After much tense negotiation this spring, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy finally discovered at least one point on which they could agree. It was that Kennedy did not call the President of the United States of America a son of a bitch to his face.
Gossip as to who said what to whom at that now famous post-Tet confrontation at the White House served to titillate Washington for weeks. There were some who said Kennedy said it, others who said he didn’t. The final consensus was that he didn’t—but almost did; that Bobby had to bite his tongue he was so mad; and that what he almost called the President to his face was mild compared with what he did call him afterwards.
All of that is largely inconsequential, however, for each of these men knows full well what the other thinks of him. What is more important, and revealing, is that when the stories of such a monumental display of personal rudeness and political boorishness leaked out, Washington was not especially shocked and was fully prepared to accept every word as truth.
The fact is, the town has been in such an unusually mean and intemperate mood this spring that it would have seemed unnatural for Johnson and Kennedy not to have argued.
An air of mutiny
Anyone who has been along on a pleasure cruise knows what happens to good friends when they sail together too long. But what has happened in Washington is more than a temporary falling-out among good friends, and the town is no pleasure yacht these days, either. It is a rusty old freighter, sprung with leaks, carrying precious cargo on a long and increasingly perilous voyage; rough weather lies ahead, and there is an air of mutiny on deck.
The subtleties involved in the Johnson-Kennedy confrontation are worthy of Joseph Conrad. The rawnerved ship’s captain, who has about quit trying to keep up appearances and no longer bothers to shave, accuses the junior officer of leading a plot against him. The JO denies it. The captain’s anger increases. He threatens. The JO barely manages to control his temper.
This man is dangerous, the young officer thinks to himself. Should I try to take over command? He communicates his fear to others on board. Maybe I’m mistaken, he thinks next. Perhaps my duty is to stick it out and somehow keep this cursed vessel from destroying itself. Besides, if I try to lead a mutiny and fail, the captain will keelhaul me and siring me up by the yardarm.
And so, caught up by his own ambition, trapped in his self-made snare of sophistication, stalled by a nagging sense of duty, and doubt, delayed by a native sense of caution and a highly developed appreciation of the realities of power, and stunned, perhaps, by the recent discovery that he, too, has his vulnerabilities, he does both too much and too little, and thus ends up contributing to the very tragic end he sought to prevent.
History may prove that, in this instance at least, Robert Kennedy’s character belongs neither to Theodore White nor to William Manchester, but to Conrad: the befuddled hero who stands on the forecastle, watching and accepting the inevitable as it looms closer and closer in the fog, muttering to himself, “I tried to tell him.”
That meeting in the captain’s sea cabin was indeed dramatic and well publicized. But, like most mutinies in the initial stages, Washington’s thus far has generally been restrained and guarded. But the boatswain knows. He sees the occasional, purposeful display of disrespect, the slow way in which orders are obeyed. And he knows there is much whispered debate in the crew’s quarters by men who sense that tragedy lies ahead but who don’t know what they can do about it, who realize only that they don’t like what is happening without knowing quite why.
Washington is slogging through a sea of tepid indifference these days. Tempers are short and patience is strained. It is the sort of situation that brings out the worst in everybody.
“Cut ‘em down" Congress
As a result of last November’s elections, Congress is completely deadlocked, and nobody has the heart for a fight. The Democrats are disheartened because they lost power, the Republicans because they don’t have enough. John McCormack is in the very best tradition of politicians who rise above their provincial beginnings to serve the greater interests of the nation, without ever fully comprehending the truly revolutionary aspects of the legislation those bright young men downtown draw up and present for their support; but he is old, an increasingly older man in an increasingly younger Congress, and is not quite with it anymore. The great, final service he could perform, climaxing an honorable and fruitful career, would be to resign his leadership post now, in full dignity, and assume some senior, advisory position. But he never will.
The mood on both sides of the Capitol is made more rancid by the House’s shameful handling of the Adam Clayton Powell case, and by the Senate’s embarrassment over what the case of Senator Thomas Dodd implies about congressional ethics in general. So the Congress these days ill-humoredly assumes the posture of the lumberjack in the cartoon who stands beside a fallen tree and proclaims, “I may not be able to make ‘em, but I can sure as hell cut ‘em down.” Congress may not be able to pass any new legislative program worthy of the name this year, but it does have the power, within its coalitions, to wreck the Administration’s program, and in its sullen willfulness, that, it appears, is exactly what it is out to do.
“If I were the President,” Representative Richard Ottinger of New York volunteered this spring, “I’d pass the necessary appropriations bills and adjourn.” Numerous senators, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts among them, privately agreed.
One presidential request which did receive prompt response from Congress was restoration of the investment tax credit. In fact, the House went beyond the Administration’s request and added an amendment of its own which will refund about half the tax money gained through the temporary repeal. And there was a good chance the Senate would act to give it all back.
Johnson’s move to restore the investment credit hurt the chances of passing the income tax surcharge he still says is needed. Representative John Byrnes, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, charged that the Administration has a “yo-yo tax policy,” and when Treasury Secretary Henry H. Fowler attempted to justify the contradiction, he got rough treatment.
Actually, it isn’t all that difficult to explain; it’s just that some find it difficult to accept the necessity. The President is faced with two problems which are pulling against each other, and in effect, creating a third. The economy is sagging a little, but without a tax increase the higher budget deficit could have inflationary effects.
The President needs the tax increase to help pay for the cost of the war in Vietnam, It is, in every sense, a war tax. (In 1966, the cost of Vietnam was roughly twice the Pentagon’s original $10 billion estimate for the year.) Johnson is acutely aware that the Federal Reserve Board very likely will impose tougher credit if his budget deficit gets appreciably bigger. Johnson might still get his tax bill, but it is not expected to go into effect until fall, if at all, and any final version acceptable to Congress will be greatly different from the one he proposed.
