Hey, hey, LBJ: How many journalists did you tape today?

Hey, hey, LBJ: How many journalists did you tape today?

Cooper, Gloria



591 PP., $30

It’s the Monday morning of John F Kennedy’s funeral, and the new occupant of the Oval Office is on the phone with Joseph Alsop, leaning on the powerful Washington Post columnist to oppose his paper’s editorial call for a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the assassination in Dallas (the president prefers that the inquiry be handled by the state of Texas and the FBI). A few days later Jesse Kellam, general manager of the president’s broadcasting company in Texas, calls to let him know that The Boston Globe is looking into the family’s business holdings (which present a potential conflict of interest in future FCC appointments), as well as to offer a couple of tips on improving his TV image (consider rimless glasses and go easy on the hair oil). That Sunday evening, the president phones Walter Lippmann, the Washington Post columnist of unparalleled influence, and invites himself over for a drink. The following morning he appeals to Katharine Graham, recently installed head of The Washington Post, to put the squeeze on congressional opponents of his civil rights bill by running embarrassing stories about their vacations. “They’re not working now! And they are not passing anything! And they are not going to!,” the frustrated president complains to Graham. “So I’d like for them [the Post editors] to be asking these fellows, `Where did you spend your Thanksgiving holidays? Tell me about it, was it warm and nice?’ And write a little story on it.”

And that’s just the first week. As becomes increasingly clear in Taking Charge, the riveting transcripts of White House conversations secretly recorded by President Lyndon B. Johnson during his first nine months in office, the press was a palpable presence in LBJ’s world, almost as close to the center of his consciousness as the threat of Bobby Kennedy.

Media manipulation came as naturally to Johnson as his Texas drawl. He knew how to tug at the heartstrings – during that conversation with Kay Graham, whose husband Phil was a suicide only four months before, he could shamelessly sigh, “If you’d just go up in heaven, get him, bring him back where he could sit and advise with me awhile. But it’s so difficult . . . ” Johnson’s efforts didn’t always work: Michael Beschloss, the historian who ably edited and annotated the transcripts, observes that while Graham passed along to her editors “the gist” of LBJ’s suggestion for congressional-vacation stories, she stopped short of asking them to follow it up, thinking it “ridiculous.”)

He knew, too, how to pull on the pursestrings. Pressed by financial backer George Brown, chairman of Brown & Root, to approve a merger of two Houston banks sought by John Jones, president of the Houston Chronicle, Johnson proposes a quid pro quo: “I want John Jones to write me a letter. . . saying, `Mr. President . . I just want you to know that we’re making arrangements for special coverage in Washington for the Chronicle . . . and that so far as I’m personally concerned and the paper’s concerned, it’s going to support your administration as long as you’re there. Sincerely, your friend, John Jones.”‘ When Johnson vets the letter he wants. he phones Jones. “From here on out,” he tells him, “we’re partners.” “Thank you,” Jones replies. “Sure are.” (Five days later, the merger went through.)

Journalists covering Johnson were not without artfulness of their own.

“I hate to interfere, sir. I only dare to do so because I care so much about you,” a fawning Alsop says to LBJ.

“I will certainly protect you,” Frances Lewine, White House correspondent for UPI, assures Johnson, in response to his worry over a story he fears she’s filed about his Christmas call to Jacqueline Kennedy – a call which had supposedly been private but which in fact he had invited four women reporters to listen in on.

Hearst correspondent Marianne Means, chatting with Johnson after interviewing his relatives in Texas, gushes, “I loved [your sister]. I loved all of them . . . I really went for Cousin Oriole . . . I certainly enjoyed them. I loved your sister Becky. Gee.”

Slobbers Marshall McNeil, reporter for Scripps Howard, “I just thought you were cuter than a pig on that television last night . . . I get prouder of you – damn your ornery hide, Mr. President – day by day.”

Mutual stroking aside, in the Johnson White House monitoring of the press went on without pause. If not all members of the fourth estate were cultivated quite as carefully as the princely Lippmann, Alsop, and The New York Times’s James Reston, their work was no less carefully watched. To pick just two from the passing parade of famous bylines:

Times reporter Tad Szulc, whose Latin America scoops suggest a State Department leak. (“We may have to put a tail on this man,” Secretary Dean Rusk tells LBJ. “But then if we get caught doing that, it’s going to be rough.”) And Time’s Hugh Sidey, called on the Oval Office carpet for talking to press secretary George Reedy about a possible piece touting new LBJ adviser Richard Goodwin, the chief writer of the acclaimed “Great Society” speech. (“It doesn’t make any difference,” LBJ sanctimoniously lectures Sidey, “but I just want to show you that somebody is trying to appear important to you, and I resent that to hell. People . . ought to be working. That’s not their job to spend their time telling Time about who does what. I’ll tell ’em, if they want to know.”)

LBJ’s reaction to perceived mistreatment at the hands of the press ranged from bitterness and anger to self-pity and bafflement. Alerted that The Wall Street Journal is in hot pursuit of the family’s business records, he muses to confidante Edwin Weisl, “I’m more conservative than any man they’ve had in twenty years. Why they want to be getting me?” Irritated by criticism of his Washington press conferences, he grumbles to Paul Miller, chairman of the board of The Associated Press: “When I sat down, they said I ought to stand up. When I stood up, they said I ought to sit down. When I had it in the State Department, Mary McGrory said the room was too dark. When I had it in the East Room, they said it was too light. And I don’t give a damn. Just so it is comfortable for them.”

Stung by a negative New York Times editorial after what he’d thought was a positive meeting with its editorial board, Johnson unburdens himself to Scripps Howard’s McNeil. “I told [press secretary] Pierre Salinger, ‘Let’s don’t ever invite a newspaperman to come in for any reason. Let’s just keep them at arm’s distance.” (Solace comes from Texas pal and syndicated columnist William S. White. “The Washington Post and The New York Times never do speak for the American press, Mr. President. Almost never.”)

In August 1964, as this first volume in Beschloss’s projected series reaches its end, party delegates are already convening in Atlantic City when Johnson tells Reedy of his plan to announce that he is “absolutely unavailable” as their presidential nominee. “I look at the Herald Tribune. There’s nothing but the things that we’ve done terrible. I read The New York Times. We had a `pallid platform.’ That’s outrageous. I picked up every paper I had this morning, and we’d just played hell . . . . The nation ought to have a chance to get the best available. That’s who I want my children to have. And I know that I’m not.” (The press secretary talks him out of it.)

Journalists and other cynics will no doubt be reminding themselves that every utterance Johnson recorded was made in his full knowledge of the secret tape. Still, the feelings seem genuine enough.

Fastening on the larger issues of civil rights, Vietnam, and the shaping of the 1964 Democratic ticket, the scores of reviews published in newspapers and magazines all across the country have left virtually untouched this most inside of inside stories about a president and the press. The omission is surprising. Or maybe not.

Gloria Cooper is CJR’S managing editor

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism May/Jun 1998

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