Copyright © 2005 by Mike Wallace
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John F. Kennedy
In making the jump from a local program to the showcase of a coast-to-coast broadcast, Ted Yates and I were determined to maintain the candid, sometimes combative style we’d introduced on Night Beat. But that proved easier said than done. Part of the problem was that we’d lost the element of surprise we’d enjoyed when Night Beat burst on the scene the previous fall. Our reputation had preceded us to ABC, and more than a few of our prospective interviewees were wary of being grilled on network television by a guy who had been described by one captious critic as “Mike Malice” and by another as “The Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.” This meant we had to work that much harder to find the kind of characters who might interest a national audience. But I’m happy to say that during our first few months at ABC, we were able to book a diverse gallery of guests for The Mike Wallace Interview, ranging from the highbrow (Philip Wylie, Margaret Sanger, and Frank Lloyd Wright) to the lowbrow, a group that included a mobster (Mickey Cohen), a stripper (Lili St. Cyr), and a pair of Hollywood sirens (Jayne Mansfield and Zsa Zsa Gabor).
Still, there were problems to confront. It didn’t take us long to discover that in moving up to a network broadcast, we’d ventured into terrain far more treacherous than what we’d been accustomed to at Channel 5. Now that we were playing to a national audience, the stakes were higher, and there were times when we ran into the kind of dicey situations that provoke threats of libel suits.
One such dustup occurred when I interviewed the muckraking Washington columnist Drew Pearson. In those days, almost all the media power was in print, and no one was more powerful than the syndicated columnists. While many Washington columnists saw themselves as pundits and preferred to pontificate instead of investigate, Pearson was a journalistic throwback to the old school. He specialized in finding skeletons in Beltway closets, and he found enough of them to make him the most feared reporter in Washington. To go along with his zeal for exposure, Pearson had a reputation for shooting from the hip. At least two presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman—had publicly accused him of being a chronic liar, but when it came to that particular allegation, nothing came close to matching the extravagance of a Tennessee senator named Kenneth McKellar. In a speech on the Senate floor, McKellar denounced Pearson as “an ignorant liar, a pusillanimous liar, a peewee liar, a liar during his manhood, a liar by profession, a liar in the daytime and a liar in the nighttime.”
In our interview, I naturally asked Pearson if any of those pungent adjectives accurately described him, and he naturally denied that he was any kind of liar. We then talked about politics and the next presidential election. The two of us shared the conventional wisdom that Richard Nixon was the probable Republican nominee, and when we turned our attention to who was likely to oppose him in the general election, I noted that “the Democratic glamour boy would seem to be Senator Jack Kennedy.”
Although I didn’t know the senator from Massachusetts well, I felt a certain kinship with him because we shared a common background. As boys growing up in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Jack Kennedy and I had lived in the same neighborhood. Let me digress a moment here to elaborate on that connection.
Over the years I’ve often described the Brookline of my youth as “an O’Connor and Goldberg town,” and our two families exemplified that. I was the fourth and last child of Frank and Zina Wallace, both of whom were Jewish immigrants who came to America from the shtetls of Tsarist Russia in the late nineteenth century, some four decades after Kennedy’s forebears emigrated from Ireland. My father eventually became a successful insurance broker, and by the time I was born in 1918, our family was settled in Brookline, which had become a haven for upwardly mobile Jews and Catholics who were still not welcome in the snootier sections around Boston, a city then notorious for its class-conscious snobbery. Rather than storm the social citadels erected by the haughty Brahmins and other Yankee Protestants, the families of immigrants from Ireland and Italy and Eastern Europe chose to converge on communities that were more tolerant, and none was more attractive in those days than the upscale suburb of Brookline.
Joseph and Rose Kennedy moved to Brookline shortly after they were married in 1914, and began raising their large family just a block or so away from our home on Osborne Road. Jack Kennedy was one year older than I was, and we attended the same neighborhood school. More often than not, when I’ve told people that Kennedy and I went to the same elementary school and that its name was Edward Devotion, they’ve assumed it was a Catholic school, which reveals how little they know about Brookline’s glorious history.
Edward Devotion was an early hero in the American Revolution. On the night Paul Revere made his legendary ride through Boston and neighboring towns, his friend and fellow patriot Devotion mounted his horse and went on a similar gallop to sound the alarm that the British were coming. The course he followed took him through Brookline. I suppose the main reason why Devotion’s ride of warning has been so overshadowed is because many years later, when Longfellow sat down to write his famous ballad, Revere happened to be the horseman he chose to immortalize.
At a social function a few years ago, I was approached by Robert Kraft, the enterprising owner of the New England Patriots, the first team to win three Super Bowls in the twenty-first century. Since I hardly knew him, I wasn’t aware he was from Brookline and was surprised to hear him say that he, too, had grown up in my old neighborhood and was a pupil at Edward Devotion, although his time there came long after Kennedy’s and mine. He then asked if I’d been back there in recent years. I said I had not, and he told me it was worth a visit because the school had chosen to honor three of its most famous graduates—Kraft, Kennedy, and me—by putting our pictures on a wall near the main entrance.
“My picture is on top,” Kraft declared with some relish, “because of the three of us, I had the best grades. Then comes your picture, because you had the second-best. Then below you is Kennedy’s picture.”
I thanked him for sharing this bit of hometown lore, and proceeded to suggest that it was probably the only time in his life that John F. Kennedy finished third and last in anything.
