Are We Living in Lyndon Johnson’s America? | Conversations in the Digital Age


♪ [Theme Music] ♪>>>JIM ZIRIN: Hi there I’m
Jim Zirin. Welcome back to Conversations in the
Digital Age. With us is Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Joe Califano has had an enviable career in public
service. He was the principal domestic advisor
to President Lyndon Johnson from 1965 to 1969,
a period of three and a half years. He also served
as secretary of Health Education and Welfare in
the Carter administration and he has just come out
with a republication of his extraordinary book The
Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. And we’re
delighted to have you with us Joe, we’re honored to
have you with us, to tell us about your book and
perhaps recant a few war stories of what happened
in the Johnson White House.>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well it’s great to be here and God knows there are
plenty of war stories. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Well you call it,
I’m most curious about titles. You call it The Triumph
and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. I remember Churchill called
the last volume of his six volume work on the second
world war, Triumph and Tragedy. What was Johnson’s triumph
and what was his tragedy?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.: Well
the triumph was of course to me the Great Society.
I mean I believe changed the country. And if you just
think about it for a second Medicare and Medicaid
in the health area, thousands of community health centers
and higher education, sixty percent of the kids
in college today are there on his work study, grant
and loan programs. In the environment he’s the
president that established the principle not just
keep the land that’s not been touched but the obligation
of those who defy low land, to repair it, clean air,
clean water, motor pollution, all that stuff. Great
beautification. The civil rights laws the
’64 Act, which prohibited discrimination in employment
or public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of ’65.
The Fair Housing Act of ’68 and people don’t usually
count it but the immigration law, which has
changed America. When Johnson was president we
had the National Origins Act, which largely limited immigrants
to Britain and Northern Europe. Johnson busted that open with
immigration reform and immigrants from all
over the world and as a result eighty five percent of the
immigrants to this country come from Asia, Africa,
South America, the Middle East, only fifteen percent from
Northern Europe. And that’s a complete flip of the way it
was. And in the arts, public broadcasting , the corporation
public radio we have about nine hundred stations. Public
television we’ve got about four hundred stations. It
was incredible. That was the triumph.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Well it’s an
amazing record of legislative accomplishment when you
think of most presidents who serve eight years, Bill
Clinton or Bush or even Obama, one major piece of legislation
in eight years, Johnson had hundreds didn’t he?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
He had hundreds. And it kept coming. And that was
and they had phenomenal impact I mean you know two
thirds of the Americans in nursing homes today are
having their bills paid by Medicare and Medicaid for
example. You can’t imagine, as a Washington Post person,
you can’t imagine a country without the Great Society.
The tragedy of course was the Vietnam War. He got into that
war, built it up. He desperately tried to end
it on his time, in his time. In ’68 he withdrew
from the running for reelection. That speech was devoted,
half of it, to the bombing pause and getting the
North Vietnamese to the table, half of it to getting his
tax bill passed. He did get the North Vietnamese
to the table. They did start talks. And then
two things happened ultimately the Russians invaded
Czechoslovakia and Nixon, through Anna Chennault,
said to the South Vietnamese don’t make the deal Johnson
is pushing. You’ll get a better deal with Nixon. And
he was not able to end the war.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Did they get
a better deal with Nixon?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
They got a better deal then Johnson would have offered at
that time and it was certainly a better deal for the
twenty or twenty five thousand people that were killed as a
result of the war continuing for four years under
Nixon and Kissinger.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Now in your
book you describe a great deal of the human side of Johnson.
You characterized him as among other things, altruistic,
petty, cunning, crude, petulant, compelling, controversial,
bluntly honest, calculatingly devious, all
at the same time, well which was he? What was his
predominant characteristic?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well, he was all of those things you know, he really,
he was all of those things. You know he
could do wonderful things. Think of New York, Hugh
Carey the former governor. It was an elementary and
secondary education, aid to those public schools.
