For as rancid as our politics have seemed over the last two decades—for all of the Cantors, Cruzes, Trumps, Gingriches, and Bachmans against the Clintons, Kerrys, Gores, and Obamas—it’s all too easy to forget Washington’s distant history of mutual hatreds—storied blood feuds that eclipsed in intensity the partisan enmity that is the lingua franca of today’s American government.
Following an acrimonious debate on the Kansas-Nebraska bill on the House floor, Tennessee’s Congressman William Churchwell pulled a gun on his fellow Volunteer state solon, Representative William Cullom, right on the floor of the U.S. House. And that was only the second most violent incident to take place in Congress that decade. In 1856, when Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts unleashed a fiery speech against slavery from the Senate floor, he included in his wrath, among others, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, was none too pleased at the public disrespect being shown his uncle, and came after the Bay State Free Soiler with a gold-headed gutta-percha cane and brained him within an inch of his life, until the cane finally broke and left the bloodied Sumner with injuries that dogged him for the rest of his days. Friends of Congressman Brooks kept would-be Good Samaritans at bay while Brooks got his licks in.
Imagine today what that kind of animated legislating would do for C-Span ratings.
And that wasn’t even the worst act of representative rage that century, as Vice President Aaron Burr shot to death former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in an early-morning duel in a seamy New Jersey dogpatch across from Manhattan’s future Hell’s Kitchen.
Even those who remember the worst of these caustic and rancorous epochs in our democratic history recall the mid-20th century almost wistfully, as an era of relative comity in what is otherwise an institution of sordid poo-flinging, perpetuated generation after generation.
Oh but for a more civil era of politics, many pine. Reagan and Tip O’Neill being friends after 6:00 PM. John Nance Garner and Nicholas Longworth sharing cocktails in the original “Board of Education” sessions after the legislative day ended. And Camelot, of course!
Yes, the Kennedys. JFK and his gorgeous family took the Capitol and the country by storm. America’s brief, shining moment of bipartisan bonhomie—shared dreams, a new frontier, and a touch football game in every backyard.
That’s a comforting vision to look back on, if only it weren’t completely revisionist.
JFK’s relations with Congress were a stalemate at best. Much like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill being friends after 6:00 PM, even if that was a fallacy, it was a benign one that didn’t matter much with the passage of time. Far more significant was the venomous hatred of epic proportions that was happening right inside his White House, between his brother, Robert Kennedy, and his Vice President, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Never mind the Birthers and all the partisan posturing today—at the end of the day, it’s really just so much dick-swinging to curry favor with the base.
Back in the fondly-remembered Camelot, the Vice President and the President’s younger brother hated one another genuinely and with a white-hot passion. As Robert Caro recounts in The Passage to Power (the fourth in his unbelievably great biography of our nation’s 36th President—read them all, and read them again), their enmity was palpable from the first time they were witnessed in a room together, in 1953, shortly after LBJ—in his freshman Senate term—was voted minority leader, and young Bobby Kennedy was a counsel for Senator Joe McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
As Caro describes their first meeting, they met in the Senate cafeteria on the second floor of the Senate Office Building, at breakfast that January morning. Lyndon was very full of himself in his heady new position at such an early point in his senatorial career—a position it traditionally had taken his predecessors years and years to attain. This singular ascent was not lost on Senator McCarthy who wasted no time in jumping up and greeting the “Leader.”
The 27-year-old Bobby wasn’t quite so acquiescent. After casting LBJ “sort of a glower” as LBJ’s close aide Horace Busby described, Bobby sat, unmoving, and made no move to shake the new minority leader’s hand.
This was no small slight. It would be a few years before LBJ would reach the apex of his meteoric rise to power, but he was in early trajectory, and as Minority Leader, he was already entitled, in the hallowed traditions of the Senate, of far more respect than this lowly staffer (regardless of his provenance) was affording him.
As for LBJ, as a man who always said of himself, “I know how to use power,” that extended to his physical attributes—a big man with big features that he’d not only inherited from his father, but learned from him how to use them as well.
Johnson always believed “power is where power goes,” and knew, from the validation of nearly his entire conniving adult life, that he was a maestro of power—how to get it, how to use it, and how to keep it.
What was just as powerful, though, was his fear of failure—failing as his once-estimable father had failed—and that fear kept him from making a committed run at the 1960 nomination when he should have, in the months and even years that the hard-charging Kennedy machine was working the hinterlands and securing delegates for JFK’s 1960 bid.
What he didn’t count on was what a mean and relentless son-of-bitch Bobby Kennedy would be. To suggest there was hatred between these two men would be like suggesting that JFK was fond of sex. The dye was cast much earlier, when LBJ bragged openly of his relationship with FDR, and a particular anecdote LBJ loved to tell at the expense of Kennedy’s father. Prior to the 1940 election, FDR suspected that his ambassador to English, Joseph Kennedy, was about to publicly support Wendell Willkie for President that year. FDR managed to dupe Kennedy just long enough to get through the election, when he sacked him from his post as ambassador. LBJ had been in FDR’s presence when the plan was executed, and he delighted for years after, with his considerable gift for mimicry, retelling the story of how FDR conspiratorially told LBJ of Kennedy, “I’m gonna fire the sonofabitch!”
Nor was it helpful that once he was Senator, LBJ would pass RFK in DC hallways and refer to him as “Sonny boy.”
