White House Ghosts was excerpted in U.S. News and World Report on May 2; read here from the chapter on John F. Kennedy.

An Excerpt from White House Ghosts


"Now That's What I Call a News Lead"

NOVEMBER 22, 1963

"The president is dead and the vice-president has been looking for you," Lyndon B. Johnson's chief political operative told Jack Valenti. "He wants you to come out to Love Field and get aboard the airplane." Cliff Carter and Valenti were standing in a basement stairwell of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Valenti, Carter, Johnson aide Liz Carpenter, and a Secret Service agent commandeered a car and careered toward Love Field and Air Force One. They squeezed into the office midplane with several Texas Democratic congressmen. When Johnson came in, they rose. "Mr. President, we are ready to carry out any orders you have," Representative Albert Thomas said. Soon Valenti was on the phone to the Justice Department, making sure that they had the exact wording for the presidential oath of office.

Valenti can be seen in the photograph of Johnson taking the oath, the stricken Jackie Kennedy standing next to the forlorn LBJ. To the new president's immediate right is his wife Lady Bird, to her right Representative Thomas, Valenti hunched next to him. Standing at the back of the cabin, eyeglasses catching the camera's flash, is Johnson protégé Bill Moyers.

At 12:42 that afternoon, Moyers was with state representative Ben Barnes and University of Texas regent Frank Erwin at the toney, all-white 40-Acres Club in Austin when he was called to the telephone. Minutes later, Moyers told them: "The president has been shot and is believed dead. The governor has been shot and is critically wounded. The vice president is believed to have been wounded."

The call was from the Secret Service. Johnson had summoned Moyers. Barnes called the head of the Texas state troopers about a plane, and when he dropped Moyers at the Austin airport, a state-owned twin-engine Cessna was waiting.

At Love Field, Moyers boarded Air Force One but was barred from the presidential cabin. "I'm here if you need me," he wrote in a note to LBJ and passed it through. He was quickly ushered in, and at 2:40 pm stood quietly in the back of the cabin as Johnson took the oath.

Johnson had reached out for a pair of trusted friends and advisers. Moyers and Valenti would be key administration players, each with a critical role in shaping the rhetoric of the Johnson presidency. Once the flight was airborne, Johnson turned to Valenti, Moyers, and Carpenter, to prepare some brief remarks for him to give upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

With Carpenter doing the writing, they put together a brief statement. "This is a sad time for every American," it read. "The nation suffers a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the nation, and the whole free world, shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy bears. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for God's help -- and yours."

Johnson scrawled on it. "Every American" became "free men" and then "all people." He struck "the nation suffers" in favor of "we have suffered." He trimmed "the nation, and the whole free," leaving the more economical "I know the world shares..." Finally, he inverted the last sentence, finishing with the request for God's help.

At Andrews, Johnson had to raise his voice to be heard. Insecure about his speaking abilities, probably mindful of his predecessor's great skill, Johnson thought he sounded strident and harsh. Almost immediately he regretted making the statement.

Johnson had a more important statement to make five days later before a joint session of Congress. He wanted the speech to make clear, he told Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, that his administration's goal was to move past the tragedy, to promote justice, equality, and plenty, to look forward and start to move on.

Johnson asked Ted Sorensen to write the speech, and John Kenneth Galbraith to contribute. Sorensen and Johnson met on the evening of Monday, November 25. Johnson said he liked Galbraith's draft, but quickly reversed himself when Sorensen said that he did not. "I didn't think it was any ball of fire," Johnson said, secret recorders picking up the conversation. "I thought it was something that you could improve on."

When Sorensen's draft came in the next day, only a handful of Galbraith's sentences were left, including a couple in the contrapuntal style that Kennedy and Sorensen had favored: Galbraith's "The strong can be just. But the defense of justice requires strength" became the assertion that "the strong can be just in the use of strength -- and the just can be strong in the defense of justice." He also kept "In this age when there are no victors in war, but when there can still be losers in peace" almost intact. This sentiment would get a small but key tweak before the final draft, becoming "In this age where there can be no losers in peace and no victors in war..."

