Fighting Words

A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism

Ben J. Wattenberg

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

White House Speech Writing

THE DEMOCRATIC SPLIT EMERGES

NEO-CONSERVATISM is a somewhat new word. It is not a new concept.

I learned a great deal about what would come to be called neo-conservatism through my work with President Lyndon B. Johnson during the two and a half years I worked with him from mid-1966 to just a few weeks shy of the end of his term on January 20, 1969.

My political journey began early in the afternoon in the summer of 1966 at my home in Stamford, Connecticut. I was working as a freelance writer and editor—not an easy way to make ends meet, especially with a wife and three small children. I had just returned from lunch and my son Danny, then seven, said, "Mr. House called." I asked for more information. He stared at me blankly.

The phone rang again. A White House operator asked me to hold for Mr. Redmon. In a moment Hayes Redmon came on the line and identified himself as assistant to Bill Moyers at the White House. Redmon asked if I could come down to Washington to meet with Moyers. They needed a speechwriter for President Johnson.

Moyers had been reading, and liking, This U.S.A., an optimistic book based on census data that I had coauthored with former U.S. Census Bureau Director Richard Scammon.

Incumbent politicians tend to point with pride; challengers usually view with alarm. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson was the leader of the incumbent point-with-pride Democratic congressional team. And who would be better as a speechwriter than the coauthor of such an optimistic book?

A few days later, I was having lunch in the White House Mess with Moyers, a man my age whose picture had already been on the cover of Time with the cover line, "The Young Man Next to the President." He seemed to be in charge of everything at the White House, including speech writing.

As we ate, Hubert Humphrey, then the vice president, came into the dining room. Moyers caught his eye, waved him over, and introduced me, "Ben’s going to come here as a speechwriter." (I was?) Humphrey was delighted. "I’ve been reading your book," he effused. "It’s terrific. We need some optimism around this place. Dick Scammon’s an old friend of mine." I responded shrewdly: "Thank you."

Walt Rostow, the director of LBJ’s National Security Council (certainly a neo-con by today’s standards) stopped by the table. He said, "Wonderful book; my wife’s teaching a course from it." Whoa! What was I doing here? This was high cotton (not a phrase I knew until I later met White House staffers from the South and Southwest).

Moyers and I chatted. I told him that Johnson should start giving some optimistic speeches. I argued that everything coming out of the White House was about a crisis: a crisis in the cities, a crisis in the environment, a crisis in poverty, a crisis in race relations. Yet there were plenty of census statistics showing that while there were indeed lots of problems, there had also been much progress he could take credit for in America during the five-plus years of the Kennedy-Johnson administration. Crisis-mongering was an oft-used political weapon of both sides in Washington, but liberals—who have suffered at the polls for their relentless gloom—employ it with much greater intensity. Wouldn’t it be better to say: "Look how far we have come; let us continue."

After a while Moyers said, "Let’s go. There’s someone I want you to meet." We walked through a maze of corridors to a tiny elevator. Moyers, slick black hair, black horn-rimmed glasses, taller and broader than he looked in his photos, smiled at me gently. He did not tell me whom we were going to visit.

In a moment we entered Lyndon B. Johnson’s bedroom and faced two men, one of whom was in blue pajamas. That was the president, getting ready for his midday nap. Moyers introduced me and I said, "Hello, sir," just the way I addressed officers during my stint in the Air Force. I sensed this was not quite enough. "Hello … sir … Mr. President," I went on, almost sure that "Mr. President" was what one called a president.

Moyers then said, "Hello, Henry," and introduced me to Henry Ford II ("Hank Deuce"), who was in a blue suit, not blue pajamas. LBJ and Henry had just had a private lunch in LBJ’s bedroom. (Who says only Republicans cavort with fat cats?) After a moment my new friend Hank took his leave.

Johnson sat down, looked at Moyers, looked at me, and began talking. "I’ve been reading your book," he said, gesturing to a built-in bookshelf behind him in a way that made me suspect that perhaps he might not have been reading much of it.