Even though Jack Kennedy and I were about the same age and lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same elementary school, our paths seldom crossed during the years he lived in Brookline. I’m sure that in time, I would have gotten to know him better if he hadn’t moved away. After Joseph Kennedy made his fortune as an investment banker and in other enterprises, he began to set his sights on greener pastures, and in 1927, when Jack was ten and I was nine, the Kennedys relocated to Riverdale, then a posh and exclusive section of New York City.
From there, Jack Kennedy went on to his impressive achievements, which included heroism in the Pacific during World War II, then election to Congress in 1946 and to the Senate six years later. His political star then rose so rapidly that by 1957 he was on the short list of Democratic contenders for the White House. Which brings me back to my interview with Drew Pearson in December of that year. My reference to Kennedy as his party’s “glamour boy” led to a question about the senator and his controversial father.
WALLACE: In your column on October twenty-seventh, you wrote that Senator Kennedy’s—and I quote—“millionaire McCarthyite father, crusty old Joseph P. Kennedy, is spending a fortune on a publicity machine to make Jack’s name well known. No candidate in history has ever had so much money spent on a public relations advance buildup.” Unquote. What significance do you see in this, aside from the fact that Joe Kennedy would like to see Jack Kennedy president of the United States?
PEARSON: I don’t know what significance other than the fact that I don’t think we should have a synthetic public relations buildup for any job of that kind. Now, Jack Kennedy’s a fine young man, a very personable fellow. But he isn’t as good as the public relations campaign makes him out to be. He’s the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him, which indicates the kind of a public relations buildup he has had.
WALLACE: Who wrote the book for him?
PEARSON: I don’t recall at the present moment.
WALLACE: You know for a fact, Drew?
PEARSON: Yes, I do.
WALLACE: That the book Profiles in Courage was written for Senator Kennedy?
PEARSON: I do.
WALLACE: By somebody else?
PEARSON: I do.
WALLACE: And he, Kennedy, accepted a Pulitzer Prize for it?
PEARSON: He did.
WALLACE: And he has never acknowledged the fact?
PEARSON: No, he has not.
Kennedy’s office called the next day and asked for a copy of the transcript. A day or so later, a meeting—to which I was not invited—was held in the executive suite of my boss, Oliver Treyz, the president of ABC Television. Among those present were Bobby Kennedy and the esteemed Washington lawyer Clark Clifford, whose honor roll of prestigious clients included the Kennedy family. Their purpose in setting up the meeting with Treyz was to get an on-air apology from Pearson and/or me for what had been said in our broadcast about the authorship of Profiles in Courage.
In the meantime, I’d urged Pearson to specify who had ghostwritten the book. After checking with his sources, he called to tell me it was written by a member of the senator’s staff, a young man named Ted Sorensen. A few years later, Sorensen would acquire a certain derivative glory as one of President Kennedy’s top advisers and his primary speechwriter, but in 1957 he was unknown to the general public. In the preface to Profiles in Courage, Kennedy credited Sorensen for “his invaluable assistance in the assembly and preparation” of the material on which the book was based, and that was the extent of his acknowledgment. Pearson refused to make the desired apology and so did I, but the network brass failed to back us up. Faced with the threat of a libel suit, Treyz chose to deliver the apology himself, and to make the capitulation complete, he agreed to let Clifford write it for him. So, prior to our next broadcast, the president of the ABC television network appeared on-camera and read the mea culpa composed by Kennedy’s lawyer. Among other things, Treyz said, “We deeply regret this error and feel that it does a grave injustice to a distinguished public servant and author.”
I was incensed that my employers had caved in to the Kennedys. The way I saw it, the ABC apology was a humiliating insult to Pearson, who, for all his reputation as a loose cannon, was a seasoned journalist and no stranger to litigation; through the years he had weathered more than a few libel suits with no serious damage to his career. As for the Kennedys, I believed they were bluffing.
There is a postscript to this episode. In the spring of 1991, I interviewed Clark Clifford on 60 Minutes. He was eighty-four years old and in the deep twilight of his long and extraordinary career. In his prime, Clifford had been one of the most influential advisers ever to move through the corridors of power in Washington, and when I talked to him that spring, he’d just written his autobiography, Counsel to the President. Most of the interview focused on his very close relationship with three of our most dynamic Democratic presidents: Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. But what the viewers of 60 Minutes did not see that evening was the part of our conversation dealing with the 1957 Drew Pearson controversy. Thirty-four years later, Clifford revealed to me just how angry the Kennedys had been:
“My phone rang, and it was Senator Kennedy. He said, ‘I must see you at once.’ He then came to my office and said, ‘I’ve written a book, as you know, Profiles in Courage. Drew Pearson said I didn’t write the book, and it’s terribly upsetting to me.’ About that time, the phone rang for Senator Kennedy. It was his father. He listened to him awhile and then said, ‘Father, I’ll put Clark on.’ I get on the phone. He said, ‘This is Ambassador Kennedy.’ I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Ambassador.’ He said, ‘Sue the bastards for fifty million dollars.’ ”
As he recalled that brusque order, Clifford let out a hearty laugh. He then said he assured the former ambassador that “we are going to look into it,” but the senior Kennedy’s only response to that was to repeat his previous command: “Sue the bastards for fifty million dollars.”
Even after I heard that story, I was not convinced that if push had come to shove, the Kennedys would have sued us. In the context of the elaborate preparations he was making to run for president, the last thing the senator and those close to him would have wanted was a highly publicized court fight over the question of who had written Profiles in Courage.