Never could get a pass because the Catholics
blocked it unless they got money for the Catholic
schools. And the evangelicals and the secular urban
Jews blocked it if it did get money for parochial
schools and it became even more difficult with Johnson->>>JIM ZIRIN: And Carey
was then in Congress. >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Hugh Kerry was in Congress in a district in Brooklyn
and it was more difficult because Adam Clayton
Powell, Harlem Congressman, was chair of the Education
Committee and the race issue injected. So what
Johnson did was first he asked Adam Clayton Powell to get
out of town and turn it over to Hugh Kerry. Powell went to
Bimini. Some may remember he basically never
came back from Bimini. Johnson got Cardinal
Spellman, who was then the spokesman for the Catholics,
Billy Graham, spokesman for the evangelicals, and Arthur
Goldberg, and got them in the pool, not in the pool,
but standing next to the pool, the hottest room on
God’s earth in the White House.>>>JIM ZIRIN: You were there? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.: I
was there. And George Christian and I standing
by the side watching->>>JIM ZIRIN: Not in a
bathing suit? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Not in a bathing suit, nobody in a bathing suit,
it was so hot that you could see the sweat through
Cardinal Spellman casing. And Carey had an idea, lease
the Catholics schools secular books and equipment. And
Johnson sold that in that meeting to them. He was
so appreciative of Carey’s idea that he has asked the
House to hold off sending him the bill until he was back
from a trip so he could sign it on Hugh Carey’s
birthday. And why Carey? Carey had a district
in Brooklyn, Johnson knew this, that had Orthodox Jews, two or
three Catholic colleges and high schools and
Evangelical center. So Carey knew those groups.
It was that kind of shrewd play and it was all
wonderful. I mean, on the other hand you could say
you know. Dick Ottinger was a congressman from
Westchester. And we were trying to get the debt
limit raise to get more money for the Great
Society programs and Ottinger was among six
Democrats that voted against it and we lost the
vote and we had to turn them around. And Johnson
was it looking and on the floor Ottinger said among
other things you know we’re pouring money into
Vietnam War, we don’t have enough money for public
housing. And L.B.J. said to me, said Joe, call up
Ottinger. You tell him we have plenty of money for
public housing, in fact we’re going to put the biggest
damn public housing project in the history of the country
right in the middle of his fancy Westchester district.
And I did. And Ottinger changed his vote. I mean, he was
capable of that too.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Well he had
a way of cajoling Congress and also chicanery was
certainly not above him but tell the story about Russell
Long and the appointment of the Federal Reserve Board.>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well, you know, we had a lot of tension with the
Federal Reserve. William McChesney Martin, the great
financier from Wall Street, had been chairman of the board
for a decade and a half. He had a 4/3 vote. Four for
starting to raise the interest rates, three for the low
interest rates. One of the four was leaving the board. Johnson
was going to appoint someone. I got a call from Bill Martin.
Bill said, Joe I want you to let the president know that if he
puts another liberal on the board, I’m going to
resign. So I told that to the president, the president
said, we’ll get the right person. And then a day
or two he said, we’re going to appoint Andrew Brimmer to the
vacant seat. Brimmer was a good low interest
rate liberal in the Commerce Department and Brimmer was
African American. And Johnson said, let Bill
Martin resign because the first African American is on
the board. I don’t think he’ll want to be called a racist.
And then the next problem was the Chairman of the Senate
Finance Committee was Russell Long. Russell Long
from Louisiana opposed us on every civil rights bill,
every Great Society program. Johnson call him
over, that committee had to approve the new appointment
and Johnson said, little green office next to the Oval
Office, and he said Russell, I’ve got the guy for the
Fed. And he describes Andrew Brimmer, Harvard and
MIT, his great record, great economist and he said and
Russell he was born in Louisiana. Russell says,
born in Louisiana and Johnson said yes and that’s why I
want you to introduce him to the committee and you to
promote him and Russell said, I will Mr. President. I
will. And then Johnson says, he is a folder, gives him a
manila folder, with some real information about it, you open
the folder, the first picture is a picture of Andrew Brimmer.
