In July of 1973, six months after the death of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Atlantic published an article by a journalist and former Johnson speechwriter named Leo Janos. "The Last Days of the President," about LBJ in retirement, was elegiac in tone and fact, save for one dissonant paragraph—in which Johnson volunteered his opinion that President John F. Kennedy's assassination had been the result of a conspiracy organized from Cuba. "I never believed that [Lee Harvey] Oswald acted alone, although I can accept that he pulled the trigger," he explained to Janos. Johnson thought such a conspiracy had formed in retaliation for U.S. plots to assassinate Fidel Castro; he had found after taking office that the government "had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean."
Johnson's assertion generated just a ripple of attention at the time, ten years after the assassination. Conspiracy theories about the assassination had become a cottage industry, and the fact that even a former President believed in one was interesting, but only mildly so. Then, too, Kennedy's mythic stature left no room for an allegation of this nature, and Johnson's well-known penchant for exaggeration worked against him. Besides, it was easy to discount the views of a President whose term had given rise to the phrase "credibility gap." After his bitterly divisive years in office the public wanted none of Johnson's regrets, reminiscences, or revelations.
Johnson's remark was dismissed until 1975, when an extraordinary series of events, ignited by the Watergate break-in, culminated in the baring of the Central Intelligence Agency's darkest secrets—including the fact that it had indeed tried during the early 1960s to assassinate Fidel Castro. Still, the story behind Johnson's indiscretion to Janos has never been adequately understood or explained. Surely Johnson appreciated the likely consequences if his words were taken at face value. They could be devastating to the government and the nation to which he had devoted the greater portion of his life. To answer the question of why Johnson spoke out is to understand how he himself saw his presidency.
It is possible to reconstruct the story only because Johnson secretly recorded many of his telephone conversations. Without these recordings—history with the bark off—vital information would be altogether missing. Not one of the millions of documents in the Johnson Library reveals the President's own thoughts soon after hearing what was then a rumor about CIA plots against Castro; only the recordings do. It is virtually an article of faith among historians that the war in Vietnam was the overwhelming reason the President left office a worn, bitter, and disillusioned man. But the assassination-related tapes paint a more nuanced picture—one in which Johnson's view of the assassination weighed as heavily on him as the war.
We pick up the story just after the November 1966 elections. The Republican Party had come roaring back after being trounced in 1964. The biggest bone in the President's throat, though, was not the Republicans but his own party. The once impregnable Johnson, whose roots were certifiably southern but who had governed from the left, was seen as increasingly vulnerable because of the midterm election results. He was losing the support of the party intelligentsia—a crucial segment, and one that he had always found frustratingly elusive. On the domestic front, liberals charged the President with doing too little to alleviate poverty, discrimination, and the problems of America's inner cities; as for foreign policy, there was only Vietnam.
One barometer was especially telling in Johnson's eyes: polls pitting the President against Senator Robert Kennedy, the only person considered a serious obstacle to Johnson's renomination in 1968. The idea that Johnson might face a challenge from his own party was extraordinarily disheartening. That his putative challenger was Robert Kennedy was infuriating. The most painful presidential transition in American history was bound to have had difficulties. But JFK's brother had been a unique problem for Johnson since the day of the assassination, when RFK had acted as if Johnson were an undeserving pretender rather than the legitimate successor to the presidency.
By the winter of 1967 Johnson's handling of the transition, once widely viewed as flawless, was coming under criticism. New books and press reports had kindled relentless controversy over the official version of the assassination —that is, the Warren Report, which had concluded that the shots that killed President Kennedy were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, and that no evidence existed that Oswald was part of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic. For the first time since the report's release, in September of 1964, a plurality of Americans believed that the assassination was the culmination of a conspiracy. No less damaging to Johnson was the serialization of William Manchester's forthcoming The Death of a President (1967). Manchester revealed that severe strains lay behind the pageantry that had gripped America for four days in November of 1963. But, conspicuously, only one major figure emerged without dignity. Manchester depicted LBJ as an unworthy successor to JFK, a crude and boorish Vice President who had grabbed the nation's highest office with unseemly haste. Taken together, these developments continually reminded Americans of the violent and abrupt manner in which Johnson had become President. The assassination was a wound in the body politic that had not healed, and was not being allowed to.
As he grappled with what amounted to an existential attack on his presidency, Johnson recorded two revealing telephone calls in early 1967.
On Monday, February 20, Johnson called Ramsey Clark, the acting Attorney General, because of an astonishing news story published on Friday afternoon in the New Orleans States-Item. The Orleans Parish district attorney, Jim Garrison, had "launched an intensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy," alleging that there had been a conspiracy. Although his legal reach was limited, Garrison had subpoena power over the jurisdiction in which, he claimed, the conspiracy had been hatched.
Garrison, then forty-five, was considered a responsible, reform-minded prosecutor, albeit one with a decided flair for publicity. Like most district attorneys, he was politically ambitious. There was little on the record to suggest that he was, as it turned out, a cunning demagogue the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Thus the almost universal response to Garrison's action was He must have something. By the time the President called Clark, New Orleans was at the center of a media maelstrom.
Clark was especially discomfited by one "nutty" aspect of the story—a rumor that Garrison was linking Johnson to the conspiracy. As fantastic as it sounded, the rumor seemed to have a credible source: the Democratic representative Hale Boggs, whose district encompassed much of New Orleans, and who had served on the Warren Commission.
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Perhaps to Clark's surprise, Johnson responded to the story with equanimity, without swearing or even muttering to himself when he heard what Garrison was reported to be saying. As it happened, the rumor from New Orleans was far from the wildest one making the rounds. Johnson asked Clark if he had heard an even more fantastic rumor—one that had been personally conveyed to the President on January 16 by Drew Pearson, a syndicated columnist who was considered something of a renegade by his peers. The story was that the CIA had sent men into Cuba on a mission to assassinate Fidel Castro after the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle. Pearson also said that Robert Kennedy had been directly involved.