Whatever the case, the Kennedy camp stuck to its guns. A few weeks after my interview with Pearson, the senator invited me to his office on Capitol Hill, where he showed me his notes for the book and insisted that Pearson had it all wrong. Over the years, Sorensen has been steadfast in his assertion that he was not the author of Profiles in Courage. But his disavowal has not gone unchallenged. In a 1980 book called Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, the historian Herbert Parmet detailed his thorough investigation of the creative process that produced Profiles in Courage and came to the conclusion that it was essentially ghostwritten. “The research, tentative drafts and organization were left to the collective labors of others,” Parmet wrote, “and the literary craftsmanship was clearly the work of Ted Sorensen.”
The flap over the Pearson interview was my only contact with the illustrious politician who had been my boyhood neighbor. During the years when Kennedy was in the White House and leading us across the New Frontier, I had various assignments that took me to cities at home and abroad, but Washington was seldom one of them. Fact is, I was going through a series of twists and turns as I jumped around from one job to another, and I didn’t settle down until March 1963, when I went to work for CBS News, which has been my professional home ever since. In September of that year, CBS launched a new midmorning news show, and I was assigned to anchor it; that’s what I was doing on November 22, the day the shots rang out in Dallas.
Many of us who lived through the shock and the grief of that day were inclined to view the Kennedy assassination as a ghastly aberration, the kind of horrific deed that simply did not happen in a civilized society and would never occur again in our lifetime. That naive assumption was shattered by subsequent events, for instead of being an isolated tragedy, Kennedy’s murder was the first in a wave of comparable assaults on political leaders that persisted over the next decade and beyond. The two most charismatic black leaders of the civil rights era were gunned down by assassins, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr., three years later. And just two months after King was killed, a second Kennedy was slain in the midst of his own campaign for president. In 1972, at another campaign stop in another presidential race, Alabama governor George Wallace was shot. He survived that attack, but the wounds he suffered left him paralyzed for life. And in September 1975, President Gerald Ford was the target in California of two assassination attempts that took place within seventeen days of each other.
Every fresh act of violence rekindled memories of the first Kennedy assassination, and not long after the attempts on President Ford’s life, I interviewed the Secret Service agent who had been assigned to Kennedy’s car on that dreadful day in November 1963. His name was Clint Hill, and over the years he’d refused to talk in public about what had happened in Dallas, or about any other aspect of his work with the Secret Service. But Hill had been granted early retirement in the summer of 1975, and now that he was no longer on active duty, he agreed to appear on 60 Minutes to answer questions—for the first time—about the assassination he had witnessed from such close range.
In preparing for that interview, I learned that the shooting in Dallas had left Hill deeply troubled and stricken with guilt. Nonetheless, I was caught off guard by the raw, visceral anguish he displayed when I brought up the subject.
WALLACE: Can I take you back to November twenty-second in 1963? You were on the fender of the Secret Service car right behind President Kennedy’s car. At the first shot, you ran forward and jumped on the back of the president’s car—in less than two seconds—pulling Mrs. Kennedy down into her seat, protecting her. First of all, she was out on the trunk of that car—
HILL: She was out of the backseat of that car, not on the trunk of that car.
WALLACE: Well, she was— She had climbed out of the back, and she was on the way back, right?
HILL: And because of the fact that her husband’s—part of his—her husband’s head had been shot off and gone off to the street.
WALLACE: She wasn’t— She wasn’t trying to climb out of the car? She was—
HILL: No, she was simply trying to reach that head, part of the head.
WALLACE: To bring it back?
HILL: That’s the only thing—
At that point, Hill broke down; tears streamed down his face. I sat in silence for a moment or two and then gently asked if he would prefer to move away from this painful memory and talk about something else. But he made it clear that he wanted to go on, and so, after he’d regained his composure, I continued to question him about that day.
WALLACE: Was there any way— Was there anything that the Secret Service or Clint Hill could have done to keep that from happening?
HILL: Clint Hill, yes.
WALLACE: “Clint Hill, yes”? What do you mean?
HILL: If he had acted about five-tenths of a second faster, or maybe a second faster, I wouldn’t be here today.
WALLACE: You mean you would have gotten there and you would have taken the shot?
HILL: The third shot, yes, sir.
WALLACE: And that would have been all right with you?
HILL: That would have been fine with me.
WALLACE: But you couldn’t. You got there in less than two seconds, Clint. You couldn’t have gotten there. You don’t—you surely don’t have any sense of guilt about that?
HILL: Yes, I certainly do. I have a great deal of guilt about that. Had I turned in a different direction, I’d have made it. It’s my fault.
WALLACE: Oh, no one has ever suggested that for an instant! What you did was show great bravery and great presence of mind. What was on the citation that was given you for your work on November twenty-second, 1963?
HILL: I don’t care about that, Mike.
WALLACE: “Extraordinary courage and heroic effort in the face of maximum danger.”
HILL: Mike, I don’t care about that. If I had reacted just a little bit quicker, and I could have, I guess. And I’ll live with that to my grave.
I’ve never interviewed a more tormented man. Hill’s agony was so deep, so poignant, that I couldn’t resist getting swept up by it, and there were times during our conversation when I could feel my own tears welling up. Many of our viewers were no less affected, as we learned from the letters that flooded into our office in the days following that broadcast.
