The Ways of LBJ
For readers who missed part 1 of this series of posts, I am summarizing a fictional account written almost 40 years ago.
As the ambulance pulled up to the farmhouse on the eastern shore of Maryland, George Leader was watching out the living room window. What he saw shocked him.
An elderly, gray-haired woman was painfully stepping out of the rear of the ambulance and hobbling up the walk toward the front door, leaning on a cane. Jenny Leader followed her closely, just in case, but otherwise kept her distance, understanding that Grace didn’t want help.
But fragile though she may have been physically, Grace was still her old self mentally. She had hardly entered the dining room where the Approvals Panel met before she was grilling the panel members about Plans A and B.
Grace’s first job out of law school, so many years before, had been as an assistant DA in Cook County, Illinois, and the panel members quickly learned how hostile witnesses must have felt under her stinging questions.
It soon became clear that Grace was unimpressed by both Plan A and Plan B. “They won’t work,” she said. “Forget them.”
There was a good reason why Grace was so sure the plans wouldn’t work. Unbeknownst to the panel members, Grace knew Lyndon Johnson quite well. Over the course of her long career, Grace had served as counsel to no fewer than three House and two Senate committees.
When a very young Lyndon Johnson had first been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937, Grace Atkinson was already 42 years old and serving as counsel to the House Naval Affairs Committee (now the House Armed Services Committee) to which Johnson was assigned.
After the war, Johnson ran for the Senate in Texas and won by 88 votes out of almost one million cast—having been helped by massive fraud—and he arrived in Washington trailing the sobriquet, “Landslide Lyndon.” He was assigned to the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose counsel was Grace Atkinson.
“Trust me, ladies and gentlemen,” Grace said, “I’ve known Lyndon a very long time and I’ve seen him operate under intense pressure.”
Grace reminded the panel members about “The Treatment” that Johnson would give any hapless senator whose vote he needed. The Treatment was described this way by journalists Evans and Novak:
“The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours… Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking and it was all in one direction… He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling… Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.”
“When the President is under pressure and wants something badly, he’ll do anything—anything—to get his way,” Grace said. “Lie, cheat, steal, you name it.”
Grace looked around the table, gazing at each panel member in turn. “Who,” she said, “voted for Plan B?” Four hands went up. “If you release the Black Hole file to the newspapers, what will happen?”
No one responded.
“Here’s what will happen,” Grace said. “Pandemonium in the press room, that’s what. Publishing top secret information about the American military is a form of treason punishable, at least theoretically, by death. The newspapers will have long meetings with their lawyers, they will be doing everything they can to authenticate the information in the file.”
“You’re saying that the President will learn about all this and will have plenty of time to execute Black Hole before the newspapers can publish.”
“Exactly. So forget Plan B. I assume the rest of you voted for Plan A.”
Five heads nodded.
“So George,” said Grace, “you’ll make an appointment and go see the President, right?”
“Yes, that’s the plan.”
“And when you tell him what you know and that you will call a press conference, what will happen?”
“I’ll get The Treatment,” said George, and everyone laughed, even Grace.
“Right. And when it doesn’t work, the President will say [Grace putting on a deep Texas accent], ‘Well, George, I’m afraid you’ve got me by the short hairs. You’re wrong about this, son, and I wish you’d see things my way. But I’ve got no choice—I’ll cancel Black Hole.’”
“And as soon as I leave,” said George, “he’ll launch the attack.” Grace nodded. “Okay,” continued George, “then I won’t leave. I’ll stay right there in the Oval Office until he cancels it in my presence.”
Grace looked toward Evan Lesser, who’d served in the National Security Advisor’s office under JFK. “Evan,” she said, “how long would it take for Project Black Hole to be canceled?”
“Well,” said Lesser, his brow furrowing, “the President obviously has the authority to cancel the project.”
“Which he would do how?”
“He’d call Walt [Rostow, the National Security Advisor] and tell him the plan was off.”
“And that would be that?”
“Well, no. Rostow would call General Garner and pass the word. Garner would call the next guy in line and so on until everyone who knew about Black Hole would know it was canceled.”
“And all that would take how long?”
“If everyone was at his desk, maybe an hour.”
“How likely is that?”
“Won’t happen,” said Willy Green.” I know General Garner is attending a FORSCOM meeting at Fort Bragg. I also happen to know that Admiral Stevens [the senior military plotter after Garner) is on his way to the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. So probably a couple of days, anyway.”
Grace looked at George. “Better take your sleeping bag to the Oval Office, George. But, trust me, it wouldn’t matter. Johnson would call Rostow and cancel the project, and then as soon as you left the White House he’d call back and reinstate it.”
George Leader sighed. “All right, Grace, I’m convinced. Plan A and Plan B are out. What’s Plan C?”
“You’re not going to like this,” said Grace.