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“I Reckon You’re One Of Them New York Doves”

May 2024
19min read

What happened when an anti—Vietnam War activist met his new client—Lyndon Johnson

As an American President presides over a divisive war without an apparent end, for the second time in my life, my thoughts have been drawn back nearly four decades to another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his war in Vietnam. In 1969 a strange twist of history—his and mine—made me, by then an antiwar activist, the publisher of a retired President whom I both respected and hated.

Lyndon Baines Johnson at his Texas ranch in 1972.
lbj library/frank wolfe.2006_6_50

As an American President presides over a divisive war without an apparent end, for the second time in my life, my thoughts have been drawn back nearly four decades to another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his war in Vietnam. In 1969 a strange twist of history—his and mine—made me, by then an antiwar activist, the publisher of a retired President whom I both respected and hated.

Although I had seen the polls indicating that a substantial majority of the public had lost confidence in Johnson’s conduct of the war, I was nevertheless shocked when, in March 1968, he announced that instead of running for another term as president of the United States he would retire and return to his home in the Texas Hill Country.

I had once admired him as the man who had pushed through the legislation that for the first time since Reconstruction enabled all eligible African-Americans to vote. I respected him as the leader whose Medicare legislation fulfilled the early promises of the New Deal, as the President who wanted to fight a war on poverty.

But the escalation of his other war had overwhelmed my earlier admiration. In 1967, when I was an editor at the Viking Press, I joined a group of publishing people who walked out on Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, as he began a speech at that year’s National Book Awards in New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall). We were called militant, a comically strong word to apply to book editors turning their backs to a politician, in a page-one story in The New York Times, then trying to decide if it should continue to condemn opponents of the war.

One day in the early autumn of 1969, while I was still working at Viking and the war was still going strong, I got a phone call from Alfred C. Edwards, the board chairman of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and a man I barely knew. He surprised me with an offer of just about double my salary and the grand title of “vice-president and director, general books division,” meaning that I would effectively become the publisher of the company’s fiction and trade nonfiction books.

A year or so before, Holt had been bought up by CBS, which was surely interested less in the generalbooks division, over which I would preside, than in the company’s much more lucrative textbook divisions. Thus Holt gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first major publishing house to be gobbled up by a corporate entity.

I was happy at Viking, and was trying to decide whether to accept Holt’s generous offer, when Edwards revealed a much greater obstacle. He told me that CBS had made an as yet unannounced agreement with the Johnsons, consisting of the then-huge advance of $1.6 million, for the rights to three books by the former President, the first to cover his White House years, the others to be devoted to his career in Congress and his youth in Texas. The contract also included Lady Bird’s White House diary.

I would have to publish Johnson’s rationalization for the war.

I said thanks but no thanks and began to hang up the phone, but Edwards did not let me off so quickly. He said that although he didn’t agree with me about the Vietnam War, he understood how I felt. He wanted me for the job. Moreover, he concluded, I wouldn’t have to deal with Lyndon Johnson.

The ranch in 1967; today it is part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park.
lbj library/mike geissinger2006_6_52

Impossible, I replied. Not at all, Edwards told me. A Holt editor, a Southerner to boot, had already been to the ranch and established a bond with Johnson. I would not be expected to edit his books or to deal with either him or his wife.

And so, reader, I took the job.

After all these years I still cannot fathom how the two of us, Edwards and Asher, reasonably intelligent and worldly men, could have thought we might get away with this. And sure enough, the word soon came down from CBS that the President, as of course I learned he was always to be called, was displeased that he had not met his publisher’s “new vice-president, etc.”

Feeling a traitor to both myself and my friends, I prepared to go to Austin, Texas.

At 10:00 sharp on the morning of November 19, 1969, I entered Austin’s new Federal Building, was waved into an elevator by a man I assumed was a Secret Service agent, and, reaching the top floor, walked into LBJ’s office. Here was LBJ, the man with the prominent ears, looking just as he did on television and in the newspapers, standing tall, and coming toward me with an outstretched hand.

