McCullough: [voice-over] LBJ, Lyndon Baines Johnson -- Texan, Democrat, political virtuoso. He rises up out of the 1960s like a Colossus, like something from Shakespeare, filling the stage -- 10, 12 characters in one. He is admired and he is detested. Everybody who knew him had stories.
Yet Lyndon Johnson was hard for the country to know. He seemed so stiff and colorless on television, not at all himself. The real Lyndon Johnson was a mover, a driver, a charmer, a bully -- six feet four inches tall with a size 7-3/8 Stetson hat. He loved food -- chili and tapioca pudding. He loved attractive women. He was a good dancer, a brilliant mimic. He was funny, often hilarious. They all say that.
But the real measure of a leader is what he gets done, the size of the problems he faces. Before Lyndon Johnson, we were essentially a segregated society. Inequality among black Americans in the South was set in law. Before Lyndon Johnson, there was no Head Start program, no Medicare -- so much that we take for granted -- and before Lyndon Johnson, very few Americans had even heard of Vietnam. He is a story, a very American story and, in all, a tragedy in the real sense. He's the central character in a struggle of moral importance ending in ruin.
He had been scorned as an unscrupulous politician, a vulgar wheeler-dealer driven by ambition and a lust for power, but on January 20, 1965, the night of his inaugural gala, Lyndon Johnson was a happy man. Overwhelmingly elected, he promised to wipe out poverty and segregation, protect the old and educate the young -- that was his dream. Few presidents would ever know more triumph, few suffer such a swift and tragic fall.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He was generous and he was selfish. He was kind. At other times, he was cruel. At times, he was an earthy, crude-acting fella. At other times, he was incredibly charming. He could be whatever he wanted to be, but he was a strange, complex man who had basically almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence. He was two different people.
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: What was it that would send him into those fantastic rages where he could be one of the nastiest, most insufferable, sadistic SOB's that ever lived and a few minutes later really be a big, magnificent and inspiring leader?
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: What you have is a thoroughly American president, who was American from day one: his birth in South Central Texas. This is a man who reflected American moods and attitudes and contradictions and trends. And when he failed, it was America's failure.
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: Hubris, as the Greeks would put it. "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." Now, this was a man that was so big, that reached so far and made it and then let the whole thing crumble. I think it's one of the great stories of history.
Part One: Beautiful Texas
Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson: [1964 Democratic Convention] My fellow Americans, I accept your nomination.
McCullough: [voice-over] The 1964 presidential campaign was all Lyndon Baines Johnson. After years of compromise and opportunism, he fired America with his vision of a great society.
Pres. Johnson: Our first objective is to free 30 million Americans from the prison of poverty. Can you help us free these Americans? And if you can, let me hear your voices!
McCullough: [voice-over] He reached out to the poor, the dispossessed, to Americans who were left behind.
Pres. Johnson: Do something we can be proud of. Help the weak and the meek and lift them up and help them dream and give them an education where they can make their own way.
McCullough: [voice-over] Campaigning with the energy of 10 men -- "As if he had an extra pair of glands," one aide said -- he sounded the battle cries of his political youth, echoing his very first campaign a quarter of a century before.
In the spring of 1937, Johnson was 28 years old, campaigning as an ardent Roosevelt New Dealer, reaching out to the working men and poor dirt farmers of the Texas hill country. He ran for office as if his life depended on it. He spoke in every town in his district, lost 40 pounds in 42 days, made 200 speeches and collapsed with appendicitis just two days before the election.
From his hospital bed, with his wife Lady Bird, he learned that he'd been elected one of the youngest members of Congress. His political ideals would waver, but for the rest of his life, he would display the same nervous intensity, the same obsessive drive to succeed and a talent for attaching himself to power.
One month after Johnson's election, the President paid a holiday visit to Galveston, Texas. Franklin Roosevelt was Lyndon Johnson's political hero. Now, the ambitious new congressman seized the opportunity to meet him.
Lady Bird Johnson: The Governor was going down to pay his respects, so he called Lyndon and said, "I'd like to take you along because you ran so completely on Roosevelt's platforms that I think he ought to meet you." And Lyndon was there with his eyes out on stems, taking in every word and every gesture.
McCullough: [voice-over] They talked about fishing, about the Navy. Then, Johnson asked for an assignment to nothing less than the Appropriations Committee. The President said that would have to wait.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: Here are the two great politicians in American history in this century, I believe, and they're sizing each other up. And Roosevelt gives him the name of Tommy Corcoran, Tommy "The Cork," the White House aide and the Washington fixer and he tells Johnson, "If you need anything when you get to Washington, you call up Mr. Corcoran." Well Roosevelt himself gets back to Washington and he calls up Corcoran, the story goes, and he says to him, "Tommy, I just met the most extraordinary young man down in Texas."
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: "With any luck, if the chips go right and he hangs onto the friends he makes, this boy Lyndon Johnson one day can wind up being the President of the United States. He's got it." It was quite a call, wasn't it?
McCullough: [voice-over] In the Texas hill country, they said that Lyndon was born to politics. His grandfather had run for state office and his father, Sam Ealy Johnson served six terms in the Texas legislature. Sam was an old-time reform politician who voted to tax big business and, like his father before him, supported the eight-hour day. "I loved going with my father to the legislature," Lyndon said. "The only thing I loved more was going with him on the trail during his campaigns. Sometimes, I wished it would go on forever."
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: There are state legislators who remember Lyndon. They said it was uncanny how much he looked like his father, how much his mannerisms were like his father's and how they grabbed you by the lapels and pulled you toward them and were very physical. And there was a kind of warmth to it, a kind of very human quality. And he got the smell in his nose of politics and it just enthralled him.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson's mother Rebecca was a college graduate, cultured and ambitious. It was said that Lyndon got his drive and ambition from her. Nothing had prepared Rebecca for the hardships of life in the rural backwaters of Texas with no electricity or indoor plumbing. "Life is real and earnest," she wrote, "and not the charming fairy tale of which I had so long dreamed."
"The first year of their marriage was the worst year of her life," Johnson later said. "Then I came along and suddenly everything was all right again. I could do all the things she never did."
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: There was a certain depression that was in her which could only be relieved by putting all of her hopes and ambitions on this child. I mean, he would tell me that when his father was away at the state legislature, even when he was 11 or 12, that he was invited to stay in her bed at night to keep her company.
But then, when he came home with a bad report card, she would literally withdraw her love to the point where, he told me, that she wouldn't even speak to him for days on end, that she would talk to her husband or the other children and pretend he didn't exist. So that lack of consistent love, I think, was what made him feel always that he would only be loved if he performed.
McCullough: [voice-over] Fear of failure would haunt him all of his life. When Lyndon was in his teens, he watched his father go broke. Cotton prices plummeted. Sam was forced to sell the family farm. Neither Lyndon nor his mother ever wanted him to be like his failed father and it fired his drive to be successful.
The day Lyndon Johnson left for Washington to take his place in Congress, he bid his parents an emotional goodbye. His mother had told him his election was compensation for her own disappointments. "You have always justified my expectations, my hopes, my dreams. How dear to me you are you cannot know, my darling boy."
Johnson never forgot his father's parting words. "Now, you get up there, support FDR all the way, never shimmy and give 'em hell." Less than six months later, his father was dead.
As Johnson arrived in Washington, the excitement and promise of Roosevelt's New Deal still animated the capital. The New Deal was the perfect climate for the young congressman and his wife, Lady Bird. He had proposed to her the day they met and she became the perfect political wife, rising at midnight to scramble eggs for his friends, running his congressional office, working as his business manager. Lady Bird never stopped serving her husband's ambitions.
Assigned a room in the old House Office Building far from the corridors of power, the freshman congressman didn't hesitate to turn to the President for help. With the support of the White House, Johnson secured loans and millions of dollars in federal grants for farmers, schools, housing for the poor, roads, public libraries; but helping complete the great dam on the lower Colorado River was his greatest achievement and the next step in the education of Lyndon Johnson. In 1938, rural Texans were still living without electricity.
E. Babe Smith, Pedernales Electric Co-op: It was a rather primitive life, you know -- no running water and they had no refrigeration. Every meal had to be started from scratch. They used to say, you know, the man was a gentleman who could provide his wife with a sharp axe, you know, to cut the wood with.
McCullough: [voice-over] "Of all the things I've ever done," Lyndon Johnson later wrote, "nothing has ever given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the hill country of Texas."
E. Babe Smith, Pedernales Electric Co-op: And my daughter -- she was about nine years old -- she just couldn't believe how the house was lit up. She said, "Momma, the house is on fire."
McCullough: [voice-over] The dam was everything a young congressman could have hoped for. The hill country farmers thanked Johnson for the electricity and the men who built the dam thanked him for the government contracts: George and Herman Brown of the Brown and Root Construction Company. Johnson helped the Brown brothers build a billion-dollar construction empire. In turn, the Browns would fund Johnson's political campaigns.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: Judgmentally, what I'd say is that they were a couple of guys who were making a lot of money out of the New Deal and they didn't want to have to pay higher wage rates, so they were against the union. It wasn't a matter of high principle. They wanted to get rich and they did get rich. Well, Lyndon sidled up to them or they sidled up to him and they made book.
I remember asking Johnson once in the White House, "Did you deal with cash?" And he said, "It was all cash." I mean, there were no records, so under those circumstances, there were plenty of politicians who were selling out to business interests. I use a pejorative term. I don't know what other term to use. I mean, in TV you have to use some shorthand. I mean, they were agreeing to be with those people in exchange for money which they used in their campaigns. That's pretty close to selling out, isn't it?
And everything is organized not like his father -- around ideas and ideals -- but like a sun, around himself and his own career; not to say that he is not, therefore doing a lot of good. He brings real electricity to people that don't have it in his own district. Yeah, sure he's really smart.
McCullough: [voice-over] On May 2, 1939, George Brown wrote Johnson a letter. "I hope you know, Lyndon, how I feel in reference to what you have done for me and I'm going to try to show you my appreciation through the years with actions rather than words." Two years later, the Brown brothers made good on their promise.
In 1941, when Johnson made a run for the Senate, he needed all the money the Brown brothers could give him. He was just a young congressman reaching beyond his own small district in a race that was pure Texas politics -- part campaign and part circus. Twenty-nine candidates took the field, but in the end, there was only one man to beat, the Governor of Texas, "Pappy" Lee O'Daniel.
Lewis Gould, Historian: Well, Pappy O'Daniel was a man who had come out of nowhere to be governor of Texas in the late 30s. He was a radio personality and that's what made him so popular. He had a band that played for him called The Light Crust Dough Boys and their theme song was "Pass the biscuits, Pappy." And he became known as W. Lee "Pass the biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel. He was conservative, but he didn't really believe in anything except getting elected and being popular.
Mrs. Johnson: He had been on radio for quite a long time with a very popular program of country music.
E. Babe Smith, Pedernales Electric Co-op: Every day at noon, he had his Texas network, you know, and he played and he sang. The ladies just worshipped him, you know. You couldn't find anybody who voted for him, but he always won the election, you know.
Homer Dean, LBJ Campaign Supporter: "Now, listen, everybody from near and far, we're The Light Crust Dough Boys." And then, he would sing the [sings] Beautiful, beautiful Texas / where the beautiful blue bonnets grow / We're proud of our forefathers / Who fought at the Alamo / You can live on the plains or the mountains / Or down where the sea breezes blow / And you're still in beautiful Texas / The most beautiful state that we know...
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: And here was Johnson, an unknown young congressman, so to speak, but he also had the aura that he was going somewhere. He was going to do something and you could feel it. And he could have fun, but he was all business of dreaming and daring, imagining, attempting new things.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: There was nobody who campaigned harder than a Lyndon Johnson. He worked night and day, speaking, walking, driving, just doing everything he conceivably could to get his name before the public and convince them of the fact that he would make a first class senator.
Homer Dean, LBJ Campaign Supporter: I believe that you people are fed up on hired hands doing nothing but entertaining you. You are going to send Lyndon Johnson to the Senate next Saturday by the greatest vote you ever sent a senator there.
Mrs. Johnson: We went to every small hamlet, walked up and down the street, shook hands with all the merchants who had lined up all the friends that all your friends could summon, your mother and your kin folks.
McCullough: [voice-over] As the campaign drew to a close, Johnson remained the underdog, but once again, by lifting high the Roosevelt banner, Johnson closed the gap. On election night, he was confident. With 96 percent of the vote counted, he led O'Daniel by 5,000 votes. Congratulations were already pouring in from Washington.
Mrs. Johnson: We had been declared elected by the Texas Election Bureau on Saturday night, when the votes were counted. Banner headlines on Sunday morning, "Johnson elected to Senate."
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: The Dallas News, the great Dallas News even ran a story on Sunday morning, "LBJ, Johnson United States Senator." They declared him elected about like they had done with Dewey.
Mrs. Johnson: But the margin by which we were elected began to dwindle. It was about 5,000 to begin with and it began to dwindle.
McCullough: [voice-over] The 33-year-old contender was about to get a lesson in the dark side of politics that he would never forget. In the rough-and-tumble world of Texas elections, stuffing the ballot box was not unusual, especially in South and East Texas and no one understood this more than John Connally, Lyndon Johnson's friend and campaign manager.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: A lot of those counties had political leaders. Sometimes it was the sheriff, sometimes a county judge. They basically carried the county the way they wanted it to go and this had been historically the case and we had the support of most of those political leaders.
Saturday night about midnight, they call me and say, "We've got the returns. What do you want us to do with them?" I said, "Well, tell me what they are, first, and then report them." The opposition, then -- Governor O'Daniel and his people -- knew exactly how many votes they had to have to take the lead. They kept changing the results and changing the returns and our lead got smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, Wednesday afternoon, we wound up on the short side of the stick and lost the election by 1,311 votes.
And I'm basically responsible for losing that '41 campaign. We let them know exactly how many votes they had to have. And I did it, no question about it.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: It was a hard pill for Mr. Johnson to swallow because we'd gone out late Saturday to celebrate. I hadn't done that in other campaigns. I always waited till the next day.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: Lyndon is asked does he want to challenge Pappy's victory because it is a stolen election, but Lyndon knows that his own folks and supporters have done some pretty untoward things as well, including the fact that they violate all campaign finance laws and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Johnson says, "No, we can't challenge them." He said, "I'll wait my turn and when my turn comes, I'll fix the ballots next time."
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: And we thought it was the better part of wisdom not to contest it, not indicate that we were guilty of just sour grapes and to go ahead and say, "We'll meet again."
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson was not prepared for defeat and he was never more miserable. "I felt terribly rejected and I began to think about leaving politics and going home to make money," he said, but he couldn't bring himself to quit. He bought a house and established the basis for his own personal fortune. Lady Bird bought a small Austin radio station. After nearly 10 years of marriage, their first daughter was born. Three years later, they would have another girl.
But politically, Johnson languished. The House of Representatives was too small a stage. Along with southern congressmen, he voted against civil rights and told his liberal friends, "You can't be a statesman if you don't get elected." Finally, after seven restless years, Johnson seized a chance to run for the Senate. It would be a campaign that would haunt him for the rest of his political life.
Mrs. Johnson: And this time, his opponent was Coke Stevenson, also a governor and a very formidable man.
McCullough: [voice-over] Coke Stevenson was a self-made man, tight-fisted with the budget and immensely popular. His most ardent admirers called him "Mr. Texas."
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: Well, the polls clearly showed that Coke Stevenson, starting out, had almost a 2-1 lead over Johnson. It was an almost insurmountable lead and most people thought that Johnson couldn't win it.
Homer Dean, LBJ Campaign Supporter: He told us and John Connally told us and anybody that had been to a county fair and a goat-roping and knew anything about Texas politics knew that this was make-or-break for Lyndon Johnson.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: By 1948, Johnson had become a master at Texas politics. They'd run these shows, these extravaganzas in these small towns and the band and the music and maybe giving a savings bond or a barbecue, beer and some kind of watermelons or something like that. Well, this was all part of traditional Texas hoopla and Johnson didn't miss a beat there. He understood that was an essential part of it.
McCullough: [voice-over] Meanwhile, Coke Stevenson was so popular and so well known that he campaigned from small town to small town the old-fashioned way, but not Lyndon Johnson. In a headlong, five-week helicopter campaign, Johnson criss-crossed the state, made 370 landings and lost 27 pounds. In one day alone, he spoke to 15,000 people.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: And I'll tell you, if you'd go into a little town and say, "Lyndon Johnson's coming to town and he'll be here at 2 o'clock and he'll land on his helicopter," everybody in town would want to see that. They'd kind of laugh about it, but they didn't want to miss it.
