlor, the President has died. We are once again on a plane. This time a commercial plane. Poppy (George H.W. Bush’s family nickname) picked me up at the beauty parlor — we went right to the airport, flew to Ft. Worth and dropped Mr. Zeppo off (we were on his plane) and flew back to Dallas. We had to circle the field while the second Presidential plane took off. Immediately, Pop got tickets back to Houston, and here we are flying home. We are sick at heart. The tales the radio reporters tell of Jackie Kennedy are the bravest. We are hoping that it is not some far-right nut, but a “commie” nut. You understand that we know they are both nuts, but just hope that it is not a Texan and not an American at all.
I am amazed by the rapid-fire thinking and planning that has already been done. LBJ has been the President for some time now — two hours at least and it is only 4:30.
My dearest love to you all,
As Barbara Bush noted in her letter, the Bushes did not stay another night at the Dallas Sheraton on November 22nd, as they had originally planned. They returned to Dallas on the private jet that had transported them to Tyler earlier in the day, and caught a commercial flight home to Houston. The “second Presidential plane” that took off while Bush’s plane circled Love Field was the plane that had transported Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to Dallas earlier that day, Air Force Two. Johnson was already heading back to Washington, now on Air Force One, with the casket of John F. Kennedy.
The 37th President of the United States and the 41st President of the United States woke up in Dallas, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963. The 31st President, 89-year-old Herbert Hoover, was in failing health in the elegant suite he called home at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Within the next few weeks, he would be visited by the new President, Lyndon Johnson, and President Kennedy’s grieving widow, Jackie, and the President’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The 33rd President, 79-year-old Harry Truman, learned of JFK’s death in Missouri, while the 34th President, 73-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, heard of the assassination while attending a meeting at the United Nations in New York. Truman and Eisenhower would squash a long, bitter personal feud that weekend while attending Kennedy’s funeral in Washington. The 38th President, 50-year-old Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, was driving home with his wife Betty after attending a parent conference with their son Jack’s teacher when they heard the news on the radio in their car. Two days later, President Johnson would call on Ford to serve on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination.
The 39th President, Jimmy Carter was 39 years old and had just gotten off a tractor near the warehouse of his Plains, Georgia peanut farm when a group of farmers informed him of the news of the shooting. Carter found a quiet area, kneeled down in prayer, and when he heard that Kennedy had died, cried for the first time since his father had died ten years earlier. Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, was 52 years old and preparing for a run as Governor of California. A little more than 17 years later, the now-President Reagan would also be shot by a lone gunman in the middle of the day. While Reagan would survive the attempt on his life, it was very nearly fatal and reminded his wife, Nancy, of November 22, 1963. As she was transported to George Washington Hospital following Reagan’s shooting, Nancy would later note, “As my mind raced, I flashed to scenes of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas, and the day President Kennedy was shot. I had been driving down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles when a bulletin came over the car radio. Now, more than seventeen years later, I prayed that history would not be repeated, that Washington would not become another Dallas. That my husband would live.”
The 41st President, Bill Clinton, and the 43rd President, George W. Bush, were both 17 years old and in school — Bush at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Clinton at Hot Springs High School in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Clinton was in his fourth period calculus class when his teacher was called out of the room and returned to announce that President Kennedy had been killed. Four months earlier, Clinton had traveled to Washington with the Boys Nation program and, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, pushed his way to the front of the line and shook President Kennedy’s hand. The 44th President, Barack Obama, was a 2-year-old living in Hawaii.
The 35th President, 46-year-old John F. Kennedy, would die in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson, 55, would become the 36th President in Dallas that day. But they woke up that morning in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel. Kennedy had slept the last night of his life in suite 850 on the eighth floor, now the Presidential suite. LBJ had slept the last night of his Vice Presidency in the much more expensive and elegant Will Rogers Suite on the thirteenth floor. The Secret Service had vetoed the Will Rogers Suite for the President because it was more difficult to secure. It was raining in Fort Worth as they woke up, but the skies had cleared by the time they landed in Dallas. Before breakfast, President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally headed outside and briefly addressed a crowd that had gathered long before the sun had come up in hopes of seeing JFK. Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t accompany them outside and President Kennedy joked to the crowd, “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes her a little longer but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it.”
