8/21/12 - how to debate

In today's excerpt - prior to the 1960 Democratic Party's presidential nominating convention, Texas Senator and Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had been a favorite -- perhaps THE favorite. But his own vacillation had cost him the lead, and now Senator John Kennedy was the favorite. But it was not too late, and an unexpected opportunity to debate Kennedy provided Johnson with an opening:

"Trying to give as many delegates as possible a chance to meet Kennedy, his campaign headquarters had sent a telegram, signed by him, to the chairman of each delegation, asking for permission to address it 'to explain my views and to answer their questions.' The chairman of the Texas delegation was Lyndon John­son, and no one had thought to omit him from the list.

"It was only a form telegram, but when Johnson received it, he seized upon it as the opening he had been waiting for: the opening that could, even at this late moment, change everything -- a chance to trap Kennedy into a debate. 'I want to get on the same podium with Jack,' he told Irv Hoff. 'I'll destroy him.'

"[Johnson's advisors] Connally, Reedy and Busby, when they were called in, were unanimously enthusiastic; 'One major error' by Kennedy, Connally felt, and the Kennedy bandwagon, which he believed was not yet on completely firm ground anyway, would be overturned. A reply from Johnson was drafted, ostensibly 'in response to your request' but in terms that would elevate the event to a more significant level: a debate between the two leading contenders for the nomination. ... Kennedy had every reason not to accept, and his advisers told him not to: as the front-runner, he had a lot to lose and not much to gain. ...

"The entire sixty-one-man Texas delegation seemed to be there, as well as scores of other Texans, the men in big Stetsons, the women wearing 'All the Way with LBJ' pins; under glittering chandeliers, the huge ballroom was jammed wall to wall with reporters; 'TV cameras bristled like machine guns from every point in the ornate gallery,' one wrote.

"As he took his seat on the stage, Kennedy wasn't at ease -- a reporter noticed his leg shaking under his trousers -- but no one seeing only his face would have known it. And when he rose to speak, looking out at the ballroom that, one Texas reporter wrote, 'Johnson had packed full of his folks,' Kennedy said with a smile that he was glad the vote for the nomination wasn't being taken there. 'I doubt whether there is any great groundswell for Kennedy in the Texas delegation,' he said. The audience chuckled at that, and laughed when, after promising to cam­paign for Johnson if Johnson won the nomination, he said, 'And if I am nomi­nated, I am confident that Senator Johnson will take me by the hand and lead me through the length and breadth of Texas.' He said he wasn't going to argue with Johnson on the issues -- 'because I don't think Senator Johnson and I disagree on the great issues that are facing us' -- and said he admired him for his work as Majority Leader. 'If [I am] successful in this convention,' he said, 'it will be the result of watching Senator Johnson ... for the last eight years. I have learned the lesson well, Lyndon, and I hope it may benefit me in the next twenty-four hours. ... So I come here today full of admiration for Senator Johnson, full of affection for him, and strongly in support of him -- for Majority Leader.' The audience laughed again. When Kennedy sat down at the end of his opening state­ment, there was quite a bit of rather warm applause.

"Johnson started off on Phil Graham's 'high road,' although it was an arm-waving, blustering journey -- 'And when I take the oath of office next Janu­ary . . .' -- but before long he veered off.

"He had gotten a civil rights bill through the Senate, he said, but not every senator had been present to help him. 'Six days and nights we had 24-hour ses­sions,' he said, shouting every word. 'Lyndon Johnson answered every one of the fifty quorum calls. Some men who would be President answered none.' He had voted in all forty-five roll calls, he said. 'Some senators missed 34.' A Texas legislator, George Nokes, leaned over and whispered loudly to the other people in his aisle, 'Lyndon sure bear-trapped him, didn't he?'

"After a brief, whispered conference with his brother, Kennedy rose to reply. Johnson's face had been grim as he spoke. On Kennedy's face was a grin. Sena­tor Johnson had criticized some senators, he said, but he had not identified those he was talking about, so 'I assume he was talking about some other candidate, not me.'

"The grin broadened. 'I want to commend him for ... a wonderful record answering those quorum calls,' he said.

"People in the audience started to chuckle, and then others started to laugh, and a wave of laughter swept over the hall. Turning to Johnson, Kennedy shook his hand for the photographers, and walked out of the hall, his little band follow­ing him."


Robert A. Caro


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2012 by Robert A. Caro, Inc.


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