He was the most powerful politician in the country, everybody said so, and when talk turned to the presidential race in 1960 his name was the one most often mentioned. It was the name that John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon speculated about.
Katharine Graham of The Washington Post remembers her husband, Phil, speaking with Kennedy at a dinner party in 1958 about rumors that the senator from Massachusetts might run. Phil wasn't sure it was a good idea.
Katharine Graham: "Kennedy said, 'Well, Phil, I'm sorry, but I'm running, and this is why.' One reason was that if he didn't run now, somebody else would run and be in for eight years and probably dictate his successor. The second reason was that if he stayed eight years in the Senate, intending to run, he'd end up being a lousy senator and a lousy candidate. And the third, he said, 'I think I'm better than any other of the possible candidates except Lyndon Johnson.'"
Nixon's question was whether Johnson would win, even though, in Nixon's opinion, Johnson was the ablest possible candidate.
Indeed, whether he could win was nagging Johnson and his staff and supporters.
Lawyer and longtime friend James H. Rowe: "I think he wanted it so much his tongue was hanging out." But there was another part of him that thought he had no chance. And there was the health question.
Bobby Baker, the wheeler-deeler who fell from grace later, remembers Johnson telling him one night: "Bobby, you never had a heart attack. Every night I go to bed, and I never know if I'm going to wake up alive the next morning. I'm just not physically capable of running the presidency." t
Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey were slugging it out on the primary trail, and the Johnson camp put its toe into the water in October 1959.
Sam Rayburn, his political idol and the speaker of the House, announced the formation of the Johnson for President Committee in Dallas. Publicly, Lyndon ignored the announcement.
Blacks, labor, liberals and, to a lesser extent, other voting blocs either opposed Johnson or were lukewarm to him at best. And he knew it. At the same time, Kennedy was coming out of the Democratic pack as the man to beat. Johnson was not sure that Kennedy could win. In fact, he told some aides that he thought Kennedy's Catholic faith would defeat him. And Kennedy was, it turned out, unhappy at all the attention paid to Johnson as Washington's most powerful politician.
In short, a rivalry was developing. Bill Moyers: "Johnson thought up until late in the preconvention era that Kennedy wouldn't get it -- that the religious issue would focus against him and the press would turn on him. He thought Kennedy would have the momentum, but then he would stall short, and there would be a free-for-all in that [Stuart] Symington and Humphrey and other liberals would have knocked each other off and there would be the place for the Great Compromiser. That's how he saw himself."
But, says Moyers, three or four weeks before the convention, Johnson realized that his scenario wasn't likely. And, already, people had other ideas about Johnson.
On the morning of the convention opening, Philip Graham and columnist Joe Alsop met for five minutes with Kennedy, alone.
Graham: "I did the greatest portion of our talking, and urged Kennedy to offer the vice presidency to Johnson. He immediately agreed, so immediately as to leave me doubting the easy triumph, and I therefore restated the matter, urging him not to count on Johnson's turning it down but to offer the VP-ship so persuasively as to win Johnson over. Kennedy was decisive in saying that was his intention, pointing out that Johnson would help the ticket not only in the South but in important segments of the party all over the country."
Kennedy won a first-ballot nomination, although LBJ ran fairly even with him during the roll call until it reached the second half of the alphabetic order of states.
Booth Mooney, an aide: "After Kennedy was nominated, Johnson snapped off the television set and said, 'Well, that's that. Tomorrow we can do something we really want to do -- go to Disneyland, maybe.'"
The next morning, recalls Homer Thornberry, an old friend, he telephoned Johnson to express his regrets for the way things had turned out: "He thanked me and he said, 'Kennedy's coming to see me in a little while. He may be wanting to talk to me about the vice presidency. What do you think?'"
Thornberry advised him not to accept, but: "He said, 'Well, here's my problem. If I refuse it and go back as majority leader and Kennedy chooses somebody else, and he loses, they'll blame me for it, and then my position as majority leader might be in jeopardy. If he wins, they'll say, 'He won without your help,' and then I'll have some problems. Finally, I may owe a responsibility to try to carry this country for the Democratic Party."
And those apparently were the reasons for Johnson's acceptance. It was the Boston and Austin ticket, but not everyone was completely happy with it. Bobby Kennedy, for one, was not convinced that Johnson was the best man for the second job.
In November, Kennedy and Johnson defeated Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge by 112,881 votes -- 112,881 votes out of 66,832,818 cast.
On Jan. 21, a day after the inauguration, Johnson took up the gavel of presiding officer of the Senate, which he had so often said he would not do. But he was not going to be disloyal to his president, and there is no evidence that he ever was, publicly or privately.
"There is," Humphrey used to say, "an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was ever heard of again."
But Kennedy tried to make his vice president more than an empty office filled by a useless man. He promptly named Johnson chairman of his Presidential Committee on Equal Opportunity and chairman of the Space Council, two jobs he hoped would keep him busy and happy.
And, perhaps more important, he made sure that the johnsons were invited to the White House for the state dinners and formal ceremonies.
Angier Biddle Duke, the White House chief of protocol:
"Kennedy would [invite them] and they would come. I say this in all respectfulness, not about Lyndon Johnson, but about the post of vice president. Nobody was terribly interested in him."
Former secretary of state Dean Rusk: "I had long been used to the favorite indoor sport around Washington -- making fun of vice presidents. But I never saw the slightest trace of that in John F. Kennedy. He always spoke of Lyndon Johnson with understanding and respect, although some of his staff people used to throw barbs at the vice president."
That Johnson, who always wanted everybody to like him, suffered under the barely concealed scorn of certain presidential staff members cannot be questioned, but he would not have minded that had he held any actual power over events and had any real outlet for his reined-in energy. But he did not. What the vice president often did was travel, representing the president or showing the flag or fulfilling some sort of diplomatic or ceremonial function.
During the 35 months he was vice president, Johnson embarked on a new "tour" on an average of every three months, visited dozens of foreign countries, conferred with their leaders, hooted and hollered, even in the Taj Mahal, spoke of the poverty of his youth, especially to the dispossessed, got out of official cars and walked among and shook the hands of the multitudes, and acted for all the world as if he were running for reelection to the Senate from Texas.
When Johnson was in India, Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith had to find him a translator. "I told the translator, 'If Lyndon forgets and asks for votes, leave that out.'"
Lyndon as traveling ambassador was most effective during the first year of his vice presidency, when he tried harder, was fresher, less travel-weary, more interested. But even more, as Lyndon in Washington became increasingly constrained and frustrated and subdued in his vice presidency role, Lyndon out of Washington, and particularly out of the country, reacted with a characteristic lack of restraint that left his hosts, although frequently charmed, at the same time bewildered and often dismayed.
Harry McPherson, lawyer and LBJ aide: "It was a time of deprivation. He grew very fat and drank a lot. He took up some golf, I recall, but not with enthusiasm."
But he remained loyal to Kennedy and scrupulous in his dealings with him. Outwardly, he and the president were still friends, but anti-Johnson sentiment was rife among the inner Kennedy circle, and Kennedy, disappointed with congressional inaction on his legislative program, was no doubt convinced that Johnson could have helped him out there if he tried.
The truth is, Lyndon had virtually given up any thought of trying to reexercise power. He had resigned himself to the fact that the only power that counted in the executive branch was in the Oval Office and the few men who had freest access there.
So there was, by mid-1962, already talk, discussion, hints, that Lyndon would be dumped from the reelection ticket in 1964.
Within months, however, Texas politics would intrude, disturbing Kennedy to such a degree that he would decide to fly to that state and reassert his own paramount position within the deeply split Democratic Party there.