Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INTERVIEW WITH JACK VALENTI
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Valenti, can I first ask you about LBJ, the man - what kind of character was LBJ?
JACK VALENTI: I have, in my lifetime, known just about every president, prime minister, president of other countries, congressmen and senators. He was the single most formidable political character, political leader, that I have ever known. In him resided all the elements of a great leader, which is, first, conviction. A man without conviction is going to be right only by accident. Second, stamina, the ability to commit a full day; or, as Lord Wellington says, "to do the business of the day in the day". Third, an intuitive structure somewhere in his brain; he had some little elf that resided somewhere between his belly and his brain, who was able to say "No, Lyndon, not that way - that way." Judgment, intuition, instinct, without which no great military or political captain will ever survive. And fourth, the ability to persuade those around him to his point of view, which was verged on sorcery. He was quite a guy.
INT: He was from the south, he was a Texan, and yet he pushed through civil rights legislation which aimed to destroy the hold of racism in the southern states. Where did he get his idealism from?
JV: Well, when he was a young man of 19, he taught in a tiny school in Katula, Texas, a run-down little place, inhabited totally by young Mexican children. That year's teaching seared his mind. Poor, desperately poor children, with zero hope for the future, and most of them eager to learn; and he, early on, decided, if he ever had political power, that he was going to make sure kids like that weren't going to be submerged in the sub-soil. Now remember he was in Congress for 24 years; he spent three years as Vice-President; and all that time he thought about what he would do if he had the power. On the very night that he became President, when we flew back from Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, I was one of three people who sat with him in his bedroom, and later spent the night there. And for about six to seven hours, he lay propped up on his vast bed, ruminating with the three of us, not really asking our viewpoints but I think that served as a sounding board. And that night, I learnt later, he had sketched out the Great Society; and what he wanted to do - as he said, "Now that I've got the power, I aim to use it," and he said, "I'm going to pass that Civil Rights Bill which has been locked up too long. I'm going to pass an Education Bill which is going to make it possible for every boy and girl in this country to get all the education they can take, with Federal loan scholarship or grant," and that was unheard of. "Number three," he said, "I'm going to pass Harry Truman's Medical Insurance Plan," which today is Medicare. And he went on and on and on. I guess the fantasy of all of this was, this is what he said on the night he was President, and this is what he did as president. How many people cleave that closely to a given agenda that they've made a few hours after they have ascended to the Mount Olympus of American politics?
INT: What impact did the death of President Kennedy have both on you and on President Johnson?
JV: Huh! I mean that's a question that everybody in America could answer with great truthfulness. Well, I was wandering around in Parkton Hospital, where his body was then being so-called operated on; and one of Johnson's aides tapped me on the shoulder and said, "The Vice-President wants to see you right away." Slight hesitation, and then he said, "The President is dead, you know." Like all other Americans, I wept, I wept almost without end, until he finally said, "Grab hold of yourself. The Vice-President wants to see you." And when I approached the room where he was supposed to be, it was empty, but a secret service man was there to say, "The Vice-President wants you on Air Force One - he wants you now." So I got in a police car and made my way to Love Field. How did Johnson feel about it? Johnson never expected to be president; he told me many times that no southerner would ever be nominated president in his lifetime. He was going back to Texas and live on his ranch, when the 1968 campaign had concluded. He had great respect for President Kennedy, and I have to say this: many aides around Kennedy treated Johnson with utter contempt. These were a lot of young fellows who thought they knew more than this giant of a man, and they treated him singularly with discourtesy. But not John Kennedy: John Kennedy always was respectful, and even deferential to the Vice-President. He made sure he was at all the meetings, he invited him to social affairs where just the Kennedy friends were going to be present. And I remember many times that Johnson told me that. And I remember one time in Johnson's ranch, when he was Vice-President, he had gathered around him some rich cronies from Texas, all of whom were virulently anti-Kennedy, and one of them began to excoriate the President. Now this was one of Johnson's long-time close friends, great Johnson supporter. I remember Lyndon Johnson get to the side of the table and he said, "Jim, no one at my table ever speaks in a harsh way about President Kennedy. Now if this is the thing you want to say, and you can't restrain yourself, then you must leave my table and my house immediately." Well, the silence around that table was incredible; you could cut it with a needle. But I point that out only because he was grateful for President Kennedy. The fact is that in American public life, I've never known a happy vice-president. They don't exist. No matter how smart and wise you are you are constrained, cribbed and confined to uttering the presidential line. Now you are happy, a little happier, when everything the President wants to do, you support. But every now and then things happen that you don't support. Johnson did not believe that President Kennedy was handling the Civil Rights Bill right. He wanted to put it on the high moral ground and fight it through, and run down those southerners who stood in his way. Kennedy took a more softer approach. But no one in Washington ever knew that Johnson felt that way. He made his comments inside the President's office and out of sight of the press.
