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Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade

by Jeff Shesol
Norton, 591 pp., $32.50

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Papers: A Documentary Collection

edited by David M. Barrett
Texas A&M University Press, 869 pp., $94.00

In the time of Lyndon Johnson’s vice-presidential agony I found myself one day in his Capitol office listening to a Johnson soliloquy. Its central theme was his devotion to John F. Kennedy, but there were several lesser motifs. When Johnson was launched on one of these meditations, torrents of words poured out of him. On this occasion he canvassed the spectrum from the magisterial arrogance of Charles de Gaulle, to poverty in India, to his youthful career as a rural Texas schoolteacher. Always, however, the talk came back to his admiration for President Kennedy.

Johnson knew me only as a nameless face in the press gallery. In the middle of the monologue he surreptitiously, without interrupting the word flow, sent a note out to his secretary asking, “Who is this I’m talking to?” He was performing for an audience of one, and that one a stranger, but he probably thought some of it might just possibly turn up in a newspaper, and he was making it plain what the headline should say: Lyndon Johnson Utterly Devoted to John F. Kennedy.

To hear him tell it, there had never been a happier second banana. Never mind that the Kennedys had humiliated him when he tried for the presidential nomination in 1960. Never mind that the Kennedys’ glittering young courtiers—the “Harvards,” as Johnson called them—joked constantly and cruelly about him. Never mind that the press was calling him a forlorn figure who no longer mattered.

Never mind realities. On this day, playing to a nameless Capitol reporter, he spoke of the vice-presidential life as a friendship with a man he admired extravagantly. He told a story, not necessarily fictional, of an intimate dinner for three—Johnson, the President, and Jackie—in the Kennedys’ private White House quarters. Mrs. Kennedy had told him how greatly she and Jack needed him, how thankful they were for his help in lightening the presidential burden.

There was a tribute to the steely strength with which President Kennedy dispatched his enemies. He, Johnson, had experienced that cruel but manly strength himself when running against Jack for the nomination in 1960. He admired the way Jack had disposed of him so coolly, so dispassionately, without softness or irresolution.

My notes of this bizarre talk had quotation marks around the words “when he looks you straight in the eye and puts that knife into you without flinching….” This was Johnson’s metaphor for what Kennedy had done to him at the convention in Los Angeles. One was supposed to believe that Johnson now admired him for it.

It seemed doubtful that he truly admired Kennedy’s cool way with the knife. He was too proud, too vain, too thin-skinned. More likely, it still hurt so much that he couldn’t stop talking about it. It seemed probable that such a man who had been subjected to such an ordeal might bear a grudge for the rest of his life.

Praise John Kennedy to one and all though he did, Johnson had reasons to feel less than enchanted about their relationship. Here was greatness comically humbled. As Senate leader, Johnson had been the marvel of Washington. His mastery of the Senate amounted to genius, or so it was said by the Washington crowd, so quick to adore today’s hero, so ready to call him a chump tomorrow. “The second most powerful man in Washington,” the press had called him.

And what had John Kennedy done in Johnson’s Senate? He had been a mostly absent backbencher: an affable young fellow, to be sure, but rarely seen at the Capitol, not one to be taken seriously except for his father’s wealth. Everyone knew the old man was grooming Jack to be president, and real senators, serious men, the big mules, disdained senators whose presidential ambitions showed. “Always running for president,” they said of such men, with amused contempt.

Several senators were running for president in the 1950s, Lyndon Johnson among them, though he pretended almost to the end that he wasn’t. If you had the itch, good Senate form forbade you to let it show too early. Kennedy was something new. He didn’t care about good Senate form. By 1960 he had been running shamelessly and vigorously for four years. Real power in America lay in the White House, not in the Senate, he told anybody who bothered to ask why he was running. And of course, he was also being a dutiful son, trying to realize his father’s grandiose dream of putting a son in the presidency.

Johnson played a trickier hand. He was the conscientious statesman sticking to his job, doing his sweaty duty in Washington while Kennedy toured the landscape chasing the presidency. Johnson answered the quorum calls, shepherded the good bills to passage, killed the bad bills in their tracks, labored tirelessly for the nation’s good. He was being responsible. “Responsible” became a popular word among his camp followers. Johnson was betting that his dazzling senatorial skills would awe enough Democratic convention delegates to win him the nomination. It showed his profound ignorance of national party politics.

It was Kennedy who had it right. He let Johnson worry about the quorum calls and traveled the country courting local party captains; fighting in primaries and state conventions; jawboning governors, mayors, and union leaders, twisting their arms when necessary. If you seemed terribly young, it didn’t hurt to show you were a little tough.

He and brother Bobby and a passionately dedicated organization with seemingly unlimited financing cultivated the working politicians who constituted the party machinery. Johnson didn’t. The Kennedys made mincemeat of him.