Afterward, they headed inside for breakfast in the Texas Hotel’s Grand Ballroom with several hundred guests. The President sent for Mrs. Kennedy to join them, and her late arrival to the breakfast excited the guests in the ballroom. When the President spoke to the group, he joked again, “Two years ago I introduced myself in Paris as the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.” Then he noted, “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”
When the breakfast ended, the Kennedys headed upstairs and had an hour or so to wait before heading to the airport for the short flight to Dallas. It was during this time that Jackie Kennedy saw a hateful ad placed in that morning’s Dallas Morning News accusing President Kennedy of collusion with Communists and treasnous activity. Trying to calm Jackie down, the President joked, “Oh, we’re heading into nut country today.” But a few minutes later, Jackie overheard Kennedy telling his aide, Ken O’Donnell, “It would not be a very difficult job to shoot the President of the United States. All you’d have to do is get up in a high building with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, and there’s nothing anybody can do.”
Even though the trip from Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas’s Love Field would only take thirteen minutes by air, the trip to Texas was first-and-foremost a political trip — a kickoff of sorts to JFK’s 1964 re-election campaign — and a grand entrance was needed. So, JFK and Jackie boarded the plane usually used as Air Force One, LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson boarded the plane usually used by the Vice President, Air Force Two, and the huge Presidential party took to the skies, covering thirty miles in thirteen minutes, in order to get the big Dallas welcome that they were hoping for. They landed in Dallas at 11:40 AM, and President Kennedy looked out the window of his plane, saw a big, happy crowd, and told Ken O’Donnell, “This trip is turning out to be terrific. Here we are in Dallas, and it looks like everything in Texas is going to be fine for us.”
At 2:47 PM — just three hours and seven minutes later — everyone was back on Air Force One as the plane climbed off of the Love Field runway and into the Dallas sky. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President, was in a casket wedged into a space in the rear of Air Force One where two rows of seats had been removed so that it would be fit. Lyndon B. Johnson had officially been sworn in as the 36th President about ten minutes earlier on the plane by federal judge Sarah T. Hughes. On one side of Johnson while he took the oath was his wife, Lady Bird, and on the other side, the widowed former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a pink dress splattered with her husband’s blood and brain matter.
Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — but they weren’t in town when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, no matter how many ways conspiracy theorists try to twist the story. The President who died in Dallas that day, John F. Kennedy, and the man who became President in Dallas that day, Lyndon B. Johnson, woke up in Fort Worth on the morning of November 22, 1963. But they’ll be forever linked with Dallas — and the world that woke up the next morning would never be the same again.
From the always-awesome LBJ Library, here’s a transcript of the phone call between LBJ and Lady Bird that I mentioned in the last post. (There is audio of this call that is out there, too.)
Lady Bird Evaluates LBJ’s Performance After a Press Conference
3/7/1964 - 4:10PM
Lady Bird Grades the President’s Press Conference
Lady Bird: You want to listen for about one minute to—
LBJ: Yes, ma’am.
Lady Bird: —my critique, or would you rather wait until tonight?
LBJ: Yes, ma’am. I’m willing now.
Lady Bird: I thought that you looked strong, firm, and like a reliable guy. Your looks were splendid. The close-ups were much better than the distance ones.
LBJ: Well, you can’t get them to do it—
Lady Bird: Well, I will say this: there were more close-ups than there were distance ones. During the statement you were a little breathless. And there was too much looking down. And I think it was a little too fast. Not enough change of pace. Drop in voice at the end of sentence. There was a considerable pickup in drama and interest when the questioning began. Your voice was noticeably better and your facial expressions noticeably better.
Lady Bird: I think the outstanding things were that the close-ups were excellent. You need to learn—when you’re going to have a prepared text, you need to have the opportunity to study it a little bit more and to read it with a little more conviction, and interest, and change of pace because—
LBJ: [talking over each other] Well, the trouble is that they criticize you for taking so much time; they want to use it all for questions. Then their questions don’t produce any news, and if you don’t give them news, you catch hell. So my problem was trying to get through before ten minutes. And I still ran ten minutes today.
Lady Bird: Mm-hm.
LBJ: And I took a third of it for the questions, and I could have taken, if I’d read it like I wanted to, fifteen minutes.
Lady Bird: Mm-hm.
LBJ: But I didn’t know what to cut out. Maybe I ought to cut out Mary’s [Lasker] Heart [Cancer, Stroke Committee members] name[s], but I thought that every place one of those names was dropped they’d call up the fellow and ask him about it, and he’d get his name in the paper and then publicize it good, and it would help the committee.
Lady Bird: Mm-hm. I believe if I’d had that choice I would have said use thirteen minutes—or fourteen for the statement. In general, I’d say it was a good B+. How do you feel about it?
LBJ: I thought it was much better than last week.
Lady Bird: Well, I heard last week, see, and didn’t see it and didn’t hear all of it. And, at any rate, I felt sort of on safe ground [sigh]. I mean, like you had sort of gotten over a hump psychologically and in other ways. It’ll be interesting to hear everybody else’s reaction.