LBJ’s eyes fixed steadily on me, and perhaps he was seeing a twinge of mistrust—his and mine—in the reflection. My hand was enveloped by his big one, and then he sat down on a couch and waved a bottle of Dr Pepper at me to signal that I too could sit down and have one, an offer I shook off, stifling the ungracious urge to say that I had been exposed to more than enough of that nose-clogging beverage as an Army draftee in the South.

Johnson’s first words to me were, “I reckon you’re one of them New York doves.” For the first time in my life, I said, “Yes, Mr. President.”

His voice was almost comically familiar, as if he were one of the many comedians still making a living by imitating him. He seemed paternal, and I recall being struck by the seemingly preposterous thought that he might be afraid of me .

Johnson with his grandson Patrick Nugent and his dog Yuki in the pool at the ranch.
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Johnson’s expression was not one of fear, of course, but it certainly conveyed wariness, the wariness of a man who found himself out of his medium, a man mistrustful of the press. Although LBJ surely understood the difference between the daily press and book publishing, he undoubtedly saw me, not entirely inaccurately, as a kissing cousin of those newspaper reporters and editorial writers who had helped drive him from office. LBJ also mistrusted prominent universities, and he knew that I was the product of one (although one point in my favor, I hoped, was that the University of Chicago was not part of the Ivy League). It would not be long before LBJ made sure to tell me that he had attended a “cow college.”

I sat down next to him and felt him gently rest his big hand on my thigh. “Well, let me tell you why you doves are full of it,” he said. Clutching a legal pad, I’d been ready to take notes about his book, but he was intent on defending himself and his record. He began speaking to me as if I were, at the very least, a visiting Scandinavian foreign minister or a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He asked me why journalists had begun hounding him so soon after President Kennedy’s assassination. This startled me, and I found the temerity to suggest that on the contrary, the press had rightly lauded him for his performance when he suddenly ascended to the Presidency. He countered rather oddly by reminding me that very early on, Time magazine had run a story reporting that when he showed his ranch to guests, he drove them, beer in hand, at 90 miles per hour. “I don’t drink beer,” he informed me. “I drink bourbon.”

I felt Johnson gently rest his big hand on my thigh. “Well, let me tell you why you doves are full of it,” he said.

We turned to business, and I recall only that we discussed whether Lady Bird’s diary should be published before or after the first of LBJ’s books. Then one or two of Johnson’s ghostwriters and the former National Security adviser Walt W. Rostow arrived. By noon we had disposed of our so-called work, and expecting to be dismissed, I was thinking about what I would do in the hours before my flight back to New York. But an aide arrived with a hot lunch, and LBJ hospitably signaled me to take a seat beside him.

At lunch he took to telling country stories, “both bawdy and charming,” according to the notes I took very much later in the day. He made it clear that his love for his home Texas Hill Country and its people was deep and genuine. But when I ventured to say that I hoped that something of the flavor of what I had just heard would enter his own writing, he waved his arm in dismissal: “That barnyard stuff will stay right here.”

The Vietnam War went unmentioned.

We broke from lunch, and LBJ briskly headed for his helicopter and the ranch, offhandedly inviting me—to my astonishment—to come spend the night there. Over the racket of his departure, I turned to one of his aides and asked, “What do I do now?” The obvious answer was that I cancel my flight to New York and rent a car for the hour-long drive from Austin to Stonewall, Johnson’s village birthplace and the location of his ranch.

I hit the road soon after changing my airline tickets but failed (in the world before answering machines) to reach Linda, my wife, and inform her that I would be returning home later—much, much later —than planned. On the drive through the Hill Country, with its surprisingly (to me) varied landscape, its abundant greenery, and lakes, rivers, and orchards, I wondered if the FBI had cleared me and if the Secret Service had a presence on the ranch.

Showing tourists through the Oval Office replica in his library in 1971.
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During my two years of Army service in the early fifties I had worked for a brigadier general in Alabama as a military public relations man, a job mysteriously requiring a high-grade security clearance. Now I remembered that when I was being discharged from the Army, I had been told by a soldier in personnel that throughout my service I had been “tagged,” though never harassed, as a possible security risk. Why? Because, he said, I was a graduate of Chicago, which at the time was considered a “Commie institution” by many Illinois lawmen.