In our interview, Hill said that a “neurological problem caused by what happened in the past” had prompted his doctors to urge him to accept retirement from the Secret Service at the still-youthful age of forty-three. When the camera wasn’t rolling, he was even more candid. What our audience wasn’t told was that he was suffering from severe depression.
In the years since our 1975 interview, I’ve inquired about Hill from time to time to see how he was doing and to pass along my best wishes. But I didn’t have any direct contact with him again until the fall of 2003, when all the media were turning their attention to the fortieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I wanted to know if Clint would be willing to revisit the subject in another interview with me. When I called him at his Virginia home just outside Washington, he greeted me warmly, and although he made it clear he did not want to talk any more about that day in Dallas, he assured me he was fine and that the misery he’d gone through was now behind him. He had finally managed to put his demons to rest, and he no longer blamed himself for the death of John F. Kennedy.
That tragedy in Dallas elevated Lyndon Johnson to the presidency, and I had a memorable encounter with him two years after his stormy reign in the White House had come to an end. The occasion was a 60 Minutes piece on the opening of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in the spring of 1971. The event was considered so major that Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, elected to fly to Texas with me and our production crew to take part in our coverage of the story.
Johnson had been practically hounded from office by the groundswell of opposition to his war policies in Vietnam. By the time he left the White House, he had become an almost desolate figure, no longer welcome in the high councils of his own party. Since then, he’d been living as a virtual recluse on his ranch in the Texas Hill Country, where, according to some reports, he was so consumed by bitterness that he spent a lot of his time brooding over his fate and nursing his grievances.
Johnson’s resentment extended to the press, which he blamed for having fanned the flames of protest that undermined his presidency, and for the most part, he had turned a cold shoulder to reporters. But the opening of his presidential library put him in a more receptive mood. The library had been conceived as a lasting memorial to the great achievements of his domestic policy, and now that it was ready to be unveiled to the public, Johnson was not only willing but eager to cooperate with the media. So much so that when he learned we were planning to do a 60 Minutes story on the opening, he invited Hewitt and me to be his guests at the ranch. Nor was that all. When we arrived at the airport, Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, were on hand to greet us and take us under their wings. Even by the larger-than-life standards of Texas hospitality, it was an expansive, even effusive welcome, which we appreciated.
The next morning we were roused from our beds bright and early. Johnson, reveling in his role as über-host, was eager to give us a tour of the ranch. Along with two other guests, we were herded into his white convertible, and with LBJ himself at the wheel, we took off on the sightseeing ride at an alarmingly high speed. At one point, as we careened around the large spread, the former president swerved off the road and hit the brakes. He’d seen something that clearly distressed him. “Hewitt,” he barked, “you want to pick up that candy wrapper?”
Hewitt, sitting next to me in the back, snapped to attention. “Mr. President?” he exclaimed in a startled tone.
Johnson turned and glared at Don, then gestured toward the offensive object. “That candy wrapper,” he reiterated. “How about picking it up?”
It was obvious he had no intention of resuming our tour until his order had been carried out, and so, while the rest of us sat in the convertible and watched with amused approval, Hewitt sheepishly got out and did his part to combat the crime of littering at the LBJ ranch. He stuffed the candy wrapper into his pocket and returned to the car. But before he had a chance to get in, Johnson began to pull away, with Hewitt trotting along behind us in pursuit. This antic sideshow did not last long; once Johnson realized he had been a bit too hasty, he stopped the car again and let Don back in.
On reflection, the candy-wrapper incident shouldn’t have surprised us that much, for throughout his long career in Washington, Lyndon Johnson had a well-earned reputation for being almost compulsive in his need to exert authority and dominate all who came into his presence. While it was true that he was no longer the political force he’d been during his years in power, he continued to rule his own turf. At the LBJ ranch, he was still the commander in chief.
Back in 1964, when LBJ was in the exuberant early days of his presidency, reporters covering him wrote and broadcast vivid accounts about his harrowing high-speed rides around the ranch. On at least one of those occasions, Johnson drove with just one hand on the wheel, while in the other one, he clutched a beer can from which he heartily guzzled. Once a can was empty, he invariably flung it out
the window. In writing about that, some reporters observed that the president’s behavior was hardly in keeping with the campaign the First Lady had recently adopted as her pet project: a major effort to clean up and beautify the nation’s parks and highways. In light of our experience with the candy wrapper, I can only conclude that by 1971, Lady Bird had brought her husband around to her way of thinking. As students of formal religion are well aware, there is no greater passion than the zeal of a convert.
Later that day we drove over to the new library, situated on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Hewitt and I had decided to structure our piece in the form of a tour, with President Johnson as our guide. We went through a couple of informal rehearsals that afternoon to get the feel of things and set up camera angles. Even in those dry runs, the former president displayed understandable pride as he led us past exhibits honoring his achievements in civil rights, Medicare, and other landmark programs that fell under the heading of the Great Society. When we moved into a much smaller area in the library that dealt with foreign policy, he called our attention to an exhibit on the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East. But in glancing around, we couldn’t help noticing that the war in Vietnam was conspicuously absent. When I asked Johnson about that, he turned somber and spoke almost in a whisper. “We don’t have that one filled in yet,” he said. “Besides, I’ve already talked about Vietnam over and over again. So there’s no need to talk about it here.”
