The Making of a President

Scott Busby is a screenwriter and journalist living in Los Angeles.

On an overcast weekend last June, I drove to my sister Betsy's house in Encinitas to do something I had long resisted--sort through my father Horace Busby's papers and memorabilia. My sisters and I had moved our father from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles in 1997 because of his failing health. It had not been an easy transition for a man who had been a close associate and aide to Lyndon B. Johnson and who, after LBJ left the White House, remained for nearly three decades in the nation's capital, where he built a considerable reputation as a political consultant, publisher and pundit. He died in May 2000 in Santa Monica. Betsy's garage became the repository for what was left of his possessions.

I had avoided making the journey for many reasons. The thought of spending countless hours in a hot, dusty garage digging through 30-odd boxes of old papers wasn't exactly a drawing card. I knew Betsy, the most organized and meticulous member of our family, would want to look at--and discuss--every piece of paper and photo. Things might, God forbid, get emotional. But deep down I guess what I dreaded most was what the process would mean--bidding a final farewell to my father.

My procrastinations ended when Betsy called to say that LBJ biographer Robert Caro had contacted her, asking to see my father's papers. We agreed the time had come to organize his writings and documents so that we could donate them to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin.

We foraged through two long file boxes that first morning, sipping coffee, reminiscing. Then at the bottom of a storage container, I found an unmarked blue stationery box. I opened it and stared in astonishment. Betsy looked up and saw my expression. "You found it," she said, smiling.

It was a manuscript my father had worked on for years about his long and extraordinary relationship with LBJ. For reasons his family and friends have never understood, he didn't publish it. When we moved him to Los Angeles, he told us he had never finished it and had thrown away its various drafts. This saddened me because no one in Washington or Texas had known Lyndon Johnson, the man and the politician, in quite the same way as my father.

Horace Busby first attracted the attention of LBJ when, as editor of the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, he wrote a series of editorials defending academic freedom. He left the university without graduating, taking a job covering the Texas Legislature for the International News Service. He went to work for Congressman Johnson in 1948 at the age of 24. He served on LBJ's staff in the House and Senate and at the White House, where he was secretary of the Cabinet from 1963-65. He wrote many of the president's important speeches, including his civil rights orations, his announcement of the end to U.S. bombing of Vietnam and his decision not to run for reelection. He also had a hand in drafting much of Johnson's legislation.

The hundreds of neatly typewritten manuscript pages he left behind were clearly of historical value. In time, I also came to see the work as a rare gift to his family, one that allowed us to rediscover him in ways we never imagined. Far from saying goodbye to him on the trip to Encinitas, I was given a remarkable second chance to know him better.

The defining moment in LBJ's life was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was shot 40 years ago this Saturday in Dallas. The manuscript includes my father's firsthand account of the events surrounding the tragedy and its aftermath in Washington, D.C. The following are verbatim excerpts from the manuscript, edited together into a single narrative. The piece also includes a few paragraphs from a Christmas letter my father and mother, Mary V. Busby, sent to close friends in Austin several weeks after the assassination.

From Horace Busby's manuscript and files:

Forebodings filled the middle weeks of November in 1963. In Texas, the rancorous feud between [U.S. Sen. Ralph] Yarborough and [Texas Gov. John] Connally partisans burned hotter and hotter as time for President Kennedy's visit neared. Arguments flamed over trivialities: who would stand where in the receiving lines; who should sit next to whom at banquet tables; who would ride in which automobile in the parades at Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. Neither side would consider concessions, even for the sake of appearances.

The feud took its most ominous twist in regard to the main purpose of Kennedy's trip. Both sides were holding back on purchase of tickets to the fund-raising dinner in Austin on the final night of President Kennedy's tour. Unless that banquet was a financial success, Republicans nationally would be emboldened, President Kennedy would be embarrassed and hurt, the vice president would be seriously humiliated and, quite possibly, politically ruined. At the ranch, the vice president labored day and night trying to sell $100-a-plate tickets, and even took to calling Washington seeking help on this difficult chore.