McCullough: [voice-over] They called him the "Johnson City Windmill." Texans never saw anything like it.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: But it was dramatic. Can you imagine, a little small town that never had a helicopter come or never seen one much? No television in those days, you see. They'd fly in over a little town and circle a couple of times and he'd get on the P.A. system and say, "This is Lyndon Johnson. I'm going to land in just a minute and I want to shake every hand down there." People looked up there and they'd kind of laugh and giggle, but their mouth would be open and they'd say, "Is this really happening? Yeah."
Ava Cox, LBJ'S Cousin: He would say, "This is Lyndon Johnson, your congressman. How do you think things are running? All right, Ed, what about the crop out there? Do you have a good crop this year?" And he'd come over here and he'd call one's name. "Well, all right, Side Hyde, how's the cattle business doing today?" "Olin, how's the car business coming on?" Little Olin jumped and looked around. He wasn't expecting that to be called out.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: When he'd land, he'd bank the helicopter over and he'd circle around over the field and throw his Stetson hat out over the crowd. Now, that was dramatic and he had about a four-beaver hat, you know. That was a good one. And when he did it, those of us on the ground who were part of the crew, our job was to go get that hat. We had to reclaim that hat and if we didn't get it, we'd catch "Hail, Columbia" from the boss then.
And he'd say, "Do you know how much that hat cost me? Do you know how much? Have you been in to buy a Stetson hat lately?" We'd say no, of course we wouldn't 'cause we didn't dare wear a hat like it. He said, "That's coming out of my pocket. You get that hat when we throw it out," and we'd have to go get that hat.
Usually we could get it, but if you got it recovered by a little 10-year-old boy, it was pretty hard to run up and say, "Son, give me that hat," and take it away from him. So it wasn't always pleasant.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson had begun his political life as a Franklin Roosevelt liberal, but in 1948, he ran against the unions, supported big business and spoke out strongly against civil rights. The oil boom had made Texas wealthy and conservative and as Texas changed, so had Lyndon Johnson.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: Well, you had an authentic conservative -- Stevenson -- running against a New Deal liberal -- Johnson -- who has concealed his colors. Lyndon presented himself as more anti-union than Coke Stevenson. Now, what kind of sense does that make to you in terms of who Lyndon really was? None. There's no sense to it except, of course, the absolutely unqualified opportunism of a successful politician of this particular mold. He out-righted the most conservative figure in Texas politics at that time.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: Some people have tended to idealize Coke Stevenson and see him as a kind of old-fashioned Texas cowboy and man of great integrity. In fact, Coke Stevenson was a terribly reactionary man. First of all, on civil rights, in 1942, a black Texan was lynched in Texarkana and Stevenson gave very little public response against this. And when he was asked privately about it, his comment was -- "You know," he said, "these Negroes sometimes do things which provoke whites to such violence."
And when the 1944 Supreme Court decision was handed down, asserting that blacks had the right to vote in Democratic primaries, Stevenson called it "a threat to our security and safety." He was fiercely anti-civil rights and a racist and a segregationist of the first order.
McCullough: [voice-over] The race was so close there was no way to call it. The lead seesawed back and forth.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I said, "I think you're going to win it." He said, "No, I think we've lost it." And I said, "No, it's going to be the reversal of 1941."
McCullough: [voice-over] Three days after the polls closed, the votes were still coming in and Stevenson led by a handful. It looked as if Stevenson would be the new senator from Texas. But Johnson remembered 1941. He was not about to lose again. The election now hinged on the "Duke of Duval County," George Parr, the man who controlled the votes in South Texas.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: George Parr controlled that county and those people voted the way he wanted them to vote, no question about that, none whatever. Now, the candidates had nothing to do with it.
Lewis Gould, Historian: In the nature of things, you don't write down, "Bought these votes yesterday afternoon at 4 o'clock," but obviously, there was some understanding between the Johnson people and the political bosses in South Texas.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: Earlier, when Coke Stevenson ran for governor, he had also been the recipient of the favor of the bosses because he had paid them. In one of his races, George Parr, the "Duke of Duval County," had given Stevenson a vote of 3,310 to 17. Is it conceivable that such a lopsided margin would have been given to any candidate for any office?
McCullough: [voice-over] In the tiny South Texas town of Alice six days after the polls had closed, 202 additional votes were reported from Precinct Box 13. When they were counted, all but two were for Lyndon Johnson. When the signatures of the 202 new voters were examined, some say the names were all written in the same ink and listed in alphabetical order.
Homer Dean, LBJ Campaign Supporter: I did not notice that they were in alphabetical order, although some of the people who saw it testified later that that had happened.
McCullough: [voice-over] Homer Dean was a 29-year-old attorney working in the Johnson campaign when Coke Stevenson arrived in Alice and demanded to see the voting list locked in the vault of the Texas State Bank. Dean is one of the few people who actually saw the disputed names.
Homer Dean, LBJ Campaign Supporter: Well, it did look to me like there had been a change in ink and it looked like 200 or 202 or 203 names had been added to the poll list in a different ink by a different hand. Mr. Stevenson was an outraged man that felt like the election had been stolen from him and he felt like what he'd just seen was evidence of that.
McCullough: [voice-over] Stevenson challenged the election at the Texas State Democratic Convention. It was no use. The Johnson forces were too powerful. When it was all over Precinct Box Number 13 made the difference. Johnson won by 87 votes, but the question of a stolen election remained.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: You cannot make the statement, on the facts, that Johnson stole the election. I think you can say it was stolen for him -- that's true -- but did he order it done? I never could find a John Connally down there doing it.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I wasn't within 200 miles of him. I was in Austin, Texas a battery of telephones, calling all over the State of Texas. I didn't know anything about it and that's the truth of the matter.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: If Homer Dean knew it was stolen, you don't find Homer Dean saying he stole it.
Homer Dean, LBJ Campaign Supporter: I didn't then and don't now think that Johnson directly participated in it. He received the benefit of it, but I don't think he directed it or even knew about it when it was happening.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: You see, it just gets away from you.
McCullough: [voice-over] Nineteen years later, Ronnie Dugger met in the White House with President Lyndon Johnson and asked him about the election of 1948.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: One night, up in his bedroom, he started laughing and he seemed to wonder if he could find something and he said he was going back into Bird's bedroom, which was next door. And he rummaged around in a closet. I think I could hear him rummaging around in the closet. And he came in with this photograph of these five guys in front of this old car with Box 13 balanced on the hood of it.
I looked at him and grinned and he grinned back, but he wouldn't explain it to me. I asked him, well, who were these guys and why did they have Box 13 on the hood of this car? What did it mean? And he just -- nothing. He wouldn't say. As we'd say in Texas, he wouldn't say nothin'. So there it is -- history turning on a mystery.
McCullough: [voice-over] It was 1949 and Texas had a new freshman senator. They called him "Landslide Lyndon."
Lewis Gould, Historian: It cast a shadow of illegitimacy over the rest of his political career that he never escaped. -- the idea of "Landslide Lyndon," 87 votes, that there were skeletons in his closet, that he was a wheeler-dealer, that there was always something kind of flawed about his title both to being Senator and to being President.
McCullough: [voice-over] When an exuberant Johnson entered the Senate, he was a powerless freshman joining a select club run by insiders very much his senior. He turned for help to a man who knew just how the club was run, Bobby Baker. Baker had come to the Senate as a teenaged page in the 1940s and knew, everyone said, where the bodies were buried.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: And so he said, "Mr. Baker, I wanted to meet you." He said, "My spies tell me you're the smartest son of a bitch over there." And I said, "That's not true and the only reputation I have is that my word is my bond and I protect your privacy." He said, "Well, you're the kind of man I want to know."
So he said, "I want you to know that the National Democratic Party is much more liberal than Texas." He advised me in no uncertain terms that he was committed to the oil interests in Texas.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson always knew where the power was. In Texas, he cozied up to the oil barons. In the Senate, he attached himself to the southern conservatives and their influential leader, Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: Senator Russell was a lonely bachelor. He read probably 10 books a week. He was a loner. Well, Lyndon Johnson, at this time, knew where the power was and had Senator Russell been a woman, he would have married him because -- or married her.
McCullough: [voice-over] Under Russell's patronage, Johnson was given the job of Party Whip. He transformed what had been a minor post into a seat of power. Two years later, he was elected Democratic leader. "Landslide Lyndon" was now one of the most powerful men in the United States Senate.
In his third year in the Senate, Johnson had bought himself a piece of land along the Pedernales River. The consummate Washington politician soon took on the trappings of the mythical Texas rancher. But he never stopped working. The LBJ Ranch was more than a place of relaxation. It became part of the stuff of power.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He had no interests, really, except politics. That was his whole life. He was totally committed to it. He never read anything except politics. He didn't care about any sports. He didn't read any books. I don't know of one book he read in all the years I've known him.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: I think, for Lyndon Johnson's temperament, the Senate could not have been more perfectly suited. For one thing, it was a small number of people. You've only got a limited number, all of whom can be subject to her personality. He could get up every day and learn what their fears, their desires, their wishes, their wants were and he could then manipulate, dominate, persuade, cajole them. And what really made things work in the Senate was personal relationships and Johnson was just strictly the best at that.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: And he was determined to recruit you or kill you and they used to call it "the Johnson treatment."
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: It was an incredible blend of badgering, cajolery, reminders of past favors, promises of future favors, predictions of gloom if something doesn't happen. When that man started to work on you, all of a sudden, you just felt that you were standing under a waterfall and the stuff was pouring on you.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: I've seen him. He used to get his -- he would sit in front of a senator -- face to face -- and then he would take his head and; he would get it underneath and go up like this and talk to him.
Peter Roberts, Newsreel Commentator: The 1954 midterm election will go down as one of the most peculiar on record.
McCullough: [voice-over] In 1954, with the Republicans in control of the White House, the Democrats gained control of the Senate, making Lyndon Johnson the youngest Majority Leader ever. He was 46 years old.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: There was no more powerful Majority Leader in American history. He understood the way the Senate worked. He understood what senators needed and what they wanted. He had biographies on each of them so that he knew what their tastes and intentions and aims and desires and wishes and hopes were.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: He knew the womanizers, he knew the drunks. He knew people who wanted what committee assignments. He knew what rooms they wanted. He knew if they wanted a trip to Europe and take their wife.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: If we had a vote coming up and there's someone that couldn't vote with us, but we could send him on a NATO trip, we would do that, so you know, whereby he would not have to vote against us, but he would be off and his wife would be happy and he'd be attending a conference. And those conferences are very important.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: His subordinate, Bobby Baker, who was the floor man for him -- and people called "Little Lyndon" -- said one time, "I have 10 senators in the palm of my hand."
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: It's a "good ole boy" network. Well, you know, if you've been -- if you've served in the Congress, either the House or the Senate, together for many years, you've done favors for each other and you say what you can do and can't do and what's possible.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: And they controlled all the what I call "boodle," the things that were given to people.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: Every senator wants a private office in the Capitol because it was a little hideaway. They could get away from the press, they could get away from their wife. They could have private luncheons. They can go get drunk, you know. They can be a human being.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: But when he ran the Senate, incredible what he would do. I saw him, at one time, hold up a roll call vote, which usually takes 15 to 20 minutes -- he held it up for more than an hour so they could extract Hubert Humphrey out of the air over the National Airport and they finally brought him in and voted it. And during this time, Johnson would be going like this to the clerk, telling him to slow down as he called the roll. And then, there were other times when he had the votes and he was winning by maybe one or two votes and he'd tell them to speed it up.
Harry McPherson, U.S. Senate Staff: In the Senate, he would pace the floor, pull out his inhaler, draw deep breaths into his nose, looking around the chamber, thinking all the time, nervous.
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: He never sat in a chair. He'd stand up and jitter. He'd bounce up and down, rattling silver dollars in his pocket.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He ate in a hurry. He wolfed his food. Most of the time, he had no manners. He'd eat off of the plate of -- either person on either side of him, if he ate something that he liked and they hadn't finished theirs, he'd reach over with his fork and eat off of their plate.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: He would eat his dessert, Lady Bird's, Lynda's and daughters of mine, too. I'm telling you, he was a big man, but he could handle two fifths of Cutty Sark every night and that's not good. And he smoked cigarettes like a crazy man till he had his heart attack.
Sen. Lyndon Johnson: I'm going home to get a long rest and if the doctors give me the OK, I'll be back on the job in the Senate when the Senate reconvenes in January.
1st Reporter: In the meantime, no politics and onto the rocking chair?
Sen. Lyndon Johnson: Well, I wouldn't say that you could take politics completely away from me, but we'll have it at a minimum.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson had very nearly died. For the rest of his life, the image of a sudden death hung over him.
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: One of Lyndon Johnson's real troubles was he was incapable of relaxation. Even when he tried to relax, it became terribly frenetic.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He used to call me on Saturday mornings and say, "Let's go to the game. I've got some tickets. We'd sit there during the whole ballgame and talk politics. He didn't watch the football game, literally didn't watch it. He was watching the crowd, he was looking around, waving to this one, waving to that one.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: Johnson had an immense ego. He had on his shirts and on his sleeves his initials, LBJ. His wife's name was Lady Bird, at least informally, so her name would be LBJ. His two children, his girls were both LBJ. His ranch was the LBJ Ranch. His dog was "Little Beagle Johnson."
McCullough: [voice-over] As Johnson prepared to return to Washington, the liberals within his own party began to attack him. When he courted the popular Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, they accused him of selling out. They wanted stronger action on housing, jobs, and civil rights.
Joseph Rauh, Jr., Americans for Democratic Action: My opinion was that he was destroying the Democratic Party and not doing his job. His job was the opposition to the Eisenhower Administration and he didn't do it. They were playing just hanky-panky with each other and there was really no Democratic opposition.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: Well, one doesn't know whether he was a liberal or a reactionary. Probably he was neither. He probably was just an extraordinarily skillful parliamentarian who was an opportunist and who sensed the wind and then went in that direction.
McCullough: [voice-over] No one knew what Johnson really stood for. In 1957, when a civil rights bill came before Congress, it looked as if he would be finally forced to take a stand.
Man at Rally: We are not going to permit the NAACP to take over your schools. We are not going to permit our little children to be used as pawns in a game of power politics to get the racial vote in northern cities.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: We have to remember what the country was like for black people in 1957 and 1959 when Johnson was majority leader.
Ku Klux Klansmen: [KKK rally] They want to throw white children and colored children into the melting pot of integration, out of which will come a conglomerated mulatto mongrel class of people!
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: It was still a segregated country. Blacks still could expect random violence.
McCullough: [voice-over] Nobody knew what the Majority Leader of the Senate would do. Never in his life had Johnson voted for a civil rights bill, but now, determined to shake his southern image and become a truly national politician, Johnson confronted his old friend and mentor, Richard Russell of Georgia.
S. Douglass Cater, Washington D.C. Reporter; Special Assistant to the President: The very first thing he did was to meet with his old and closest advisers and say, "This time, we are going to get a bill and you might as well face up to it." Richard Russell suffered a great deal because they really did feel that this was the beginning of the end of the South as they knew it.
McCullough: [voice-over] Behind the scenes in the Senate cloakroom, Johnson moved from one side to the other, first trying to assure the southern Democrats.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: He would just say, "If you don't pass this moderate bill, you're going to have a bill crammed down your throat because Richard Nixon is very smart politically and he is courting black people right now and you're going to get something that you can't live with."
McCullough: [voice-over] And Johnson knew just what to tell the northern liberals.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: I heard him many times chew Hubert Humphrey's ass out. "Hubert, it don't take any genius to be for the civil rights from Minnesota." He said, "How many black people you got in Minnesota?" And Hubert would say, "Well, we've got 12,000." He says, "Well, you make me sick."
McCullough: [voice-over] By the middle of the summer, the Johnson treatment was having its effect.
2nd Reporter: Senator, there is some talk of a compromise. Do you see any area for compromise?
Sen. Richard Russell, (D) Georgia: Well, I haven't had any compromise presented to me yet, but I am a realist and a reasonable man.
McCullough: [voice-over] By skillful maneuvering, Johnson engineered a bill acceptable to all sides.
Sen. Johnson: A compromise has been negotiated. I am pleased that the bill was passed. It is a great step forward and a very important and delicate feat.
McCullough: [voice-over] On August 7, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but Johnson had traded away the muscle in the law. In theory, the law protected the voting rights of blacks. In fact, it gave the federal government no real power of enforcement.
Howard Schuman, U.S. Senate Aide: That bill had nothing in it. In fact, when it was finally passed, Mr. Douglas said that it reminded him of Lincoln's old saying that it was like a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: "Can you believe those bastards?" he said. "You know, I'm the first man in the history of this country to pass a civil rights bill, then they got to give me the shiv."
McCullough: [voice-over] The bill was pure Johnson compromise, a masterpiece of Senate politicking, but it was the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. Johnson had freed himself from the shackles of his southern image and he was ready to move on. By 1960, Lyndon Johnson made public what everyone already knew. He wanted to be President of the United States.
