Within a few hours of John F. Kennedy's assassination, everybody in the world with a television set knew what Lyndon Johnson looked and sounded like: a huge Texan with preposterous ears and an accent.
But beyond that, most people knew very little about him, and many of those who did, or thought they did, didn't care much for what they knew. The impression was that Johnson was a legislative wire-puller and manipulator.
Bill Moyers, a former White House press secretary: "He knew that he was not a legitimate president. Constitutionally, he was president. Politically, he had not been asked into that office by the people. This made him very uncomfortable. He also knew many of the people who had been for Kennedy considered him an intruder."
The first occasion for Johnson to present himself as president to the nation was an address to both houses of Congress. It was a resounding success, remembered mainly for one line -- "Let us continue," a familiar reference to Kennedy's inauguration speech, with its theme, "Let us begin."
Even the New York Herald Tribune, which rarely had a good word for any Democrat, editorially praised the Johnson speech. "Fine words, fitting words, at times inspiring words. As he stood before Congress and the nation not a fluke of history but a president."
During the month of mourning for Kennedy, Johnson built bridges -- by calling organizations, business people, labor people, church people, ethnic groups, telling each, "I need you. I need your help more than Jack Kennedy did, and I'm the only president you've got." He enlisted their sympathy and understanding, and built a strong and impressive base that way.
James Rowe Jr., a Johnson adviser: "The one thing I used to say when Kennedy died and Johnson came inot office, I used to say my boss Roosevelt had both style and substance. And Kennedy had style. And this fellow Johnson had substance. I still think this is true. Kennedy looked fine, made nice speeches, but he didn't get much done."
Everyone, it seemed, had something to say on that subject. Charles de Gaulle once called Kennedy the mask on the face of America, while Johnson was America.
Benjamin Bradlee of The Washington Post: "If you read the dictionary about style the fact is that Johnson had more style than Kennedy. If style is individuality -- that individuality by which one distinguishes a person -- he [Johnson] was just a goddamn bank vault of style."
Hubert H. Humphrey may have said it best: "Of course, every presidency has its own personality. Kennedy's had great grace and charm and class. Johnson's presidency was more like a developer moving into an area that needs rehabilitation. I think when you look back, you will see that with Johnson -- he didn't get all the little paintings on the wall, and he didn't get the gold plate on the dome and didn't shine up the doorknobs, but he got the foundation in, got the sidewalks up, got the beams put across. The structure was there."
One piece of legislation alone, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, illustrates the difference: Johnson made sure he got everything he asked for. Kennedy, faced with inevitable Senate opposition, would almost surely have compromised somewhere, traded the deletion of one section, say, for the passage of the rest. Johnson refused to delegate, refused to compromise, anywhere.
The first two preoccupations of the Johnson administration were civil rights and a tax cut, plus an investigation of the Kennedy assassination.
The Special Commission to Investigate the Assassination of President Kennedy, as it was officially named, delivered its report on Sept. 28, 1964, saying that Lee Harvty Oswald, acting alone and unaided, and slightly crazed, killed John F. Kennedy. There were some who refused to believe the report told the full story. Johnson was among them, believing at first that the Vietnamese were involved and later that the Cubans were involved.
As his interim presidency reach its halfway mark and the 1964 election approached, Johnson became progressively concerned with finding his own hallmark, some phrase that could encompass his aims the way Roosevelt's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal and Kennedy's New Frontier had encompassed theirs. Some phrase that would catch on with the press, with the people, with the historians.
It is generally agreed that the term Great Society, the phrase Lyndon finally adopted, was conceived by speechwriter Dick Goodwin when he hammered out a speech the president eventually delivered to the University of Michigan's graduation exercises on May 22, 1964. He only spoke for 20 minutes, although that was twice the time he originally planned. The crowd loved it and so did LBJ.
Charles Roberts of Newsweek: "When we got back on the plane, he was sweating and exuberant. He violated his old rule and had himself a drink, a Scotch highball, and came back to our press pool." There, he read parts of the speech to reporters again and proudly told them it was interrupted 29 times for applause, not 27 as their own count showed.
"He was a compulsive talker mostly when he was in this buoyant, euphoric mood after giving a speech or when things were going right for him. And of course during all that great first year that he was so euphoric, the Vietnam thing was still just a cloud no bigger than an man's hand."