"You must know some fat cat somewhere in Texas who will help us out," he told me plaintively. But I did not know any Texas "fat cats." Eight telephone calls to friends in Dallas and Fort Worth yielded the sale of exactly one ticket to the Austin dinner.

In Washington, where I remained, rumors ran amok. Each day newsmen were calling [Johnson spokesman] George Reedy or [assistant] Walter Jenkins or myself to check out stories--always on "good authority"--that President Kennedy's purpose in planning to spend the night at the LBJ ranch was to break the news that Lyndon Johnson would not be on the ticket in 1964. When we traced these stories back to the their sources, the origins lay not at the White House or among Kennedy intimates, but among Texans in Washington friendly to Senator Yarborough. Repetition, nonetheless, had its effect, intensifying tensions, magnifying worries, expanding our imagination of what might go wrong on the Texas journey.

One night, during this period, I came home to find my wife reading through an accumulated stack of recent editions of the Dallas Morning News. Apart from its parochial politics and its indefensibly serious publicizing of the right-wing propagandists clustering near Dallas money, the fine Dallas newspaper afforded the best coverage of state affairs, and we subscribed to it as our link with home. Mary V. handed me the front page of a recent issue. "Read this," she said. "Someone has lost their mind."

It was a story announcing that on his visit to Dallas, President Kennedy would ride in an open-car motorcade from Love Field to the site of his luncheon address. "I can't imagine your friends in the Secret Service letting the president do that," she said. I agreed with her. The thought of physical danger to the president did not occur. Our memories were still fresh, though, of 1960, when the vice president and Mrs. Johnson were mobbed in a Dallas hotel lobby. An ugliness had crept into Dallas politics that perplexed many Texans. Only a few weeks earlier, there had been a nasty attack on Ambassador Adlai Stevenson when he spoke there. An open-car motorcade was an obvious invitation for more episodes--ugly signs, jeering chants, or, perhaps, an egg tossed at the presidential limousine.

The next day I voiced my concern to Walter Jenkins and learned that he shared it, too. In fact, he told me, Governor Connally, Cliff Carter and all the Johnson men participating in plans for the Kennedy visit were counseling against the Dallas motorcade. But our interests and the interests of the Kennedy people were hopelessly at odds. We were thinking, selfishly, perhaps, of avoiding street incidents that would acutely embarrass Vice President Johnson. The Kennedy advance men in charge of the visit were considering a far larger picture. It would be of considerable political value, nationally, to turn out a friendly parade route crowd for the president in the city that had been most hostile to him at the polls in 1960. The politics of John F. Kennedy overruled the politics of Lyndon B. Johnson in the decision to send the young president through the streets of downtown Dallas.

On Friday, all these concerns would come together-- the president's ride through Dallas, the ticket sales for the fund-raising dinner in Austin, the final climax at the LBJ ranch after the politicking was done. November 22 was a day we all faced with dread.

President Kennedy, vice president Johnson and all the accompanying retinue had spent the night in my hometown, Fort Worth, and I kept close watch on the UPI news ticker in our offices [in Washington] for an account of the visit there.

Then it came; the longest, the most unreal, the most terrible minute I had ever known.

Thirty feet away, in the empty reception room, the bells of the teletype machine began ringing, four short, rapid rings, repeating over and over. This is the least-heard signal on teletypes, but anyone who has worked for a wire service knows what it means: a "flash," the terse one-line report of a major news development.

It could not have taken more than two or three seconds for me to reach my secretary's side and begin reading myself the incredible message on the teletype. But in that dash across the office, I had thoughts enough to crowd an hour. First, I did not believe the news; I was absolutely, positively, unquestionably certain that there must be some mistake--"Shot at," the message should read, not "shot." The President of the United States could not be shot, not with the Secret Service, not with the security, the protection, the caution I knew accompanied every presidential step. The reporter was confused, the machine wrong, the "bulletin" to follow would surely correct this error.