Hewitt and I looked at each other in disbelief. Don began to argue that we couldn’t ignore Vietnam, that it was an essential part of LBJ’s presidency. Johnson refused to budge. “I don’t want to talk about Vietnam,” he snarled. Turning to me, he said that if I brought up Vietnam while the cameras were rolling, he would cut off the tour on the spot and “send you boys packing.”
That was enough to alarm Hewitt, who promptly walked away, leaving me alone with Johnson. After a brief silence, I decided to try to persuade him from a different angle, one that would be both ingratiating and combative, a dual tactic Johnson himself had often employed to great effect. I told him that I’d been a fervent admirer of his ever since the Eisenhower years, when he had demonstrated his political genius as majority leader in the U.S. Senate. I said that even back then I thought he was exactly the kind of president the country needed—a white southerner with progressive views on the race issue—and that when the forces of history and fate later conspired to put him in the White House, he had more than lived up to my high expectations. In particular, I said, he deserved the highest praise for the strong civil rights legislation he maneuvered through Congress during his first two years in office, since there was no question in my mind that he had done more to advance the cause than any president since Lincoln. “But then,” I said, “everything turned sour, Mr. President, and you know why?”
“Why?” he rasped.
“Because you let that war get out of hand.” I took a deep breath and then forged ahead, man-to-man. “Vietnam fucked you, Mr. President, and so, I’m afraid, you fucked the country. And you’ve got to talk about that!”
Johnson glared at me with startled fury and then stalked off. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I asked the question in that manner. I suspect my thought process went something like this: Okay, if he refuses to talk about Vietnam, then I’ll remind him, using his own forceful and graphic language, about the terrible damage that war did to him and, through him, to the American people.
The reaction to my intemperate remark was not what I had feared. Even though Johnson was steamed (to put it mildly), he did not go to Hewitt to complain that I had stepped out of line. Nor did he go through with his threat to send us packing. We proceeded to film our story, and when the time came for Johnson to guide us past the exhibits, I honored his request and did not ask about Vietnam. But to my astonishment, he brought it up himself. We’d just finished talking about the critical challenges that a commander in chief had to confront in the nuclear age when, out of the blue—without a hint or warning of any kind—the words came pouring out of him in a torrent:
“Throughout our history, our public has been prone to attach presidents’ names to the international difficulties. You will recall the War of 1812 was branded as Mr. Madison’s War, and the Mexican War was Mr. Polk’s War, and the Civil War or the War Between the States was Mr. Lincoln’s War, and World War One was Mr. Wilson’s War, and World War Two was Mr. Roosevelt’s War, and Korea was Mr. Truman’s War, and President Kennedy was spared that cruel action because his period was known as Mr. McNamara’s War. And then it became Mr. Johnson’s War, and now they refer to it as Mr. Nixon’s War in talking about getting out. I think it is very cruel to have that burden placed upon a president, because he is trying to follow a course that he devotedly believes is in the best interest of his nation. And if those presidents hadn’t stood up for what was right during those periods, we wouldn’t have this country what it is today.”
A few minutes later, after we’d finished shooting and were preparing to leave, Johnson turned to me and said: “Well, goddammit, Mike, I gave you what you wanted. I hope you’re satisfied.”
“Oh, I am, Mr. President, I am,” I assured him.
Johnson’s outburst provided the climax of our story, and when we aired it in a few days, I concluded the piece with the following comment on the man and his presidency:
“What he hopes most is that he will be remembered for his Great Society and not for Vietnam. But the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is that, although he accomplished so much for so many while he was in office, historians are bound to write of him principally as the president who bogged his country down in Vietnam. It is some measure of the man, I think, that on that matter—Vietnam—he has not wavered. He still believes that he was right, and that history will prove it.”
As we would later learn, it was not quite as simple as that. Throughout the mid-1960s, as he ordered one escalation after another, Lyndon Johnson projected the image of a confident president who deeply believed he was pursuing a course that would ultimately lead to a U.S. victory. All his public statements echoed the smug optimism of his military commanders, who kept assuring us that we were winning the war in Vietnam. Although many of us eventually became disillusioned with Johnson and his war policies, we did not question his credentials. We assumed that his various decisions to expand the war were driven by sincere convictions.
Now, alas, we know how brazenly he lied to the American people. The stunning transcripts in a 2001 book called Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964–1965, compiled by the historian Michael Beschloss, reveal that as early as 1965—the year he ordered the huge buildup in Vietnam that, in effect, transformed the conflict into a full-scale American war—Johnson had reached the despondent conclusion that the war was unwinnable. In a conversation with one of his aides, he lamented that sending “good American boys” to their deaths in a futile war made him feel like a pilot who has to fly a flaming aircraft without a parachute. In an anguished exchange with his onetime mentor, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, he said that “a man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”
So why did Johnson act against the grain of his own instincts? Why did he make the decision to lead America into an all-out war that he privately believed could not be won? Politics? To judge from the tapes that Beschloss assembled and other evidence, he did so mainly because he was convinced that if he abandoned the military commitment he had inherited from the Kennedy administration, right-wing Republicans and other militant anti-Communists would destroy him politically. What a sad irony that is, for in the end it was the war—and the fierce opposition it provoked—that demolished his presidency and left an enduring stain on his place in history.
But in my judgment, that doesn’t mean Vietnam is destined to be LBJ’s ultimate legacy: We should keep in mind that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was an epic drama that produced both tragedies and triumphs on a grand scale. It’s entirely possible that in the long view of history, the disastrous blunders of his policies in Vietnam will be eclipsed by the towering achievements of his Great Society programs, especially in the areas of civil rights and health care.
