Lyndon Johnson, James Rowe, and Jack Valenti on 6 August 1964


Transcript

Edited by David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, and Marc J. Selverstone, with Kieran K. Matthews

James Rowe, an associate of Johnson’s from the New Deal, was a close friend and adviser of Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, the front-runner for the vice presidential nomination. In the aftermath of the Tonkin Gulf Incident, Humphrey had made some ill-considered remarks to the press that riled President Johnson and caused the President to question Humphrey’s ability to keep a secret. After asking Rowe to send a message to Humphrey, Johnson went over recent poll numbers with Rowe and discussed his prospects for picking up considerable Republican support. This Republican “frontlash,” as Johnson soon labeled it, offered the potential to overcome a white backlash, an idea that Johnson tried to promote over the next few weeks.

A conversation with Jack Valenti on the intercom precedes the call.
Jack Valenti

I made a suggestion about Senator [Edwin] Johnson. I was just hoping you were able to see him now.[note 1] Johnson began a 20-minute session with Edwin Johnson, the former Democratic senator from Colorado, at 1:55 P.M.

President Johnson

Yes, I’ll see him now.

Valenti

OK, well let [unclear].

President Johnson

You get here in a minute, Jack. Jack? [Pauses, waiting for response from Valenti.]

Valenti

Yes, sir.

President Johnson

You get here right away, though.

Valenti

Yes, sir, he said he would be 5-10 minutes.

After an almost 30-second pause, the secretary announces Rowe.
President Johnson

Jim?

James Rowe

Yes, Mr. President.

President Johnson

How you doing?

Rowe

I’m doing fine, and you?

President Johnson

Pretty good. When are you going to be back here?

Rowe

I’ll be back in Sunday night.

President Johnson

Mm-hmm. I don’t know … I don’t know how to get this message over, but this boy—our friend Hubert [Humphrey]—is just destroying himself with his big mouth.

Rowe

Is he talking again?

President Johnson

[with Rowe acknowledging throughout] Yeah, all the time. He never … he just can’t stop it. He’s just got hydrophobia, and every responsible person gets frightened when they see him. He hasn’t missed any program. He’s just like a wild man, when he kind of sees this thing in the distance.

And what he ought to do is be a very retiring, and very sober, and very judicious fellow. Now, yesterday morning he went on TV, and looks like he’s got by with it, but he said—everybody in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every person in town that’s handling the war plans, it just scared them to death, because he just blabbed everything that he had heard in a briefing, just like it was his personal knowledge, and almost he wanted to claim credit for it.

They said, for instance, “How would you account for these PT boat attacks on our destroyer when we are innocently out there in the gulf 60 miles from shore?” And McNamara said that was a very difficult thing to explain the reasoning of these people. It may be that they wanted to try to scare us out of the area, but that he couldn’t explain Communist thinking on a good many matters. Rusk said substantially the same thing. Humphrey said, “Well, we have been carrying on some operations in that area, and we’ve been having some covert operations where we have been going in and knocking out roads and petroleum things, and so forth.”

Rowe

Good Lord.

President Johnson

And that’s exactly what we have been doing! But the damned fool got it up, and now he’s got [Wayne] Morse talking about it, who wasn’t in on the briefing.[note 2] Oregon Democrat Wayne Morse was one of two senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. And you just got to understand that you can’t talk about war plans; you just can’t talk about it.

Now, this morning—

Rowe

[Unclear] whole carrier out there [unclear] the war.

President Johnson

This morning, a fellow called me, very upset—one of the highest officials in the government—and said, “Have you talked to Humphrey about a communication from Khrushchev?”[note 3] Johnson was referring to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. See Conversation WH6408-09-4775. I said “No, I haven’t seen Humphrey. Haven’t seen anybody around Humphrey. Haven’t talked to my wife. Haven’t talked to a human being.” Well, Humphrey has discussed the details of communications with Khrushchev that somebody must have let him know about, and with a correspondent for NBC![note 4] In Conversation WH6408-09-4775, President Johnson complained to National Security Adviser Bundy that Humphrey had mentioned the Khrushchev exchange with CBS correspondent Martin Agronsky.

Rowe

Oh my.

President Johnson

And it’s the one thing that could make Khrushchev drop a bomb on us. And he just ought to keep his goddamned big mouth shut on foreign affairs at least until the election’s over.

Rowe

It’ll be done.

President Johnson

[with Rowe acknowledging throughout] And just say that this has just got people running wild, and they’re running in every moment to me, and for him not to be speculating on why the Communists would be doing something. Just say, “I’ve got all I can do speculating on why I do something. But it’s not up to me.” They [the Soviets] don’t pay him to do this. This is not like he’s getting a fee to speak to the druggist. He is just doing this free, and he’s hurting his government, and he’s hurting us.