The reports from Dallas continued. It had become apparent that President Kennedy's wounds were grave--and so were John Connally's. On the open line, I read the teletype bulletins to Mary V. She, by now, had no more conversation in her; like a woman obsessed, she began repeating, "He won't die, he won't die, I know he won't die, he can't die." Reedy called, then Jenkins. The three of us were to pass the next hours of the afternoon reaching for each other, all of us sharing the same sense of horror and terror, for we each had one thought. I put it to Reedy bluntly.

"If the president dies," I said, barely able to get out the words, "can the vice president govern?"

This exposed the raw edge of the afternoon. Whatever had happened had happened in Texas, the home state of the vice president. Any responsible person, aware of the intensity of national feelings about Texas, would have a sense of dread at the realization that first the world, then the nation, could become consumed with the notion that this was somehow, in some remote, unreasoned way, a conspiracy. It was unthinkable, unimaginable, yet horribly real. I could feel a terrible wind beginning to rise and blow about us.

We knew when the death message came there would be no trip to Dallas. We did not know what would be next. As is not generally realized, the fear of all the security forces, both civilian and military, was that this might be a signal for a massive planned outbreak of civil disorder--or the start of World War III.

It was that latter possibility that led to Mr. Johnson's taking the oath as president--and commander-in-chief --before Air Force One departed Dallas.

I had known Lyndon Baines Johnson for almost 16 years: as congressman, senator, majority leader and vice president. Over that span, I had liked him and disliked him; respected him and disrespected him; thought his public performances, at times, to be magnificent, and, at other times, thought his private preoccupations to be monumentally boring. I had traveled with him, campaigned with him, laughed with him, worried with him, shared with him moments of both greatest consequence and complete unimportance. I knew him better than I wanted to know any man. But on the night of November 22, 1963, waiting for him to arrive at The Elms [the Northwest Washington house where he lived], I was not waiting for any man I had ever known; I was waiting for the President of the United States.

The aura of the office preceded him. The handsome rooms of The Elms were hushed. Family friends who had waited for Mrs. Johnson's arrival gathered their coats and hats and hurried away, to be gone before he came. The entryway and front hall remained conspicuously empty; when people crossed through it, they hurried their steps, not wanting to be in sight when he opened the door; yet, whenever the door opened to admit a Secret Service agent or a telephone installer, faces appeared peaking around door frames to see if the sound meant he had come. Mary V. and I sat in the sunroom, adjacent to the front hall; here we had last sat with him on the Sunday night, 12 days earlier, before he left for Texas. Dr. J. Willis Hurst of Atlanta, the brilliant young heart specialist who had saved the man's life after the heart attack in 1955, sat with us. Nothing seemed appropriate to say. In the silence, a sort of dread grew of the meeting that was to come.

But then it came and the meeting was easy. Mrs. Johnson, dressed in her robe, hurried down the curving stairway to greet him as he entered; they embraced and talked quietly for a moment. At the five doorways opening into the hall, I counted 16 faces, including my own, watching. The Johnsons were not people anymore.

He glanced around impatiently, seeing the faces I had counted; I knew what he must be thinking. Quickly, with long strides, he stepped across the hall to the sunroom, seeking his solitude. Mary V. gave him a kiss. Dr. Hurst ran a practiced eye over his features and seemed to be visibly relieved. Lyndon Johnson was more controlled than calm. His words of greeting were barely audible. But as he bent to sit in his usual chair, he stood erect again looking at the wall above the single television set. Hanging there was a portrait of [House] Speaker Sam Rayburn, who had died just the year before. The old man's pupil raised his hand in a friendly salute. "How I wish you were here," he said, then settled into the chair. Outside the French doors, in the darkness, two Secret Service agents took up their positions.

"Turn on the television," he said to me. "I guess I am the only person in the United States who doesn't know what has happened today."