INT: During the 1964 election campaign, LBJ made a particularly memorable speech in New Orleans, which you describe in your book. Can you tell me about that?
JV: Yes, I was there. It was... his wife, Mrs. Johnson (Clears throat), had started a southern railway tour, coming from Washington across the southern rim of the country, all through all the southern states, including the State of Alabama, whence our ancestors came, and that culminated in New Orleans. And so he met her there, and the President was so proud of her. And he pointed out in his speech that for too long we have used... and he talked... recounted an old southern senator who used to get up and say, "This is the way we've got to go, and the Negro, and the Negro and the Negro..." And Johnson said, "Don't do that any more. That's a thing of the past." And he was determined, in his civil rights program, to win a Voting Rights Act. He won the Civil Rights Act, and now he wanted to win his Voting Rights Act. Because he said, "If you give people the right to vote, you give them power, and with that political power they can better their lives. So the first thing I'm going to make sure is that it is a federal crime to deny a citizen of this country, no matter his or her color or religion, the right to vote." I think that most black leaders would say that was a seminal piece of the Johnson legislation. I remember so well when I... one day in the Cabinet Room, just after the passage of the Voting Rights Bill, all the great black leaders had been summoned: Phil Randolph, Baird Rustin, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Dr Martin Luther King, Dorothy Hite and others, and it was... a religious jubilation was in that room: hugging and kissing each other, and of course saluting their champion, Lyndon Johnson. When we left the room, Roy Wilkins, who was then the legendary head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, and he put his arm around me as we walked out into the, out to the lawn face of the White House, and he said, "Jack, God does move in strange and mystic ways, wondrous ways." And I said, "How is that, Roy?" and I looked at him, and his eyes had misted over, and he says, "Well, I'll tell you. I find it strange and wonderful that the greatest and most effective friend that the Negro in America has ever had is a southern president, to whom we owe everything." It was a strange anomaly that many young black kids growing up don't realize, that the one great champion that they had was Lyndon Johnson. One final story about this. Two days before Lyndon Johnson left office, a dinner was held for him in New York, and all of the great leaders of the Democratic Party were there, all of Johnson's friends, the contributors, Cabinet, everyone, and I was there. And one of the speakers was Ralph Ellison, the great black writer who had written the seminal book Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison, a great friend of President Johnson's, leaned over the podium and looked directly in the face of the President, and he said, "Mr. President, because of Vietnam, you're just going to have to settle for being the greatest American president we have ever had for the undereducated young and the poor and the old and the sick and the black." And he hesitated, but he said, "Mr. President, that's not a bad epitaph."
INT: LBJ's relations with Martin Luther King obviously went through a change when Dr King decided to come out against the war. Could you tell me about how that manifested itself, and anything that LBJ might have said to you?
JV: Well, he and King... he wasn't as close to King as he was to Roy Wilkins or to Phil Randolph, to Baird Ruston, to Whitney Young, who were the giants of the black movement. But he admired Dr King. I don't think that he was that angry with Dr King. If you recall at the time, a lot of other people who were friends of Johnson's were also being unhappy about the war. I think he was sorrowful; he had hoped that King had talked it over with him, and perhaps, as Johnson used to say, from the chapters of Isaiah: "Come, let us reason together." But I did not find anger so much as sorrow.
INT: The passage of the Civil Rights Bill, its signing, is in July 1965, and within the month there were the riots in Watts and LA. Did that have a particular sort of shocking impact on LBJ?
JV: Yes it did. Again, puzzlement, sadness, almost despair, because here he was risking his all to pass these pieces of legislation which he felt were absolutely essential to the future of a hopeful black society, and then to have the riots come on - it gave great comfort to many Republicans in the Senate and the House, who said, "I told you so," and so it caused him some despair, because he couldn't figure out why.