The night of John F. Kennedy’s funeral — three days following his assassination — Lyndon Johnson met at the State Department with the world leaders who had traveled to Washington to pay their respects.
Although LBJ had been vice-president almost three years, he was not considered a vital part of the Kennedy Administration, and had been excluded from any significant role from the start. That fall, rumors had been circulating that he might be dropped from the ticket in 1964. JFK’s Harvard-educated Best & Brightest regarded Johnson as an embarrassing Texas throwback.
And now he was the most powerful man in the world.
Robert Caro’s narrative of Johnson’s sudden ascension, the politics and rivalries and details he had to master without warning, is highly illuminating.
That photo of Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One? Totally LBJ’s idea, demonstrating the continuity of American government before anyone had a chance to doubt it. Others had recommended waiting for a more formal moment at the White House.
But where LBJ had a famous expertise in domestic politics — as Senate Majority Leader, all bills came through him — he had no grounding in foreign affairs, and in the crush of everything else that needed his attention, no time for the briefest of briefings. He would walk into the evening reception, and subsequent individual meetings with the likes of Charles de Gaulle, cold turkey.
Everyone at the State Department was scared shitless. International diplomacy, particularly during the Cold War, wasn’t something you could just vamp your way through. Precision is required, down to the preposition. Text is just a means to convey subtext.
And that evening, the text was a series of 5×8 cards Johnson was handed just before each greeting. For the Cambodian prime minister:
“Tone — firm, no nonsense, though kindly… President Kennedy had a high regard for Prince Sihanouk; you share that regard. President Kennedy personally investigated the charges of U.S. complicity in the Khmer Serei plots and gave Prince Sihanouk his categorical assurances that they were false… The U.S. respects Cambodia’s desire for neutrality and supports it, but if international guarantees are wanted, the right way to get them is not to begin by continuing to accuse the U.S. of complicity in plots.”
Say Hi, disgorge the talking points, and here’s the next card, Mr. President. After a quick glance at the typically convoluted messaging, Johnson “would work into the conversation points which we had suggested,” Dean Rusk’s executive secretary Benjamin Read would recall with admiration years later.
But that was Cambodia, still years from being recognizable to the American public. De Gaulle, was, well, de Gaulle, living monument, and, from America’s perspective, world-historical asshole — just that morning, he was reported to be doubting America’s commitment to NATO, and complaining that we had a nasty habit of being fashionably late to world wars.
Yet after a few minutes with LBJ — who instinctively knew how to command a moment — de Gaulle was walking back his trash talk, claiming his misgivings had been exaggerated.
LBJ’s performance — three days after the assassination, the evening after John-John saluted his father’s casket — was an unexpected and impressive triumph. “It was done with real skill by him under the maximum of difficulties,” Read remembered. “It was quite a show.”
Lyndon Johnson had risen to the occasion and to the office, and would go on to shepherd and sign some of the most significant social legislation of the twentieth century. And, for whatever reason, we’ve found ourself thinking about his immediate mastery of diplomacy Friday evening.