Johnson took the draft back with him to his home, a French chateau-style house called The Elms in the Spring Valley neighborhood. He fiddled over it with Valenti and his friend Abe Fortas. Fortas told Adlai Stevenson that he had "corned it up," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recorded in his diary. "The corn is, so far as I am concerned, alien."

Used to having the final pen on a presidential address, Sorensen was displeased. "He is very hurt," Katharine Graham told Johnson some days later. "This is of course a new experience for him (though not, as Feldman and Dick Goodwin somewhat grimly remarked, for others in the White House who used to have to turn their manuscripts over to Ted)," Schlesinger noted in his diary. Sorensen did not see the speech again until it was set and thought it repetitious and poorly organized.

On the car ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to deliver the speech, LBJ turned to Kennedy aides Larry O'Brien and Pierre Salinger, who were in the car along with Sorensen. This is a fine speech, Johnson said, and it's 90 percent Sorensen, only 10 percent Johnson. Sorensen demurred: No, sir, that's not accurate, not more than 50 percent Sorensen.

Johnson replied that Sorensen's 50 percent was best. On that point, Sorensen told the president, they agreed. ("We spent the whole time [going up to deliver the speech] arguing," Johnson told Katherine Graham.)

They should have split the difference: roughly two thirds of the given speech (1,170 of 1,630 words) can be found in Sorensen's first draft, including its mournful opening: "All I have ever possessed I would have gladly given not to be here today." (This was changed slightly in the final speech to become the simpler, more elegant "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.") Sorensen's draft followed the sentence, "For the greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time," with " -- and I who cannot fill his shoes must occupy his desk." This latter clause was crossed out.

Overall, the speech was true to the Kennedy-Sorensen style. "In this age when there can be no losers in peace and no victors in war, we must recognize the obligation to match national strength with national restraint. We must be prepared at one and the same time for both the confrontation of power and the limitation of power. We must be ready to defend the national interest and to negotiate the common interest. This is the path that we shall continue to pursue. Those who test our courage will find it strong, and those who seek our friendship will find it honorable. We will demonstrate anew that the strong can be just in the use of strength; and the just can be strong in the defense of justice." One of the speech's signature lines, "Let us continue," appeared in Johnson aide Horace "Buzz" Busby's November 26 draft.

Sorensen stayed on into January, and helped draft the 1964 State of the Union, but resigned to work on his Kennedy memoir. Schlesinger did much the same thing. Mike Feldman ascended to Sorensen's special counsel position, but did not assume his speechwriting responsibilities.

As Johnson started his first full year in the White House, he had to assemble a new team.

Dick Goodwin, having feuded with Sorensen all the way out of the White House in the early Kennedy days, had come to bureaucratic rest in the Peace Corps and was contemplating his next move. One afternoon in mid-March 1964, he was in the White House when he encountered the president, who drew him into the Oval Office. Soon Goodwin was writing a statement to help extricate Johnson from a diplomatic spat of his causing with Panama.

"He's got good sentence structure," Moyers, who knew Goodwin from the Peace Corps, had told Johnson days earlier, when they were contemplating bringing Goodwin in. "He'll balance it, weigh it, make it rhyme here and there.... Not as good as Sorensen, of course, but pretty good."

The Panama speech a success, another assignment followed, for a Democratic Party event. By the end of the month, Goodwin was reinstalled in his old West Wing office as the president's principal speechwriter. He saw an opportunity, in the tradition of Rosenman, Clifford, Hughes, and his mentor and rival Sorensen, to help influence not only how but what the president communicated. "The two roles -- writer and policymaker -- were symbiotic," he later wrote. "Active participation made accurate articulation likely; personal contact with the president made it far easier to ensure that his public statements reflected his thoughts and philosophy, the natural cadences of his voice, and his distinctive mannerisms of expression."

Goodwin became skilled and dogged at controlling speech drafts. He later advised one new speechwriter to wait until the last possible moment before submitting a text: that way you can make your ideas a fait accompli. There would be no time to secure an alternate draft.

Johnson admired and appreciated Goodwin's skills as both writer and ideas man, but was uneasy with him. "Almost from the outset the president had an instinctual kind of recoiling from Goodwin," Valenti recalled. "He had a feeling fixed neither in ...

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