Sen. Johnson: [1960 presidential campaign] The person you select as your president, the way he's carried, the burdens he knows, the decision he makes may well determine whether you live as free men.
McCullough: [voice-over] But John Kennedy, the young, wealthy, glamorous senator whom Johnson had casually dismissed as inexperienced, had the nomination all but wrapped up. Johnson resentfully called Kennedy "sonny boy."
Sen. John F. Kennedy: [1960 Democratic Convention] I have found it extremely beneficial serving in the Senate with Senator Johnson as leader. I think if I emerge successfully in this convention, it will be the result of watching Senator Johnson proceed around the Senate for the last eight years. I have learned the lesson well, Lyndon, and I hope it may benefit me in the next 24 hours.
McCullough: [voice-over] On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Johnson challenged Kennedy to a debate. Kennedy coolly brushed Johnson aside.
Sen. Kennedy: [I am] full of admiration for Senator Johnson, full of affection for him, strongly in support him for Majority Leader and I'm confident that in that position we're all going to be able to work together. Thank you.
Convention Delegate: Mr. Chairman, Wyoming's vote will make the majority for Senator Kennedy.
McCullough: [voice-over] Kennedy was nominated overwhelmingly on the first ballot. Now, all that was left was the vice presidency and no one was sure what Johnson would do if Kennedy offered it to him.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He said, "Well, Jack Kennedy just called. He's coming down to see me." He said, "What do you think he wants?" And I said, "He's going to offer you the vice presidency." He said, "Oh no, he's not. Oh, no. He wouldn't do that." He said, "He's probably going to ask me to manage the campaign." I said, "No, he's going to ask you to be Vice President." He said, "Well, what should I say to him?" I said, "Well, you don't have any choice. You have to say yes."
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: And I said, "Mr. Leader, let me tell you -- John Kennedy knows that no Catholic has ever been elected President in the history of this country. He knows the only chance in hell that he has to be President of the United States is if you run as Vice President." And I said, "The vice presidency is the worst job in the country. It's not worth a warm bucket of spit," as John Nance Garner said, "But you're one heartbeat away from the presidency."
McCullough: [voice-over] When Kennedy offered Johnson the vice presidency, no one was happy. The conservatives didn't want Johnson to run with the liberal Kennedy and the liberals wanted one of their own. Finally, the candidate's brother, Robert Kennedy, paid Johnson a visit.
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: I was in the room, in Johnson's bedroom with Johnson and John Connally, the three of us alone on the morning of the nomination for the vice presidency at about 10:30, when Bobby Kennedy stormed in and started screaming at Johnson that if he knew what was good for him, he'd get off that ticket.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: Well, Johnson did not like Bobby Kennedy and it was mutual. They hated each other. So what happened was that Mr. Rayburn and John Connally went in to meet with Bobby Kennedy.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: And Bobby Kennedy said that all hell had broken loose on the convention floor and that Johnson was going to have to withdraw, just change his mind and not accept the vice presidency. And Mr. Rayburn looked at him and he said, "Aw," and uttered an expletive that I am not going to use.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: Old man Rayburn said, "Shit, sonny," and kicked him out.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I said, "Your brother came down here and offered him the vice presidency and Mr. Johnson accepted it. Now, if he doesn't want him to have it, he's going to have to call and ask him to withdraw."
Sen. Kennedy: [1960 Democratic Convention] And I am grateful, finally, that I can rely in the coming months on many others, on a distinguished running mate who brings unity and strength to our platform and our ticket, Lyndon Johnson.
S. Douglass Cater, Washington D.C. Reporter; Special Assistant to the President: And that was a real transformation, in which this young pup, Jack Kennedy, suddenly is it and he, Lyndon Johnson -- big ole clumsy Lyndon Johnson -- is playing second fiddle. And you got to believe it that those vice presidential years were agony for him.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: It was a terrible sense of having lost that center of dominance and suddenly, I think, he felt like a little kid looking in a glass door at the candy display inside and he couldn't quite reach it. It was devastating.
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: Bobby never got over the fact that his brother overruled him and put Johnson on the ticket and that -- there was a mutual dislike second to none in the history of the world.
S. Douglass Cater, Washington D.C. Reporter; Special Assistant to the President: It wasn't the way the President treated him -- I think Jack Kennedy treated him with due respect -- but everybody around Kennedy kind of poked fun at him and made mockery of "Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson?"
Robert Baker, LBJ Senate Aide: And Kennedy, you know, named him the head of the Space Center, plus he sent him on every foreign trip in the history of the world to, you know, tried to give him something to do.
McCullough: [voice-over] Vice President Johnson made ceremonial visits to 26 countries, but he wasn't the kind of man who could get the feel for another culture. Wherever he went, he took his own oversized bed, a special nozzle for his shower, dozens of cases of Cutty Sark and thousands of personally inscribed ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters as gifts. But, at least abroad, he was center stage. At home, there were still the Kennedys -- urbane, charismatic, immensely popular.
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: He was consumed with this passion of inferiority towards the Kennedys and they gave him a very hard time when he was Vice President. They were going to dump him from their ticket. They made a buffoon of him, a laughingstock. When, as Vice President of the United States, he visited Scandinavia, Bobby Kennedy sent an uncoded telegram to the embassies -- uncoded so that everyone could see it -- saying that, "The Vice President in no way speaks for the government of the United States and is not to be received as if he were an emissary of the President."
McCullough: [voice-over] In 1963, a chagrined and frustrated Vice President told an aide, "My future is behind me." And then, Dallas.
Mrs. Johnson: It all began so hopefully, but the feeling in Texas was not good for Kennedy and so, of course, we were uptight. And we were going along and I was heaving a sigh of relief, "Thank the Lord, everything's going to be all right," and then came that shot. The Secret Serviceman suddenly vaulted over Lyndon and pushed him to the floor. And here we were, racing down at breakneck speed, not knowing what had taken over our lives.
This man came in and told Lyndon that President Kennedy was dead.
I guess we were all silent for a while and then Lyndon said, "We must get to Air Force One." I don't know how long we sat, but quite a while. He said, "Does anybody on this plane know the Oath of Office?" Nobody did, word for word, precisely. He said, "You'll have to call the Attorney General and ask him." What an excruciating call. The Attorney General was Bobby Kennedy.
Woman: "I do solemnly swear" --
Vice Pres. Johnson: I do solemnly swear --
Woman: -- "that I will faithfully execute" --
Vice Pres. Johnson: -- that I will faithfully execute --
Woman: -- "the office of President of the United States" --
Vice Pres. Johnson: -- the office of President of the United States.
McCullough: [voice-over] A beloved president was gone and in his place stood this big Texan with an unsavory past. The Kennedys distrusted him, the American people were suspicious, stunned and baffled. On November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson became the 36th president of the United States.
Part Two: My Fellow Americans
McCullough: [voice-over] "I took the oath," Johnson said, "but for millions of Americans, I was still illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne, an illegal usurper. And then, there were the bigots and the dividers and the eastern intellectuals who were waiting to knock me down before I could even begin to stand up. The whole thing was almost unbearable."
Rumors of dark schemes and conspiracies were everywhere. Anxious Americans knew little about the new president. What they did know was that their beloved John F. Kennedy was gone.
"I always felt sorry for Harry Truman and the way he got the presidency," Johnson told an aide, "but at least his man wasn't murdered."
Man: [Joint Congressional Session, November 27, 1963] Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.
McCullough: [voice-over] President for only five days, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. After decades in Washington, he knew them all and he knew what they were thinking -- would he measure up?
Pres. Johnson: Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of the House, members of the Senate, my fellow Americans -- all I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today. The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time. Today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy lives on in the immortal words and works that he left behind.
McCullough: [voice-over] He was never very good at formal speeches, but in the most important speech of his life, he reassured a shocked and grieving nation.
Vice Pres. Johnson: John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished in the first 1,000 days nor in the life of this Administration, but he said, "Let us begin." Today, in the moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, "Let us continue."
McCullough: [voice-over] With a few simple words, he invoked the legacy of the dead president. The new president would carry on. "I knew it was imperative that I grasp the reins of power and do so without delay," Johnson later wrote. He convinced a reluctant and grieving Kennedy Cabinet to stay on, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I said, "These are all Kennedy people. A lot of them are good people, but they are Kennedy people. They were committed to him and not to you." I said, "I don't know that these people will be disloyal, but they obviously can't have the same feeling for you that they had for Jack Kennedy. You're entitled, as President of the United States, to have your own Cabinet, people that you know, whom you trust." "Well," he said, "I just can't change them now." He said, "I promise you I'll change them after the election in '64."
McCullough: [voice-over] "I had to take the dead man's program and turn into a martyr's cause," he said. "That way Kennedy would live on forever and so would I." An accident of history had given him the power that he had reached for his entire life. Now, he was determined, as he said, to be "the greatest president of them all, the whole bunch of 'em."
His first test would be civil rights. Racial tensions could no longer be tempered by compromise. The civil rights movement was demanding freedom -- now. Johnson's abrupt assumption of the presidency had converged with the fierce struggle for black equality.
In 1964, racial segregation still ruled the South by both law and custom and Lyndon Johnson was a southerner burdened by a history of vacillation, compromise and a long string of votes that had kept segregation strong. Civil rights would measure the limits of Lyndon Johnson's moral imagination.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: A southern accent went a long way to raise my defenses, so when Johnson became President, I was fearful [and] very, very unhappy.
McCullough: [voice-over] With civil rights activists confronting segregation all across the South, many Americans wondered how the new President would react.
James Farmer, Civil Rights Activist, CORE: Johnson did not approve of, he did not like -- I can even use a stronger term -- he hated the demonstrations of the movement in the street. He hated them.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: But he had enough sensitivity that he knew that all hell was going to break loose if we didn't do something about it.
McCullough: [voice-over] Civil rights workers laid siege to a segregated society. There were sit-ins at lunch counters, on trains and buses, in hotels and theaters, forcing Johnson to act. When some of Johnson's aides advised him not to lay the prestige of the presidency on the line, he responded, "What's it for if it's not to be laid on the line?"
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: He said over and over and over again in those days, "I'm going to be the president who finishes what Lincoln began." He said it over and over again. Well, it was great rhetoric, but you also knew that it was a great reading of history, that if, in fact, he could accomplish that, he would belong up there on Mount Rushmore.
McCullough: [voice-over] A bill to prohibit the segregation of blacks and whites in public facilities had been put before Congress by John Kennedy, but it was stalled. Johnson determined to act.
Pres. Johnson: This bill is going to pass if it takes us all summer and this bill is going to be signed and enacted into law because justice and morality demand it.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: All of a sudden, there was a power and a force behind this kind of legislation that we hadn't seen in the Kennedy time and with that, my view about him began to change.
McCullough: [voice-over] The full force of the Johnson treatment, perfected in the Senate, now became a weapon in the arsenal of the presidency.
James Farmer, Civil Rights Activist, CORE: He was on the phone with Republican senators and with Southern Democrats and he was bargaining with them. He was telling them about some bridge that they wanted back home or some dam that they wanted. And he would help them with that if they would help him with this and give him this thing that he wanted, that the whole nation wanted and the nation had to have. And he was also reminding them in not-too-subtle tones that if they didn't support him, he would have ways of getting back at them.
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President: So in those days, we played hardball. My catalogue included a number of southern congressmen where you had to say -- they'd say, "Well now, Jack, there's no way I can vote for that," and I'd say, "Well, Mr. Congressman, I know you've got this, this and this that you want and I don't think we're prepared to deal with you on that unless you're going to be responding to some of the entreaties from the President." We let them know that for every negative vote, there would be a price to pay.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: And he kept saying to his southern friends, "If I can advocate it, as President, you ought to be able to vote for it in your constituency. This may be the best chance we'll ever have. I think we got to change our way of doing things." It's not like a Yankee from New York we got to do this. This was a southerner saying it ought to be done and that helped. It didn't help a whole lot because the southern boys, they knew that they again were going to catch heck for it.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: That's what he got from the southerners , that, "You're killing us by loving up the niggers. You're ripping the party apart here. You're hurting us." And Johnson's answer was, "This is what we've got to do and this is what I'm going to do and this is what the Democratic Party is supposed to do."
McCullough: [voice-over] Once again, the leader of the Southern Democrats, his old friend and mentor, Richard Russell, stood in his way.
Sen. Richard Russell, (D) Georgia: But we are not yet ready to surrender in our opposition to this bill which we feel is a perversion of the American way of life.
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President: And he said to Dick Russell, "I want this Civil Rights Bill passed and you nor no one else is going to stand in my way." And I remember Richard Russell said to him, he said, "Well, Mr. President, you may do it, but I'll tell you what -- it's going to cost you the South and it will cost you an election."
McCullough: [voice-over] Southern senators prepared to filibuster -- to prevent the bill from ever coming to a vote by talking it to death -- but Johnson was not to be denied.
Joseph Raul, Jr.: What the President did was to say, "They can filibuster till hell freezes over, I'm not going to put anything else on that floor," so the filibuster couldn't win. And that was Johnson's great contribution to the Civil Rights Bill.
McCullough: [voice-over] The debate paralyzed the Senate for 83 days. It was the longest filibuster in Senate history. And then, the Senate voted to stop the talking. The bill passed. That same evening, at two in the morning, Johnson reached Congressman Jack Pickle, one of only six southerners to vote in its favor.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: And he says, "No, Jake," he says, "this is your President." He said, "I know it's late and I know where you've been." I said, "Where have I been?" He said, "You've been out having a few drinks and trying to forget that vote you cast. You voted for the Civil Rights and you're trying to forget it." And I said, "I sure am." And he said, "Cause you're going to catch heck, aren't you?" And I says, "Yes, I'm afraid I will." He said, "Well, let me tell you -- the reason I keep calling is I want you to know that your President is extremely proud of you."
He said, "I had chances to do something like one year as a congressman," he said, "and I didn't." And he said, "I've always regretted." He said, "You did something I thought was basically right and I didn't want this night to go by until I called on you personally to tell you how proud I am of you." He said, "I am. Now," he said, "go to sleep." Well, of course, I couldn't -- between the vote and that call, it was hard to go to sleep then.
James Farmer, Civil Rights Activist, CORE: I remember that when I was in the White House talking with him, I asked him how he got to be the way he was. He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, here you are, calling senators, twisting their arms, threatening them, cajoling them, trying to line up votes for the Civil Rights Bill when your own record on civil rights was not a good one before you became Vice President. So what accounted for the change?"
Johnson thought for a moment and wrinkled his brow and then said, "Well, I'll answer that by quoting a good friend of yours and you will recognize the quote instantly. 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last.'"
Ed Herlihy, Newsreel Announcer:  Congress passes the most sweeping Civil Rights Bill ever to be written into the law and thus reaffirms the conception of equality for all men that began with Lincoln and the Civil War 100 years ago.
McCullough: [voice-over] When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill into law, a century of enforced segregation was finally over. Blacks and whites could ride the same buses, eat at the same restaurants, use the same washrooms, stay at the same hotels. A southern president had broken the southern system of segregation.
Andrew Young, Civil Rights Activist, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: There was something about this man -- I mean, he had a pretty shoddy career and he'd done some pretty ruthless and awful things, but he knew poverty and he knew racism. And I really think that he decided that this was the way to assure his place in history. This was the way to really save the nation. And he knew it was not politically expedient, but I think he really knew it was right.
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: His attitude, going in, was that Kennedy couldn't pass anything. "I will pass everything that Kennedy failed to do. Where Kennedy failed, I will succeed. I am Kennedy's trustee. I will out-Kennedy Kennedy. I will perform what Kennedy promised, period," especially Vietnam.
McCullough: [voice-over] Far across the world in a small country in Southeast Asia, there were ominous forebodings of a war that would one day consume Lyndon Johnson's presidency.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: I believe Johnson wished he had never heard of Vietnam. He didn't have an interest in Vietnam. He didn't care about Southeast Asia when he first came to the White House, he wishes it had never come to him, but it had. He couldn't pass the buck any longer. This was the great tragedy, really, of his presidency.
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: I can recall one night on a very long walk with him around the south grounds of the White House where he said that Vietnam was going to be his downfall, that Vietnam was going to give him a role in history that would be very, very negative.
Vietnam had not figured very prominently in the American press. Most Americans didn't have the faintest idea where it was or why it was there. I know I myself, for instance, when I was a child, I had one of those children's books, Children Around the World. I understood most of it -- a little Dutch boy, a little Dutch girl, a little Chinese boy, a little Chinese girl -- but one page had me baffled. There was a place called Indochina.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson didn't start the war in Vietnam, he inherited it. Three presidents before him -- Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy -- had sent American "advisers" and weapons to help fight a nationalist uprising led by Communists. By 1963, 16,000 American advisers were already there.