And the Khrushchev thing, if they ask him anything about Khrushchev, just say frankly, “I don’t know.” It’s not going to hurt him to say, “I don’t know” a hundred times. If I could pick out one expression for him, it would be to eliminate the word “I” in everything, and just say “don’t know.”

Then they’d regard him as a stable [man]. A good many people have talked to me in meetings . . . Henry Ford [II][I] went to a lunch with him yesterday and said, “It looks to me like that he’s going a little bit strong on how he feels about business, kind of copying what you’re doing, but I rather like him, and if you feel that he’s stable enough and just doesn’t take off, it would be . . . he’s an interesting person, and a very scintillating person, and rather stimulating.”

But what his course of action ought to be without regard to anyone—now, there’s a poll I just got. It’s a good thing for him to let his friends talk to these people and for them to say it is up to the President to select, but they are for Humphrey. The … His friend said with a grin this morning—he’d written a note to a fellow Cabinet officer—saying, “I’m sorry to have taken so many nice fellows over the side, and I’m a little bit in awe of you when I think of my own position.[note 5] Johnson was referring to Robert Kennedy’s response after being told by Johnson that neither he nor any other Cabinet officers would be the Democratic vice presidential candidate in the 1964 election. You’re not members of the Cabinet. You don’t meet regularly with the Cabinet, therefore you’re eligible for vice president.”

He’s trying to make a joke of it, and trying to still stay in the running. He’s appearing every day, and he’s sending wires every day saying reconsider, and he’s trying to get that. And if that can’t happen, he’s trying to leave the impression he’s going to name him. And that’s the one thing that could keep … could hurt Hubert if he became the nominee and running around with this guy with his arm around him getting his pictures on the front page. That’s the last thing he wants to do.

Rowe

That’s [unclear] boy? We’re talking about the boy?

President Johnson

Yeah, yeah … yeah.

Rowe

Yeah. I [unclear].

President Johnson

[with Rowe acknowledging] Yeah, and he was up there with him, and he got his picture on the front page of the New York [Daily] News yesterday.[note 6] On 4 August, Attorney General Kennedy stopped by Senator Humphrey’s office for what Kennedy called “a social visit.” “Humphrey, Kennedy Have Visit,” Washington Post, 5 August 1964. They were laughing and giggling with each other. The same forces that worked on him are working on Hubert. And he ought to completely—if he’s going to put his arm around somebody right now, I’d put it around Ralph Yarborough, or Dick Russell, or somebody, not be running in here. Because he doesn’t need this guy’s support; he’s got their support. The liberals and the Negroes and that group has already talked to me about him. But he’s attracting to him the same enemies by doing things he doesn’t need to do.

Rowe

Right.

President Johnson

But Elmo Roper has got a devastating poll. It shows that Kennedy is way out. Everybody wants him. And Stevenson and Humphrey are in there, but … and he’d also make the best president.

Rowe

Kennedy?

President Johnson

Yeah.

Rowe

Good God. I wouldn’t believe the polls. [Johnson begins to speak.] I can’t find anybody who wants him.

President Johnson

[with Rowe acknowledging] “It seems clear that President Johnson will be the Democratic candidate for President, but I’d like to ask a few questions about the Vice President. Regardless of whom you yourself may favor, which of the men on the list do you think would add the most votes to the Johnson ticket?” Brown, 3; Humphrey, 11; Kennedy, 47; Mansfield, 2; McCarthy, 1; McNamara, 5; Shriver, 5; Stevenson, 8; Wagner, 3; none, 2; 15, don’t know; 1, refused.” So he’s got 47, which is considerably more than all of them. Of the Democrats he’s got 52 percent. Of the Republicans, 40 percent said he’d add the most to the ticket. Of the independents, 44 say. Of the other parties, 50 say. So that’s the ones that add the most to the ticket. That is coming out in Life magazine. They’re running this fellow awful strong.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

“It seems clear that Johnson will be the nominee, but I’d like to ask you a question. First, regardless of whom you yourself may favor, which of the men on the ticket do you think would add the most votes?” Now, let’s see.

[to himself] What was this other question?

[Reads another question under his breath.] That’s the same question. [Pauses for several seconds.]

“Now, this, of course, is especially mindful of the fact [that] the Vice President can propose … [correcting himself] can become President at any time. Which of the men on the list do you think would make the best President?”

Brown, 2; Humphrey, 11; Kennedy, 27. [Pauses for emphasis; Rowe grunts agreement.] Mansfield, 3; McCarthy, 1; McNamara, 9; Shriver, 3; Stevenson, 21; Wagner, 2; none, 3; don’t know, 18. Now this is coming out Monday, you see. This is trying to take it out of the hands of the politicians to show how the people want it; that’s the purpose of this.