And Russell sees this black face, kind of gags a
little bit, but he kept his word. They did in
those days. Johnson loved to do
things like that.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Long must
have turned white as a sheet. Whiter than he was anyway.
So you mentioned the arts, tell the story
about Claiborne Pell and the Hirshhorn Museum.
That’s just priceless.>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well Claiborne Pell of the Pelham Pells, the Senate,
was the chair of the subcommittee that
controlled the arts. Lady Bird, Lady Bird went to Connecticut
and saw this incredible sculpture owned by a guy
named Joseph Hirshhorn who was a Latvian Jew->>>JIM ZIRIN: Immigrant. >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
-Immigrant, yeah. And she came back and she said
Lyndon I’ve never seen anything like it. We got to get
it for the- he’s willing to give it to the United States
and there was one hitch, he wanted the museum
named after himself. So Johnson said fine. We
send it up, the proposal, to create the Hirshhorn
Museum, on the mall, and Pell opposes it. Says it ought to be
the Smithsonian, should not be named the Hirshhorn
Museum. And Harry McPherson and I went up to see him
and we had no success and Johnson said, let’s bring
him down here. Johnson gets him, again, in that little green
office he loved to use and he said Claiborne and he tried to
talk to him and Claiborne said, Oh, Mr. President,
it’s the Smithsonian. We don’t do things like
this. And Johnson looks at Claiborne Pell he says
Claiborne, I don’t care if they want to call it the
horse**** museum, I want the American people to
see this art and the only way they’re going to see it is
if it has his name. And Pell was all shaken and
embarrassed, didn’t budge left but two days later he
called and said OK. And the Hirshhorn Museum
stands in Washington today.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Stands today.
Now you’ve described a man who had an extraordinarily
mischievous sense of humor, do you have any other examples
of his sense of humor that you can recount?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Oh well there are a lot, I mean you know he would->>>JIM ZIRIN: What about
the Stokely Carmichael example?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
I’ll give you two. One was Frank Church of Idaho was
constantly saying to Johnson, Walter Lippmann suggests.
Walter was one of the great columnists in that day,
suggest you do this with Russia, Walter Lippmann suggest
this with Vietnam, Walter Lippmann this- and
Johnson turned to Church one day and he said
Frank, the next time you want a dam on the Snake River in
Idaho call up Walter Lippmann. But Carmichael was incredible.
This is, this is the kind of tough humor I think you
really need in politics. Martin Luther King is
assassinated. It was the worst week of the Johnson presidency.
He had me move into the White House to live there. I
would bring him executive orders to sign and we had troops
in a half a dozen cities, we had riots in one hundred
cities. And one night I bring him this report from
Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover. Stokely Carmichael, the
black firebrand, is organizing a mob at 13th
and U to march on Georgetown and burn it
down. And Johnson, you know Georgetown was where
all the T.V. commentators, all of columnists, all the
reporters for The Times and The Post and drove Johnson
crazy lived. And Johnson looks at this, reads it aloud
and he says, Goddamn I’ve waited thirty five years for this
night.>>>JIM ZIRIN: That’s
terrific. Now one of the items that you have in the
book and which was largely overlooked by the press
when the book first came out and now you’ve
reissued it and you say we’re living today in
Lyndon Johnson’s America, one is the strange
relationship he had with Justice Abe Fortas. What
can you tell us about that?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
You know it’s really it was, Fortas was Johnsons lawyer.
Fortas is the guy that won the case when Johnson won
by what was it forty seven votes in the Senate, they
called him Landslide Lyndon. I’d been to the White
House about two weeks and we were driving back from
the Pentagon and Johnson is going to announce the build
up of Vietnam troops in July of ’65 and he said we
ought to have some other news and one other item on the
news, we’ll announce a new Supreme Court justice. So Bill
Moyers says to me, you write that, I said, fine.
