“As historical figures, [Lyndon] Johnson and [Robert] Kennedy are forever entangled: one cannot fully comprehend either man without considering his relationship with the other. “1 Throughout the decade of the 1960s, political titans Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy battled for control of the United States government. Their mutual dislike for one another sparked heated debates and played an important part in major policy decisions of both the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson presidential administrations. However, the relationship between LBJ and RFK made its most significant impact during Johnson’s presidential reign.
The purpose of this paper is to show the importance of “the Bobby factor” in decisions made during the Johnson administration. Analysis of LBJ’s decision-making in three areas demonstrates the fact that RFK was a crucial factor: the passage of civil rights legislation, staff selections within the Johnson administration, and evolving policies about Vietnam. To begin with, it is necessary to understand the root of the dislike between LBJ and RFK. A brief discussion of the two men’s families, educations, political experiences, and character traits indicates that conflict was inevitable.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in 1908 and spent his childhood in the Hill Country of Texas. The Hill Country of Texas was one of the most remote parts of the country, and its occupants went without radio or electricity. Johnson’s father, Sam, was a widely known political figure and state legislator. As a young boy, Lyndon often tagged along with his father, witnessing the way Sam would chat with farmers about everything from crops to new legislation. 2 The Johnson’s thrived on local politics, and it was expected that young Lyndon would follow his father’s lead.
Indeed, LBJ inherited his father’s gregarious, back-slapping political style, he “delighted in the sweaty personal tangle of local politics; there was no doubt he would end up in Austin, if not Washington. “3 Worlds away in Boston, few would have predicted the same of the third son and seventh child of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. The Kennedy patriarch, despite his Irish Catholic decent, had moved his family to the world of the wealthy and privileged via the stock market and the government. Joseph Kennedy’s visions for his sons were even greater, “my work is my boys,” he once said.
However, for much of their childhood, those visions did not include his third son. Robert Francis Kennedy, born in 1925, spent his childhood wallowing in the shadows of his elder brothers John and Jack. Joseph called young Bobby the “runt” of the family. As one Kennedy biographer put it, “he lacked the jaunty, glowing air of a young Kennedy. “5 After Joe’s death in World War II, the family’s attention centered on Jack. Despite his father’s lack of attention, Robert began to develop politically on his own and wound up with a law degree from the University of Virginia.
After a few years with the Justice Department, Robert finally gained political clout as the Jack’s campaign manager in his upset victory of Henry Cabot Lodge in the Massachusetts Senate. He went on to receive national acclaim in his own right for his prosection of organized crime. However, for the most part RFK rejected the spotlight, and as a young man never showed any interest in running for office himself. 6 The political experiences [pre-1960] of Johnson and Kennedy are as divergent as their backgrounds.
After a stint in Austin, Johnson made it to Washington in the 1930s as a legislative aide. He paid his dues as both an aide, and then a Congressman before finally landing the coveted spot as a Senator in 1949. Along the way, LBJ became a political mastermind: “Johnson cultivated his colleagues and savored their company. To woo them or to conquer them, Johnson had to know them, had to understand their fears and desires. This he did masterfully, emerging during the course of the 1950s as the most powerful politician on Capitol Hill. 7 Through his thirty years as a Congressional insider, LBJ came to believe that he had earned his position as one of the leaders of the Democratic Party.
With the 1960 Democratic National Convention quickly approaching, many believed that LBJ desired the presidential nomination as the pinnacle to his political career. RFK’s road to the 1960 election was not as conventional. During the 1950s, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, a Kennedy political friend, appointed twenty-seven-year-old RFK as an assistant counsel of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. It was while with this committee that he “discovered his true interest in the netherworld of organized crime. “9 RFK turned his ambitions toward union racketeering, and found the perfect nemesis in Jimmy Hoffa. After a successful prosecution of Teamsters president Dave Beck thrust RFK and the Rackets Committee into the national spotlight, Bobby became a lot more than just Senator Jack Kennedy’s younger brother. 10 RFK went after Hoffa with a vengeance, and his investigations took up the majority of his time.
In the mid and late 1950s, Bobby “had almost nothing to do with the operations of the John Kennedy Senate Office. “11 That all changed when 1960 began to loom not too far in the distance. After eight years of Republican rule in the White House, the Democrats were looking for a winner, and the Kennedy’s, along with others, felt only JFK could be that winner. Following the 1959 release of his book about the Rackets Committee, The Enemy Within, Bobby “submerged himself completely in the campaign’s mosaic of colored labels and files and indices. 12 RFK began his brother’s campaign for the Presidency. It was a campaign that left him, “labeled as heartless, cold, hard – the axman,” one aide said. 13 The 1960 campaign would also lead Bobby Kennedy to the Texas ranch of the Democratic Party Leader – Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson and Kennedy met in the autumn of 1959 at LBJ’s Texas ranch to discuss the 1960 Democratic National Election. Biographers describe an incident that epitomizes their relationship: Johnson insisted that the two men hunt deer; with political guests it was his custom, a frontier ritual.