Had I also been tagged for my appearance at the National Book Awards seven years later? Yes, indeed. A friend, who had also been at Philharmonic Hall that night, years later showed me his Freedom of Information Act file, which included portions of the Times story and disapprovingly mentioned both of us.

I reached the ranch in the late afternoon, having been passed through a barrier by an agent in plain clothes, and pulled up in my rental car alongside a handsome two-story house and, I was amused to see, three identical Lincoln Continentals. I literally followed my nose into a kitchen, guided by the splendid odor of baking bread. The two bakers were a hefty, smiling black woman with a kerchief on her head and Lady Bird Johnson, who greeted me warmly as she wiped the batter off her hands. Quickly disposing of her apron, she briskly said, “Let’s go, he’s waiting for you.”

She picked one of the Continentals and drove me a mile or so, where another Lyndon Johnson appeared before me. He had shed suit and tie in favor of a cowboy outfit and was standing close to and in earnest conversation with a handsome thirtyish woman, pointedly introduced to me by Mrs. Johnson as the wife of their ranch foreman. LBJ came over to us and dryly asked me if I had decided to walk from Austin. I remember replying, in a compliment to the land he loved, that the walk would have been very beautiful.

How did I feel about the difference between my beliefs and the contents of the manuscript I’d be editing?

He was eager to show me the ranch before twilight and took Lady Bird’s place at the wheel. As she moved in beside him, I climbed into the back seat. But the car remained still for a few moments, and as we sat in silence, I began to wonder if there was a mechanical problem—until another Continental pulled up next to us. LBJ turned toward me and asked, “What’ll you have?” I realized that the two men in the car beside us were Secret Service agents acting as sommeliers. The Johnsons were already being served, and I asked for whatever my hosts were having. That indeed turned out to be bourbon.

And so, off we went—not at 90 miles an hour but at a more or less moderate pace. We often slowed and stopped for closer looks at the African animals—kudu, impala, wildebeest, eland—gifts from this or that tropical president. LBJ was particularly proud of his ability to summon these creatures from the wilds with a variety of whistles and calls. In fact, the rapport of animal and man was extraordinary.

The Secret Service men kept pace with us as we drove through the fading daylight in the vastness of the ranch. We stopped a number of times for bourbon refills, and we got back to the house in deep dusk. Mrs. Johnson excused herself to see to dinner, but LBJ wanted to show me still more. By this time I was close to staggering with weariness and drink and the utterly unexpected events of the day. What LBJ proudly showed off—what little I could see by then—was, as he told me, a newly installed covered pool that would allow for winter swimming.

It was nearly dark by now, and I was following my host toward the house when he suddenly stopped. So did I, fortunately, as I could hear the familiar sound of an ample urination.

We entered the house, I just in time to avoid following his example.

At the table in the unpretentious dining room, I bowed my head while LBJ said grace, and a Filipino cook served pork chops and the freshly baked bread, which tasted as good as it had smelled. I remember my fear of falling asleep as Johnson quizzed me in detail about New York City politics. Then he slipped out of the room without a word, leaving me to chat with Mrs. Johnson. He soon returned, in yet another outfit, only to disappear wordlessly out the door. Mrs. Johnson said that her husband was going to the dance in town.

Lady Bird (as she now told me to call her) soon kindly showed me to a secondfloor bedroom. This room, she informed me, had been renovated six years earlier for President and Mrs. Kennedy after their visit to Dallas. “They never arrived,” she said.

Finally alone, I phoned Linda in New York. Assured that I was all right, she began to speak breathlessly about the party she had just attended, an anti–Vietnam War fundraiser. A $25 dollar contribution had bought her a photo sitting with none other than Richard Avedon, and now I was wondering what the Secret Service (I was sure someone was monitoring us) was making of the seditious chatter from up there in New York. I tried to change the subject by telling Linda that I was about to go to sleep on the Johnson ranch. She wisely bade me good night. I then made some notes but, beyond exhaustion, soon went to bed. My last thought, as I lost consciousness, was: Aaron Asher slept here.

