Tapes show LBJ juggling duties after JFK's death He sought control, support from aides

September 23, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Chief Justice Earl Warren refused to head a presidential commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson applied his legendary arm-twisting tactics.

Mr. Johnson made various appeals to Mr. Warren's patriotism, finally expressing fears that post-assassination panic could trigger a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. As LBJ told it, the chief justice "started crying" and caved in.

The browbeating, folksiness and gruff charm of LBJ spring to life in newly released transcripts of his taped telephone conversations in the first 35 days of his presidency nearly 30 years ago.

In the documents made public yesterday, Mr. Johnson grapples with Republican opposition to a civil rights bill, rides herd on legislation for higher education, counts votes in Congress and seeks advice on Vietnam, Cuba and other foreign hot spots.

But more than anything else, LBJ's phone calls reveal the consummate politician at work, a man never too busy to contact an old friend recovering from illness, cagily hand scraps of news to sympathetic publishers and columnists, congratulate football coaches on their gridiron exploits or tout his own powers of persuasion.

Here's Mr. Johnson telling his one-time Senate mentor Richard B. Russell, D-Ga., on Nov. 29, 1963, how he cajoled the chief justice into chairing the hypersensitive assassination commission by mentioning the possibility of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation:

"Warren told me he wouldn't do it under any circumstances . . . didn't think the Supreme Court justice ought to go on . . . I called him and ordered him down here and he didn't want to come.

"I insisted he come . . . [he] came down here and told me no twice." Mr. Johnson then spoke of the conspiracy theorists who were blaming Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

"All I want you to do is look at the facts . . . and determine who killed the president. And I think you can put on your uniform of World War I, fat as you are . . . and do anything you could to save one American life . . . and I'm surprised that you, the chief justice of the U.S., would turn me down. . . . And he started crying and said, 'Well, I won't turn you down . . . I'll just do whatever you say.' "

The Warren Commission, as it came to be called, ultimately concluded that Mr. Kennedy had been killed by a single assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald.

At first, Mr. Johnson, a Texan, balked at the idea of a federal commission, telling columnist Joseph Alsop the murder should be investigated by Texas authorities instead of "a bunch of carpetbaggers."

In a call to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the new president confided that a presidential commission, as suggested by the Washington Post, "would be very bad."

On the day Mr. Kennedy was killed, Mr. Johnson made sympathy calls and humbly informed friends that he was "totally inadequate" for the presidency.

Beseeching Kennedy aides for advice, if not affection, Mr. Johnson told Mr. Kennedy's congressional liaison, Lawrence O'Brien: "I don't expect you to love me as much as you did him, but I expect you will after we've been around a while."

A dozen Johnson phone conversations were withheld on grounds of security or privacy, LBJ Library director Harry Middleton said.

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