Kennedy dutifully marched through the woods of the LBJ ranch, carrying a borrowed shotgun. He stopped short and fired at a deer. The gun’s powerful recoil threw Kennedy backward, knocking him to the ground and cutting his brow. The towering Johnson reached down to help Kennedy to his feet. ‘Son,’ he told Bobby dismissively, ‘you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man. 14 [Kennedy replied] ‘This isn’t hunting,’ he said, ‘This is slaughter. ’15 The incident showcases the mutual disdain the two men had for each other.
Johnson would always look at Bobby as a young, nai??ve wimp, a “snot-nosed kid. “16 RFK came to view Johnson as “mean, bitter, vicious – an animal in many ways. “17 Their intense dislike is compounded by their personality traits. Above all else, Johnson came to be intimidated by the younger Kennedy. One biorgrapher states, “LBJ sought men’s vulnerabilities, and in Kennedy, he found none. “18 Right up until his assassination in 1968, RFK’s mere presence would be considered a threat to LBJ: “Behind every Kennedy position, he [LBJ] perceived a Kennedy scheme. 19 Starting in 1959, their relationship would plague Johnson for the rest of his political career. Ultimately, some argue that it was LBJ’s “fear of Kennedy that defined Johnson’s often phobic presidency,”20 resulting in Johnson’s decision to not run for re-election in 1968. However, the path to 1968 began with 1960. Beginning with the 1960 election, LBJ and RFK could no longer avoid crossing paths, and both men individually and collectively would impact the important decisions of the 1960s.
Although there are a multitude of areas in which both LBJ and RFK had considerable impact, three stand out: the passage of civil rights legislation, staff selections within the Johnson administration, and evolving policies about Vietnam. Most of these issues take root within the JFK administration and discussion of their beginnings will be important to consider. However, to illustrate the importance of RFK on Johnson’s decision-making, the focus will be on the issues in the context of the Johnson administration.
Once John F. Kennedy secured the Democratic nomination in 1960, all speculation turned toward who would be his running mate. JFK needed help in the South, and few could match the prowress of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. There were drawbacks, however, and Bobby Kennedy’s personal dislike of LBJ factored into them. In later interviews and oral histories, RFK maintained that the Kennedy’s never intended to choose Johnson, but had offered him the spot out of a sense of pro-forma and never expected him to accept.
Thus, when he did, RFK contends, they were stuck with him. 21 After winning election, the Kennedy’s had promised LBJ an active vice-presidency. The first area where the new President sought to use his second-in-command was in the area of civil rights. Johnson, a southerner, did not have an overwhelming legislative reputation as being pro-civil rights, however, from personal accounts it appears that he did have personal beliefs in the promotion of civil rights. 22 JFK wanted to appoint LBJ as the chair of the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO).
Johnson tried to dodge the appointment, he felt it would “trap him between northern liberals, who would complain he did too little, and southern conservatives, who would attack him for doing too much. “23 LBJ’s hesitation was all Bobby needed to consider him a “coward,” on the issue and begin taking shots at his commitment to the cause. RFK would attend CEO meetings and attack the vice-president “in a most vicious manner. He’d ridicule him, imply that he was insincere.
RFK’s conviction that LBJ was not really dedicated to the advancement of civil rights led to Johnson being excluded from the discussion and drafting of the 1963 civil rights bill. 25 Although miffed about not being part of the discussion, Johnson did little to appear as though the issue of civil rights was one he wanted to take on. Burke Marshall, a prominent member of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, characterized Johnson’s involvement with civil rights as “diffident… expect for specific assignments like the CEEO. “26 On November 22, 1963 everything changed.
With JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson ascended to the presidency and a new order began. One of the first legislative targets of the new administration was civil rights. In the passage of the civil rights legislation, Johnson’s cognicanze of Bobby Kennedy’s positions were a factor in his decision to pursue the civil rights bill. To be sure, a number of factors went into his decision to push civil rights legislation: to heal a wounded, divided nation following JFK’s assassination, to appease liberals, and to simply do what he considered the right thing.
It cannot be overlooked, however, that by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, LBJ was asserting his claim on a Kennedy issue: ” as he struck a blow for civil rights he laid claim to its political sponsorship for the rest of the 1960s. “27 Johnson cannot have forgotten the ridicule RFK heaped upon him in the CEEO, and he surely would not want an openly hostile Robert Kennedy in the beginning of the new administration. RFK too wanted the bill to pass, as he “thought it was so important for President Kennedy. “28 Thus, an uneasy alliance was formed.
RFK argues that Johnson kept him in the loop so that if the bill didn’t pass, LBJ would not be left alone with the blame. 29 Therefore, Johnson had set-up the legislation around RFK: if the bill passed, he could still claim all the credit considering the JFK administration was thus far unsuccessful; yet if it failed, he could shift some of the blame to Bobby. When the bill did pass, the signing ceremony on July 2, 1964 included LBJ handing RFK pens to give to the Justice Department for their help, but no direct acknowledgement of RFK or JFK’s role in the legislation. 30 In short, LBJ had struck a victory for himself:
Despite his private deference to Robert Kennedy and his public deference to the memory of John Kennedy, this was one victory Johnson was claiming as his own. Neither John nor Robert Kennedy had passed the Civil Rights Act; Lyndon Johnson had. By out-Kennedying the Kennedys, Johnson achieved a new measure of autonomy as president. And as LBJ moved closer to election in his own right, he pulled farther away from his past and farther away from Bobby Kennedy. 31 Thus, Johnson’s need to pacify Bobby Kennedy yet at the same time distance himself from him, correlates with his decision to push for civil rights legislation at the onset of his term.