I didn’t know who it was going to be so I call the
president and he said just write a paragraph about a
very distinguished Washington lawyer. I did.
I rushed it in to him, I go in to the Oval Office
and there is Abe Fortas sitting there. Johnson
reads it, he says fine. And then he says to
Fortas, I’m putting you on, because Fortas didn’t
want to go on the court, I’m putting you on the court.
You can either watch it on television from here or
you can come with me. Fortas came with him.
We went back to, he had lunch with him, and then I
took Fortas back to his house. We stopped at his
house and there was a big rectangular hole above the
steps that you walked up in the house and he said
that was going to be my central air conditioning.
I can’t afford it now. Johnson never left Fortas alone.
He talked to him all the time.>>>JIM ZIRIN: While he was
on the bench? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
While he was on the bench. They passed a bill about
pornography that was probably unconstitutional.
The issue was whether to veto it or not, Fortas was
over there and Fortas and I wrote the veto message
for the president. Probably the most egregious
example I guess is the only way to describe it, people may
remember the Penn Central merger, it was the biggest
merger of its time, it was incredibly controversial.
It was before the Supreme Court, Fortas was on the Supreme Court->>>JIM ZIRIN: This is in
1966? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.: 1966.
It was Thanksgiving weekend. Stuart Saunders, the head of the
grand, who wanted the merger, was staying at the hotel right
across, Hay-Adams Hotel, right across from the White
House in Lafayette Square. All Thanksgiving
weekend I was in the office all Thanksgiving weekend. The
Justice Department opposed the merger, the Department of
Transportation favored the merger. Johnson had me
bring these people together on Thanksgiving Day to meet
with him and hash this out. I called Thurgood Marshall
the solicitor general->>>JIM ZIRIN: And this is
a case before the Supreme Court?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.: A
case before the Supreme Court and the president says, talk
to Abe Fortas. I call Fortas and Fortas suggested that
the brief of the government should have something
in it that says the department responsible for the public
policy relating to transportation believes
this should be approved. And I had that, I talked to
Thurgood Marshall to try and get him to do more,
we sent the head of the Council of Economic Advisers
and others over to Thurgood Marshall, who
did not appreciate this, he was in Atlantic City. Came
back, the brief got changed and that line is in the
government brief.>>>JIM ZIRIN: And you
wrote it? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
And we wrote. I wrote it. We wrote it in the White
House. The case goes before the court it was
there actually twice but in the final resolution of
the case Abe Fortas writes the decision for the court
citing the language that he asked us to get put in
the Thurgood Marshall’s brief, unheard of I think.
And my understanding is that there are no limits
on what justices can do, there are no rules so to
speak. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Yes. The
cannons of judicial ethics don’t apply to Supreme
Court justices. They apply to all the other federal
judges but not to them. >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
And we talked to Fortas all the time you know he
was over there, we had strikes and we got Fortas
over there. He was over there a lot on issues related
to the war but on domestic, when we get into a real
domestic crisis Abe Fortas was there more often than not
and then when Johnson nominated him to be chief
justice in his hope to keep the court liberal after Earl Warren
told him he was resigning, Fortas was filibustered. We
could not break the filibuster. We got a majority of votes for
him, we couldn’t break the filibuster and his testimony
was disingenuous let’s say.>>>JIM ZIRIN: He appears
before the Senate. >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Appears before the Senate->>>JIM ZIRIN: Judiciary
Committee and he’s asked, what have your contacts
been with the president? And what does he say? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well he says very limited and he never laid out what
his contacts had been with the president and they
knew it and I think that killed him and also you
know we were out of steam. I mean it was late 1968,
we didn’t have the juice to get more than about
fifty three or fifty four votes. Johnson wanted the
vote even though he knew we couldn’t break the
filibuster because he said he wanted Abe to know he
got a majority of the votes. But it was a remarkable
thing and then as you not only remember Jim, a year
or so later Fortas got into trouble with respect to some of
the money he got from Lou Wolfson and had
to resign from the court.>>>JIM ZIRIN: A
fascinating account. >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.: I
think what happens in Washington is you reach a
point where you think you can do anything and you’re
above anything. A little of that also happen to
Clark Clifford. I think that happened to some
extent with Abe Fortas.>>>JIM ZIRIN: You know we
hear so much these days Joe about the dysfunction
in Washington, that the president can’t get the
Congress to agree with him on anything and as a
result we have gridlock and paralysis and nothing
gets done and which is certainly not the case in
the Johnson administration. Now the Obama people
say the reason is that they have the Tea Party and the Tea
Party is an insurmountable obstacle but Johnson
had the Southern Democrats in his own party.>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
We did. >>>JIM ZIRIN: And if Johnson
were in there today do you think he’d be more
successful than Obama in getting things done?>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Absolutely. >>>JIM ZIRIN: And why is
that? >>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well I think he knew these guys. He certainly knew the
procedures, I mean as Richard Russell, a great
powerful southern senator from Georgia said, you
know we could beat Jack Kennedy but Lyndon is
going to beat us. And it’s a lot of things. One is
just the sequence in which you present legislation.
