Eugene Pulliam, the imperious owner and publisher of the most Republican newspapers in the United States, and President Lyndon Johnson were the "odd couple" of American politics.
The nomination of Pulliam's grandson, Sen. Dan Quayle, as the Republican candidate for vice president fetched from my memory the friendship forged between these two, Pulliam and Johnson, each an awesome engine of a man. It was an affectionate relationship that, at the crucial and indispensable moment, sent the Goldwater forces into a wild and looping orbit of disbelief.
Shortly after LBJ became chief executive, he took me aside and said, "You handle Gene Pulliam." In the LBJ shorthand command, this meant that I was Pulliam's conduit to the president and his "shepherd" in the White House.
Pulliam would call me often, voice gruff, scratchy, the clauses scrambling to fall in place, and I would chat with him. Without checking further, I could pass his call to the president's phone or, as often happened, make certain his request was granted on the spot.
Once, LBJ mentioned to me that he wanted a date set aside for a trip he wanted to take. "Oh, Mr. President, that date has been committed," I said. LBJ glowered, eyes squinting, murmuring in those low tones that said you better make this one very good or else you are going to be drawn and quartered: "And who, may I ask, committed me?" "I did, Mr. President," I answered. "Gene Pulliam wants you to speak to the Associated Press." LBJ chewed on that briefly, then said with a grin: "That sumbitch could eat armadillos for breakfast without spitting, couldn't he?" No questioning the commitment. Pulliam wanted it. Fine.
In the campaign of 1964, I suspect the Goldwater people worried about many things, but their Rock of Gibraltar was Gene Pulliam and The Arizona Republic and The Indianapolis Star. These were the bastions no siege could penetrate, the citadels no adversary could overrun. Little did they know that the walls they were defending were made not of iron, but of butter.
I accompanied the president on the campaign trail in the fall of 1964. We flew to Indianapolis, where as a result of some telephone plotting between Pulliam and me, about 30 editors of Indiana newspapers were invited to lunch with Pulliam as host. The guest of honor? None other than the Democratic presidential candidate, President Johnson. One can only surmise the anxiety attacks that Maalox failed to quiet among the Goldwater strategists.
And then the blow fell with all the grace of a 1,000-pound steel safe dropped from a high building. The Indianapolis Star for the first time in its Republican-encrusted history endorsed a Democratic president. LBJ was glowingly exalted on the editorial page of The Star. And the final bitter bite that tore the hide off the Republican campaigners was snapped tight in Phoenix. The Arizona Republic was silent on endorsement, choosing neither candidate. It was an omission that stunned Arizona, and apoplexy reigned in the streets once populated by merry Goldwater partisans. Johnson, the most liberal of Democratic presidents, had been embraced by the most conservative of American publishers. It was the political hat trick of the century.
I truly admired the tough old publisher. He had not one ounce of phoniness in him. He told me once that he thought many of LBJ's legislative programs were weird, but he trusted the president -- he measured him as a patriot who would sooner die than betray his country.
The writer, who was a special assistant to Lyndon Johnson, is president of the Motion Picture Association of America.