Vietnam was divided in two. South Vietnam -- weak, corrupt and dependent on American aid -- was fighting the Vietcong, a guerrilla army that received support from the Communists in the North. In the North, Johnson would find adversaries with a will as powerful as his own. They wanted one Vietnam, not two. They had resisted the Japanese and defeated the French. They were not afraid of the Americans. Their leader was a man they called "Uncle Ho."
Ho Chi Minh was a soldier, a politician and a dedicated Marxist -- ruthless when necessary, ready to risk everything to unite his country. To the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh was a patriot. To Lyndon Johnson, he was just another Communist.
Less than one month before Johnson became President, South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: President Johnson inherited a Vietnam situation that was deteriorating. The political situation was deteriorating, the military situation was deteriorating. I remember vividly that it was about -- oh, it was the Sunday after he was sworn in that he had a meeting in which he said, "We are going to carry on with this." And that was the theme, continuity. "We are not changing things. We're going to make it work."
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: His need to fight that war was out of a whole world view that he shared with a majority of the country, that what Vietnam really represented was a huge struggle in the cold war with the Communists and that if you gave an inch somewhere, somehow they would be taking advantage of that.
Announcer: [U.S. Defense Department Film] The aim of the Communists is to establish control over all of Vietnam and after that, over all of Southeast Asia.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: People got entranced by maps and great red lines sweeping southward and then westward. This great cartographic fallacy in fact seized the minds of men who should know better at the top.
McCullough: [voice-over] Just two days in office, Johnson told an aide, "The Chinese and the fellas in The Kremlin, they'll be taking the measure of us. They'll be wondering just how far they could go. They'll think with Kennedy dead, we've lost heart. They'll think we're yellow and don't mean what we say.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: President Johnson, in one of his more hyperbolic moods, said he felt we had rather face the threat of Communism in Southeast Asia than face it on the West Coast of the United States.
McCullough: [voice-over] The President turned to Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, "the most competent man I ever knew, the most objective man I ever met," Johnson said. The President affectionately called him, "My lard hair man."
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense: There's no question in our minds but what the Communists have stepped up their of attack in recent weeks in South Vietnam.
McCullough: [voice-over] When McNamara proposed an increase in American advisers and covert commando raids against the North, Johnson agreed.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: There was a strong sense that Americans were can-do people and that anything we put our mind to we could accomplish and the kind of rural jungle warfare that the Communists were inflicting on us in the Third World -- we could adapt and we could win at it because we were smarter, we had more technology, we had billions of dollars and we would prevail.
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense: The government and the people of my country, the United States, stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of yours.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson made it McNamara's war. "I want them to get off their butts and get out in those jungles and whip hell out of some Communists," he said, "and then I want them to leave me alone because I've got some bigger things to do right here at home."
Pres. Johnson: And this Administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
McCullough: [voice-over] The war against poverty was the war that Johnson really wanted to fight. In his first State of the Union address, he reached back to the populism of his father and grandfather. He took a Kennedy anti-poverty proposal and made it his own.
Pres. Johnson: It will not be a short or easy struggle, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.
McCullough: [voice-over] When Lyndon Johnson became President, 35 million Americans were living below the poverty line in the most affluent country in the world.
S. Douglas Cater: And I said, "But they don't vote. They don't have any organized lobbies. How in the world are you going to get any substantial legislation on poverty? Jack Kennedy couldn't. How are you going to do it?" He leaned back and he said -- and these words are engraved on my memory. He said, "I don't know whether I'll pass a single law or get a single dollar appropriated, but before I'm through, no community in America is going to be able to ignore the poverty in its midst."
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson now turned to the Director of the Peace Corps, Sergeant Shriver.
Sergeant Shriver, Peace Corps Director: One Saturday morning, he called me up and said that his radio show, which he had every Saturday, was going to go on in a couple of hours and he wanted to announce on that show that I was going to be the new head of the War Against Poverty or the head of the new War Against Poverty.
I said, "Well, Mr. President, really, you know, I haven't had a chance to speak to my wife. I haven't had a chance to talk to any of the people in my office. I don't know what they'll think about it in the Peace Corps. Couldn't you just postpone that? Frankly, I would rather talk to you about it next week." He said, "Well now, Sergeant," he said, "you know, the truth is we've got to get on with that War Against Poverty, so please talk to Eunice now, just talk to her now and I'll call you back."
So I put the phone down. I couldn't believe my ears. The next thing you know, the phone rang again and there was the President on it. He said, "Well, what have you decided?" And I had decided -- I said, "Well, Mr. President, it would really be much better for me and my family if we could just talk about this next Monday or Tuesday and see what -- I'll have a better idea of what you want me to do and I'm afraid that if you announce that I'm the head of the War on Poverty, people will ask me what I'm going to do about it and I don't know. And that would be a source of embarrassment to me and maybe not so good for you."
He said, "Well, Sarge," he said, "you know, I have this radio program. It's going on in about an hour," he said, "Let me call you back." So he called me back about 20 minutes later and in a very low voice, a confidential-sounding voice, he said, "Now, listen," he said, "I'm going to announce you and I can't speak about it loud because I have the whole Cabinet here with me, but you just have to understand, Sergeant, this is your President speaking and I'm going to announce you as the head of the War Against Poverty." Boom. I turned to my wife and I said, "Looks as if I may be the new head of the War Against Poverty."
Sergeant Shriver, Peace Corps Director: President Johnson's program on poverty is distinguished in at least four ways.
McCullough: [voice-over] In six short weeks, Johnson had come up with his package, but he would let Shriver worry about the details.
Sergeant Shriver, Peace Corps Director: He didn't have to tell me what he desired. I knew what he desired. He wanted to get going big and he wanted to get going with success. He didn't have to tell me that.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson criss-crossed the country, appealing for support for his anti-poverty legislation. Poverty in America had been invisible. Johnson put it on the front pages.
Pres. Johnson: Our first objective is to free 30 million Americans from the prison or poverty. Can you help us free these Americans? And if you can let me hear your voices!
McCullough: [voice-over] For Johnson, it was a return to his political past, the old battle cries of the New Deal coming alive again.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: He was the last soldier in the New Deal war, the final expression of everything which had gone on with those boys -- government as mother, father, smothering Lyndon Johnson's big arms around you,"I love you, I want you to do better."
Pres. Johnson: Do something we can be proud of. Help the weak and the meek and lift them up and help them dream and give them an education where they can make their own way instead of having to live off the bounty of our generosity.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: Most people don't actively care about people they don't know, people who are suffering. It's hard for us to remember those people. Lyndon never really forgot them, I think. I really think he never did.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: His vision was of helping the disadvantaged to help themselves. His hope was that you give them education, you give them opportunity, you give them the chance to come into the mainstream of American middle class economic life and that's as thoroughly American as apple pie.
Pres. Johnson: We have a right to expect a job to provide food for our families, a roof over their head, clothes for their body and with your help and with God's help, we will have it in America! Thank you.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson would make war on poverty and there would be no casualties. Everyone would be a winner, even big business.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: He would tell business people, "Listen, we've got a very abundant country. We've got the resources to help these people who are right at the bottom. For God's sakes, don't you understand that your interest." In effect, he was arguing, "Your interest as a business leader is the welfare state, because you keep everything stable?"
It must have been a very appealing argument to a corporate executive who is not the right of Atilla the Hun that in a civilized country with such abundance as we have -- astounding abundance compared to the rest of the world -- you can afford to be liberal with the poor.
Sergeant Shriver, Peace Corps Director: We were a generation of people who had been in World War II, so when a War Against Poverty was launched, it was typical of all of us at that time to think of this war, the War Against Poverty, in terms just like the war against Hitler. We were accustomed to thinking in terms of the United States being able to do big things. America bestrode the world like a Colossus. There was nothing in the world equal to the United States of America.
McCullough: [voice-over] The War on Poverty was just part of Johnson's program for the country. Few anticipated that this coarse and abrasive Texan would propose a series of laws to enrich daily life for all Americans. He called his vision "The Great Society."
Pres. Johnson: The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talent. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
McCullough: [voice-over] It was an inflated rhetoric, the kind American leaders seldom use anymore. As one aide described it, "What he meant was a full stomach, yes, but a fuller life, too."
Pres. Johnson: It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
McCullough: [voice-over] His aspirations were enormous. He wanted to do something for everyone. He wanted to be the best father Americans ever had.
But in 1964, Johnson still thought of himself as standing in John Kennedy's shadow. He hated that he was merely an accidental president. He wanted to be elected President in his own right. The Republican Party was going to make it easy.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, (R) Arizona: [Republican National Convention, 1964] I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
McCullough: [voice-over] In the middle of July at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the right wing of the Republican Party triumphed. A Major General in the Air Force Reserve, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, was nominated for President. Goldwater's campaign slogan was, "In Your Heart, You Know He's Right." Some wag appended, "Far Right" and it stuck.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, (R) Arizona: Thank you. I'll say, so that all American people can hear, that the only enemy of peace in their world is Communism and I don't care whether it's Red Chinese Communism or Russian Communism or whose Communism it is, it's Communism.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson watched Goldwater on television, then flicked off the set with a smile. Goldwater had accused the Democrats of being soft on Communism. If Johnson could prove he was a staunch as his Republican rival, he would have more than a victory. The 1964 presidential election would be a landslide.
Less than three weeks later, close to midnight, Johnson made a dramatic television appearance.
Pres. Johnson: As President, I'm Commander-in-Chief. It is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply. Our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting.
McCullough: [voice-over] American bombers striking deep into North Vietnam demonstrated that Johnson was a committed anti-Communist. Johnson would use this incident to acquire the power to make war in Vietnam whenever and however he would choose.
Johnson accused the North Vietnamese of an unprovoked attack, but in fact, for six months, the President had been running covert raids against North Vietnam. Finally, on August 2, North Vietnamese torpedo boats retaliated. They fired on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox returned the fire, sinking one Vietnamese and crippling two others.
Dean Rusk, Secretary of State: And we took the view, when that occurred, that that might have been the action of trigger-happy local commanders and did not represent a governmental policy on the part of North Vietnam and so we tended to disregard that attack.
McCullough: [voice-over] Two days after the first incident, fearing they were once again under attack, anxious sailors on the Maddox fired their weapons into a dark, moonless night. Their uneasy commander began sending cables back to the Pentagon.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: On August 4, I began reading the kind of cable that one very rarely saw in the Pentagon and that I don't -- I very rarely saw again. These were operational cables.
McCullough: [voice-over] Daniel Ellsberg, his second day on duty in the Pentagon, found himself reading this remarkable series of top secret messages from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: These are operational cables coming in on a flash basis, very special handling, about an operation that was going on at that moment on the other side of the world. The cables said, "We are under attack at this moment. We have just successfully evaded one torpedo. I am taking evasive action now. Two torpedoes. Now" -- another cable -- "four torpedoes are in the water. Six torpedoes are in the water. We have 21 torpedoes" -- not all at the same time, but -- "we've had 21 torpedoes coming at us." Apparently, the water was just strewn with torpedoes.
McCullough: [voice-over] As soon as the Tonkin cables were relayed to the White House, Johnson prepared to retaliate.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: And then, suddenly, cable came in that was a warning bell, said "Reevaluation of the information we're getting here suggests that freak weather effects and an overeager sonar man may have accounted for most of the reports we've been getting. Recommend full evaluation before any action is taken."
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: Just as soon as we started to get coherent messages that had been put together, I began to feel a cold chill. "Hey, wait a minute. There's something wrong here."
McCullough: [voice-over] The commander of the Maddox was still doubtful. Were any North Vietnamese boats ever out there that dark night? At daybreak, reconnaissance planes scanned the ocean for a slick of oil, a stick of wood, anything that would be evidence of a North Vietnamese attack. Nothing could be found. The evidence was inconclusive, but Johnson went ahead anyway and ordered the first bombing raids on North Vietnam. Retaliation after Tonkin went on for nearly five hours. One pilot was killed, another captured. No one knew how many North Vietnamese were killed. The next day, Johnson presented his version of the incident.
Pres. Johnson: On August 2, the United States destroyer, Maddox, was attacked on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin.
McCullough: [voice-over] Facing a huge banner that proclaimed "Syracuse Loves LBJ," the President was careful not to reveal the whole story.
Pres. Johnson: On August 4, that attack was repeated.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: That, too, was a lie. We were running raids against North Vietnam which the North Vietnamese correctly associated with the destroyer patrols.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson called in congressional leaders for a briefing.
J. William Fulbright, Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Well, as I recall it, he had me and a number of the committee down at the White House and told about this terribly unprovoked attack. We were very peaceably going about our business and all without provocation, they attack us, sent out these gunboats, you know, and surrounded us and shelling. They even had a little shell. This is evidence. It had fallen on the deck of one of our ships. It didn't occur to me to think he was lying about it or misrepresenting. I swallowed it. I -- I mean, it was a year or two before I discovered I had been taken in.
McCullough: [voice-over] Few Americans questioned the President's version of events. What happened on that dark night halfway around the world only became apparent later.
George Ball, Undersecretary of State: Johnson told me in some disgust that those damn sailors were shooting at a lot of flying fish and they ought to know better than that. He never thought -- well, he believed at first, but then he came to believe that there was nothing in it, that this had been -- they had just been seeing shadows.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson never asked Congress to declare war. Instead, he used the incident to cut himself loose from congressional control. He requested a resolution that would give him the power to expand the war without further authorization. After deliberating just 40 minutes, the House approved the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Not a single representative voted no. Over in the Senate, there were just two dissenting votes.
On August 7, Johnson signed the resolution. The language was broad, the authority sweeping. Johnson was heard to say, "It's like grandmother's nightshirt. It covers everything."
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: It was about as close to a declaration of war as one could get. That started us down the long road of Vietnam.
McCullough: [voice-over] Just three weeks after Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf resolution, the Democratic Party held its nominating convention in Atlantic City.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: One has to remember that the candidate running against Lyndon Johnson was Barry Goldwater and I've always thought that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was essentially an election resolution. It was aimed at Goldwater and aimed at the right wing. I think most of the Democratic senators in Congress thought that. It was designed to show that Lyndon Johnson was prepared to be as though as anybody could be and therefore take some of the wind out of the sails of the right-wing candidate.
Pres. Johnson: My fellow Americans, I accept your nomination.
McCullough: [voice-over] When he won his race for the Senate with a tainted 87 votes, he was dogged by the nickname "Landslide Lyndon." When the murder of a beloved president put him in the White House, he was scorned as an accidental president. In November of 1964, Lyndon Johnson wanted a victory to wash all those memories away.
Pres. Johnson: I ask the American people for a mandate, not just to keep things going. I ask the American people for a mandate to begin. Let us be on our way.
McCullough: [voice-over] From the beginning, Johnson was far ahead and the lead inspired him. He excited the crowds and relished their ardor. "Look at them," he would say, "Just look at them." Here, in the faces of millions of Americans was the love and affection he was always seeking.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: The great majority felt that Lyndon Johnson was safe, secure. Everybody was with Lyndon Johnson except for, as he could say, "the kooks," who were with Goldwater. Johnson, I'm not sure, could ever accept that there was a group out there that wasn't going to like him. He wanted to win over everybody if he possibly could.
Elizabeth Wickenden, LBJ Family Friend: Underneath it all, he was very insecure, easily hurt or affronted. Whenever he ran for office, he broke out in spots. He had a kind of psychological eczema that he got.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: I was in the White House one day and Johnson put his arm around me and said, "We need all the help we can get. I've got -- I need New York. You know people in New York. You were raised up in Michigan." How he knew I was raised in Michigan, I'll never know. "I want your help in Michigan and what other states do you know?"
So, later, I talked to a guy, a Texan whom I knew who was close to Johnson and I described this and I said, "Craig," I said, "We're ahead." I said, "The polls show he's going to destroy Goldwater, so what's he doing this with me for? What does he want?" And Craig looked at me and said, "He wants it all."
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson painted his Republican rival as insensitive to the needs of minorities and the poor. It wasn't hard to make the charges stick.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, (R) Arizona: Minority groups run this country and just face up to it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Well, I must honestly say, I don't see how any Negro or white person with self-respect can vote for Mr. Goldwater.
Ronald Reagan: [1964 Republican Party Campaign Commercial] I'm Ronald Reagan. Every American should hear what Barry Goldwater really has to say, not what a bunch of distorters of the truth would have you believe.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, (R) Arizona: This country, my friends, must always maintain such superiority of strength, such devastating strike-back power --
McCullough: [voice-over] Goldwater frightened many Americans with talk about using nuclear weapons.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, (R) Arizona: The Communists would be creating suicide for themselves and their society if they pushed the button.
Child: [1964 Lyndon Johnson Campaign Commercial] One, two, three --
McCullough: [voice-over] The Johnson staff devised a commercial that captured everybody's nightmare.