I observed the collapse of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency from the vantage point of the campaign waged by the man destined to succeed him. Covering Richard Nixon’s triumphant run in 1968 turned out to be my last major assignment as a general correspondent for CBS News. In September of that year, 60 Minutes made its debut and I began the best, the most fulfilling job a reporter could imagine.
When I hooked up with the Nixon campaign in the early fall of 1967, the public’s prevailing view was that he was damaged goods, a political has-been. There was no doubt that he had serious image problems. During his years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon was a favorite target of pundits and cartoonists, many of whom routinely portrayed him as a devious opportunist, “Tricky Dick.” Others saw him as a ruthless hatchet man who concealed his natural malice behind a facade of pious platitudes. And to go along with that baggage, he had to bear the stigma of sore loser, which stemmed in part from his narrow defeat by Kennedy in 1960 and even more from his far more decisive loss when he ran for governor of California in ’62. It was on the night of that humiliating setback when he held his “last press conference,” where, with bitter sarcasm, he told the assembled reporters, “Just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. . . .”
Of course, that prophecy turned out to be extravagantly premature, for here he was, five years later, making another run for the White House. For some reason, I had a hunch that Nixon’s prospects were not as dismal as they were judged to be by the heavyweight political reporters who worked out of Washington, and so I found myself drawn to his candidacy. At the least, I was curious to see how far his comeback attempt would carry him. There was a lot of talk that fall about the so-called New Nixon, and no one preached that born-again sermon with more fervor than Len Garment, a partner at the Wall Street law firm that had been Nixon’s professional base during the years when he wasn’t actively engaged in politics. Garment was a key player on Nixon’s newly formed campaign team, and in an effort to learn more about that operation, I had lunch with Len one day in September of ’67. By chance, it happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Here were Garment and I, two backsliding Jews, breaking forbidden bread together while our more pious brethren observed the traditional rites of prayer and fasting.
“You’re looking at a lifelong Democrat,” he told me that day. “A couple of years ago I would have been the last person in the world to support Richard Nixon. But he’s changed. The years in exile have made him a better man, a more thoughtful and more compassionate man. But don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself. All I ask is that you come to us with an open mind.”
I assured Garment that I did my best to bring an open mind to every assignment I undertook. I also reminded him that, unlike the Washington press corps, I had not been exposed to Nixon during the “Tricky Dick” phase of his career, so my coverage of his comeback campaign would not be burdened by all those biases and preconceptions.
Not that it seemed to matter much, because at the time hardly anyone was paying close attention to Nixon. In fact, his campaign had attracted so little notice that I was one of a mere handful of reporters bothering to cover it. In that early autumn of ’67, most of the big media guns were trained on the acknowledged front-runner for the Republican nomination, the popular governor of Michigan, George Romney. And that was exactly how Nixon wanted it. In the early stages of the campaign, he clearly welcomed our neglect. When one of his aides expressed concern about all the coverage Romney was attracting, Nixon replied, “Good, I want him to get the exposure. We have to keep him out at the point.”
To sharpen the contrast, Nixon maintained such a low profile that through most of that fall, his was almost a stealth campaign. Because the atmosphere was so subdued and laid-back, gaining access to the candidate was not the problem it would become in later months, after the campaign had shifted into high gear and begun to move with bandwagon force. I recall in particular a long flight to Oregon one day in November. (That state’s primary loomed as a pivotal test the following spring.) As it happened, I was the only reporter who made that trip, and not long after we took off from New York, Nixon invited me to sit with him. For the next hour or so, he and I talked in a relaxed and rambling vein about the campaign, the various issues, and what he hoped to accomplish as president. I had other casual conversations with him from time to time, and I gradually began to form my own impressions of the man and his candidacy.
Most of them, I must admit, were favorable. The Nixon I came to know in 1967 did not strike me as devious or ruthless or any of the other negative things I’d heard or read about him over the years. I had no idea if this was because he had undergone some radical change—had actually metamorphosed into a “New Nixon”—and frankly, I didn’t care all that much. But I can say that if it was a new persona, it did not include the kind of warm and ebullient disposition we normally find in politicians. Nixon was always courteous and sometimes even cordial, in his stiff and formal way; still, when it came to charm or charisma, he was a far cry from contemporary rivals like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller, both so congenitally outgoing that either could—and invariably did—brighten and invigorate a room simply by entering it.
Nixon had other strengths. I was especially impressed by his penetrating intelligence, his broad and sophisticated view of history, and his profound grasp of the difficult challenges he would confront in the White House. And at that point, I saw no reason to doubt his sincerity or question his character.
I also had respect for his political savvy. He certainly had the right take on poor George Romney, who was indeed flummoxed by all the glare and pressure of the day-to-day scrutiny that is inevitably directed at a front-running candidate for president. All through the waning weeks of 1967 and the first two months of 1968, Romney committed one blunder after another, and more often than not, when he tried to talk his way out of some gaffe, he only made it worse. His campaign was so inept that it prompted a fellow Republican governor—James Rhodes of Ohio—to observe that “watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
Meanwhile, Nixon was charging out of the shadows, and as the campaign approached its first critical test—the New Hampshire primary—he had built a commanding lead over Romney. Moreover, other polls indicated that he had substantial leads in states where primaries were scheduled for later that spring, and although George Romney may not have known how to run for president, he did know when to quit. Rather than go through the ordeal of getting trounced by Nixon, the governor abruptly pulled out of the race just two weeks before the voters in New Hampshire registered their official verdict.