Remember. He insisted on going with the Civil Rights
Act on accommodations and discrimination in
1964 right after his first State of the Union.
It was a big part of his first State of the Union.
You look back you say why? Why? Because he wanted that act
there and on the books before he started pushing
them for Medicare, Medicaid, aid education, all programs that
would subject the recipients to anti discrimination. If he
had reversed it he never would have been able to do
it. Second and also he did, he got all the appropriations
bills and a tax cut all passed before he went to
get his Civil Rights Act in ’64. That’s number one, number two.
He knew these guys intimately. And I mentioned before, imagine
of all the congressman you picked to deal with this
complicated Catholic, evangelical, racial issue
relating to public schools, he picks a congressman who
has all of those factors in his district and has
been reelected several times to try and figure out how you
do it. He knew things like that and he was willing to give.
We gave a lot. You know we- to get the Republicans aboard,
he wanted the Republicans aboard on Medicare and
Medicaid, compare this with affordable care,
because he said if we don’t have them aboard they’ll
kill us in appropriations. What’s happened Obama?
There are very limited appropriations for
long term care and other things, affordable care acts, and for
some of the things none. They’ll kill us in the states,
the Republican governors. What’s happened? The
Republican states are real problems in terms of
affordable care. We needed the Republican governors
to run Medicaid, so he was willing to give. You know
he was willing to take half a loaf and come back
for another bite but he wanted to get it in and he
was very conscious of passing a law. Obama’s
executive orders, if there’s a Republican
president and maybe even if it’s Hillary, will be
changed or revoked. When there’s a law it’s very
tough to change.>>>JIM ZIRIN: It’s interesting
you mentioned Hillary because one of the items of
unfinished business perhaps in his administration was the
issue of women and women in positions of power in
government and I think you recount in the book the
conversation you had with him about women generals,
women admirals->>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
Well he said, no he started what a feminist historian
wrote in a book saying it was the first affirmative action
program for women in the history of government was in the
White House. He was constantly hectoring his people
to appoint women to top jobs. And he passed something called
equality, I forget the name of it, basically to provide
equal opportunity for women officers in the military
and when he signed the bill, when he signed the bill, his
statement said you know someday we’ll have women
admirals and women generals and even a woman female
commander-in-chief.>>>JIM ZIRIN: A woman
female commander-in-chief. Joe Califano this has been
just marvelous and I’m sorry we’ve run out of
time but this is been terrific. Thank you so
much for coming by.>>>JOSEPH CALIFANO, JR.:
It’s a great show, very much.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Well it was
a great show because you’ve been on it and I thank you
very much and I thank you for coming by. Tune in next
week for more Conversations in the Digital Age. Please
visit our website at www.digitalage.org. I am Jim
Zirin. All the best. Take care. ♪ [Theme Music] ♪

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *