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Article: LBJ's Bravado and a Secret Service Under Scrutiny

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L.B.J.’s Bravado and a Secret Service Under Scrutiny

OCT. 2, 2014

By Michael Beschloss

The New York Times


Fifty years ago last week, President Lyndon Johnson received the final report of the commission he had appointed, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to investigate President Kennedy’s assassination. One of the document’s main themes, which will be painfully familiar to Americans at this moment, was the performance of the Secret Service.

Johnson himself did not blame his predecessor’s murder on the Secret Service’s shortcomings. He venerated his own longtime agent Rufus Youngblood, privately recalling to an aide in 1969 — while drafting his memoirs as an ex-president — how, when the shots in Dallas were fired, the Georgian (“tougher and better and more intelligent than them all”) had bravely “put his body on me” on the floor of the vice-presidential car. L.B.J. had a lower opinion of Roy Kellerman, the agent who rode in the front passenger seat of Kennedy’s car: “about as loyal a man as you could find,” but “dumb as an ox.”

Ultimately Johnson built an excellent relationship with the Secret Service. But as early as the week after the Dallas assassination, the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was an old Johnson friend and Washington neighbor, tried to sow seeds of doubt in the president’s mind about the service. Hoover was eager not only to do some damage to a bureaucratic rival, but also to distract L.B.J. from mistakes made by his own bureau that may have contributed to the assassination. With the new president secretly recording their conversation on a Dictaphone machine, Hoover told Johnson that “much to my surprise, the Secret Service do not have any armored cars.”

“The president ought always to be in a bulletproof car,” Hoover said. “You could have a thousand Secret Service men on guard, and still a sniper can snipe you from up in the window, if you are exposed like the president was.” Hoover offered Johnson one of the F.B.I.’s bulletproof vehicles.

Always reaching for opportunity, Hoover tried to nudge L.B.J. to take presidential protection away from the Secret Service and give it to the F.B.I. And occasionally Johnson was receptive, especially when the Secret Service did something that displeased him. In January 1964, irate over a memo, written by a Kennedy holdover, that said agents disliked serving under him and wanted to be transferred, L.B.J. barked at Youngblood that he had just told the Secret Service director, James Rowley, “to call all of them in, and to take any of ’em’s resignations that wanted to.”

“And if they don’t want to handle it, we’ll get the F.B.I. to do it,” he said. “Hoover thinks I could be handled a lot better anyway.

“Now I thought I did pretty well after Dallas and I thought I reflected credit on the Secret Service. I did my damnedest to compliment you and everybody else.” But if there were more complaints by Youngblood’s colleagues, he said, “we’ll just change the damned law in about five minutes.”

During another moment of pique at the Secret Service that year, Johnson carped that when he traveled, “they notify everybody in town what time you’re coming, how you’re coming, where you’re coming.”

“They do everything except kill you,” he said. “They don’t know how to operate their guns. Hell, I had 10 of ’em out there one day trying to kill a snake, and they couldn’t kill it — they just emptied the gun — at my ranch.”

More surprising, even in the knowledge that he was trying to reduce federal spending during his first year as president, Johnson grumbled that his Secret Service coverage was too expensive and overwhelming. This was despite the obvious fact that so recently in Dallas, Secret Service protection had been insufficient. Presuming that the safety of the White House was beyond reproach — perhaps inadvisably, given the disclosures of the threats to President Obama in 2011 and last month — Johnson told Director Rowley in March 1964 that he wanted even fewer agents than Kennedy had “because I’m staying right in this house.”

I'm sure LBJ wanted to stand up in that car with RFK just to make RFK feel as uncomfortable as possible. They hated each other and this...

“I won’t even go to the bathroom if I have to have more people,” he said. “I promise you I won’t go anywhere. I’ll just stay behind these black gates.”

On Oct. 1, 1964, only a week after he received the Warren Report, L.B.J. complained to Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, his running mate in the election that fall, about criticism by the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, and others that he was risking his life by campaigning among crowds (asserting that he was “a man of the people”):

With dubious accuracy, Johnson said: “Just tell them that the Secret Service has never had the slightest concern. That’s the way to cut him.

“For shaking hands with high school kids that are sure American citizens! What they need to cover is the route that a candidate follows — the buildings and the cowards that lurk in the dark. There is not any problem with getting out and shaking hands. Kennedy shook hands with three or four groups. That wasn’t what killed Kennedy.”

Ignoring the circumstances of the assassinations of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, Johnson went on: “No president has ever been assassinated by shaking hands with somebody or being in a crowd. They are assassinated when they go to a theater, or when they drive down the street and somebody can hide.”

Two weeks later, Johnson publicly demonstrated his bravado by insisting that he and J.F.K.’s brother Robert (who was campaigning for the United States Senate from New York) stand up together in an open limousine during a motorcade through unruly crowds in Brooklyn. It was only 11 months after Dallas.

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books and a contributor to NBC News and “PBS NewsHour.”

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