Whatever other bad blood coursed between them, their hate was on full public display for the first time at the at Senate Office Building cafeteria meeting in 1953, and continued with little relent throughout the 1960 campaign, the storied July 14 at the Biltmore in 1960 when a nearly apoplectic Bobby tried to rescind JFK’s VP offer to LBJ; through JFK’s Presidency when the former force-of-nature LBJ was utterly denatured by Bobby and the rest of the Kennedy team; through Dallas and the weekend after the assassination where Bobby all but decried LBJ for settling into to his brother’s seat before the corpse was cold, and treating his with barely disguised contempt at every public appearance; the early months of LBJ’s Presidency when Bobby grudgingly decided to stay on with the new administration to help carry out his brother’s legacy, but would frequently refer to the new President as “the other fellow” or “the new fellow.”
These were two men who demonstrated early and often that they were capable of deep wells of cruelty and indifference to others. Any accounts of Johnson’s treatment of his wife, his staffers, hotel clerks, waiters, voters, children, and anyone else who sparked his ire frequently are well known and bear this out.
But yes, even the lionized Saint Bobby, too. “Bobby could really look hating,” Johnson aide Busby said. And not merely “look” hating–his father, Joe Kennedy, would say admiringly of his young son, “he hates like me.” As a young man at a birthday party in college, Bobby broke a bottle over the head of a reveler in an adjacent party when his own guests had the temerity to also sing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Around the same period, 22-year-old Bobby was on a boat with a friend who was not as nautically learned as the wealthy young man who had grown up sailing in Martha’s Vineyard. When Bobby realized there was no way they could sail back and be on time for lunch with his father, he dove into the water and swam back to shore, leaving his distressed, sailing neophyte friend stuck on the boat with little clue of how to navigate back to the mainland.
As averse as RFK was to LBJ’s selection as VP, the choice made was an eminently sensible one for LBJ, JFK, and for the party. For the campaign, it would bring JFK’s most formidable adversary into the tent, and there was no way they could win the White House without the votes of LBJ’s Texas.
And though he was still the most powerful Majority Leader in Senate history, many were looking for chinks in his armor to exploit. They’d tired of years of his autocracy and the legendary LBJ “Treatment”, where he would use his Herculean personality and dominating frame to sway them to his agenda, often physically pinning them into their seat or against a wall until they agreed to give them their vote on whatever bill he was pressing that day.
In thinking of the prospects of governing once they did win, JFK and many on his team realized that a weakened Majority Leader would do them no good. Worse they could see the harm that a recalcitrant, defiant one, with a long memory and notorious temper, could do to their agenda in fits of pique against the snot-nosed usurper who jumped the line and stole the position that LBJ believed he’d earned.
As President Johnson would later say to associates begging him to fire J. Edgar Hoover, “I’d rather have him inside my tent pissing out than outside pissing in,” the Kennedys could have said of LBJ.
Once they’d won the White House, Bobby proved that he, too, knew how to use power. And he used it on his loathed adversary, LBJ, with little more humanity than Mr. Blonde did on the captured policeman in Reservoir Dogs. The Kennedys’ Brahmin posse would have zeroed in on LBJ’s hayseed affect without RFK’s encouragement (he was early on rebranded, “Rufus Cornpone”), but RFK’s treatment of LBJ encouraged disdain for him practically as a matter of Executive Branch policy. With the VP’s office having to work closely with RFK’s Justice Department on what few benign initiatives they were allowed to oversee, every public statement or comment had to be approved by the Justice Department. Said LBJ aide, Ashton Gonella, “They went out of their way to make you know that they were in and you were not.” In meetings, RFK would badger LBJ’s aides; arrive late and leave early, with a disdain masked as aloofness. Or not masked at all, walking out of a meeting and closing the door behind him while LBJ was attempting to talk to him, in full and humiliating view of his committee.
In front of a meeting of nearly 30 civil rights leaders in the White House, the President had to leave on a trip to West Germany and asked his Vice President to chair the meeting in his absence. An impatient RFK, in attendance, called DNC deputy chairman Louis Martin over while LBJ was speaking and ordered, “I’ve got a date and I’ve got to get on this boat in a few minutes. Can you tell the Vice President to cut it short?” When Martin attempted to demur, Bobby called him over again, “Didn’t I tell you to tell the Vice President to shut up?”
In the months leading up to the assassination, LBJ clearly realized how much his miscalculation in joining the ticket, and putting himself willingly under the Kennedy boot, had cost him. Not only was he going to be muzzled as long as the White House was JFK’s, he might not even have the springboard of executive incumbency to propel him into the White House in 1968, if Bobby had designs on succeeding his brother. Worse, with the increasingly unveiled contempt many of the Kennedyites had for him, he might not even see a second term, being cast aside for another running mate.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan said he saw in LBJ’s eyes the look of “a bull castrated very late in life.”
“When I hate some sonofabitch,” Joe Kennedy said when comparing his young son’s capacity for hatred to his own. “I hate him until I die.” And so did Bobby hate LBJ for the rest of his days. In interviews the year after JFK’s death, Bobby said of the two Presidents (still refusing to legitimize his brother’s successor), “Our President was a gentleman and a human being. This man is not…He’s mean, bitter, vicious…an animal in many ways.”
For both, the feud clearly continued as long as they lived—for Bobby, less than five years short of LBJ. Even as Johnson grew his hair long and took his cigarettes off into his haunted retirement, he never conceded anything to Bobby, and Bobby died in the kitchen at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after his California primary win, in pole position to claim the seat that belonged to both LBJ and his brother (in what would have been the ending that haunted LBJ’s entire Executive Branch service, but became the ending that haunted the Kennedys).