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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.