124. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Postmaster General Lawrence O’Brien1

O’Brien: [Robert Kennedy has put himself in] this position, and he knows that it’s not politically good for him. I don’t know what you do with that kind of situation. But I started talking about things like Model Cities and, you know, our basic program. I said, “You know, Bob, what we ought to be doing is fighting Republicans, for Christ-sakes,” and God, frankly, I thought it was a hell of a meeting. I didn’t ask for the meeting. He said, “Gee, I’d like to get together,” and he came down, he had lunch with me and we spent two hours on a very confidential basis. And Christ, the day after we had that meeting, he went to New York, and made a statement in the press that he was looking forward to campaigning as hard as he could for you. And so I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a little bit of a sign of improvement.” Then, my God, a week later, I look in the paper and find his comment on the Ho Chi Minh letter.2 So I’ll be damned if I could figure that out. I haven’t talked to him since. But he certainly—he told me he wanted to do everything possible he could in the 1968 campaign starting immediately; that he wanted no Goddamned involvement with any peace-maker in the country that was trying to use him in any primary or anything else and that there would be absolutely nothing like that happen, and that anything that I wanted to suggest to him on a day-to-day basis for him to do, and he’d appreciate having my advice and counsel and he’d follow it through.

[Page 297]

President: Well, let me ask you this, Larry. Does he not realize that when he and Ribicoff3 get on there and say that I’m no friend of the poor on television and then come along here on the draft and knock the ass out of me on that and then they come along here on Vietnam and they hit the hell out of us on that and then they come along with these stories about calling me a son-of-a-bitch—Nick didn’t leak that, and Rostow didn’t leak it, and I didn’t leak it, and it didn’t happen.4 But I’m told by a good man I’ve known 25 years in this town that his people called him up, and asked him to come up, and told him how Bobby chewed me out, and how I chewed him out, and how Bobby said “I don’t have to listen to this” and all that kind of stuff. And his people leaked that. Now it seems to me that if he’s as wise as we would hope he is, that he could see that is damaging pretty generally to him and to me. I don’t believe either of us profit from it. I believe that if either of us do, the Manchester book, and that I believe that I do. I don’t 4believe he does. Now, I may be wrong.

O’Brien: No, you’re right.

President: But I believe I am right. Now it seems to me the principal beneficiaries are the Republicans. Now let’s assume that he wants to be President tomorrow. Let’s just assume that—I believe that to be true. I think that he’d be President tomorrow if he could do it, so let’s assume he does. It doesn’t seem to me that with the President in here and in charge and willing to use it and to play anyway he needs to, although I’ve tried my best to play fair with Jack Kennedy—I think I have; my conscience is very, very clear on that point and I think on Vietnam that he’s right where I am and I’m carrying out his policy—but let’s just assume that he decided that he would try to defeat me for President. I don’t honestly believe that if he did that he could possibly win because I just believe that my state and twenty others would be in revolt. I think that it would be a hell of a lot worse than Teddy Roosevelt and Taft5 because I’m in the Presidency and I’ve got the folks. Now, so I don’t think he’d do that. I don’t see why he wants us to have a bad record and to be defeated in ’68 because then they take all this power that he could get in ’72 if he wants to be President. I don’t get their reasoning. Now, he’s got Peace Corps people; Bill [Fulbright] says this Mankiewicz and Walinsky,6 whatever his name is; maybe Ken Galbraith [Page 298]and Schlesinger7—they directed Stevenson’s8 campaign in ’56, maybe they’ll direct him. But I can’t see from their angle, if they’re interested in nothing but themselves, why it’s to their advantage to make weak at all—the stronger they are, it’s, hell, Kennedy made his man President; he carried on a good job, now let’s take another man that Kennedy’s interested in and make him President"—looks like that’d be the damn line. I don’t see how they get anywhere with defeating us in ’68 or weakening us in ’68.

O’Brien: Well, they don’t, and it’s a completely stupid situation. But what you have to remember, and Arthur Schlesinger is adviser to the guy, and incidentally I told Bobby just what I’m telling you, that [if] Arthur Schlesinger is adviser to a guy, he’s getting advice from about as stupid an individual politically as I’ve ever met in my life, and he’s a completely irresponsible guy. You travel that path, they’ll send you right down the Goddamn drain. And I said to Bobby, “I’ll tell you, that potentially you’re the leader of the Democratic Party in the future, and that future is down the road some years.” And I said, “Of course the way these fellows are steering you, you could wind up the leader of the New Left, you know,” and I told him exactly that, and frankly, he didn’t disagree with me at all. He said, “Well, Goddamnit I know that I’ve fallen back and I know that I’ve got problems,” and I said that “Well, Christ, I read in a magazine that a couple of guys whose names I can’t even recall but are the new leaders of the New Left, they’re up at your apartment advising you.” I said “Christ, that’s a hell of a long way over to a road that I never figured you’d travel.” And I don’t know those staff guys, but he’s got one fellow, that they tell me, who’s the worst bomb-thrower that ever lived—some guy who thinks Stokely Carmichael’s9 a conservative—and those are the people that you’re listening to every day of the week. Now I said to him, “Finally, the proof of the pudding is this: we’ve got a Goddamn mean situation going into ’68, we’ve got a tough Congress, we’ve got a hell of a good program on the books—we’re looking for new breakthroughs, and let’s take Model Cities,” and I went right over the failure of these people that are supposedly so interested in the cities to try to present amendments and work with Muskie,10 and I said “The proof of this over the next year will be how the hell much effort is being expended on behalf of the President’s program, which is the Party’s program, and how much effort is going to be expended fighting Republicans? It’s as clear as that.” And he left me after 2 hours saying, “Well, will you keep in [Page 299]touch with me, and I’d appreciate having your advice as we go along this road.” And I said, “Well, okay, if that’s the way you want it, let’s see how it works.” He was Goddamn concerned, Mr. President. I know him well enough to figure him there. He’s arrogant and he’s, you know, he can go off half-cocked. I’ve known this kid since 1951, and boy I’ve had some problems with him over the years. But he’s never gotten anything from me when he’s had to talk to me except total candor right from the shoulder, because what the hell, I’m not trying to play any game. And that’s what he got that day and he took it in great style, and said that what I was saying made a hell of a lot of sense; he appreciated the comments I had made, and “By God, let’s go out and work.”

President: All right now, let’s get any other name that you can. What is your evaluation, if you had to pick the two best ones we’ve considered, who would you look at now?

O’Brien: Well, I would say at this point that I’d be looking at Booton and Sanders,11 and then the White House I’d be looking at Jimmy.12

President: Okay, thank you. I’ll talk to you. You get in to see me before I leave tomorrow.

O’Brien: Okay, Mr. President.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and O’Brien, March 30, 1967, 9:23 a.m., Tape F67.10, Side A, PNO 4. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. Kennedy decried the President’s letter to Ho as a hardening of the U.S. Government’s conditions for negotiations at the time of its public release on March 21.
  3. Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D–CT).
  4. Reference is to Kennedy’s February 6 meeting with the President; see footnote 2, Document 38.
  5. Reference is to the Presidential election of 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt and sitting President William Howard Taft split the Republican Party, allowing the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to win the election.
  6. Frank Mankiewicz and Adam Walinsky, staff assistants to Robert Kennedy.
  7. John Kenneth Galbraith, Ambassador to India, 1961–1963, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy.
  8. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956.
  9. Founding member of the Black Panther Party.
  10. Senator Edmund Muskie (D–ME).
  11. Bernard Booton, former Administrator of the Small Business Administration, and Harold “Barefoot” Sanders, Legal Counsel to the President.
  12. James “Jim” Jones.