"It’s a great privilege to work in a White House," Johnson said. "Yes, it surely must be," I countered. "But it requires selflessness," LBJ went on, "and even more than selflessness. Old Tommy Corcoran said that a good White House aide had to have ‘a passion for anonymity.’ "

I countered, sagely, "I’m sure it does." I did not know who Old Tommy Corcoran was.1 Several years later, as I was preparing to leave the White House, I recounted Johnson’s remarks about a passion for anonymity in an interview for an oral history by Professor Harri Baker from the University of Tennessee. I expressed my ongoing bewilderment about it: Why was LBJ telling that to me, an unknown kid? Baker said, "Did it ever occur to you that he was lecturing Moyers, not you?"

1. Corcoran was a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "Brain Trust" during the New Deal days of the 1930s.

The president went on nonstop for about ten minutes. I was too petrified to interrupt. Moyers at last found an opening and said," Ben, why don’t you go ahead and tell the president what you were telling me at lunch about his speeches?" Why? Because I couldn’t believe where I was, and who I was with. Terrified, though with surprising vigor, I advanced my anti-crisis-mongering view. Johnson grunted affirmatively several times.

(After some time on the job I was able to talk to the president almost normally. But not before one Saturday morning; I was still in bed, and the phone rang. It was LBJ. It concerned a matter of little consequence, and the conversation seemed to go on and on: five minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes. Then I heard my six-year-old daughter Sarah scamper down the stairs saying, "Mommy, Mommy, Daddy’s on the phone with Mr. Yes-Sir.")

The conversation in LBJ’s bedroom lasted about twenty minutes. Moyers and I left. Back in his office, Moyers said he wanted me to work at the White House as a speechwriter. He explained that Johnson’s plan was to fly around the country and give "a hundred speeches in ten weeks" in order to reelect the "great Eighty-ninth Congress," the one that had passed most of Johnson’s near-revolutionary Great Society programs into law. Moyers emphasized that the hundred-speeches idea was a huge project and that he would need help.

Moyers said the Executive Office of the President could pay me a couple of thousand dollars more than I had made in the previous year in the private sector. I accepted. By (legitimately) adding in every conceivable source of income, I got the number up to about $28,000, which included teaching Sunday school in two temples, and so my starting salary was $30,000 per year, then the very top of the scale for U.S. government political appointees. I was one new appointee who could not claim he was making a sacrifice to work for his government.

Before heading back to Stamford I walked around the perimeter of the White House grounds. It was midsummer and sweat soaked through my cheap cord suit. I said to myself, Don’t be silly. You’re not Jimmy Stewart, and this isn’t Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But I took the whole walk, hardly believing that I would really be coming to work at the White House; me, a kid from The Bronx who had never before even worked regularly in Washington.

A couple of weeks later, on August 11, 1966, I arrived. Within a few days I was staying up until one and two a.m. in Moyers’s office, with Bill2 and a bottle of bourbon, editing, writing, and rewriting the campaign texts that had been submitted as part of the hundred-speeches program.

2. Moyers was then, officially, the Reverend Billy Don Moyers.

I believe the LBJ White House was the last where the key aides on the staff wrote the big speeches concerning the topics they dealt with: S. Douglass Cater on health, education, and welfare; National Security Director Walt Rostow on foreign policy, particularly Vietnam; and Harry McPherson Jr. and John P. Roche on both foreign and domestic issues.

Joseph Califano, a protégé of Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, ran the White House legislative program shop and had brought over some subalterns from the Department of Defense. Under LBJ’s general guidance, they and others wrote the Great Society’s legislative messages by the bushel, many of which would be transmogrified into law on Capitol Hill. That legislation, mostly useful by my lights, changed America, changed the Democratic Party, and in many ways set into motion the stance now called neo-conservatism.

Speeches on lesser matters, like those made at campaign stops, were mostly written by speechwriters who composed what was unkindly and unfairly called "Rose Garden Rubbish." That team worked under the putative direction of Robert Kintner, an old Johnson buddy and former newspaper columnist who drank a lot.

The "rubbish" was typically for delivery on the political trail by the president during weekend morning campaign swings. Moyers and I did not think highly of the product. We believed the draft speeches were the products of "wordsmiths," not people with serious policy interests. That judgment was unfair. There were some very good writers there, but Moyers and I had to work very long and very late during the hundred-speeches project. The speeches typically came in at the end of the day, making necessary some late, hectic Friday-night work. That surely colored our view.