One perhaps inevitable result of the money squeeze is that most liberals in Congress are charging that the President is really not pressing for approval of very many of his own domestic spending requests this year. They point as an example to the $2 billion he is asking for poverty, predict he will be lucky to get three quarters of that amount, and charge that, in fact, this is exactly what he is counting on. The liberals don’t like it but don’t know what they can do about it.
If dreams came true
They would be the last to admit it, but the Republicans are sick at heart too. Like the young suburban couple glaring across the dinner table at one another, they have come to the slow realization that things just aren’t working out for them, and the only real, unanswered question is, Who will first decide to pack up and leave?
Nobody is very happy about George Romney’s vagueness. Party moderates are muttering that Charles Percy is “the Nixon of the sixties.” Every time Mark Hatfield is invited to give a Washington speech he recites a homemade poem and embarrasses his audience by the performance.
Republican congressional leaders fancied that they might take advantage of their gains and build a votecatching spun-sugar castle of responsible alternatives. But that sweet dream had been brought to an abrupt end by the time the first daffodil had shown its butter-yellow face along the Rock Creek Parkway.
The one Republican who, at least in his appearances at the annual spring round of political dinners, most impressed Washington was Ronald Reagan. Though a relative newcomer, his performances generally were sharper than those of men who have been in the business of politics far longer. Reagan created the impression that he is now embarking on a low-keyed but serious effort to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. This has shocked other Republican leaders far more than they are admitting publicly because they believe that Reagan would be another Barry Goldwater, who would lead his party to similarly disastrous ends.
The problem is that Republican unity largely is a leaky patch-andplaster job, and more and more GOP conservatives, persuaded that Johnson can be beaten by practically anyone, are beginning to ask, Then why not take a man we really want?
So the Republicans are smiling, but with tears in their eyes.
LBJ views the news
President Johnson — well, there’s not much new there, except to report that the President’s preoccupation with his public relations problems has taken an intriguing new turn. Publicly, the President and various other members of his Administration complained that reporters are chronic critics who never bother to tell about the good side of things. (And no one in this weary town bothered to reply that public officials have a routine responsibility to be honest, of good intent, and to perform as well as they can. It is widely accepted, for example, that the current Secretary of Labor is no crook and the current Postmaster General is not consciously working against the best interests of his country. But the day those facts rate headlines the nation is in big trouble.) Privately, the President charged that “Communist” influence in American communications was much more widespread, and dangerous, than most people realized. He did not offer further detail.
The absence of power
So, everybody’s mad at everybody else in Washington this spring. The lack of trust, the amount of backbiting, the incident rate of argument, the lethargy, the lack of drive and enthusiasm, and the increasing degree of cynicism are all appalling.
The cynicism is not spent exclusively on the White House, the misleading claims over Vietnam, or the activities of the Congress; there is plenty left over for the pursuits of that lean and hungry-looking group of Kennedy people whose gusto in attacking Johnson programs and declaiming against policies some of them helped to formulate has marked them as the Restoration Movement. “Power corrupts,” one Washington wag was inspired to comment, “and the absence of power corrupts absolutely.”
Somewhere deep within the bowels of the west wing of the White House, President Johnson has installed a remarkable Special Congressional Message writing machine, and he has kept it running day and night so far this year. Congress has been barraged with special messages — on crime, on the draft, on the needs of the aged, on poverty, on practically anything you can name — and some of them have been very good indeed. But the President is not going to get anywhere with most of them.
When labor leaders quietly gathered at the White House and killed the proposal to merge the departments of Labor and Commerce, there was not a soul at the potter’s field funeral to say a prayer. If you were to mention the possibility of new civil rights legislation this year, nobody would even know what you were talking about.
No little-finger war
Vietnam is, of course, the name of the albatross which hovers over the capital. The leaders of this nation are sick to death of this war, and that includes those who support the President’s course of action there. The historically unique fact seems to be that the nation’s leaders are more discouraged and distraught over the way things are going than are the people they serve. After all, the casualty rate — in this increasingly populous nation — has not been that high. There have been no shortages of goods, no rationing, no invocation of emergency powers. As far as most people are concerned, we are fighting this war with the little finger of our left hand. But in Washington, people are far more aware of the true cost. The financial cost is awesome. But the cost in terms of national motivation may be even greater.
John F. Kennedy destroyed the national innocence. There will never be another New Frontier staffed by enthusiasts who really believe they can achieve overnight reforms and advances. But neither does the Great Society lack for men of vision. Just the opposite. There are plenty of people with good ideas about what must be done now to meet those problems of the future that the President is always talking about. But they are all taking long, demoralized lunches at Sans Souci. Some of these people want to blow North Vietnam off the face of the earth, and some of them want to charter everything that will flv or float and just get out and leave it all to heaven. But all of them are sick of this war.
It all prompts one to envision some future militant theoretician — an intense fellow wearing round, rimless glasses, who sits writing away furiously for some Communist Party paper in some little country somewhere:
“Take heart as you go into battle, comrades, and be not discouraged by your lack of modern equipment. Remember always the great lesson taught by the experience in Vietnam, where a group of little, malnutritioned, malaria-ridden men, dressed in black pajamas, wearing sandals made of old auto tires, subsisting on rice, and armed with small caliber, hand-carried weapons, succeeded in disrupting the national budget, altering both the domestic and international policies, demoralizing the leaders, and changing the course of affairs of the greatest, most powerful nation on earth.”