A report came in from Dallas: an indictment was being drawn there against Lee Harvey Oswald that the accused assassin had acted as part of a communist conspiracy. Much of the language was inflammatory. Johnson came quickly to attention, sitting forward in his chair. "No," he said, "we must not have that. We must not start making accusations without evidence. It could tear this country apart." He asked me then to call Waggoner Carr, the attorney general of Texas. "Tell him the country needs the most responsible, the most thorough investigation, and I seem to remember that there is some law in Texas permitting the attorney general to take over in a situation like this." Carr, when I reached him, confirmed that he did have powers to establish a "court of inquiry," and he agreed to proceed immediately.

For more than an hour around midnight, I sat in the bedroom listening when he wanted to speak. The silences were long. His thoughts were of what he had now to do. Mostly he emphasized the legislation that had been stalled in Congress. He thought there was a chance that it could be gotten through early in the coming year. But as he went down a mental list of the pending measures, he paused to observe: "You know, almost all the issues now are just about the same as they were when I came here in Congress nearly 30 years ago."

That night will never be described easily or adequately. We sat in his favorite small parlor--Mary V., myself, Dr. Hurst, the president and, intermittently, Lady Bird. His composure and cool-headedness were precisely what I had anticipated. His mellowness and gentleness were not. I had said, over and over, that Lyndon Johnson was qualified for only one job--the presidency. Short of that, he was always a man making important the unimportant to occupy his vast energies and abilities. That night he was, in every sense, The President.

What do you say in such a situation? Very little. Not of the day or of the morrow. I can only describe it as a night--and a room--almost unbearably alive with quiet and stillness.

Thirteen months before, I had met there in eerie similarity--during the Cuban missile crisis. The news that night in 1962 was bad--and it grew worse. Just before dawn, I had left to drive the few blocks to our house through lifeless streets, thinking, as no mind could ever forget, that by late that afternoon, these houses and the people sleeping in them would almost surely be destroyed and dead. It was an awesome and agonizing memory, made all the more unforgettable by arriving at home, seeing the children asleep, finding Mary V. awake, searching my eyes for what I could not tell her. This time, on November 22, Mary V. and I were together as we drove those same blocks through the late still night. How different the feeling--certainly no less awesome--to sense the responsibility toward all those people asleep so hopefully in those same homes we passed.

There was one considerable difference. In October 1962, I went home and slept--there seemed nothing else to do. This time, I believe, it may have been Wednesday before I went to bed again.

Saturday and Sunday [Nov. 23-24] are blurs. Chiefly I remember being with [former] President [Dwight] Eisenhower, and then with [former] President [Harry] Truman, talking with them while President Johnson made telephone calls and received intelligence briefings. Late that night, as he was to do again each night until Thanksgiving, the president called for me to come at bedtime and asked explicitly that I remain at the bedside until he was asleep. This, I might explain, I had done before, especially abroad--we call it "hand holding," or sometimes "gentling down," as with a thoroughbred race horse. In the darkness of the bedroom, I am sure the scene would have brought smiles--if not laughter--as I, after suitably long silences, would rise and tiptoe toward the door, only to be snapped back just as I was slipping through the exit: "Buzz, are you still there?"

The power had passed, but there was poison in the power. The taste of it was to run through all the days of Lyndon Johnson's presidency. The first tastes of it began during the first seven days.

The first day--Saturday--was free of it. In Washington, throughout the day, even the elements seemed to mourn. The clouds hung low, the streets were dark, and the skies wept over the White House. Standing at a window on the east face of the gray Old Executive Office Building, looking across at the White House, I felt that one could sense the tragedy unifying Americans. Telegrams by the hundreds were arriving every few minutes, some from men of prominence, most from Americans who only wanted to pledge their support. To read those messages, as I was doing, was to be reminded of the sanity and civility and decency of the American people in a time of trial.