Child: -- four, five, six, seven --
McCullough: [voice-over] It was so controversial they ran it only one time.
Child: -- eight, nine --
Coundown Announcer: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.
Pres. Johnson: These are the stakes -- to make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other or we must die.
Commerical Announcer: Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson presented himself as the peace candidate. He promised he would never send American boys to fight in Vietnam. He never wanted Vietnam to become a campaign issue. "If you have a mother-in-law with only one eye and she has it in the center of her forehead," he said, "you don't keep her in the living room."
On the day of the election, Johnson waited, he said, "for the moment that I have spent my whole life getting ready for."
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: He couldn't take any pleasure, obviously, out of becoming President because John Kennedy had died, but now, suddenly, as he saw it, he could picture, he would tell me, everybody going into the voting booth, pulling the lever or writing an X for him and I think he really meant, "They love me."
Lewis Gould, Historian: It wasn't enough to defeat Goldwater by a huge landslide. He couldn't understand if it had been 90 percent to 10 percent why those other 10 percent hadn't been persuaded.
McCullough: [voice-over] "Millions and millions of people," he would later say, "each marking my name on their ballot. Each wanted me as their president. For the first time in all my life, I truly felt loved by the American people."
Throughout the campaign, Johnson had kept Americans ignorant about Vietnam, but behind closed doors, he and his advisers had been making decisions that would lead the nation deeper and deeper into war.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: I was present at the meeting in August '64 with the Secretaries of State, Defense and other with the President, in which the President issued marching orders for what they should be doing while he was out campaigning. What he wanted to have available for him when he returned -- victorious, we hoped -- was as wide a range of options as to how Vietnam should be coped with as possible.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: Do we have to escalate the war? Do we have to attack North Vietnam? Do we have to send troops? Can this regime in Saigon hold itself together, not totally collapse, not defect in mass? Can we avoid defeat in Vietnam another week, another month? Can we hold Vietnam together without enlarging the war enormously, till the election?
Pres. Johnson: I, Lyndon Baines Johnson, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States.
McCullough: [voice-over] It was an unprecedented victory -- presidency by more votes than any man ever before. The Congress by an overwhelming majority and, with political power, an opportunity to do great things.
No longer a scorned and frustrated Vice President, no longer an accidental President, Lyndon Johnson was now one of the most popular presidents of the century. On the night of his inaugural gala, Johnson told his guests, "Don't stay up late. We're on our way to the Great Society."
On January 20, 1965, there was no hint that Johnson's Great Society was about to be overwhelmed by a full-scale land war in Asia, that Lyndon Johnson had already sown the seeds of his own destruction.
LBJ: Part Two
This is the second and concluding installment of David Grubin's political biography, "LBJ." In the last episode, we saw Lyndon Johnson rise from obscurity in Texas in amazing fashion: first to Congress at the age of 28, then on to the Senate to become the most powerful majority leader in history. A politician of irrepressible energy and ambition, Johnson burned to be President in 1960, but settled instead for second place on the Democratic ticket as the running mate of John F. Kennedy.
Hubert Humphrey, who served with Johnson in the Senate and who later became Johnson's Vice President, had this to say about him: "Just keep in mind that he had all the weaknesses and strengths of a big man. He was an all-American President. He was really the history of this country, with all of the turmoil, the bombast, the sentiments, the passions. It was all there, all in one man, and if you liked politics, it was like being at the feet of a giant."
A word about the still pictures used in the film. Many of them -- most of the close-ups -- are the brilliant work of the late Yashi Okimoto, who, as White House photographer, was with Johnson every day and under every kind of circumstance. He once said that until he met Lyndon Johnson, he never knew anyone could make so much noise eating soup.
We pick up the story at the height of the Johnson presidency, just after the 1964 election. It's a moment when we really thought that with our wealth and our power, that the United States of America could solve any problem -- here, there, anywhere.
[voice-over] He promised an America without poverty, where the young would be educated, the old would be cared for, where black Americans would be equal citizens. On the night of his inaugural gala, all his dreams seemed within his grasp. Dark tales were still rumored about his rise to power, but within 100 days, Lyndon Johnson would be compared to Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Other Presidents had called the White House a prison; Johnson said, "I never felt freer."
Roger Wilkins, Johnson Administration: Lyndon Johnson filled the air. This was his town.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: Sometimes, I would be with him and I would have the feeling that I'd been with a great, hurtling locomotive running down the track.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: He was kind, he was cruel, he was a son of a bitch, and yet he could be awfully decent and generous -- you know, everything. A very strange person, because he had it all.
J. William Fulbright, Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Yeah, I think he would have been considered a great President if he hadn't gotten involved in Vietnam.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: The tragedy of the war was that it destroyed everything that Johnson had dreamed of.
Part Three: We Shall Overcome
Pres. Lyndon B.Johnson: [1964 Democratic National Convention] My fellow Americans, I accept your nomination.
McCullough: [voice-over] The 1964 campaign had been an absolute triumph. Johnson had been exhilarated by the enthusiastic crowds.
Pres. Johnson: I want for every family what my mother wanted for me: the chance for an honest living, an honorable job, a decent future.
McCullough: [voice-over] He had galvanized the nation with his appeal for racial justice and his vision of a Great Society. At the same time, he had promised not to send American troops to fight in Vietnam.
Pres. Johnson: I have had advice to load or planes with bombs and to drop them on certain areas that I think would enlarge the war and escalate the war and result in our committing a good many American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land.
McCullough: [voice-over] But in Vietnam, the fighting went on. Even with American advisers, the South Vietnamese Army couldn't win the war themselves. Johnson knew they would need more help. "It's going to hell in a hand-basket out there," Johnson had told an aide. "The army won't fight. The people don't know whose side to be on." For months, his advisers were warning him that if he didn't act, South Vietnam would fall. Johnson's vision for America was about to converge with a land war in Asia.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: On Election Day, I represented the Defense Department in an inter-agency meeting at State Department under William Bundy, considering, essentially, alternative bombing programs against North Vietnam. We didn't wait 'til the day after the election 'cause Vietnam couldn't wait. We just barely made it to the election without bombing.
McCullough: [voice-over] "We don't want to get tied down in a land war," Johnson told an aide. The President's advisers gave him three choices.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: One was to go on as we were doing, accepting that it might readily be that that simply wouldn't do the trick. Then, we had two options that were -- in effect, differed in their pace and their severity: Option B, which would have bombed very heavily or fairly heavily, and Option C, which was a more graduated bombing program.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: We didn't really consider not bombing North Vietnam. That possibility was mentioned, but only as a straw man. There lies defeat; no one is for that. Johnson's advisers wanted to get us moving on the bombing, and the President was digging in his feet on that. He had to be convinced that that was worthwhile. It gave me a very good impression of Johnson. I had, in fact, the thought that he was the only sane man at that level of the government, that he was asking the right questions.
McCullough: [voice-over] On February 6, 1965, Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam in retaliation for a Vietcong attack on an American military outpost.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: The option he chose seemed to the President, I'm sure, to be the option of restraint. Rather than be cowardly, rather than be a terrible risktaker, he would apply graduated pressures.
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President: Well, it's like the first olive out of a bottle. Once that happens, the other olives are easy to get out, so once you started bombing, then it became a normality -- always a little bit more, a little bit more, and we can get this war behind us.
McCullough: [voice-over] In March, Johnson ordered continuous and massive air assaults against North Vietnam -- Operation Rolling Thunder. "I knew," he later wrote, "that we were at a turning point." Each step was making it more and more difficult for Johnson to turn back.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: I think President Johnson had a unique opportunity to get us out of Vietnam after the election of 1964. Johnson won overwhelmingly. He had promised not to send American boys to die there. He had the mandate and he had four years to do it, but he didn't have the courage and he didn't have the confidence and he didn't have the advice.
McCullough: [voice-over] For every decision, Johnson had had the counsel of the best and the brightest in America, men like Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, holdovers from the Kennedy era -- "Harvards," Johnson called them. He was a graduate of the Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: He labored his life long under the illusion that he was branded for life because he had no formal education. They had gone to Harvard and on to graduate schools, and here was he, and I don't think he ever finished reading a popular pamphlet past page one.
George Ball, Undersecretary of State: I'm sure the fact that he was getting this information from people with such elegant educations was a great comfort to him. They justified his own decisions.
McCullough: [voice-over] The President hoped the bombing would force North Vietnam to the bargaining table. Johnson had no love for what he called "that bitch of a war." "The woman I really loved," he said, "was the Great Society."
Michael Fitzmaurice, Newsreel Commentator: Mr. Johnson proposes an education program that will ensure every American full development of his mind and skills. He says the beauty of America must be preserved as a green legacy, with water and air pollution ended. Beauty of mind, too, must be promoted. Cities should be imaginatively improved, and a broad health program must ensure medical care for the aged and needy.
McCullough: [voice-over] It was a legislative avalanche. No President had ever put so many bills before Congress.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas: History will prove that he was probably the most effective President we've ever had in the White House. Whether you liked him or whether you approved of his tactics or what was actually passed, as far as getting things done, Johnson could do it better than anybody.
George Reedy, White House Press Secretary: When he became President, he decided that he had to get everything done at once because he had checked back and he'd discovered that all the things Presidents did, they did during their first couple of years. And so he began to pump things out frantically.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: There was a sense in which laws were being written before people even understood the problems, and you had new agencies springing up overnight. But I think Johnson was afraid that somehow this consensus was going to go away, so he'd better get as much done as he could and we could straighten things out later.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson prepared bill after bill: funds for education, elementary, secondary and college, and, for preschool children, Head Start; funds for conservation, clean air and clean rivers, highway beautification, national parks; funds for consumer protection, truth in labelling and packaging, automobile safety. There was urban renewal and housing, public television, the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts... The list goes on and on.
Pres. Johnson: And you haven't seen anything yet.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I though he passed too much legislation, and he was passing them on right after the other without adequate hearings, without a basic understanding of what the ultimate costs were going to be and how they were going to be administered.
Pres. Johnson: I have had but one objective -- to be the President of all the people; not just the rich, not just the well-fed, not just the fortunate, but President of all of America.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He was inordinately proud of all this legislation he passed. Well, I mean, he kept a score card in his pocket -- had a sheet of paper and he listed all the legislation he'd passed. He was extremely proud of it.
S. Douglass Cater, Washington D.C. Reporter; Special Assistant to the President: He wanted to do good things, he wanted to do great things, and he had grown up in a system of government which was the American system, in which you did things by wheeling and dealing and trading. This was the way you did it.
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President: Well, I'm not sure that the government works this way anymore, but when I was in the White House, the President assigned me certain senators and congressmen "to handle."
And every now and then, Everett Dirksen would call -- he was the Republican leader -- and he said, "Jack -- " you know, he had a voice that was like honey dripping over metal tiles; he'd say, "Jack, I want to see the boss later on today, and maybe we could have a drink and talk about a few things." And I'd say, "Yes, sir, Senator. The President will see you at six o'clock. How's that?" "Yes, that'd be fine."
And then he'd rise in the Senate at about three o'clock in the afternoon and accuse Johnson of every crime that the most depraved mind could be capable of committing, and then at six o'clock he'd show up, and I'd go up with him to the second floor of the mansion, and we'd sit and talk. And the President would say, "Everett, I wouldn't talk about a cur dog the way you did me in the Senate." "Well," he said, "Mr. President, you know I vow to tell the truth, so I had no choice." And then they would laugh, and then they would recount some old, long-fought battles.
And then, finally, the President would say, "Now, Everett, I've got to have three Republican votes, and you know who they are. I got to have those votes, Everett, and I don't want any beating around the bush about it." And Dirksen would say, "Well, Mr. President," he said, "I happen to have here some names of some likely nominees to the Federal Power Commission and the Federal Communications Commission and a few other commissions." And the President would say, "Well, give their names to Valenti here. We'll check them out with the FBI, see if they're fit to serve their country." And they'd have another drink.
And there was no summary of the meeting given. Each of them knew that Johnson was going to get three Republican votes, and Dirksen knew that he was going to get three nominees to commissions. I don't know if they teach that in Government 101 in any of the schools, but it worked. The President got done what he needed to have done, but the telephone was his Excalibur, it was his sword, and no congressman was too much of a rookie to be called, nor too powerful a one to be importuned.
S. Douglas Cater: One morning at five a.m., he woke up a senator and said, "Hi! What are you doing?" And he said, "Oh, nothing, Mr. President, just lying here, hoping you'd call."
Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter: If a congressman wasn't home, he'd talk to the wife, and if the wife wasn't home, he'd talk to the children and tell them to tell their daddy to support the President.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: Part of his demeanor, part of his whole life was that he felt he could convert anybody, that he could convert an enemy into a friend, that he was -- he would work at it assiduously, to court and to convert someone who disliked him into being a friend and a disciple. And many times, it worked.
McCullough: [voice-over] But Johnson couldn't use those same tactics with Ho Chi Minh. Johnson thought the war would be like a filibuster, as he said -- enormous resistance at first, then a steady whittling away, then Ho hurrying to get it over with.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: Ho Chi Minh was a revolutionary. Johnson didn't understand that. He didn't understand revolutionaries. A revolutionary in the United States Senate is very different than someone like Ho Chi Minh. He didn't understand the history of the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese culture.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson thought he could force Ho Chi Minh to bargain. "I saw our bombs as political resources for negotiating peace," he said. But Ho couldn't be pushed. Their positions were irreconcilable. He called the Americans "invaders". Johnson called North Vietnam the aggressor, waging war on a peaceful neighbor. Johnson wanted two countries, a North and a South Vietnam. Ho wanted one.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: Ho Chi Minh and the Communists had no intention whatsoever of ever allowing a peace treaty to separate their country. Time was on their side. They could certainly wait out Lyndon Johnson. He understood Ho Chi Minh to be like any other political adversary who he could broker with, he could deal with, that Ho Chi Minh had a price and he would find that price.
Pres. Johnson: Well, what do the people of North Vietnam want? Food for their hunger, health for their bodies. I will ask the Congress to join in a billion-dollar American investment to replace despair with hope, and terror with progress.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson would bully and bargain. On April 7, he offered Ho what sounded like a Great Society program.
Pres. Johnson: The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own TVA. The wonders of modern medicine can be spread through villages where thousands die every year. Schools can be established to train people with skills --
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President: I remember one time I trailed him into his office, and he leaned back in his chair and put his hand on his head like this, and he said, "Oh, God, how can we get out of this war?" He said, "If I could just sit in a room with Ho Chi Minh and talk to him, I think we could cut a deal."
Demonstrators: [singing] "We shall overcome, we shall overcome/We shall overcome some day"
McCullough: [voice-over] At the same time Johnson was challenging Ho, the civil rights movement was continuing to challenge the South. Despite Johnson's historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 that had put an end to segregation, the web of local laws continued to deny black Americans the right to vote.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: About a 192 Negroes were registered, on the average, a month in the State of Mississippi; all over the state, 192 a month. Now, on the basis of this rate of registration, it would take exactly 135 years for half of the Negroes eligible to vote in Mississippi to become registered.
McCullough: [voice-over] Early in 1965, Martin Luther King met with Lyndon Johnson in the White House.
Andrew Young, Civil Rights Activist, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: Martin made the case [that] we were going to continue to have serious problems in racial violence until we got the vote, and that the right to vote was something that we could not afford to wait on. President Johnson said that there could not be a civil rights act in '65 because there had just been a civil rights act in '64, it was just not in the cards, that you couldn't have back-to-back civil rights bills. But we felt like there was no choice, and so we told him then that we would be going to Selma to begin non-violent demonstrations to try to dramatized the need for the right to vote, and that we would stay in touch with him.
McCullough: [voice-over] Determined to force Johnson's hand, King, working with other civil rights groups, organized a series of demonstrations in Alabama, climaxing in a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Alabama State Troopers brutally attacked the unarmed marchers while television cameras recorded the event for a stunned national audience. It was called "Bloody Sunday". Johnson was outraged. With the rest of the country, he saw it all on television, but he refused to send federal troops to protect the marchers.
Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter: There was enormous pressure on Johnson to send down federal troops. He said the last thing he wanted to do was to send the federal army into the South. He said it would be like Reconstruction all over again. He said, "I would lose every southerner."
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson said he was afraid to play into the hands of the popular segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who had turned the State Troopers loose on the marchers; but the civil rights movement was forcing Johnson to action. Demonstrators all over the country demanded that Johnson provide federal protection so that the march could go forward.
Dr. Martain Luther King, Jr.: Now, they've been slow to do anything about it. They always find ways to get over to you that it can be done. It's still strange to us, though, how millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Vietnam and our country cannot protect the rights of Negroes in Selma, Marion, Alabama.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson was stunned by the pressure, but refused to be pushed. "I was hurt, deeply hurt, but I was determined not to be shoved into hasty action."