There was an impromptu debate at the convention. Johnson talked of his tireless service in the Senate. Kennedy scarcely talked at all. He and Johnson had no disagreements on policy matters, he said, so the sensible thing would be for the party to put him in the White House and keep Lyndon in the Senate meeting those quorum calls. He sat down. The audience laughed, and Johnson was finished. Without flinching, Kennedy had put that knife into him.

Did Johnson secretly dislike Jack Kennedy? Not likely. It was impossible for almost anyone to feel a personal dislike for Jack Kennedy. What Johnson did dislike was the culture Kennedy represented.

The full Kennedy package—complete with Kennedys, advisors, thinkers, speech writers, professors, press cheerleaders, advance men, flacks, sycophants, and gofers—came bearing a sense of its own intellectual superiority. They had been to the best colleges, Harvard being the school of preference, and they were not slow to let you know they were an intellectual and cultural elite. The style was cool, polished, urbane. They admired wit and understatement. The women had finishing-school poise; the men favored muted pinstripes and buttoned-down collars. Most shared a feeling that the Kennedys were an entitled people.

They represented a culture that had been detested and feared in the South and West for a century. They looked not too different from the citified, hard-money crowd that William Jennings Bryan had once accused of crucifying the nation upon a cross of gold. Johnson’s political idol, Sam Rayburn, had long memories of New York and Boston money men squeezing the South and West to the edge of bankruptcy. Later Johnson’s presidency, far more liberal than Kennedy’s had been, would reveal how deeply his politics were rooted in the Populist movement of the nineteenth century.

So there were very old regional antipathies at work between Johnson and the Kennedys: rural populism versus Northeastern establishment. It wouldn’t have mattered if President Kennedy had lived. Johnson would simply have disappeared. A Johnson with presidential power might be more liberal than Kennedy, but he was still hard for the Kennedy culture to accept. They were contemptuous of him, as the hard-money Democrats of the Northeast had once been contemptuous of the rustic Bryan. Late in his presidency Johnson complained bitterly and often of the Northeasterners’ attitude.

I always knew that the greatest bigots in the world lived in the East, not the South,” he told Richard Goodwin. “Economic bigots, social bigots, society bigots. Whatever I did, they were bound to think it was some kind of trick. How could some politician from Johnson City do what was right for the country?”

To Johnson, the Kennedy who represented everything hateful about the Northeast was Jack’s brother Robert, known to the public as “Bobby.” Bobby, in turn, saw Johnson as an unprincipled, lying yahoo. He ignored or insulted him as Jack’s vice president and, after the assassination, hated him as a usurper of Jack’s rightful power. The result was a personal feud that poisoned the Democratic Party for most of the 1960s.

Mutual Contempt is an exhaustive and fascinating history of this nasty quarrel, which Jeff Shesol has assembled from the mountain of existing documents, books, and oral histories about the Kennedys and Johnson, and interviews of his own. Some of his freshest material comes from documents just now becoming available at the Johnson Library in Austin, including taped recordings of LBJ’s White House phone conversations.

Another valuable new book culled from the Johnson Library is Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Papers, edited by David M. Barrett. This is a generous collection of White House documents recording Johnson’s stubborn march to his doom. Since Bobby Kennedy was a major opponent of LBJ’s Vietnam policy, the Barrett collection is a valuable supplement to Mutual Contempt.

Shesol is twenty-eight years old. Not born until after the Johnson-Kennedy feud was long over, he is happily unencumbered by the prejudices of many still alive who were devoted to one or the other. The result is a remarkably evenhanded telling of a story that still makes many an old-timer’s blood boil. He will doubtless hear from a few of them complaining that he has got it all wrong. Having watched it from afar with no personal stake in the outcome, I think he gets it just about right.

Perhaps he is slightly off the beat about the Vietnam phase of the thing. He magnifies unduly the Bobby factor in Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election; early Senate doves like Fulbright, Church, Morse, and Gruening get short shrift, and Eugene McCarthy’s importance is almost entirely ignored. Richard Nixon’s role in undermining Johnson’s war policy is never mentioned. The fury of the great national debate that brought Johnson down gets lost in the smaller story of two of Bobby’s aides, Adam Walinsky and Peter Edelman, futilely trying to make him challenge Johnson on Vietnam.

For the most part, though, Shesol’s grasp of the era’s history is sure, his tale often entertaining, and his research awesome. Perhaps too much so for the casual reader. With books getting longer and longer these days, 475 pages may be tolerable for a good story like this about a minor historical spat. Still, one yearns for the pre-computer age when the laborious demands of typewriters and coldhearted editors held such books down to 250 pages carrying the reader rapidly from cover to cover.

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