Holmes Norton,

Katz, Elliott




Mary Sue





INT: How did he react to criticism? You describe in your book how he used to read the newspapers voraciously.

JV: Lyndon Johnson responded to criticism the way every other high-ranking public official responds to criticism. When a politician tells you that criticism doesn't bother him, put it down to what is called "the exercise of untruth". I've been in the movie business all my life, and I hear movie stars tell me that reviews don't bother them. They're wrong: I know they're telling me a falsehood, because if you read it and you are pilloried in the press, unless you have no emotions at all, it's bound to hurt. For a man like Johnson, whose emotions ran through him like a swiftly running river, yes, it bothered him. I'll tell you this: it bothered the hell out of me when I was the butt or the target of a lot of stories. So criticism bothers you. Now the trick in politics is to act as if it doesn't, serenely above it all. But I know, and every political professional knows, it's all a charade.

INT: He could look out of his windows in the White House sometimes and see protesters marching around with their placards calling for an end to the war, particularly young people. Did he fully understand what was happening to young people in America at this time?

JV: Oh, I think he did, I think he realized that most... as we all did, that most of the protests were done by young people who didn't want to go to war. I probably would have done the same thing myself. So there was no mystery as to why they didn't like the war, which is one kind of protest. But they didn't want to go in the army or the navy or the air corps. Indeed, we have people in high places in the United States today who felt the same way, and tried to do their damnedest to stay out of the war. He understood that. But... the young people didn't understand Johnson. Johnson's sole motivation was to try, as we say in Texas, "to haul ass out of that war" - get out of there. He didn't know how to do it. He could not just unilaterally retreat and take the soldiers out; then every right-wing enemy would have said, "You coward, you poltroon, you disgrace the American nation, and you have spat on its flag because you put your tail between your legs and you ran." So he couldn't do that. The military kept telling him, "If you do a little bit more and a little bit more, a little more bombing, a little more interdiction here, the North Vietnamese will cave." Well, that wasn't working. The only thing that he could do was to try to find a way to negotiate. I remember many times after a meeting - and I attended every meeting on Vietnam, in the days when the meetings counted - and we'd go back to his office, just the two of us, tired and worn; you could see it in his face; he'd lie back in the chair and put his arms at the back of his head and clasp his hands and lean back, and he'd say, "You know, Jack, if I could just sit in a room with Ho Chi Minh, if I could just sit down with him, the two of us alone, to talk, I believe I could convince him that negotiation was the best way. And when you have a negotiation, you want to make sure that each side has something to take back to their people, and we could have done that if I could only sit down and talk with him." I mean, that's how he felt. But it was not to be.

INT: Did LBJ also see life beyond the protesters, the long-haired folk, the young people sort of smoking dope, sort of living alternative lifestyles, the Haight Ashby phenomenon - did he relate to that at all, could he understand it? Did he pass any comment on that kind of thing in your hearing?

JV: Well, does any parent understand why their daughter or their son is smoking grass or horse or coke or whatever? Do they understand it? I don't think you need to be of the generation of a child or youngster to understand it. I think parents were horrified. There was a kind of a cult movement in the United States at that time; it was cool and it was OK, and this was the thing to do, to get stoned. Thank God that receded, and my own young children, very young at the time, somehow, miraculously, missed that era as it began to diminish, and so they grew up without the menacing daily menace of drugs and all that these terrifying things mean to you. Did Johnson understand that? Sure he did. And he tried his damnedest to try to figure out how to deal with it. By the way, that's 33 years ago. We're not dealing with it right now. We've got new people coming in; you've got a White House that's populated by a lot of young people - do they have any answers? They don't have any answers. This is one of those blights on the social face of America that is almost without cure. I have a feeling - I believe that the only way you're ever going to whip the drug war in America, or win it, is not to interdict the supply - not at all - but to diminish the demand, and that's going to take some real tough love by parents, it's going to enlist the schools and the Church and all others who care about children. And absent that, this war's going to go on, and the drugs'll flow in, and we'll find some bale in Miami and we'll interdict something coming out of Mexico or whatever. But it's all tracings on dry, leaves in the wind - it doesn't mean anything. I've been listening to some drug presentations by Drug Free America - I wanted to educate myself - and the numbers are so sorrowful that it's painful to talk about them. The drug use in America went down in 1992, and now it is going back up, in ways and means that the youngest and the oldest, the wisest and the most intuitive haven't been able to fathom.

INT: Nixon used the concept of the silent majority very effectively leading up to his re-election and thereon after. Why didn't LBJ appeal to that silent majority? What held him back from doing so?

