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Delanceyplace: The Years Of Lyndon Johnson

Prior to the 1960 Democratic Party's presidential nominating
convention, Texas Senator and Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had been a favorite -- perhaps THE favorite. But his own vacillation had cost him the lead, and now Senator John Kennedy was the favorite. But it was not too late, and an unexpected opportunity to debate Kennedy provided Johnson with an opening, writes Robert A. Caro.

Trying to give as many delegates as possible a chance to meet Kennedy, his campaign
headquarters had sent a telegram, signed by him, to the chairman of each delegation,
asking for permission to address it 'to explain my views and to answer their questions.'
The chairman of the Texas delegation was Lyndon Johnson, and no one had thought
to omit him from the list.

It was only a form telegram, but when Johnson received it, he seized upon it as
the opening he had been waiting for: the opening that could, even at this late
moment, change everything -- a chance to trap Kennedy into a debate. 'I want to
get on the same podium with Jack,' he told Irv Hoff. 'I'll destroy him.'

[Johnson's advisors] Connally, Reedy and Busby, when they were called in, were
unanimously enthusiastic; 'One major error' by Kennedy, Connally felt, and the Kennedy
bandwagon, which he believed was not yet on completely firm ground anyway, would
be overturned. A reply from Johnson was drafted, ostensibly 'in response to your
request' but in terms that would elevate the event to a more significant level:
a debate between the two leading contenders for the nomination. ... Kennedy had
every reason not to accept, and his advisers told him not to: as the front-runner,
he had a lot to lose and not much to gain. ...

The entire sixty-one-man Texas delegation seemed to be there, as well as scores
of other Texans, the men in big Stetsons, the women wearing 'All the Way with LBJ'
pins; under glittering chandeliers, the huge ballroom was jammed wall to wall with
reporters; 'TV cameras bristled like machine guns from every point in the ornate
gallery,' one wrote.

As he took his seat on the stage, Kennedy wasn't at ease -- a reporter noticed
his leg shaking under his trousers -- but no one seeing only his face would have
known it. And when he rose to speak, looking out at the ballroom that, one Texas
reporter wrote, 'Johnson had packed full of his folks,' Kennedy said with a smile
that he was glad the vote for the nomination wasn't being taken there. 'I doubt
whether there is any great groundswell for Kennedy in the Texas delegation,' he
said. The audience chuckled at that, and laughed when, after promising to campaign
for Johnson if Johnson won the nomination, he said, 'And if I am nominated, I am
confident that Senator Johnson will take me by the hand and lead me through the
length and breadth of Texas.' He said he wasn't going to argue with Johnson on the
issues -- 'because I don't think Senator Johnson and I disagree on the great issues
that are facing us' -- and said he admired him for his work as Majority Leader.

'If [I am] successful in this convention,' he said, 'it will be the result of watching
Senator Johnson ... for the last eight years. I have learned the lesson well, Lyndon,
and I hope it may benefit me in the next twenty-four hours. ... So I come here today
full of admiration for Senator Johnson, full of affection for him, and strongly
in support of him -- for Majority Leader.' The audience laughed again. When Kennedy
sat down at the end of his opening statement, there was quite a bit of rather warm
applause.

Johnson started off on Phil Graham's 'high road,' although it was an arm-waving,
blustering journey -- 'And when I take the oath of office next January . . .' --
but before long he veered off.

He had gotten a civil rights bill through the Senate, he said, but not every senator
had been present to help him. 'Six days and nights we had 24-hour sessions,' he
said, shouting every word. 'Lyndon Johnson answered every one of the fifty quorum
calls. Some men who would be President answered none.' He had voted in all forty-five
roll calls, he said. 'Some senators missed 34.' A Texas legislator, George Nokes,
leaned over and whispered loudly to the other people in his aisle, 'Lyndon sure
bear-trapped him, didn't he?'

"After a brief, whispered conference with his brother, Kennedy rose to reply. Johnson's
face had been grim as he spoke. On Kennedy's face was a grin. Senator Johnson had
criticized some senators, he said, but he had not identified those he was talking
about, so 'I assume he was talking about some other candidate, not me.'

"The grin broadened. 'I want to commend him for ... a wonderful record answering
those quorum calls,' he said.

"People in the audience started to chuckle, and then others started to laugh, and
a wave of laughter swept over the hall. Turning to Johnson, Kennedy shook his hand
for the photographers, and walked out of the hall, his little band following him."

Author: Robert A. Caro
Title: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Publisher: Knopf
Date: Copyright 2012 by Robert A. Caro, Inc.
Pages: 102-104

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