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: People were demonstrating all over the country. It was just a general uprising. The President was very unhappy. And during that week, I was in the White House, and again we meet him. And he just looked at me; he stared at me as if, "I never saw this person. Where did he come from? I am furious that he is in my sight." It was really frightening. I mean, he looked like -- I hadn't done anything to him, you know? He looked like he was -- and I said, "Hello, Mr. President." And he looked at me and he said, "These demonstrations, what are they all about?" And I said, "People really want to vote, Mr. President. We really need a voting rights act." And I kind of trembled. "Rrrr." He just -- I mean, it was "Rrrr," and he just left. I mean, he did not -- there was no word. No words came out, just "Rrrr."
Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter: At that very precise moment, fortunately, Wallace sent a telegram to the White House, saying he'd like to meet with the President to discuss the situation. Johnson said, "Well, you just come right ahead."
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: That was the most amazing conversation I've ever been present at, because here was Lyndon Johnson, the consummate politician, and George Wallace didn't know what was going on at that meeting.
Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter: Wallace is about five-four and Johnson is about six-four, so he leads Wallace in and he sits him down on the couch -- Wallace sinks down so he's now about three feet tall -- and Johnson sits on the edge of the rocking chair, leaning over him.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: "George," he said, "Do you see all of those demonstrators out in front of the White House?" "Oh, yes, Mr. President, I saw them." He said, "Wouldn't it be just wonderful if we could put an end to all those demonstrations?" "Oh, yes, Mr. President, that would be wonderful." He said, "Well, why don't you and I go out there, George, with all those television cameras -- do you see those television cameras?" "Oh, yes, I saw them." He says, "Let's you and I go out there and let's announce that you've decided to integrate every school in Alabama."
Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter: And his southern voice always deepened when he spoke to other southerners. He says, "Now, you agree the Negroes got the right to vote, don't you?" He says, "Oh, yes, there's no quarrel with that." He says, "Well, then, why don't you let them vote?" And he said, "Well, you know," he said, "I don't have that power. That belongs to the country registrars in the state of Alabama."
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: And Johnson leaned back and he says, "George," he said, "don't you shit me as to who runs Alabama."
Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter: And Wallace insisted; no, he didn't have the legal authority, he said. He said, "Well, why don't you persuade them, George?" He said, "Well, I don't think I could do that." He said, "Now, don't shit me about your persuasive power, George." He says, "You know, I sit down in bed in the morning when I get up, and I got three TV sets lined one right out back of the other. And I got a little button I can press, and I click it whenever I see something I'm interested in. I press the button and the sound goes on. And I had it on this morning, and I saw you, and I pressed the button and you were talking," he said, "and you were attacking me, George." He says, "Oh, I wasn't attacking you, Mr. President. I was attacking the whole principle of states' rights." He says, "You was attacking me, George." He says, "And you were so damn persuasive, I almost changed my mind."
Well, this goes on for half an hour or more, and then, finally, he turns to Wallace. He says, "George, you and I shouldn't be thinking about 1964. We should be thinking about 1984. We'll both be dead and gone then," he said. "Now, you've got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. A lot of people need jobs. A lot of people need a future." He said, "You could do a lot for them." He says, "Now, in 1984, George, what do you want left behind?" He said, "You want a great big marble monument that says, 'George Wallace: He Built', or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine laying there along that hot Caliche soil that says, 'George Wallace: He Hated'?"
McCullough: [voice-over] In the end, Wallace agreed to ask the President to mobilize the National Guard to protect the marchers. The Governor was reported to have said afterwards, "If I hadn't left when I did, he'd have had me coming out for civil rights." Two days later, on national television, Johnson presented a tough voting rights bill to a joint session of Congress.
Pres. Johnson: But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
McCullough: [voice-over] With the protection of the federal government, the marchers assembled in the heart of the Old South to claim their rights as American citizens.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: You felt that the pent-up needs and desires of your people over the generations were going to be achieved in your lifetime -- enormous, when you thought of your ancestors who were slaves. Well, at that point, I was, like, bonded to him. I mean, my transformation as a human being had been complete. I believed by then that he was truly the civil rights President that we wanted and needed.
Bomber Pilot: Bomb doors open at thirty TG, coming up on thirty TG.
Bombardier: Thirty TG.
Bomber Pilot: Roger. That target's now coming up. Stand by to release. Ready, ready, now.
Bombardier: Bombs away.
McCullough: [voice-over] All through early 1965, bombs continued to fall on North Vietnam.
Bomber Pilot: Ready, ready, now.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson had hoped that the massive air strikes by the B-52s would halt the flow of supplies from North to South, but the bombs seemed only to stiffen the resolve of Ho and the North Vietnamese. The war was acquiring a momentum of its own and a desperate sense of inevitability. On March 8, Johnson ordered the first American fighting troops into Vietnam. Their mission was officially defensive: to protect the planes that were bombing North Vietnam.
Reporter: When the Marines were first landed at Danang, we were told that the objective was to defend the air base. How do you resolve that, sir, with your statements in Saigon that their objective is to kill the Vietcong?
Military Officer: You can't defend a place like that by sitting on your ditty box. You've got to get out and aggressively patrol, and that's what our people are doing. And the one thing I emphasized to them while I was out there was to find these Vietcong and kill them.
1st Helicopter Pilot: We have some people running along the dikes. Actually, the canal is perpendicular to the one you're attacking now. They have on black uniforms. I estimate approximately three-zero. Do you have them in sight? Over.
2nd Helicopter Pilot: This is two-three, roger, we have them in sight. We're engaged at the present time.
3rd Helicopter Pilot: Good job. I saw you splatter one right in the back with a rocket.
4th Helicopter Pilot: Roger. Got lucky, I guess.
McCullough: [voice-over] The logic of war was relentless. Advisers had led to bombing. Bombing now led to troops. By early 1965, thousands of American soldiers were in Vietnam, and still the South Vietnamese Army was losing. On March 15, Johnson met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Harold K. Johnson made a prediction that sent a shock wave through the room. "To win the war," he said, "it could take five years and 500,000 men."
Now Johnson knew the stakes. To keep South Vietnam from falling, he might have to commit hundreds of thousands of American boys to a full-scale land war in Asia. He was face-to-face with the decision he had been dreading. "If I don't go in now and they show later I should have gone, then they'll be all over me in Congress. They won't be talking about my Civil Rights Bill or education or beautification. No, sir. They'll be pushing Vietnam up my ass every time -- Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam."
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: How would Johnson explain to the American people that a country that John Kennedy had promised to defend, that Dwight Eisenhower had promised to defend, wasn't worth defending any longer? Had the people changed? Had our commitment to freedom changed? Or was it the fact that we couldn't defeat the North Vietnamese?
McCullough: [voice-over] Every Tuesday, Johnson had lunch with his principal advisers. "If you can show me any reasonable out, I'll grab it," he told them, "but to give in would be a sign of weakness." The lessons of World War II were always in the back of their minds -- stop aggression when it begins, never reward a bully. And the real bullies behind Ho and the North Vietnamese, they believed, were the Russians and the Chinese.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: The men at the top did not want to be bothered with rethinking of assumptions; and most of what a dissenter might offer -- namely, that Chinese Communism was no mortal threat to us and was very different from the Soviet form of Communism, and that Hanoi posed no major threat to us and was different itself from Moscow and Peking -- this kind of thing, this kind of challenge to the assumptions underlying a policy, was regarded as troublemaking.
McCullough: [voice-over] Of all his advisers, only one was ready to be a troublemaker, to challenge the conventional wisdom that Johnson had no choice but to send in troops: Undersecretary of State George Ball.
George Ball, Undersecretary of State: But I thought that the balloon was going up much too fast, so I spent a few nights preparing a memorandum which was 75 pages or so, which is now in the public domain, in which I challenged every assumption of our war in Vietnam and came to the conclusion that it wasn't a war we could win. And the next morning, I got a call. He said, "Damn you, George, you've kept me awake all night. I read that thing three times. Why didn't you ever get to me before? Get over here in the morning and we'll discuss it if it takes all day."
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: George Ball is telling Johnson, "Look, you're going to lose in Vietnam. You're going to end up with a protracted war that will divide America. At the end of three or four or five years, you're going to be in Vietnam with 500,000 American troops and you're not going to accomplish your political objective." He's advising Johnson to let the government fall, let the government of South Vietnam fall and walk away. And it must be shocking to him; I mean, what if George Ball's right? Now, from his military advisers he hears the same thing: it's going to be a long, protracted war in the jungles of Vietnam -- four, five years, 500,000 troops, 600,000 troops. This must have been extraordinary pressure on this man at this one period. "What do I do? Is George Ball right? Are the military commanders right? Is this going to be a quagmire?"
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson still clung to the idea that the South Vietnamese Army could win the war themselves. He told his advisers, "Get every South Vietnamese man under 40 years and get it done. Fight 'em, kill 'em. Get off that gold-watch Phi Beta Kappa key. Let's get going."
At the end of March, Ho Chi minh vowed that he was ready to fight another 20 years if that's what it took to win. Johnson grew more and more grim. "Everything I knew about history," he said, "told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what they did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression."
The war was careening out of control. South Vietnam was about to fall. Johnson could hesitate no longer. He would have to decide: escalate or withdraw. At the end of July, he invited his advisers to a remarkable series of meetings that lasted all week. The issues would be aired one last time. "I don't want to make any snap judgments," Johnson told them. "I want to consider all our options." Once again, Ball argued his case -- "We cannot win, this war will be long and protracted"; and once again, Ball was shot down -- "If the Communist world finds out we will not pursue our commitment to the end, I don't know where they will stay their hand."
Dean Rusk, Secretary of State: How we reacted in Vietnam would be looked upon by other governments as a sign as to how we would react under other treaties, such as NATO and the Rio Pact. In other words, this was a -- the reputation of the United States for fidelity to its security treaties is not just a simple question of face and prestige. It's a real pillar of peace in the world.
McCullough: [voice-over] Secretary of Defense McNamara agreed with Rusk. He assured the President that we could win within two and a half years; there was no risk of a catastrophe. But Ball continued to argue: "Take what precautions we can, Mr. President. Take our losses, negotiate, discuss," knowing full well there will be a probable takeover by the Communists.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: It would have been terribly difficult to do what George Ball urged, which was straight withdrawal. It would have been, I think, very damaging to the country. It would have been very divisive.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: Withdrawal is not what a big, commanding Texan ever does. On the other hand, he was one of the world's great deal-makers. He just didn't know how to do it overseas, especially when Communism was involved and when the White House appeared to be at stake.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: I have a great sympathy with the man for what he went through with reference to the war. I don't know whether any other President would have done it any differently. If you analyze it with great care, as he did, and you line up all those in favor of going on with it and those who were opposed, it's 10, 15, 20 to one.
McCullough: [voice-over] After months of doubt, the President made his decision. He had inherited a limited war; now he chose to expand it. On July 28, 1965, he addressed reporters at an afternoon press conference.
Pres. Johnson: I have today ordered to Vietnam the air mobile division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: This was it. The war was Americanized. We were committed. We were committed to not losing Vietnam.
Daniel Ellsberg, Defense Department Staff: Most people have always imagined -- and because, in part, they've been told -- that a President like Johnson could only have gotten us into this if he had been unaware, if he had been deceived, lied to. Now, that was untrue. He had been told he was heading into a catastrophe, but I think he found it in himself that he might get away with it, and that possibility, I think, drew him on into this sea of devastation.
McCullough: [voice-over] The President never asked for a declaration of war, but on July 28, 1965, Lyndon Johnson went to war in Vietnam. He kept the risks and costs of war hidden from the American people. He never told them he'd been warned that hundreds of thousands of soldiers might be needed, never prepared them for the struggle he knew might lie ahead.
Reporter: Does the fact that you're sending additional forces imply any change in the existing policy of relying mainly on the South Vietnamese to carry out offensive operations?
Pres. Johnson: It does not imply any change of policy whatever. It does not imply any change of objective.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: He doesn't tell the American people what's really going on because he fears that if he moves ahead and escalates the war in Vietnam and mobilizes and does all of his actions, that's the end of the Great Society. That's the end of the one thing he cares about more than anything.
Pres. Johnson: This nation is mighty enough, its society is healthy enough, its people are strong enough to pursue our goals in the rest of the world while still building a Great Society here at home.
McCullough: [voice-over] Just two days after his decision to commit Americans to a land war in Asia, he traveled to Independence, Missouri and signed into law Medicare.
Newsreel Announcer: Mr. Johnson chose to sign the bill here as a tribute to former President Truman. The former President campaigned for Medicare 20 years ago, but it took two decades for his proposal to become law. The new bill expands the 30-year-old Social Security program to provide hospital care, nursing-home care, home-nursing services and outpatient treatment for those over 65.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson continued to pass legislation. Only the President knew that his Great Society was in jeopardy. He hid the costs of the war from Congress and signed more bills.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: When he got into that Great Society mode, he looked at every problem in the society and felt, "I'm going to make it better." He had this desire to perfect everything and to have his stamp on everything. So he saw handicapped people, he was going to make things better for them; retarded people, he was going to make things better for them. Whatever it was, he wanted to make things better. He liked to make everybody feel good.
R. Sargent Shriver, Jr., Office of Economic Opportunity: You could see the progress which was being made for poor people. You could see the transformation of young men and women who were in the Upward Bound program. You could see them going to universities when they never had anybody in their family ever went [sic] to a college in their whole life. You could see that. You could see what was happening to the mothers -- not just to the children, but to the mothers of the children in the Head Start program. You had mothers who were illiterate and never been to school suddenly starting to learn themselves because they were learning simultaneously with their child who was in Head Start. You could see people 16 to 21 who were in the Job Corps actually graduating and going out and getting jobs and beginning to lead useful lives. People were coming out of poverty, and we could see it.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: It's like largesse, it's like a miracle. Something comes from the sky. There's a bunch of bills that say, "We understand your problem and we're going to send you a ton of money, 'cause it's the right and the American way."
Pres. Johnson: I want economic opportunity to be spread across this land -- north, south, east and west, to all people, whatever their race, wherever they work, wherever they live.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: Television wasn't fair to Johnson. He looked funny with those big ears and all that sort of stuff, but in person, he was really a handsome guy -- big, tall, handsome man. And he came and he puts an arm right on -- I was kind of just a city aide, you know, happy to be looking on, and then he puts his arm around you and says, "You're doing a great job, son." Well, that's pretty heady stuff. You just loved the guy.
Pres. Johnson: This is not a time for timid souls and trembling spirits.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: [audio interrupt] "...about people programs," he said. "People. I'm talking about people. I mean, p-e-e-p-u-l. I'm talking folks!"
Rebecca Doggert, Newark Head Start: Yeah, it was an exciting time. We were being challenged by the President of the United States to go into our local communities and make a change. And not only was it rhetoric, there were dollars coming into local communities to make it happen. Lyndon Johnson was saying that this is something that has to be done, and we believed it could be done.
Pres. Johnson: Washington should not be telling your home town what to do to solve its problems of poverty. You ought to be telling us what we can do to help you carry out your plans.
Sergeant Shriver, Peace Corps Director: It was an attempt to energize and empower poor people. That's rarely, if ever, done by an elected government.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: It had a galvanizing effect on a lot of community persons who might not have been involved in government and in politics and the American life in the way that the poverty program committed them to do, and that was great.
Rebecca Doggert, Newark Head Start: Certainly, this was a great opportunity for minorities, for women who, up till then, had really not had a chance to play a significant role in running a large organization. So I very early had an opportunity to become an administrator of a very large corporation, a multimillion-dollar corporation, which, of course, was really unique in those days. We were young, we were gifted, we were black, and we saw resources there, we saw national will there, and then there was certainly this local energy of people who wanted to make a change in their lives. And it came together all at the same time.
Ed Herlihy, Newsreel Announcer: In the same room where President Lincoln signed the first emancipation order in 1961, President Johnson sighed the 1965 Voter Registration Act and pledged to millions of Americans a new chance to find a political voice.
McCullough: [voice-over] The crowning achievement of the Johnson presidency was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, with a stroke of his pen, Lyndon Johnson guaranteed black Americans the right to vote.
But the sense of triumph and accomplishment was short-lived. Just five days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, riots erupted in Watts, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Five days of rioting left 34 people dead. Johnson was shattered.
As one aide described him, "He just wouldn't accept it. he refused to look at the cables from Los Angeles describing the situation. He refused to take the calls from the generals. They needed decisions from him, but he simply wouldn't respond."