JV: Well, keep in mind that in 1964, LBJ won the presidency on his own, with the largest percentage of votes ever (Coughs) achieved by any president (Coughs): 61.2%. It has not been beaten before nor since. So he had the silent and the vocal majority working for him. Now would he have won in 1968 if he hadn't gotten out? Those are speculative iffy questions that don't mean anything, because we will never know. But he told me right after he announced his re-nomination - he said, "You know, I think I could have beaten Nixon, I could have probably beaten him 51-49, or 50.5-49.5, but it would be a new mandate and I couldn't govern. That's why I think we need a fresh face like Hubert Humphrey in there to carry on. I've lost my usefulness." Now this was coming from a man that 25, 50 to 100 years from now, when the historians of that time look back and sort out what truly happened, they may say that no other president ever attempted to launch an all-out attack on the ailments which infected the American spirit: poverty, education, health, race, these intractable and sometimes terrorizing issues that most presidents and senators and congressmen like to talk about with lofty rhetoric, but they don't really want to deal with it, because it's so fraught with political peril. I'll tell you one story, and then we'll go on to other things. When Johnson was President for three weeks, in December '63, and I was living with him at the White House... if you're ever on a quiz show some time and somebody says, "Name the only two special assistants to American presidents who have actually lived in the White House," you say "Harry Hopkins with Roosevelt, and Jack Valenti with Johnson."... I lived on the third floor. But that morning he said, "Call Dick Russell and see if he'll come to coffee. Richard Brivard Russell, the senior senator of Georgia, was the single most influential man in the Senate. He would have been president if he had not also been the leader of the segregationist forces in the Senate. But he was a close friend of Johnson. Indeed, in 1952, when the post of Democratic leader fell open, all the senators said to Russell, "Dick, you be our leader." Russell said, "No, Lyndon Johnson should be our leader." At that time, Johnson was four years into his first term; he was only 44 years old. But with Russell's support, they elected him leader, and so he became the youngest ever Democratic leader in the history of the nation in the Senate, and soon became the Senate's greatest parliamentary commander. So when Russell arrived - this small, baldish Russell, with his penetrating blue eyes, and the six foot four Johnson; they made an interesting pair - Johnson put his arm around him and sat him down, and they sat very close to each other, and President Johnson leaned over and he says, "Dick, I love you, and I owe you. I wouldn't be President if it wasn't for you. You made me leader in '52. I wouldn't have been Vice-President without you; I wouldn't be President without you. So I owe you so much." And then he said, "Now Dick, I asked you to come here because I want to tell you something. Do not get in my way on this Civil Rights Bill, Dick, because if you do, I'm going to run you down." And I remember Russell, in those rolling accents of his Georgia countryside, said, "Well, Mr. President, you may very well do that, but if you do, you will not only lose the South forever, you will lose this election." In all the later years in which I became so intimate with LBJ, never was I prouder of him than that Sunday morning a long, long time ago, for he looked at Dick Russell and he says, "Well, Dick, if that's the price I have got to pay, I will gladly pay it." Now I don't know how your viewers will think of this, but there's an old definition of what leadership is all about, and it goes like this: leadership is wisdom and courage and a great carelessness of self, which means that the great leader, from time to time, must put to hazard his

INT: Would you describe Johnson as an anticommunist of the school of the 1950s? Would you call him a McCarthyite in some respects, in his attitudes, let's say, to the Soviets and communism in general, in terms of particularly the manifestation of communism you saw in the United States?

JV: Well, if you read your history, the guy that really put Joe McCarthy six feet under was Lyndon Johnson. He gave him a lot of rope, and then, when the time was right, he struck with a resolution that censored McCarthy and forever broke his power. Eisenhower, our great President Eisenhower, was silent when McCarthy venomously denounced General George Marshall, the mentor of Eisenhower, and I was making a speech in Wisconsin, and he was urged... he was praising Marshall in the speech, and he was urged by his aides and by McCarthy he had to take that paragraph out - he could not praise Marshall. And under the exigencies of politics, Ike removed that passage. I am told by his biographers that it was a day that in his mind will long live in infamy. But none the less it was Johnson who snapped the bonds that connected McCarthy to the American people, when he moved on him in the Senate. Johnson was not an anticommunist looking under the bed; he was an American president determined to protect our interests, not only here but throughout the world. I think he was steeped in the traditions of Dean Acheson and John McLoy and Arthur Dean, and I do believe that the idea... that also Kennedy felt the same way, and beginning with Truman's protecting Berlin, that Johnson felt that the theory of containment was probably the wisest way to go.

INT: Mr. Valenti, thank you very much indeed.

(Final bit of chat not transcribed)