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LBJ, Two Stories

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It would be a colossal bit of hubris to suggest that Robert Caro needs any help from me in researching Lyndon Johnson's presidency from 1964-68, but I have two good stories about that period, and I'd like to get them on Huffington before the book comes out.

I heard the first story from a Johnson aide during that period: He and Joe Califano were often asked for advice by President Johnson. At the time, Harry McPherson, a brilliant young Texan, was serving as LBJ's special assistant and counsel and later as special counsel, but Lyndon seldom asked him for his advice. My friend, the Johnson aide, and Califano, once asked the president why he rarely asked council from his special counsel. Johnson replied "Oh, Harry will only tell me the right thing to do, and I already know that." My friend suggested that McPherson represented the best side of the president, while his Chief of Staff, Marvin Watson, a tough political operative, reflected his worst side.

The second story came to me from Sylvia Westerman, Roger Mudd's producer at CBS.
The time was the mid-60s, when Robert MacNamara, the Secretary of Defense, secretly planned for and budgeted the construction of an electronic fence to keep the Vietcong out of South Vietnam.

John Stennis, who a few years later became Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, had grave doubts about the MacNamara's plan. He thought it was a damn fool idea and couldn't figure out how the fence would differentiate between a guerrilla and a cow. At the time, Stennis had served in the Senate for almost twenty years, was a supporter of the Vietnam War and a close ally of Lyndon Johnson, but he knew that if he leaked the "MacNamara fence" story Johnson would never forgive him and would wreak vengeance upon him.

Stennis was also a friend of Roger Mudd, a fellow Southerner who was related to Samuel Mudd, the doctor who had repaired John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after the Lincoln assassination. Stennis believed that Mudd would do his best to protect him from Johnson's wrath, so he arranged for a meeting between Westerman and his Chief of Staff to pass the story to Mudd and emphasized the need for secrecy. At a dark table in a Washington restaurant, Stennis' aide is said to have showed Sylvia the documents, Sylvia took notes and reported back to her boss, Bill Small, the highly respected chief of the CBS Washington bureau.

Small recognized that Stennis' concerns were more than justified and decided to have Dan Rather, the CBS White House correspondent, report the story. Small figured that if Rather reported it Johnson would think the leak came from the White House and Stennis would be protected.

Small was right. When Rather broke the story, Lyndon Johnson went nuts. He was sure that some anti-war Kennedy holdover in his White House had fed the story to Rather. Johnson called in the Secret Service. It checked White House phone records to see who had been calling Rather; started monitoring phone calls, and according to some reports, White House phones were tapped.

The Secret Service never found the culprit, Small and Westerman had saved Stennis' career. Stennis served in the Senate until 1989. During his career he created the Senate's code of ethics and helped create America's modern navy. The super carrier USS John C. Stennis is named after him. But none of this would've happened if Lyndon Johnson discovered who the leaker was.

Looking back, I think it was a good thing that Congress feared the president. I am sure that if a Congressman had stood up before all of Congress and said to Lyndon Johnson "You lie," that Congressman's district would've lost all of its defense contracts, and half of its post offices by the end of the next day. Compromise can be achieved only when each side respects and fears the power of the other. Unfortunately, that is not now the case, and we are all paying a stiff price for it.

By the way, if Robert Caro wants to know more about the story, Bill Small is still living in Manhattan, right in Caro's neighborhood.