So all of a sudden, Richard Nixon—the notorious loser and presumed has-been—had the Republican playing field to himself. It’s true that in the months to come, he would have to withstand the challenges of two other Republican governors, Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California, but by the time they announced their candidacies, it was too late to enter any of the primaries—and thus too late to inflict any serious damage on Nixon.
A week or so after Nixon cruised to his undisputed victory in New Hampshire, Len Garment came to me with a proposition: “The boss would like you to join up, to come aboard and work with us.”
I was flabbergasted. I had never given any thought to a move in that direction. “To do what, exactly?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Garment. “You know we’re not that well organized yet. But I imagine it would be press secretary or communications director, or something like that.”
I admit that I seriously considered accepting the offer. I was now convinced that Nixon had a virtual lock on his party’s nomination and a better-than-even chance of winning the election in November. If that proved to be the case, then I’d be joining the team headed for the White House. I was intrigued by the prospect of becoming involved in the adventure of a new presidency. I talked it over with my wife and also with a few close friends and colleagues whose judgment I respected.
In the end, I decided it was not for me. I wrote Nixon a letter thanking him for the offer, but said I couldn’t accept it because I didn’t think I had the proper temperament to serve as a spokesman or apologist for any politician. Elaborating, I wrote that I would find it difficult to “put a good face on bad facts.” Only later, when the Nixon White House was rocked by scandal and crisis, would I fully realize just how sound—and lucky—my decision had been. I’ve often shuddered at the thought of how I might have fared if I’d been the president’s spokesman when the Watergate dam broke in the tumultuous spring of 1973.
I continued to cover the Nixon campaign as it glided serenely through the spring primaries and across the summer of 1968. In early August, the Republicans assembled at their convention in Miami Beach, where Nixon had to contend with the late challenges by Rockefeller and Reagan. Though their strenuous efforts to pry delegates away from Nixon enlivened the proceedings with a certain superficial suspense, I remained convinced that neither governor had a chance of wresting the nomination away from the old pro. From my front-row seat on the Nixon bandwagon, I had seen enough to appreciate how thorough and adept the candidate and his team had been in putting together their broad coalition of moderates and conservatives from all regions of the country. So, while others seemed surprised by how easily Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot, I was not.
Once the convention was over, I left the Nixon campaign. Don Hewitt had been given the green light to proceed with his innovative plan for a magazine show, and I’d accepted his offer to cohost the new program with my good friend Harry Reasoner. I confess that when Hewitt first came to me with his proposal, I was so unimpressed that I nearly turned him down. At the time, the idea of a magazine for television was an alien concept that was not easy to envision. The TV journalism that existed then was neatly divided into two distinct and traditional formats. One was the daily or nightly news show, and the other was the documentary, and never the twain did meet. Hewitt’s scheme was to merge the two formats into some kind of multisubject hodgepodge, and I didn’t believe he could make it work; even if he did, I thought, he’d be lucky to keep the new program going through one full season, two at the most. (So much for my prophetic talents.)
Still, I was reluctant to say no to Hewitt, who already had a reputation for being one of the most creative producers in the history of television news. As a young pioneer in the early days of the medium, he’d invented the evening news show at CBS and had nurtured it through its formative years. What’s more, when Don Hewitt is delivering a sales pitch at full cry, it is almost impossible to resist him. Once he had brought all of his evangelical powers into play, he soon won me over, and I agreed to be part of his experimental new broadcast, which he had decided to call 60 Minutes.
At some point during the week of the Republican convention, I informed Garment and some of Nixon’s other deputies that I was moving on to another assignment, but that message must not have been relayed to the candidate himself. When Nixon came to the hall on the last night of the convention to deliver his acceptance speech, I was standing near the podium with some other reporters. As he passed by, he peered into our group looking for familiar faces and tossed personal greetings to some of us who had been with him since—as he liked to put it—“the snows of New Hampshire and before.” When his gaze fell on me, he said, “Hi, Mike, I’ll see you in California next week. We’ll be out there planning the campaign.”
“No, Mr. Nixon, I thought you knew. I’m peeling off the campaign after tonight to work on a new television series.”
Nixon was dumbfounded; he looked at me as if I’d gone bonkers. Clearly, he could not comprehend how I, one of the first reporters to take his political comeback seriously, could walk away from the campaign at this triumphant juncture. He seemed almost insulted, as if I were casting a vote of no confidence in his ability to beat the Democrats in the general election, and had thus made up my mind not to waste time covering him after the convention. He seized the moment to set me straight on that score.
“We’re going to win this thing, Mike,” he predicted. “And later, after we get to Washington, we’re going to take some great trips.”
I had no idea what to make of that bizarre non sequitur. After all, every American president since World War II had felt obliged from time to time to visit other countries for one reason or another, and I assumed Nixon would be no exception. Well, so what? Was I supposed to be tempted by that travel-agent come-on? But a few years later, when Nixon became the first U.S. president to set foot in the Communist capitals of Beijing and Moscow, it occurred to me that those breakthrough missions had been on his secret agenda since before his election, and that was the cryptic message he’d been trying to get across to me that August night in 1968.