I got up early the next morning, heard no one stirring, and walked outside through unlocked French doors into a fine day. After idly examining the parked helicopter, I went off exploring into high grass. Only a few minutes later I heard my host shouting urgently, “Git outta there, outta there.” As I obeyed and came toward him, he said dryly that he didn’t want to lose his publisher “so soon,” and when I still looked blank, he called me a tenderfoot and informed me that the field I’d wandered into was home to a batch of rattlesnakes.

Not long after I returned to New York, portions of the LBJ manuscript began to arrive at the Holt offices, and as I should have known I would, I plunged, along with several colleagues, into editing what eventually became a book of 636 pages. Earlier Johnson had expressed fear that in the hands of his publisher, the pages might fall victim to editorial sabotage in one form or another, but by now the worry had disappeared. He readily accepted my suggestion of The Vantage Point as the title, and we continued to send our comments back and forth between Texas and New York. (Lady Bird’s book, A White House Diary , would be published in November 1970—an altogether easier editing job, given that Mrs. Johnson had already committed her impressions to paper and that her subject matter was naturally considered much less sensitive than her husband’s closely held manuscript.)

The President looks through his newly published memoir, October 1971.
lbj library/frank wolfe2006_6_57

I met with some of LBJ’s ghostwriters during several subsequent visits to the ranch, though I never again slept in the main house but rather in the smaller building that served the visitors who came to the home of the self-dethroned President. Communication between New York and Austin went smoothly, and my suggestions for improvements in the text were accepted more often than not.

How then did I feel about the difference between my beliefs and the contents of the manuscript I was assiduously but skeptically editing? Would I be justifying the Johnson administration’s work in Vietnam (and perhaps abetting the ongoing work of the Nixon administration) by publishing The Vantage Point ? I consoled myself with the conclusion that the war, having largely lost the backing of the American public, was in its last stages.

One morning in May 1971 a substantial package from Texas arrived in my office. Inside was an invitation, addressed to my wife and me, to come to the dedication ceremonies of the newly built Lyndon Baines Johnson Library—and the credentials that would allow us to attend. In a thoughtless fit of anger at myself, I threw the package into my wastebasket. I was publishing the man’s book, but damned if I would participate in his triumph. He had built his library, much of it financed by CBS and Holt, and I thought that enough was enough. But by the time I got home from my office that day, I was beginning to regret my impetuousness and to hope that somehow the next morning I would find the package still in my office. Linda let me know that I had made a huge mistake—which only caused me to insist sullenly that the package was gone and that should be that.

Arriving at my office the next morning, I saw that the wastebasket was empty, and I sat down and wrote a letter conveying our regrets. A phone call came for me from Austin a day later—much too soon, I thought, for my letter to have arrived. I was relieved when I heard LBJ merely ask me about a minor matter regarding the manuscript.

After watching Spiro Agnew on television, LBJ said to me, “Oh, him and his gang are a bunch of fascist pigs.”

I was off the hook! He didn’t care whether we turned up or not! But then, as our conversation seemed to be ending, he said, “We’re lookin’ to see you and Miz Asher at the library ceremony.” He added hyperbolically, “You folks made it happen.” I began to murmur something about “a previous commitment,” but he cut me off. He expected his publisher to participate in this important event; moreover, no one but my wife and me—no one from CBS and no one else from Holt—would be coming.

Then he commented acidly, “I reckon you’re goin’ to be sailin’ in Cape Cod instead.”

This allusion to the Kennedys was a striking example of the often-noted mixture of discomfort and awe LBJ felt toward the Eastern establishment, especially the holdover Kennedy advisers who had done so much to mislead him about the prospects for American victory in Vietnam. I sensed in him a man who was more humane and compassionate than people like me had imagined.