After attending a prayer service at St. John's, across Lafayette Square, and going with Mrs. Johnson to call on Mrs. Kennedy, the new president returned to the Executive Office Building, conferred at length with Eisenhower, then retreated to the smallest room among the offices. There he worked through the afternoon, making his own plans, even placing his own telephone calls. Once, while I was sitting beside his desk, he called the office of Sen. Everett Dirksen. The telephone girl asked who was calling. "Lyndon Johnson." There was a pause, then he said: "Yes, that Lyndon Johnson." As he talked, he handed me a report transmitted from the Department of State. It was from the Government of the Soviet Union: a complete dossier of all the information that the Soviets had on Lee Harvey Oswald and his movements and activities during his period of residence in the Soviet Union.

The Russian ambassador had presented it less than 24 hours after Oswald's arrest in Dallas. When I finished looking through the remarkably complete and detailed information, Lyndon Johnson turned an old Texas expression into a question: "Me no Alamo?" "That's right," I replied, "Me no Alamo." [In 1836, Mexican troops overrun by Sam Houston's Republic of Texas army pleaded for mercy by saying, "Me no Alamo," a reference to the battle cry of Houston's troops: "Remember the Alamo."] Clearly the Russian government recognized the ominous potential of American suspicions about Oswald's stay in Russia, and the Soviets were cooperating to the fullest to dispel any question of their culpability.

Other reports on the desk, however, were far less reassuring. Intelligence agencies were feeding in undigested--and largely unverified--reports and rumors about Oswald's contacts during his curious journeys around the United States and Mexico during the weeks before Dallas. Steady and sober as America appeared to be, its new president appreciated fully how irrational public opinion might become if an objective investigation were not immediately undertaken into the facts about the assassination.

Reluctantly, Johnson went before the television cameras to read a proclamation eulogizing President Kennedy and declaring Monday to be a national day of mourning. I questioned the text of the proclamation: "Now don't question it," he said sharply. "Schlesinger and Sorenson probably wrote it and Kennedy's people want it done just this way."

That night, at The Elms, I heard more of this. After dinner, the new president called me upstairs. He obviously had good news that he wanted to share. "I talked with each of the Cabinet officers this afternoon," he said, "and they are all going to stay on." His antenna, finely tuned by the long years on Capitol Hill, told him the importance of keeping the Cabinet intact. Now, he beamed, "I think we have a chance to make it with our bills." It was his assessment, with which I entirely concurred, that passage of the long-pending legislation in Congress had first priority; but valuable time would be lost, perhaps fatally, if the first months of the new year were lost on wholesale changes in the top command of the executive branch.

The first taste of the poison would come on his second day in office, Sunday, Nov. 24. That morning--for the first time in history--Americans sat in their homes and watched a man murdered before their eyes on television. No one could ever evaluate the impact upon the American psyche of that incredible scene when Jack Ruby stepped from the crowd in Dallas and fired his revolver at the chest of Lee Harvey Oswald. A weekend of somber tragedy became in an instant a stark trauma. In the mind of even the most reasonable men, reality began slipping away. A choking panic seemed to take command. What is happening to America? When will it stop? Where will the madness end?

My personal perspective on this was, necessarily, small; still, it was revealing. During the afternoon, I drove downtown to my office on Connecticut Avenue. There were memoranda I wanted to write and, I suppose, thoughts that I wanted to think alone. But there was no quiet. Telephone calls began coming, first from Washington, then from people and places around the nation; in most instances, I had never met--or even heard of--the callers. The individuals involved wanted to communicate with someone close to the new president.

The calls took two lines. First, the callers were concerned for the safety of the new president at the funeral ceremonies on Monday. It was known that the late president's widow and brothers would lead a march through the streets of Washington, from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral; walking with them would be the visiting heads of state and, it was presumed, President Johnson. The Ruby-Oswald episode, following the events of Friday, touched off a sort of hysteria. "You must not let President Johnson go on the streets tomorrow," the early callers said.

As the afternoon progressed, the callers became more and more strident. Some virtually screamed into the telephone, several wept, a few were virtually incoherent. Their words mattered less than their tone. In my small universe of the afternoon, it seemed painfully and disturbingly evident that a precariously balanced nation was beginning to sway.