Later on, I worked on some pomp-and-fanfare rubbish. Unlike the president’s domestic speeches, draft remarks for toasts and arrival statements for foreign heads of state or prime ministers were made available by State Department officials many days before the actual event. That, thankfully, allowed time for rewriting. Talk about going native! If the visitor were, say, the president of Ghana, the draft from the State Department—had it ever been delivered by LBJ—would have drawn headlines in Ghana about the effects of coffee tariffs on Ghana, and next to nothing in the United States. Speechwriters for the president should be writing speeches for the president, not for Ghanaians. So I would ask State to send me over a package of background material and work from it. I redid the Ghana toast on civil rights progress in America. We got good coverage (and we included the coffee tariffs).

When the Italian president visited on Columbus Day, the line in the toast I wrote for LBJ was: "We Americans are not so proud that one Italian came to the New World but that five million did so."

I also wrote a number of major speeches and participated tangentially in some policy matters. Working on LBJ’s speeches was very gratifying. Like many neo-cons, I never thought that the federal government was—as President Ronald Reagan put it years later— "the problem, not the solution." Of course, the "law of unintended consequences," popularized by neo-cons, was always lurking, but that should be dealt with case by case. The federal government wasn’t the problem but rather what it did, for good or for ill.

There would be plenty of examples of both. Indeed, at a symposium called "The Great Society Remembered" at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in 1985, there was ( justified) glorification of the boss, as well as ac knowledgment by some ex-LBJ aides that some mistakes had been made, by him and others. And Moyers told a lovely story about LBJ and civil rights. A reporter asked LBJ why he was doing so much for civil rights, when his record in Congress had been less than sterling. Moyers watched LBJ, thinking he would look for a way to duck or divert the question, not uncommon for the man who many journalists thought was the father of "the credibility gap." But LBJ played his candor card: "Some people get a chance late in life to correct the sins of their youth, and very few get a chance as big as the White House."

At the time, I don’t think that Moyers and I disagreed about a word in those speeches we worked on together. And yet, we ended up walking very different political paths, which reflect the subsequent neo-conservative vs. liberal/progressive/radical split in the Democratic Party.

Johnson’s campaign for the 1966 congressional elections didn’t work out well. I traveled on several of the campaign trips. We were often met by demonstrators with black balloons, already highly displeased with America’s role in Vietnam.

I knew little about Vietnam then. One day I walked through the White House press lobby. Hugh Sidey (Time) and Peter Lisagor (Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Daily News) mentioned to me the grave problems in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating North Vietnam and South Vietnam, about which I knew not. I muttered, "Yeah, that’s a hell of a problem."

Months later at a meeting, I suggested to the president that he would be helped politically by mixing it up with demonstrators (as Nixon later did, to his benefit). He stared me down. He did not want to sully the office with cheap theatrics.

Soon, LBJ’s LET-A-HUNDRED-SPEECHES-BLOOM strategy had been dumped as a loser. And so President Johnson, and I (thanks to Moyers) ended up taking a trip of state for a summit conference in Manila with America’s allies in the war in Vietnam. On the way to and from Manila, the presidential cavalcade stopped off at the home turf of those allies in New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and South Korea, as well as the U.S. base in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Each stop required speeches.

Traveling around the world with a presidential entourage was an eye-opener. The traveling party moved about in four 707s: Air Force One, two press planes, and a back-up Air Force One, commonly called "Air Force Two" but often referred to as the "zoo plane," because of its alcoholic, informal, and boisterous reputation. (There were also several C-141s involved sporadically.)

I almost didn’t make the trip. Moyers and McPherson had traveled for two weeks advancing the trip for Johnson. When Moyers returned he asked to look at the twenty or so speeches that the "rubbish"speech team had prepared for the journey. He had read through them and asked me for an assessment. I told him I thought that some were adequate but that many were condescending: "You should be so proud of your progress on trichinosis.…" Moyers asked me to write him a straightforward memo telling him what I thought. I did. He decided to pass it on to LBJ, who told him to get me on the trip, pronto. In a few days, I took all my vaccination shots at one time, got feverish, and headed west to the Far East.

Few things with Johnson were simple. I was a published author. But Johnson told Moyers that he didn’t want me visible lest the press think that presidential speeches were written by presidential speech-writers (Flash!). He said I should travel on the back-up zoo plane and stay hidden at Air Force bases along the way.