The premier edition of 60 Minutes was scheduled for September 24, and I spent the rest of the summer and early fall preparing stories for that show and subsequent broadcasts. The next time I saw Nixon again in person was in early October, when I interviewed him for 60 Minutes. He was then moving into the final month of his long campaign, and recent polls were showing him with a solid lead over his Democratic rival, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. One of the votes he’d be getting in November was mine, which was a fairly radical step for a guy who had never voted for a Republican in a national election.
Covering the Nixon campaign that year no doubt helped nudge me toward that sharp break with my past. There’s no denying that proximity to a candidate is an occupational hazard that can affect the judgment of even the most scrupulous reporter. (In spite of Aesop’s famous dictum, familiarity does not always breed contempt.) But more than anything else, it was the war in Vietnam that drove me into the Nixon camp.
By 1968 the country was so bitterly divided over the war that it seemed to me that only with fresh leadership in Washington could we begin to heal the psychic wounds tearing us apart. It’s true that the prime target of the antiwar protests—President Lyndon Johnson—had removed himself from the political line of fire when he chose not to run for a second term, but the way I saw it, his decision did not let the Democrats off the hook. They still had to bear responsibility for the war, especially since their nominee, Humphrey, had been such an enthusiastic supporter of LBJ’s policies. In my view, a Republican coming into the White House with a clean slate would be in a stronger position to lead us out of the morass, and in covering Nixon that year, I came to believe he had the qualities needed to meet that challenge.
However, most of my friends and CBS colleagues did not agree with me. In spirited arguments that fall, they kept insisting that I’d been duped by all the talk about a New Nixon, which they dismissed as so much malarkey. To them, he was still “Tricky Dick,” a master of deception who would say or do anything to get elected. Their antipathy was very much on my mind when I interviewed Nixon in October at his New York apartment, and I put the question to him directly.
WALLACE: The name Nixon is anathema to millions of American voters. To them, Richard Nixon is a political opportunist to whom the desired political end has justified just about any political means. How does Richard Nixon, if elected, go about reconciling the doubts of the skeptics?
NIXON: I do have, based on a hard political career going back over twenty-two years, some people in this country who consider me as anathema, as you pointed out. But on the other hand, I believe that I have the kind of leadership qualities that can unite this country and that at least can win the respect if not the affection of those who have a very bad picture of Richard Nixon.
The theme of respect must have been paramount in his thoughts that day; at another point in our interview, he made a similar observation that, in light of later events, would take on an even deeper irony. Here is what he said:
“If I do win this election, I think I will conduct the presidency in a way that I will command the respect of the American people. That may not be the same style of some of my predecessors, but it will enable me to lead. Let me make this one point: Some public men are destined to be loved, and other public men are destined to be disliked. But the most important thing about a public man is not whether he’s loved or disliked, but whether he’s respected, and I hope to restore respect to the presidency at all levels by my conduct.” (Italics are mine.)
Looking back at that pious pronouncement, it’s almost too easy to feel scorn. We hardly need to be reminded that instead of restoring respect, Richard Nixon brought disgrace to the presidency. Yet even before he was engulfed by the Watergate deluge, I’d become disillusioned with his leadership. Rather than taking decisive steps to bring an end to our disastrous misadventure in Vietnam, he allowed that war to drag on and on. Four years after he became president, young Americans were still fighting—and dying—in Vietnam. In retrospect, I could only conclude that I, along with millions of other gullible voters, had gravely misjudged Richard Nixon.
But I would rather not end this reminiscence on such a sour note. I still prefer not to think of Nixon as the president who betrayed the trust of those who had believed in him; instead, I remember him for something he did on the night of the 1968 New Hampshire primary.
My assignment that night was to cover his New York headquarters, where he was awaiting the returns. The big news from New Hampshire was not that Nixon had won (by then he had no serious opposition) but that he had received more votes than any candidate in any presidential primary in that state’s history, a stunning show of support for a man who, just a few months earlier, had been dismissed as a chronic loser. At one point that evening, Nixon emerged from a back room with his wife, and I was able to bag a short interview with him for our election broadcast. After getting his reaction to the heavy primary vote, I put the microphone in front of a visibly nervous Pat Nixon, who tautly but dutifully answered a couple of innocuous questions about the huge victory. I thanked her and dashed off to the CBS studio to do a live report. No sooner was I off the air than a phone call came in from Nixon. “I just wanted to thank you, Mike, for being so nice to Pat,” he said. That was all, but it revealed a thoughtful and caring side of Nixon I had never seen before and would not see again.
For many of Nixon’s detractors, the disdain they felt toward him extended to his wife. She was often derided as “Plastic Pat,” a term coined, I believe, by Gloria Steinem. But I did not view her that way.
It’s true that Pat Nixon usually came across as aloof and wary and even, at times, a little stilted and artificial (hence the “plastic” label), but there were reasons for that. For one thing, she was even more reserved than her husband and almost painfully shy. And for another, unhappy memories of personal attacks on her family in past campaigns had left her feeling bruised and vulnerable; as a result, she hated being thrust into the limelight and put on display. Yet even though Mrs. Nixon had no stomach whatsoever for the raucous commotion that is so much a part of American politics, she joined her husband on the campaign trail and did her best to be seen as a loyal and supportive wife. From what I observed, she was unfailingly courteous, in her tense and self-conscious way, to the reporters and other pests who swarmed around her in one public forum after another. Finally, there was the way she conducted herself during the Watergate crisis. Having to cope with all that must have been a terrible ordeal for her, and yet from beginning to end, she invariably projected a quiet dignity and forbearance.
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