After seeing the horror of the second Dallas murder that morning, the nation watched that afternoon the haunting ritual in Washington as President Kennedy's body was borne to the rotunda of the Capitol; there, in one of the most affecting scenes anyone ever witnessed, the beautiful young widow knelt beside the flag-draped coffin and then, in a heart-rending gesture, she kissed the coffin. On this raw nerve day, no one could watch without being deeply affected. But the effects were not all sympathetic.

The second line taken by the callers who reached me was venomous, directed against Mrs. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, all the Kennedys. I was not prepared for it; I could not comprehend it. Profane, vulgar, gratingly harsh, the words were, in many instances, alarming.

The most memorable of such calls came near nightfall. The caller identified himself carefully and precisely; he was an upstate New York industrialist of some national standing in the business community and he also took an active interest in politics. With the identification out of the way, he proceeded to his blunt message: "I just want to say that you poor, dumb Texas sons-of-bitches are letting them take it away from you." He proceeded with an explicit denunciation of the new president for going into hiding, and of the Kennedys for playing on the national emotions with "a royal funeral." "Mark my words," he ended bitterly, "you Texans will look like the bottom of a bird cage by the time this is over." I had never heard from the man before, and I never heard from him afterward.

I was not the only member of the Johnson world receiving such calls. Early in the evening, Liz Carpenter [Lady Bird's spokeswoman] telephoned. She, too, had been besieged by calls specifically about the president's participation in the funeral march the following day. Unlike myself, however, her instinct had been to go to The Elms, where President and Mrs. Johnson were spending the day. From her visit there, however, she had another and still more disturbing story to report. "It's started happening," Liz said with obvious anger. "They," she said, "are slicing at him." Who are they? I wanted to know. "Bobby, Bobby's people," Liz replied tersely.

On Friday afternoon, amid the confused reports from Dallas, it brought a flash of anger on my part when, alone among the news agencies, the Voice of America--as part, I could only think at the time, of the Kennedy administration--put out the report that Lyndon Johnson had suffered a heart attack. It was entirely without factual foundation. For the government's own news agency to broadcast this around the world, it seemed to me, was inexcusable. But now, this same old theme [that Johnson was ill]--which we had heard so much in 1960--was being replayed.

Word had come from within the Kennedy family friends, arranging the funeral events on Monday, that the attorney general and the widow fully understood the new president's health problem. Accordingly, they were planning for him to ride in his limousine, rather than walk in the procession with members of the family and visiting heads of state. Liz Carpenter, like myself, had been influenced by the influx of telephone calls: We both thought that he should not be exposed to the streets. But I knew, before Liz could even tell me, what his reaction would be now. "There is not a chance in the world that he will ride tomorrow," she said. The poison had begun to flow.

On Monday morning, the Johnsons received 10 tickets of admission to President Kennedy's funeral at St. Matthew's Cathedral. Mrs. Johnson selected several of LBJ's close associates, including myself, to attend. When I went to The Elms to pick up the ticket, Liz was there again, also planning to attend, and asked if I would accompany her. A Secret Service agent advised that access to the cathedral would be difficult unless we were riding in an official car. Liz requested a White House automobile, and this led to a sharp and ugly dispute. The White House cars, someone advised, were for the Kennedys. At the funeral, nerves continued to be jangled. We all sat, huddled together it seemed, in a corner of the cathedral. At no time in my life did I ever feel quite so out of place, or quite so miserable. The inadvertent encounters with members of the Kennedy world were unpleasant in a way one tries for years to put out of mind.

They buried Kennedy beneath the green of Arlington, on the slope across the Potomac. The sun shone brightly and the drums beat slowly as tens of millions around the world watched [Johnson walked in the procession]. Late in the afternoon, after the funeral, the new president called. He said nothing about the day. His thoughts were of the meetings that had been planned at the Department of State between himself and the visiting heads of state. But his principal question was revealing. "Is it your judgment," he asked, "that it would be all right for me to go into the presidential office in the West Wing tonight?"

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