Now I began saying that I had made a mistake and would certainly rearrange my schedule so that my wife and I could gladly—would be honored to—attend the library dedication. Then, at the last moment before we hung up, I remembered those credentials I had so cavalierly discarded, and I had to tell LBJ that I had misplaced them. All he said in return was that he and Lady Bird would be happy to see the two of us and that another set of credentials would be in the mail. And so they were.

I was not punished for my original reluctance. On the contrary, we received the following note from Lady Bird:

“Dear Aaron and Mrs. Asher:

“Lyndon and I are thrilled you will be coming to the dedication… . we are suggesting that some of our special friends with adventurous spirits be housed together… . you may find a wild left-over poster or two, but frankly I think you’ll have fun in your ‘personal campus weekend.’ …”

She was speaking of Hardin House, a newly built apartment-dormitory near the University of Texas, where we arrived in the late afternoon with just enough time to dress and leave for drinks and dinner at Austin’s Westwood Country Club. There we found ourselves on a balcony overlooking an Olympic-size pool and a scene straight out of a 1940s Esther Williams movie: an aquacade of beauties swimming in exquisite unison.

Now, having descended from the balcony, we spotted LBJ, dapper in a dazzling white dinner jacket and bending over an old man in a wheelchair. Johnson beckoned us, and I realized that the old man was my boyhood hero, Omar Bradley, the World War II general adored by GIs not only for his military competence but for his calm decency as a man—the anti-Patton.

LBJ introduced us, saying in what I had come to recognize as his possessive way, “This is my great publisher and his wife.” Then he looked at Linda and at me and said, out of nowhere, “This one’s a lot better-lookin’ than the last one you brought down here.” We laughed in appreciation of the joke, but by then, still shy in the presence of our presumed sophistication, he was already launching into an apology, explaining that years ago, when his “daddy” was a member of the Texas legislature, that was the kind of thing the part-time politicians liked to say to one another when they regrouped in Austin for a new session.

The next morning, Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, flew in from Washington. The ceremony, on Saturday, May 22, 1971, was held in the open air, in the still not fully landscaped area near the imposing library building. I was unhappy to be sitting among some 3,000 guests and to hear, from the distance at which the uninvited had been kept, the faint chanting of protesters.

Uncomfortable finding myself on the wrong side of an antiwar demonstration, I stayed seated amid the applauding throng as Nixon reached the podium. I absorbed not a word of what that newer President had to say.

Nixon’s speech was mercifully brief, and he left almost immediately. But my social and professional duties still lay before me, and Linda and I joined a luncheon line forming in the drying dust. The word was that these caterers made the best barbecue in Texas; someone in the line said, “That means in the world.”

Standing all around us, paper plates in hand, were America’s most renowned politicians and other celebrities, among them Hubert Humphrey; Barry Goldwater; Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President and a future felon; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the High Court; Hugo Black, the white Southerner who had left his racist past behind after his own elevation to the Supreme Court; and, surprisingly, former members of the Johnson administration, including Bill Moyers and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who had broken with LBJ over the war. Dean Rusk, Johnson’s hawkish Secretary of State, stood just ahead of us, and nearby were James A. Farley, FDR’s Postmaster General; Treasury Secretary John Connally, who had survived the fire from Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle; former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of the war; Averell Harriman, éminence grise in foreign affairs; 181 members of the Texas legislature; and the evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, who gave the invocation.

The faint, forlorn cries of “No more war” stayed with me for a long time.

And yet—although I could never forget LBJ’s war—I had also caught firsthand glimpses of his older allegiances. On another evening at the ranch the previous September, LBJ had invited me into his bedroom to watch the evening news. When I arrived, he was stretched out on his endless bed, and I perched on a chair next to him. He kept three television sets in his bedroom in order to watch the three nightly network newscasts simultaneously. That night’s news turned out to be notable, because Spiro Agnew, delivering a speech in San Diego, had seized the day to launch an all-out attack on the press. The networks repeatedly broadcast the section of the Agnew speech (written by William Safire) containing the famous line chastising journalists as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Johnson was silent as he watched the broadcasts, and I feared that he would join Agnew’s tirade. But when I asked for his thoughts about what we had just heard and seen, he replied, in a curt, dismissive voice, “Oh, him and his gang are a bunch of fascist pigs.”