This is not to say that RFK was the essential deciding or trivial factor in LBJ’s decision to push the legislation, but that RFK’s viewpoints and positions did have an important impact on LBJ’s decision. In other areas, Bobby Kennedy’s role in LBJ’s decision-making is more explicit. This is particularly true of Johnson’s staff selections. Two cases of staff selections indicate the importance of Robert Kennedy in Johnson’s decision-making: the selection of the director of the War on Poverty and the selection of a running mate for 1964. The War on Poverty was announced in Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address.
Wholly committed to his goal, Johnson wanted to make sure that it went according to his plans. Robert Kennedy did not figure into those plans. Kennedy was also a strident supporter of a program aimed at alleviating poverty. Kennedy’s ideas included a community action program. Kennedy wanted to dedicate himself to the War on Poverty. He advised Johnson to coordinate federal, state and local poverty programs into one a “cabinet-level committee with one of the members as chairman. “32 Kennedy himself wanted to be the chairman of the committee. RFK’s interest in the War on Poverty left Johnson with a dilemma.
On one hand, he did not want to alienate Kennedy for he knew that it was better to pacify him than to turn him into a vocal enemy. On the other hand, Johnson “had no intention of giving Bobby the prestige that could come from such an assignment. “33 LBJ needed to set up and staff his new program in a way that would elicit Kennedy’s support without giving Kennedy control. Johnson chose to set-up the committee on RFK’s advice, as a cabinet-level committee, but he did not offer RFK the job. Instead, he forced Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, into accepting the position. 4 Shriver was the perfect choice because despite being a Kennedy clan member, he “convinced LBJ that there was no love lost between him and Bobby,”35 Thus, Johnson had successfully found a way to both pacify Kennedy and keep him out of a powerful position through the selection of his staff. RFK posed more significant problems for LBJ in the months before the 1964 election. Speculation that Bobby wanted to be LBJ’s vice-president led to what the Johnson administration called “the Bobby problem. “36 Although Kennedy never confirmed that he wanted the job, speculation is that he allowed others to throw his name into the ring.
From the first rumblings of an elect Kennedy for V-P campaign, Johnson became obsessed with avoiding having Bobby on the ticket. National polls showed Bobby with a four-to-one edge of Hubert Humphrey. 37 Kennedy friend Paul Corbin began a massive write-in campaign for Kennedy as vice president in the New Hampshire primary. Much to the dismay of LBJ, Kennedy garnered only 3700 fewer votes than Johnson himself. “It drove Johnson up the wall,” aide Ken O’Donnell stated. 38 Johnson began to furiously search for a candidate that could offset RFK.
He considered Shriver, and had aide Bill Moyers see how the Kennedy’s would react. They sent a resounding veto, and Johnson promptly withdrew from the idea. He also considered Robert MacNamara because “he was close enough to the Kennedy’s to make a worthy substitute for Bobby; but he was also distant enough from them to quiet talk that Johnson couldn’t win without a Kennedy. “39 It is precisely the idea that Johnson needed to define his choice of a running mate based on the combination of acceptability and distance from the Kennedy’s that proves the importance of RFK in Johnson’s decision-making.
For his part, RFK was enjoying watching Johnson squirm. Bobby told reporters that “the one thing Lyndon Johnson doesn’t want is me as Vice President … that’s what he spends most of his time on, from what I understand; figuring out how he’s going to avoid me. “40 LBJ tried in vain to get Kennedy to publicly take himself out of the race, but RFK would not let the President off so easy. Johnson’s solution to the problem came in issuing a blanket statement that “no one in the Cabinet or who met with the Cabinet, meaning Adlai Stevenson and Sargent Shriver, could be considered for the vice presidency.
Johnson said it would be too great a distraction from running their respective departments. “41 Bobby retorted that he was “sorry I had to take so many fellows down with me. “42 Johnson would go on to select Hubert Humphrey as his running mate. The importance of the 1964 vice presidential selection is not found in LBJ’s selection of Humphrey. Rather, it is important in that in order to avoid RFK, Johnson chose to eliminate his entire cabinet as possible running mates. His fear and pre-occupation with Kennedy clouded his ability to select the best man for the job.
This is not to say that without RFK, Johnson would definitely not have selected Humphrey eventually, but that RFK was a factor that led to the decision in that his presence forced elimination of other possibilities. Therefore, in viewing both the selection of Sargent Shriver as the director of the Peace Corps and the choice of a running mate for 1964, it is evident that LBJ’s decision-making process involved important consideration of Robert Kennedy. In a third area, evolving policies on Vietnam, the actions and stances of Robert Kennedy once again factor into decisions made by the Johnson administration.