First Dwight Eisenhower, then Kennedy, had taken the United States progressively deeper in Vietnam. It was not Lyndon's war -- not yet.
What made it so was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Aug. 2, 1964, a confusing event in which, it was announced, three torpedo boats had attacked an American destroyer in international waters. As more details came to light, they only confused the situation more. But to Johnson, it was necessary for Congress to pass a resolution that would show Americans -- and indeed the world -- that the president, as commander in chief, was prepared "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."
Congress voted 514 to 2 for the resolution, and it was now Johnson's war -- all the way.
It was Lyndon Johnson, "the peace cnadidate," versus Barry Goldwater, "the Air Force candidate," in 1964. Goldwater had adopted the slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," but almost immediately some subversive made up the slogan that swept the country, "In your guts you know he's nuts." Goldwater never had a chance.
Humphrey ran with Johnson, who turned to his old liberal more-or-less friend and often usefull ally after flirting with the idea of asking Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He asked Clark Clifford, a close adviser, what he thought.
Clifford: "I thought the suggestion had no merit at all. I thought that if by chance it were to result in that [a Kennedy vice presidency], it would be a complete shambles. They were very unlike. I doubt that under the best of circumstances they could ever have developed much of a friendship. But also Bobby Kennedy seemed at the beginning very much to resent President Johnson. It was a curious attitude, completely illogical, wholly emotional. It seemed to irritate Bobby Kennedy when he saw President Johnson as president."
Meanwhile, Bobby, as the guardian of Camelot, was himself thinking a great deal about the vice presidency. He decided he wanted it and, according to Lawrence F. O'Brien, a special assistant to the president, he went to Johnson to tell him. But the president ruled him out, telling Kennedy that he was not going to choose any member of his cabinet to run with him.
Even though every poll showed Johnson winning the election by a landslide, he campaigned exuberantly, emphasizing his peace credentials as opposed to Goldwater's "wild man" philosophies. In Akron, Ohio, on Oct. 21, the president told a crowd, "We are not about to send American boys away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
And he was sending Congress almost daily messages -- about the education bill, the health bill, the foreign aid bill, the arms control bill and on and on. He seemed impatient to get things done while he was still popular enough to bully and cajole Congress to do his bidding.
Medicare was a tough fight but Johnson won it. He had less trouble winning approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because after the riots that summer in Watts, Detroit and elsewhere, a great many white Americans, including most members of Congress, felt guilty enough to do something about racism and discrimination.
Johnson gave the civil rights bill a tremendous push with a speech that ended, "And we shall overcome." It was a remarkable speech by a white southerner, no matter what office he held.
People say that Johnson fought two wars, one in Vietnam and one on poverty, and some people say that he lost both of them. Certainly, 1965 was a watershed for Great Society legislation. It also was, as it turned out, a watershed year for Vietnam. Johnson made two major and irrebocable decisions, with no objections by his top advisers.
First, he ordered the start of systematic bombing of North Vietnam and, five months later, in July, he committed U.S. ground troops on a major scale in South Vietnam. The decisions, he said, were based on the blunt assessments that the Vietcong were winning.
And few Americans seemed to mind, much less take their opposition to the streets.
Even in the early part of 1966, Johnson was still riding high in the polls and he used to read the figures aloud to anyone who questioned his priorities or direction. And many did -- the Vietnam situation was getting worse, faster than anyone could have suspected a year earlier, and this was an election year, with all the trouble that could mean in the White House.
Wilbur Cohen, HEW official: "I think he tried to do too much and worked too hard at it with too many small things mixed in with the large. The average person was unable to comprehend it all; it was all too much for him to swallow all at once."
On civils rights, there was another bill -- to ban discrimination in housing, on juries and in classrooms. Johnson met with black candidates at the White House, telling them that he had more legislation in mind. "We haven't gone near as far as we're going to go in the next two years of my office if the good Lord is willing and the creeks don't rise," he said.
But, as he was saying this, the level of criticism was increasing. The anti-war movement was growing. Congress was not voting to spend the kind of money Johnson needed for Vietnam and social programs.
Guns and butter were giving way to more guns and less butter; much less butter, many more guns.
The creek was rising.