Rowe

Well, they’re just voting on names that they know, aren’t they?

President Johnson

Yeah, that’s right. But that’s what they’re going to be doing up at Atlantic City.

Rowe

Yeah.

President Johnson

So if I were him, I would advise two courses, and this is by no way implication or commitment or anything, because I want to have lots of talks before I ever agree on who I’m going to recommend.

But there are two things he ought to do: Pretty well stay out of the delicate technical field of what Khrushchev is thinking and what the Communists [are] thinking, or what caused this, like he did on NBC [Rowe acknowledges] and like he did this morning to Martin Agronsky. Now, because this comes back to me, and my judgment is that it comes back from this very source that I’m talking about to point out to me how irresponsible he is.

Rowe

Right.

President Johnson

And he doesn’t know it. He just yak, yak, yak, yak, yak, yak, just dancing around with the ball in the air. That’s number one. So I think that’s the first thing I’d do—just say nothing about Khrushchev or the Communists or what’s causing this that could be a blooper, because that can ruin a man mighty quick.

[with Rowe acknowledging] The second thing I’d do, I would, without showing my hand, but any friends I had, I’d have them say what he’s had Dick Hughes say yesterday, and what he had others say; he sure ought to get Dick Daley to think that he’s a good man, which I don’t think he’s got done yet. I think the Dick Daleys and the New York people, the Wagners, and all those folks are awfully important. He’s around with the people that really haven’t got many votes. He got Hughes; Hughes has got some votes. But he ought to get those to give out these statements. Because this guy is still hollering “reconsider.”

Rowe

Mm-hmm. Yeah. All right, I’ll get it done. [Pauses.]

President Johnson

But that’s real odd that that many would think that he’d make the best president; this 27, that’s considerably down from his other. [Rowe acknowledges.] He’s 47, you see, and he’s down to 27.

Rowe

It makes some distinctions, but now they’re still voting on names they know, like Stevenson and Kennedy.

President Johnson

[with Rowe acknowledging] Well, but Stevenson … that’s right. Johnson is 58. “Who do you think you’ll probably be voting for, for President, Johnson or Goldwater?” Johnson is 58 and Goldwater is 25. Johnson got 54 percent of the males and 27 percent … Goldwater got 27. I’m just 2 to 1.

Rowe

This is the Roper poll?

President Johnson

Yeah, and females, I got 62 to 22.

Rowe

How recent was it?

President Johnson

It’s just now, just coming out next Monday.

Rowe

Well, that’s encouraging. Despite all the white backlash, you’re still doing 2 to 1.

President Johnson

[with Rowe acknowledging] Yes, but what they don’t tell is, that I get a third of the Republicans. And that’s the biggest backlash. And if you do any briefing for any columnists, when you get back here, the brief ought to be that the big backlash is against Goldwater among his Republicans, because ’’every’’ poll that anybody takes—Harris, Roper, individual Quayle polls—show that one out of three Republicans are against Goldwater. But they only show one out of ten Democrats against me. So there has been a 10 percent Democratic backlash and a 33 percent Republican backlash.

Rowe

Well, you find that, you just walk along the street here in New England. You find it in Pennsylvania. Some friends of mine are there; they say that the Republicans are definitely in the field. They say every house they go into these days, it’s just a knock-down, drag-out fight between Republicans. In fact, they’re having to give up having parties [unclear] they get in fights with each other. The Democrats are solid except a little bit among the unions, there’s a little white backlash at the moment.

President Johnson

Well, the point I want to make is that the articles that are being written, the commentators are speaking, and the damned idiot Democrats that don’t know any better are all saying, “Yes, we’re really worried about the Polish backlash, about this labor backlash, or about some other backlash.” [Rowe attempts to speak.] Well, the first thing you’ve got to do, is say OK, what does it show? It shows we got a 10 percent backlash that won’t go with us. [Rowe acknowledges.] It’s actually 8 [percent], we’re 92 percent. We got 8. Well, what does it show? Well, we got 10. But what’s the Republicans’? Well, they’ve got 33.

Rowe

Mm-hmm. Yeah, that’s good.

President Johnson

OK.

Rowe

Good argument.

President Johnson

Now listen, please don’t let this come close to me. Just tell him that you’re hearing this, and don’t let it get around me.

Rowe

That’s right… I won’t.

President Johnson

Bye.

Rowe

Bye.

Cite as

“Lyndon Johnson, James Rowe, and Jack Valenti on 6 August 1964,” Conversation WH6407-09-4777, 4778, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Lyndon B. Johnson: Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty, ed. David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Guian A. McKee, and Marc J. Selverstone] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4000589