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: He reacted very badly. How would you react? You're sitting there in the White House, you're in charge of the country and people think you have all this power, and the country starts burning up. Johnson had a good heart, but he wasn't a civil rights expert. He knew Texas, but he didn't know big-city guys. He wanted black people to be grateful. "I did this," and he'd pull out a bill and he would tell what he did on it, "and I did this," and he'd pull another bill and tell, "and I did this, I'm doing this. How can they do this to me?" And people would try to tell him, and it was hard to tell him.
Harry McPherson, U.S. Senate Staff, Special Assistant to the President: American racism was still there. The laws had not suddenly eliminated how people really felt.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: I think the gap between the expectations of the early Johnson years and the ability of the government to perform created a potential explosion in every city in America. People were disappointed and angry, and responded by attacking whatever was handy.
McCullough: [voice-over] "How is it possible," Johnson asked, "after all we've accomplished? How could it be?"
Speaker: [meeting] Is it too much to ask you to grant us human dignity? Should we be put down and shot to death for this request? If so, you can aim your guns. What the hell do you think we care about dying if you're going to deny us the right to live?
James Farmer, civil rights Activist, Congress of Racial Equality: Lyndon Johnson could not understand that the civil rights movement had changed its class content. Johnson felt particularly uncomfortable with this new group of poorer blacks from the inner cities of the North. They were not like the poor blacks and Mexican-Americans that he had had contact with down in Texas. These were different. They were raucous people, they were angry people, they were belligerent folk. They did not see Lyndon Johnson as a friend. They saw Lyndon Johnson as a white man.
Stokely Carmichael: We want black power. We want black power. We want black power. We want black power.
McCullough: [voice-over] Integration was no longer the battlecry. "Too little, too late," is what new black voices were saying about Johnson's achievements. The civil rights movement as Johnson knew it was over.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: He never understood it, black consciousness. He did not understand that the generations of heaping inferiority into our souls needed to be purged, and if you're going to put that awful stuff into people, when people begin to expel it it's not coming out pretty. You're not going to stand up and preach pretty sermons. You're going to say some ugly things, which people did.
Stokely Carmichael: You go sit in front of your television set and listen to LBJ tell you that "Violence never accomplishes anything, my fellow Americans." But, you see, the real problem with violence is that we have never been violent. We have been too non-violent, too non-violent.
McCullough: [voice-over] The optimism of the civil rights movement had gone up in flames. Justice, fairness, the war on poverty had been too long delayed in America's ghettos. Not even a politician of Johnson's genius would be able to hold the country together.
In times of stress and tension in his life, Johnson was often struck down by illness. In 1965, he entered Bethesda Navy Hospital for surgery. With ten doctors and three Secret Servicemen in attendance, Johnson had his gallbladder and a kidney stone removed. After a two-hour operation, Johnson went right back to work.
He was never shy about conducting the nation's business from the most unlikely places. He could be earthy and crude, even vulgar. After his operation, he couldn't resist showing reporters his foot-long scar. One cartoonist transformed the scar into a map of Vietnam.
Johnson had gambled his political future and the lives of tens of thousands of men that he could win a quick victory, that when he sent American troops in force, Ho would turn tail and run, but the North Vietnamese refused to quit. Ho resisted Johnson's escalation with an escalation of his own, matching him soldier for soldier.
Four months after Johnson's agonizing decision to send the troops, he received an ominous private report from the man who had argued most fervently for the land war in Asia. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had begun to have second thoughts.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: In late 1965, we have minutes of meetings in which the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tells Lyndon Johnson that "We've been too optimistic. The war can't be won in the period of time that we thought."
McCullough: [voice-over] Even with 600,000 men, McNamara told him, the odds were 50/50 that after a year or more there would be a military standoff.
Larry Berman, Vietnam Historian: And I think the evidence is overwhelming that Johnson did not want to hear what the Secretary of Defense had to say, and from that moment on, the relationship between the two men deteriorated and was never the same.
George Ball, Undersecretary of State: He wanted desperately to be told that things were going well, and he wasn't necessarily getting that advice. Well, I think it shook him a great deal, and I think that he felt that he had gotten a -- he was riding a tiger and he couldn't get off.
McCullough: [voice-over] The White House could keep these internal debates hidden, but there was no hiding what was happening in Vietnam.
Morley Safer, CBS Evening News: This is what the war in Vietnam is all about -- the old and the very young. The Marines have burned this old couple's cottage because fire was coming from here.
We're on the outskirts of the village of Cam Ny with elements of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson bridled at what he saw. he knew the power of television and worried about how Americans would react to watching the war in their living rooms night after night.
Morley Safer, CBS Evening News: Today's operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here, but to a Vietnamese peasant whose home is a -- that means a lifetime of backbreaking labor. It will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.
McCullough: [voice-over] Americans began to question the conduct of the war. At first, their numbers were small and Johnson dismissed them, but he could not ignore what was happening in the Senate.
Sen. Frank Church: I still think these principles upon which we rest our policy are subject to very serious questions.
Sen. William Fulbright: Well, I wish -- all I am asking for is clarification of what our objective is in this struggle.
McCullough: [voice-over] February 1966. Senator William Fulbright began to hold televised hearings. Fulbright had guided the Tonkin Gulf resolution through an obedient Congress on behalf of the President. Now he was leading Senate liberals in an anti-war revolt against the White House.
Sen. Church: You can look at the war in Vietnam as a covert invasion of the South by the North, or you can look at it as basically an indigenous war. But either way you look at it, it's a war between Vietnamese to determine what the ultimate kind of government is going to be for Vietnam. Now, when I went to school, that was a civil war.
ABC Announcer: We'll be back with more of the stormy Senate hearings when ABC's Cope continues in just a moment.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson was furious. He began referring to Fulbright as "half-bright" and cut him off entirely. Their 20-year friendship was over. He placed Fulbright and several other Senate liberals under FBI surveillance. Johnson ridiculed his critics. He called them "cut-and-run people with no guts". "They're rather fight me than the enemy." he was beginning to hunker down, isolating himself from dissent.
Tom Paxton: [singing "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation"] "I got a letter from LBJ/It said, 'This is your lucky day/Time to put your khaki trousers on/We've got a job for you to do/Dean Rusk has caught the Asian flu/And we are sending you to Vietnam." Lyndon Johnson told the nation/ "Have no fear of escalation/I'm trying everyone to please/Though it isn't really war/We're sending fifty thousand more/To help save Vietnam from Vietnamese"
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson had taken the country into war and kept the American people in the dark. Now, as the fighting escalated, many began to challenge the morality of the war.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: I didn't fully understand why I was opposed to the war in Vietnam. I just knew that it was wrong for a great, proud, abundant nation, technologically superior to anything in the world, going in and crushing a peasant society. In my opinion, it was like a decision to release the furies. I think the thing that the anti-war movement probably didn't understand is that once he had made it, he wasn't going to draw back.
Johnson actively argued with me that he was trapped, that he had tried to do everything to bring peace. "I don't want people to think I'm a coward," he would often say. "I don't want to be the first President who's lost a war." Well, what does it matter if he's the first President who's lost a war that shouldn't be fought anyway?
Anti-War Demonstrations: [chanting] End the war in Vietnam! Bring the troops home! End the war in Vietnam! Bring the troops home!
McCullough: [voice-over] By the summer of 1966, hundreds of thousands of Americans were in Vietnam. Still, his generals kept asking for more. Thousands were dead, Johnson's dream of a Great Society was in danger, and the end was nowhere in sight.
Part Four: The Last Believer
McCullough: [voice-over] It was called "the Golden Chalice", the marriage of the President's younger daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. One reporter said, "Nobody was invited except the immediate country." It was August 6, 1966. There was war in Vietnam and riots in the streets, but there was still more Johnson hoped to do. What he wanted was time -- time to build his Great Society. "We can't quit now," he told an aide. "This may be the last chance we have." But time was running out.
Over four long, hot summers, riots had become a brutal fact of American life. Johnson looked helplessly on as more than 150 cities went up in flames. Detroit was the worst -- 43 dead, 7,000 arrested, 1,300 buildings destroyed. Johnson dispatched army paratroopers and prepared to send his own task force to investigate. As part of the task force, Roger Wilkins was there as the President issued his final instructions.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: And he started in a low key. "I don't want any bullets in those guns. You hear me? I don't want any bullets in those guns! You hear me, gentlemen? I don't want any bullets in those guns. I don't want it known that any one of my men shot a pregnant nig -- " and he looked at me and his face got red. I was the only black in the room. "Well, I don't -- I just -- no bullets in those guns." But he was clearly embarrassed, and everybody in the room was embarrassed. So then he told us to go home and pack and get an Air Force plane to go to Detroit.
And as we're leaving, he called me and he said, "Come in here, Roger," and I went into his office with him. And he didn't say anything. I mean, I knew he wanted to say, "I didn't mean to say 'nigger'," but he meant to say 'nigger'. And I knew he wanted to say, "I apologize." He didn't know how to say it.
And so he walked me over to the French doors that went out to the Rose Garden, and it's the area where Eisenhower had his putting green. And he looked out, and he looked at me, and he looked down, looked out, looked down. There were pockmarks on the floor where Eisenhower's golf shoes had hit the floor. And he finally looked at me, and he looked at the floor, and he said, "Look what that son of a bitch did to my floor!" And then he patted me on the back and said, "Have a nice trip." And that was his way of apologizing. It was very human, I thought.
Pres. Johnson: We will not tolerate lawlessness. We will not endure violence. It matters not by whom it is done or under what slogan or banner. It will not be tolerated. Pillage, looting, murder and arson have nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: The anti-poverty program evaporated in the rioting of '66-'67 and with the pressure on Johnson to establish order in the streets. This was not the man in front of Congress, saying, "We've got to do more"; it was a man concerned and upset and maybe worried about his political future and on the phone to the governor, saying, "Damn it, crack down on those people." What happened was, we were all overwhelmed by the times. So was he.
McCullough: [voice-over] The mood of the country had changed. Many Americans began talking about law and order. Johnson was accused of forcing racial equality and neglecting the needs of middle-class white Americans. He was caught between the civil rights movement and a growing backlash of fear and resentment.
Andrew Young, Civil Rights Activist, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: The country began to get out of control, and President Johnson was no longer in control of the Congress. The economy was creating problems for him, the war in Vietnam was being lost, and unfortunately, I'm afraid that instead of blaming all those forces, he tended to blame us. And the irony of it was that we were probably the best friends he had.
McCullough: [voice-over] On January 5, 1967, Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diary, "A miasma of trouble hangs over everything." American planes had already struck most of the important targets in North Vietnam by the end of 1967. Several times, Johnson ordered a halt in the bombing and waited for a response from Ho. None came. Johnson's generals thought he was too cautious, staying their hand, preventing them from using America's enormous firepower to force a victory. But Johnson was tormented by a persistent nightmare -- the fear of triggering World War III. "In the dark at night," he said, "I would lay awake, picturing my boys flying around North Vietnam, asking myself, 'What if one of those targets you picked today triggers off Russia or China?'" Johnson spent many hours personally selecting where the bombs should fall.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: He got more upset about things and more worried about constantly following it, getting the latest statistics, unreliable as we knew they were.
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: I remember once, in a meeting where the Defense Department was briefing him, and the figures didn't seem to jive to me at all. It sounded to me as though they'd killed ten times as many people as had lived in Vietnam over a period of two centuries. And I slipped him a note, you know, to ask a couple of questions, a practice that we'd been engaging in ever since I worked for him. Boy, I got the dirtiest look. "No more of this." That was the last time I tried it, 'cause I realized it was hopeless.
Pres. Johnson: And since our commitment of major forces in July '65, the proportion of the population living under Communist control has been reduced to well under 20 percent.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: I am not sure that he didn't think he was telling the truth. He had a capacity for self-deception about facts that was ten times the capacity of anybody else I've ever met.
Pres. Johnson: And in the contested areas, the tide continues to run with us.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: Everything would come around into his way he felt comfortable looking at it, whether that had any relationship to what went on or not.
Pres. Johnson: The campaigns of the last year drove the enemy from many of their major interior bases.
McCullough: [voice-over] When Johnson continued to insist that America was making progress, fewer and fewer people believed him. No one directly accused the President of lying; they called it "the credibility gap".
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: He was so used to using words as a means of persuasion to get somebody to do something, so used to talking to seven different people telling them seven different things so that they would all come together to do what he wanted, that lying and persuasion were all part of the same thing for him. And I don't think he even knew the truth. Truth was the action, the product; the means didn't matter, how you got there. But when you're President and you make statements, and those statements are then picked up and they're put on television, you're not just talking to seven different southerners and northerners who will never speak to one another. Suddenly, you get this credibility gap 'cause people hold you to your statements.
McCullough: [voice-over] Vietnam has become Lyndon Johnson's war, and the demonstrations turned personal.
Rally Speaker: As Verne stumbled out of that bunker, dazed, with blood on him, he didn't mumble, "Those bastard Vietcong." He didn't mumble, "Those bastard Communists." He didn't mumble, "Those slope-eyed bastards." He mumbled only one thing over and over, "That bastard Johnson. That bastard Johnson."
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: He didn't understand it. He was totally and completely baffled by it. For one thing, the White House was loaded with very young people, and he would always see them correctly dressed, perfectly groomed, proper. And to him, this must be American youth, and therefore he didn't know who those people were outside the gates. You know, were they extraterrestrial? Where did they come from?
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: I think he would have been astounded if he had known, when they marched on Washington, that a bunch of kids were sleeping in my house on the floor and a bunch of kids were sleeping in Bob McNamara's house on the floor. We never told the President that our children felt as they did about the war in Vietnam, and he probably wouldn't have understood it. But I think he probably suspected left-wing plots, that sort of thing.
George Ball, Undersecretary of State: He said, "George, don't pay any attention to all these kids on the campus. They'll stomp around and make a lot of noise. What really matters, what is the great black beast that we have to fear, is the right wing."
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: He was frustrated because he couldn't end it and because he thought he couldn't win it. And I kept trying to plead with him to end it, to win it -- to end by winning it. And I said, "You ought to -- if you have to blow Hanoi off the face of the earth, blow it off the face of the earth." He said, "I can't do that. I can't do that. They tell me we're winning. We're going to win this thing. I can't use ultimate power." I said, "Why can't you?" And I said, "I don't care what advice you're getting from whom." I said, "It's too slow. The war's too slow. You're not winning the war, you're losing the battle at home, and it's going to destroy you."
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: There were no good choices that anybody could devise as to how you were going to get out Vietnam and still have an honorable peace or something of that kind. The choices that you had were all skewed towards, "Do I send in more troops?", "Do I keep the same troops in there?", "Do I do more bombing?", "Do I put on more pressure?", "In what kind of cheap way can I put it on?", "What are the risks of China coming in?", "Should I bomb in Cambodia?" They were all hawkish choices, because there really wasn't anything on the other side that you could devise. We have more than half a million men there. How are you going to get them out?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America. It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill in Vietnam, while we spend, in the so-called War On Poverty in America, only about $53 for each person classified as poor.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I argued with him a great deal. I said, "You know, you're wrong. You're telling the American people that they can have guns and butter, and," I said, "that's wrong. This war is costing an awful lot of money, and you can't have, you shouldn't have guns and butter."
Sergeant Shriver, Peace Corps Director: The War Against Poverty was killed by the war in Vietnam -- first of all, because of the lack of money; secondly, it stopped because of preoccupation with the shooting war and the killing fields of that war. Death and destruction and bombing and all that captures the public imagination much more than creating something that's good. Birth is never dramatized like death.
McCullough: [voice-over] The raids over North Vietnam continued until more tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than had been dropped during all of World War II. Still, Ho resisted. "Hanoi and other cities may be destroyed," Ho told his countrymen, "but the Vietnamese people will not be intimidated."
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: The Vietnamese, had we bombed them to the Stone Age, would have gone back into the jungle, waited us out. They knew something that we also knew but didn't acknowledge, and that was that someday we would go home and they could come back and rebuild what we had destroyed.
Sec. Rusk: I think I made two mistakes in judgment. One was that I underestimated the tenacity of the North Vietnamese, and I think I overestimated the patience of the American people.
McCullough: [voice-over] By the end of 1967, a grim sense of siege was settling over the White House. The President dug in. He had spent a lifetime climbing to the pinnacle of power; his whole political life now hung on only one issue -- Vietnam.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: He decided to call in the men whom he respected most. They became known as "the Wise Men." There were about ten of them. If you put the total service, those men must have had 250 to 300 years of government service.
McCullough: [voice-over] These were the architects of American foreign policy -- Dean Acheson, John McCloy, Averell Harriman. "Contain Communism, don't let it spread" had been their advice to every President since Truman.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: The picture that was given to them was that we are making slow, grinding progress and we thought we could see, at some point, a break, with the other side really starting to really weaken and go downhill.
McCullough: [voice-over] Dean Acheson said later, "I told him he was wholly right on Vietnam, that he had no choice except to press on."