I was struck by this glimpse of Johnson’s populist New Deal origins and sympathies, something that never came through in his appearances as a war President. Like people who knew him far better than I did, I could never quite reconcile the two LBJs.

Johnson and I had one other encounter revealing his origins, and it was the only time I ever heard the former President fly into one of his legendary rages. Unfortunately, his rage was directed at me. Some months before we published The Vantage Point , the Holt accountants told me that the retail price, which we had originally set at $10, would, because of the book’s length, have to be increased to $15.

When I called with the news, he shouted that he wanted the book to be read by ordinary people, “like the man who fills my gas tank.” That person, he said, could not afford to spend $15 on The Vantage Point . I reminded him that there would also be a later paperback edition, but that didn’t assuage him. Then, suddenly, he quieted and, echoing his mentor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said, “You’re nothin’ but an economic royalist.”

But in most of our exchanges his tone seemed paternal. One day in my office I received a message from Texas informing me that Johnson would be in New York and would like to see me. At the appointed hour I walked the few blocks from my office to the Pierre Hotel. LBJ himself opened the door to his high-rise suite; there was another man in the room, just about to depart. LBJ introduced him as the chief executive of one of the largest airlines in the world, and then came the possessive hyperbole about me. “This young man,” he said, “makes Clarence Darrow look like some bitty country lawyer.”

But the war was always a subtext in our professional relationship. On my final visit to the ranch, long after The Vantage Point had been published in 1971, the Johnsons and I were having an early dinner, and our conversation turned to the Nixon administration’s much-touted policy of “Vietnamization”—turning the war over to the Vietnamese. I asked LBJ what he thought of this. He replied it was useless, that the South Vietnamese military was incompetent and that if Nixon persisted in this, we would “lose Vietnam.” And then the Communists would go through the Philippines “like a knife through butter.” And after that, he continued, Hawaii would be next. “My grandson will fight in Asia,” he concluded morosely. I didn’t know what to say. Could he really believe all that?

Only then, after a long silence, did the wife of the man who had been President and Commander in Chief speak up. “But, Lyndon,” she said softly, “don’t you think that they, the Vietnamese, if they take over, will have so much on their plates that like the Russians and their détente, they’ll turn inward?”

The deferential phrasing of Lady Bird’s comment somehow intensified rather than diminished the provocative nature of the content; she was, after all, challenging the domino theory that had driven her husband’s every decision about the war. Fearful of being in the middle of a domestic explosion, I excused myself and left the room.

Much later, after LBJ had died and I was still trying to sort out the contradictions I had observed firsthand during my years as his publisher, I came to regret having missed whatever might have followed Lady Bird’s demurral from her husband’s views. For it is possible that this had not been the first time the Johnsons, in the privacy of their home, had disagreed about the war that was dividing families and communities throughout America.

But I had glimpsed Johnson’s better side—imagine a retired politician today worrying about charging people too much for his memoirs!—and more important, I could never discount LBJ’s record as the most effective liberal President since FDR.

As his publisher I had gained some insight into qualities I had never imagined he would possess. But his presidential memoir, destined from the beginning to be written by too many hands, was inevitably censored by its subject.

It was my desire to coax the real Lyndon Johnson out of hiding in his next book, the one that was to be devoted to his career in Congress. Not long after publication of The Vantage Point , I asked LBJ—not for the first time—if he would “write” the next volume of his memoirs by talking into a tape recorder, with no ghostwriters looking over his shoulder. To my surprise, he agreed. And then he died, suddenly, of a heart attack in January of 1972.

Because LBJ, in his larger-than-life way, embodied so many of the better angels as well as the demons of America’s nature, I still wonder whether, in the fullness of years, he might have acknowledged some of his mistakes and helped his countrymen reflect upon the lessons of his Presidency.

Aaron Asher worked as an editor and publisher for more than 45 years. He has edited the works of many distinguished fiction and nonfiction authors, including Arthur Miller, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow . Mr. Asher lives in New York City.


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