Obama-Clinton tandem for Dems to win:
JFK aide cites Kennedy-Johnson years
POLITICS AND THE STRANGEST BEDFELLOWS.
Then U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and
Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1960.
By DAVID SHRIBMAN
April 05, 2008
JOHN F. KENNEDY and Lyndon B. Johnson
PITTSBURGH – Next month the second volume of a remarkable historical parlor game will be published, an effort called “I Wish I’d Been There.” The first volume asked 20 specialists in American history to choose the events they wish they had witnessed, and the selections include the Salem witch trials, the killing of Abraham Lincoln and the march on Selma. The successor volume asks the same question of specialists in European history, and among the choices are the Battle of the Nile, the surrender of the Germans in World War II, and the preparation of Manet’s classic painting “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.”
So now I’m in the position of saying, with regard to “I Wish I’d Been There,” that I wish I’d been asked. Because I have my answer.
This spring, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama slug it out here in Pennsylvania, I’ve been wishing I’d have been in the room when a reluctant John F. Kennedy offered a reluctant Lyndon B. Johnson the vice presidential nomination in 1960.
One reason is because, unlike the raid on Harpers Ferry or the Battle of the Nile, we don’t really know what happened at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in July 1960. There are as many versions of the story as there were participants – and for a secret episode in American history, there sure were a lot of people involved, people whose lives later would be mysteriously intertwined.
There was JFK, the Democratic nominee. There was LBJ, who would succeed Kennedy only three and a half years later. There was Robert F. Kennedy, who would become Johnson’s bete noir and, until he was killed 40 years ago this spring, would seek to end the war Johnson was prosecuting. There was Arthur Goldberg, the top labor attorney whom Johnson would persuade to give up a seat on the all-powerful Supreme Court to sit in on the powerless sessions of the United Nations. There was John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who would become an ambassador in the Kennedy years and an administration critic in the Johnson years.
Theodore C. Sorensen, a top Kennedy aide, had prepared a memorandum in late June 1960 for the Massachusetts senator, setting out the options for his running mate, and Lyndon Johnson, then the majority leader of the Senate, was at the top of the list, the notion being that Johnson could help with “farmers, Southerners and Texas.” Sorensen also suggested that the irascible Johnson might, according to the memo, be “easier to work with in this position (the vice presidency) than as majority leader.” The other candidates were Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, Stuart Symington of Missouri, Henry M. Jackson of Washington and Gov. Orville Freeman of Minnesota.
“My father felt very, very strongly that Johnson was the person, and I remember Jack saying to Bobby and me: ‘Can you imagine Dad feeling that strongly?’” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy reminisced the other evening. “My father paved the way for the idea that Lyndon was acceptable.”
Johnson had his detractors, to be sure, chiefly liberals and labor leaders, and indeed the Kennedy camp had assured its allies in the labor movement that Johnson would not be chosen, especially since, as Leonard Woodcock, then the international vice president of the United Auto Workers, later reminisced, “Our whole theme had been to unite behind Kennedy to stop Johnson.” Walter Reuther, the UAW president, had told Kennedy directly that LBJ was unacceptable and would endanger the ticket.
Sometimes the smallest gestures have the greatest consequences. Theodore H. White wrote that when Kennedy arrived at the apartment he was using for the Los Angeles convention, by far the “warmest and most cordial telegram of congratulations” awaiting him was from Johnson. “Until that moment Kennedy had accepted at face value Johnson’s statement that he would never, never, never trade his senatorial vote for the vice presidential gavel,” White wrote. “Was it possible that Johnson was now available for the second spot?”
Thus began a series of phone calls and visits from Kennedy and his brother to Johnson’s suite, and thus began one of the least well-documented episodes in American political history, prompting questions that White could write about with 1960s equanimity but that would be utterly astonishing today: Could a Southerner run on a civil-rights ticket headed by a Catholic? Could labor force the hand of a Democratic nominee? Could the South afford not to be included in a potential Democratic administration?
Amid the fury and debate, Robert Kennedy appeared to be trying to persuade Johnson not to accept the offer – a gesture that would stiffen Johnson’s resolve to accept it and would have grave implications for their relationship and for American politics long before the decade was over.
Now what does any of this have to do with the Pennsylvania primary and the fight for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination? For the answer you might consult Sorensen, the most eloquent Nebraskan since William Jennings Bryan, the poet laureate of the Kennedy campaign and a special counsel to Kennedy the president.
JFK advisers Theodore C. Sorensen and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. stand
in front of an R-12 (Soviet SS-4) missile on a hillside overlooking Havana,
Cuba during the 40th anniversary commemoration of the 1962 Cuban
Missile Crisis in October 2002. Mr. Sorensen (below) in June 2004.
Mr. Sorensen, who is to turn 80 next month, is within a few weeks of publishing his memoirs, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” and in those pages he will speculate that when Bobby Kennedy expressed the qualms of liberals and labor, his brother said that the selection of Johnson wasn’t sealed in stone. That spurred Bobby Kennedy to visit Johnson, which in turn prompted Johnson to hang onto a prize he wasn’t sure he wanted.
“LBJ had attacked JFK more savagely than anyone else that year, but Kennedy thought for reasons of unifying the party, Lyndon was the best man,” Mr. Sorensen said in a conversation last week. “This sort of thing can happen again. It wouldn’t be the dumbest thing for Obama to think of this.”
Sorensen supports Obama and has raised money for him, so a columnist is obligated to say that the scenario might also work in a sort of vice presidential versa, with Sen. Clinton doing the reluctant choosing and Obama doing the agonized deciding. We may know in a few weeks. But if this happens again – as it did when Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush in 1980, and when John F. Kerry chose John Edwards in 2004 – some years from now a lot of us will be saying, again: I wish I’d been there.
THEODORE C. SORENSEN,
Special Counsel to President Kennedy.