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: They voted unanimously for him to go on with his course. He was greatly comforted by that.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: The advice they gave was, "Look, the country doesn't see it the way you're describing it. You've got to develop a way to make your assessments of the situation more credible."
George Ball, Undersecretary of State: Well, they gave him perfectly silly advice. They were sensible people, and why they were so silly, I don't know. Their main advice was, "Well, you ought to improve your public relations." Well, after the meeting, I spoke to Dean Acheson and John Coles and Arthur Dean, and I said, "You old bastards, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You're like a lot of vultures sitting on the fence and sending the young men out to die." And I walked out of the room.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson had expanded the war in secret. Now he set out to sell it to the American people.
Pres. Johnson: We are making progress. We are pleased with the results that we're getting. I think we're moving more like this and I think they're moving more like this, instead of straight up and straight down.
McCullough: [voice-over] He called home the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, for a round of well-publicized meetings and press conferences.
Gen. William Westmoreland: The enemy is being progressively weakened. The Vietnamese armed forces and the government as a whole is being strengthened.
Lee Williams, Aide to Senator Fulbright: The glowing reports always came back from the Pentagon. "Hey, just a little more! We're winning this war, it's almost over, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
McCullough: [voice-over] In the middle of December, with reporters and television cameras in tow, the President took off across the Pacific. Johnson was inspired by the photo opportunity, but he was also moved by America's fighting men. "We're not going to yield," he told them, "and we're not going to shimmy."
Pres. Johnson: The enemy is not beaten, but he knows that he had met his master in the field. He is trying to buy time, hoping that our nation's will does not match his will.
McCullough: [voice-over] After just a few hours in Vietnam, the President was on his way to Pakistan and then Rome. It was like a campaign tour of old. Johnson paid a surprise visit to the Vatican, where he assured Pope Paul VI of his desire for peace. His Holiness presented the President with a 14th century painting. The President reciprocated with a foot-high plastic bust of himself.
The 2,700 mile, four-day journey had buoyed Johnson's hopes. He wanted desperately to believe that America had turned the corner in Vietnam, that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: And then Tet came. Tet, to me, was the roof falling in.
McCullough: [voice-over] America watched as South Vietnam exploded. On the first day of the Vietnamese holiday known as Tet, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong caught American forces by surprise. Five of the six largest cities and nearly a quarter of the district capitals came suddenly under attack. The illusion of progress was shattered.
Reporter: What's the hardest part of it?
U.S. Marine: Find out where they are, that's the worst thing. You ride around, they run into sewers, in the gutters, anywhere. They could be anywhere. You just hope you stay alive from day to day. I just want to go back home and go to school. That's about it.
Reporter: Have you lost any friends?
U.S. Marine: Quite a few. We lost one the other day. The whole thing stinks, really.
McCullough: [voice-over] The Tet offensive went on for more than three weeks. When it was over, the Vietcong had lost thousands of experienced soldiers and failed to provoke a popular uprising; but by now, Johnson had misled the American people so often that when he told the truth, few believed him.
Pres. Johnson: The biggest fact is that the stated purposes of the general uprising -- a military victory or a psychological victory -- have failed.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General:: There is an instance where the credibility gap really hurt, because I think everybody was convinced that Tet had been a very serious defeat for North Vietnam and for the Vietcong and there was just no way you could persuade the American public that that was the fact.
Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News: Well, it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost-certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation.
McCullough: [voice-over] Walter Cronkite, the veteran newscaster who'd been called "the most trusted man in America", once supported the war. Tet changed his mind.
Walter Cronkite: And for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of a 100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000 more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
McCullough: [voice-over] Johnson felt more and more alone. Many of those closest to him had resigned -- his Press Secretary, his Special Assistant, his personal aides and advisers. And now, the aide he had called "the most competent man I ever knew, the most objective man I ever met", one of the original architects of the war, Robert McNamara, was leaving. On February 28, exhausted and disillusioned, Johnson's Secretary of Defense said goodbye.
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense: Mr. President, I cannot find words to express what lies in my heart today, and I think I'd better respond on another occasion.
McCullough: [voice-over] "The pressure got so great Bob couldn't sleep at night," the President said later. "I loved him and I didn't want to let him go, but he was just short of cracking. Two months before, he felt he was a murderer and didn't know how to extricate himself. I never felt like a murderer. That's the difference." March 1, 1968, Clark Clifford replaced McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Half a million Americans were already in Vietnam, and Westmoreland wanted 200,000 more. Clifford confronted the Pentagon.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: I'd say, "Are we nearing the end of the war in Vietnam?" "We do not know." "Do we have enough men in Vietnam now?" "We do not know." "Is the bombing being effective?" "Well, in a limited way." I got down finally when I said, "Now, what is the plan for victory in Vietnam?" You know what? We didn't have any? It's probably the first time in the career of any of them that we'd ever fought a war in the jungles of that kind. Firepower didn't mean anything. I remember hearing a general who said, "Damn them, they wouldn't come out and fight."
Pres. Johnson: Well, make no mistake about it. I don't want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise. We are going to win.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: He was going through an agonizing period. We met daily. I felt it was my task to do everything in my power to persuade the President to change our policy in Vietnam. I needed time to make every effort to reverse the process that had been going on since 1965, you see. It's like a great train: you just can't suddenly put it in reverse. You have to kind of bring it to a stop, starting in at these meetings and, bit by bit by bit, pointing out the disappointments, one after another, that had occurred, the reports that we were prevailing when it turned out that we weren't, and each time hacking away. And by that time, maybe we'd lost 20,000 men out there, had spends tens of billions of dollars of our country's treasure. It's almost beyond human capacity, at that time, to say, "We've been wrong."
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: Suppose that you are the President of the United States, and you give some orders and some men get killed. You aren't going to say to yourself -- I mean to yourself, late at night -- "Those men are dead because I was a damn slob and gave some silly answers." What you're going to say is, "My God, those men died in a noble cause, and we've got to see they didn't die in vain." So you send more men to vindicate their death.
McCullough: [voice-over] "Every night when I fell asleep," Johnson said, "I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long open space. In the distance, I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting at me and running toward me: 'Coward, traitor, weakling.' They kept coming closer. They began throwing stones. At exactly that moment, I would wake up."
George Reedy, U.S. Senate Staff, White House Press Secretary: Around midnight, one o'clock, two o'clock, the casualty reports would start coming in. He would wake up automatically and call the Situation Room, or sometimes wander down there, where he could get the direct figures. And the man became haunted by it.
S. Douglas Cater: We were working, it was around nine-thirty at night, and suddenly the President came into the room. And we all stood up, and he said a very strange thing. He said, "Where are you sitting?" Well, he had never asked that question before. He would sit down in any chair that he wanted to, and we would reseat ourselves to accommodate where he was sitting. But we found a seat for him and he sat down, and he just looked, like, sunk. And he said, "I don't know what to do. If I put in more boys, there'll be more killing. If I take out boys, there'll be more killing. Anything I do, there's going to be more killing." And he just sat there and then he got up and left.
Demonstrators: [chanting] Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President: The presidency became a burden that each day became more difficult to bear. The furrows in the face were deeper. The eyes were sadder. And it was almost visibly apparent that this war was breaking this extraordinary, formidable man who had never been broken before.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: With the turning of the country against him, his entrapment in the war, his inability to win it without simply wiping Vietnam off the map, I thought Johnson had become somewhat unstable.
Demonstrators: [chanting] Hell, no, we won't go! Hell, no, we won't go!
Sec. Rusk: In 1968, it became apparent to us that an awful lot of people at the grass roots had finally decided that if we could not tell them when the war was going to be over, we might as well chuck it.
McCullough: [voice-over] In the midst of his despair over Vietnam, Johnson was forced to cope with the 1968 presidential election.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy: I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: The thing that the President really hated was the idea that he would be the mistake between the Kennedys, that he would be viewed as the mistake between the Kennedys. He truly hated Bob Kennedy. I mean, he really hated him.
McCullough: [voice-over] "The thing I feared from the first day of my presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother."
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: Always paranoid, always insecure. His insecurity had grown into a disease, and the insecurity was asserting itself in proclamations and assertions.
Pres. Johnson: We seek not victory of conquest, but we do seek the triumph of justice.
McCullough: [voice-over] In spite of growing opposition to his war policies, warnings from his political advisers, with over 20,000 Americans dead, Johnson remained adamant.
Pres. Johnson: We seek that right, and we will -- make no mistake about it -- win.
McCullough: [voice-over] By the middle of March, Clark Clifford despaired of ever changing the President's mind. Only one group of Americans might be able to influence him -- those foreign-policy experts called "the Wise Men". Five months before, the Wise Men had cheered Johnson with their support. Now, Clifford encouraged the President to meet with them one more time.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: Although it might sound somewhat conspirational, I thought it wise to contact a good many of them first, so I did. I knew them all, I'd known them all for years, and I got a feeling from them. I made four, five or six contacts and found that in each instance, Tet had changed their minds. They all came back; we went through the same process -- reading cables, getting briefed; then we met with the President. They had all turned around. The impact was profound -- so profound that he thought something had gone wrong, and he used the expression "I think somebody has poisoned the well."
Richard Goodwin: He had picked these old Cold Warriors that were still fighting the battle of containment, and he listened to their advice, and as long as they stayed with him, he felt that he must be doing the right thing. Then, finally, at the end, they left him. They all said, "It's not working," and they walked out of the room, and there was Lyndon Johnson all alone with his war, the last believer.
McCullough: [voice-over] March 31, 1968, five days after meeting with the Wise Men, Johnson appeared unusually calm as he rehearsed his speech on Vietnam.
Pres. Johnson: ...to discuss the means of bringing this war to an end. Now, let's have Walt outline the three or four steps we want to ask these folks to do.
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: A week before he was to deliver that speech, he called and said he wanted me to sit in from then on with those who were preparing the speech. But when I got there, the first line of the speech was, "My friends, I wish to speak to you tonight about the war in Vietnam."
Pres. Johnson: Gosh, this is hard to read, Jim. You have no idea. It's just marked up, every word, nearly. You see?
Clark Clifford, Presidential Adviser: On the evening of Sunday, March thirty-first, the first line was, "My friends, I wish to speak to you tonight about peace in Vietnam."
Pres. Johnson: Good evening, my fellow Americans. Tonight, I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
McCullough: [voice-over] At first, the speech seemed like many others -- one more pause in the bombing, one more gesture toward negotiations.
Pres. Johnson: Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam except in the area north of the demilitarized zone, where the continuing enemy buildup directly threatens our --
Harry McPherson, U.S. Senate Staff: The day before he made the speech, we had an all-day meeting, and he said, "Have you seen the last part of the speech?" And I said, "No. I think I know what's in it." And he said, "What do you think about that?" I said, "I'm very sorry." And he said, "Well, OK. So long, partner."
Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General: He had said, on many occasions, that he might not run again, and I always interpreted this as meaning that he would.
Pres. Johnson: With our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal, partisan causes --
S. Douglas Cater: And I remember being torn, literally, 50/50, half of me hoping he would do it -- that is, announce his withdrawal -- and half of me hoping he wouldn't do it.
William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State: And when he got to what I knew was the end, I got up and said, "Well, let's turn it off and talk about it." And I moved toward the set, and then came the sayonara.
Pres. Johnson: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: I was surprised. I was surprised because I didn't think he'd ever really do it then. Here was a man whose whole life had been politics, everything -- to the exclusion of everything else, really.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: I -- I couldn't believe it. It was like a -- it was like a percussion grenade going off in that room, and I was stunned.
James Thomson, Jr., National Security Council Staff: I was overwhelmed with exhilaration. It was as if someone had told me I'd won the Nobel Prize. There was hope, suddenly.
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: It just broke me in two, because I knew what it meant to him to say it and I couldn't stand it. And three men and I were in a car, and we all began to just openly cry, because it was tearing our heart apart and, of course, we knew what it meant to him.
McCullough: [voice-over] Surrounded by his family, Lyndon Johnson withdrew as a candidate for President of the United States. Three days later, Ho Chi Minh responded. North Vietnam was ready to talk, but the war would go on for another seven years.
Johnson would remain in office 10 more months, a lame-duck President, helplessly watching as the country drifted closer to anarchy than at any time since the Civil War. On April 4, he learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. In August, police battled anti-war demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And then, in November, Richard Nixon, the Republican who said he represented the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, was elected President. "I sometimes felt," Johnson said, "that I was living in a continuous nightmare."
Rep. James Pickle, (D) Texas, LBJ Campaign Worker: You knew it was the end of the road for that presidency and all the good things that you had enjoyed, the challenges you'd had and the opportunity to do something, and maybe had done something, for your country. For those of us who were part of the Johnson team, that broke our hearts.
Roger Wilkins, Attorney, Johnson Administration: My feelings were so mixed about the man. Well, there was a part of me that never stopped loving him and there was a part of me that hated him, so I didn't know how to respond. And it was mainly sadness, I guess.
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: Only he, with all of his remarkable gifts and knowledge, could have had a realistic appreciation of the extent of his opportunity and of the extent of both his achievement and his failure.
Robert Dallek, LBJ Biographer: The liberal impulse that went back to the New Deal is challenged, and what you get, beginning in '68, I believe, with Richard Nixon's election, is an era of conservatism. And the irony is, Johnson presides over the extraordinary achievement of liberalism, reaching its zenith, reaching its heights, and then, within three years' time, plunges to its depth from which it still hasn't recovered in the year 1990.
Donald Malafronte, Aide to Mayor of Newark: What he wanted was people to love him, and what he wanted to do was to solve everybody's problems himself. And for Johnson, he had no other vocabulary, no other way of thinking about how to help people, other than to have involvement of government in a big way. "Give them a lot of money, put your arms around 'em and love 'em." He was the last soldier in the New Deal war.
McCullough: [voice-over] Congressman, Senator, Vice President, President -- Washington had been his life for over 30 years. Now he was going home to the Texas hill country, where, as his father told him, "The people know when you're sick and care when you die."
John Connally, LBJ Campaign Aide, LBJ Advisor: The basic, sedentary life that he was relegated to was not the type of life that he enjoyed or had ever known. His life had been enormously active, had been centered around politics. All of a sudden, he had nothing to be active about, and the politics was gone.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, LBJ Biographer: Now he was left to this ranch, but he had to have staff meetings in the morning or else he would have gone crazy. But they might have only been three or four Mexican field hands, and he was telling them which tractors, and which eggs were going to be laid by which hens, almost. And at night, he literally couldn't go to sleep unless he had reports, just as he had always had in the White House, but now it would be how many eggs had been laid by these hens. And it was almost as if the monarchy had been reduced to this small ranch but the habits had to stay the same.
And as all of that sadness set in, then there was a certain frenzy of wondering, would history remember him well? And then, I think, his whole mood began to change.
Elizabeth Wickenden, LBJ Family Friend: He was extremely depressed, and he wouldn't talk about anything in the last 25 years. He would talk about the early days; he wouldn't talk about anything in the subsequent years.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: He was -- he had this long white hair, and it's all curled - you know, it kind of curled to the back of his hair, and he looked like a hippie. I think he chose to look like a hippie because he contained everything. He looked like he was identifying with the kids who'd been demonstrating against the war. Maybe he was trying to say to them, "Hey, I understand. If I'd have been young, I might have done the same thing."
Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: I think he drank himself to death, knowing that he shouldn't have drunk, shouldn't have smoked, shouldn't got overweight. He had the heart problem. He always said that men in the Johnson family didn't live long, and I think he just asked for it and just waited for it to happen.
McCullough: [voice-over] On a cold day in the winter of 1972, Johnson left the seclusion of his ranch and traveled to Austin to speak about civil rights for the last time.
Mrs. Johnson: He got up out of his bed from a bad angina attack, just put a pocketful of those little nitroglycerine pills in.
Pres. Johnson: Now, let me make it plain that when I say "black," as I do a good many times in this little statement, I also mean brown and yellow and red and all other people who suffer discrimination.
Harry McPherson, U.S. Senate Staff: His heart was really hurting, and he -- I remember seeing him pop a nitroglycerine pill.
Pres. Johnson: We know how much still remains to be done; and if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome.
McCullough: [voice-over] This would be the last speech he would ever give. Within six weeks, on January 22, 1973, Lyndon Johnson's heart stopped beating. He was 64 years old. Five days later, the Vietnam War ended for America in a peace treaty signed in Paris.
Ronnie Dugger, LBJ Biographer: He was just interesting as hell. I mean, you know, compared to most people who kind of go through life vainly, making their dreadful moral points of condemning this or hoping for that or scratching the back of their head, Lyndon really moved. He was moving all the time. The few times I was with him, it was -- he was just fun to be around. And you liked him. You liked him. I liked him when I was with him more than I did when I was thinking about him.