I heard myself telling Moyers I wouldn’t do that (and was astonished by my courage). I was either on the president’s staff or not, but I wasn’t going to travel hidden away like a second-class citizen. LBJ apparently relented; it was agreed that I would travel on the press plane (of all places), as an aide to Deputy Press Secretary George Christian, a wonderful human being. In fact, I ended up bouncing around from one plane to another as the trip progressed. It turned out the zoo plane had its advantages. During the long flight from American Samoa to New Zealand, I participated in a big-money poker game with high table stakes and pot limits. The participants included the deputy undersecretary of state for administration (the number four man in the department), LBJ’s marine assistant to the White House, a master sergeant from the White House communications office, a Filipino-American mess steward, a few in-and-outers, and me. RHIP—rank has its privileges—but not at this meritocratic game— quite in tune with neo-con, anyone-can-play beliefs.

Money moved quickly. At a crucial moment in a big pot the marine assistant—a major—shoved in his stack in a head-to-head confrontation with the sergeant, who worked for him. Faced with a matching bet of several hundred dollars, the sergeant folded his hand. Unforgivably, the major turned up his cards—he didn’t even have a pair—and breaking poker protocol happily announced, "I bluffed you out."

The sergeant, neck veins bulging, screamed at him: "You mother-fucking, lily-livered, yellow-bellied piece of shit! Sir."

The cards were running for me in an almost unbelievable way. I won about a thousand dollars. I carried the money in my back pocket all through the trip. When I returned home, we bought a piano. My son still plays it.

An interesting vignette played itself out in Bangkok. I was asked by Harry McPherson to write the president’s speech slated for delivery at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s finest. It was to be an important address, and I wrote into the small hours. The night before the speech, Harry and I met with the president after his nap in the quarters provided for him in Bangkok. It was the old palace of the King of Siam, the very one where the king had laid down the law to Anna, the tutor who educated the king’s children, and where she confronted the king in the cause of individual liberty and modernism, perhaps an early version of neo-conservatism.

As he read the draft, Johnson, stone-faced, nodded with approval a few times. While he was reading he was being dressed in formal wear by his valet, who handled the cuff links and stud buttons, adjusting the suspender lengths—nasty tasks that mortals struggle with for themselves. Lady Bird Johnson (one of my favorite people) then came in dressed in a flowing formal gown, a vision of elegance. She said to LBJ, "Dear, we have to be at the head of the grand staircase at exactly 6:00 p.m. to start the state dinner. That’s ten minutes from now. The king will be at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to greet us." Johnson grunted and kept reading the draft. In a few minutes Lady Bird came back and said, "Dear, five minutes. …" No response. Then a couple of minutes later, "We’re going to be late." Finally, Johnson responded grumpily, "What are they going to do about it?"

A neo-con moment. Americans were primus inter pares. Johnson was not being disrespectful to the king; he and Lady Bird showed up with several seconds to spare at the top of the gilded staircase.

But the question What are they going to do about it? rattled around in my head afterward. True enough, the Cold War was going on, and we were terribly entangled in Vietnam—but there seemed to me some grand accuracy to Johnson’s question. Along with most neo-conservatives then and now, I believed that America was number one. True, the Soviets were a nuclear superpower. But America led the world by far in science, education, economics, cultural reach, technology, diplomacy, and military might. Its language, English (or "American," if you prefer), had become nearly universally spoken. It was the most admired nation in the world. Never had a country achieved such influence.

Twenty years later historian Paul Kennedy would write The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, claiming that America was going the way of other once-great powers—down—the victim of what he called "imperial overstretch." Other "declinists" echoed the theme with different variations. The thesis of decline never resonated with me or most neo-cons. I think Kennedy, an ex-Brit, consciously or subconsciously wanted America to go through the dissolution of empire that Great Britain had experienced. The United States, in the years following the publication of Kennedy’s book, did not decline: It became more influential.

Many years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, I ran a contest in my newspaper column asking for better names than the oft-stated "sole superpower" then in use. These are some of the answers I received: hyperpower, magnapower, omnipower, maxipower, megapower, multipower, semperpower, suprapower, ultrapower, and unipower. No accident, all those words had Latin roots: The Romans had an empire, too. The winner, declared solely by me, was omnipower as in, according to my dictionary, "denoting a quality of unrestricted or universal range." Unlike Rome’s or England’s, however, America’s empire is one of ideas that defies the physical limits of trea sure and territory.

The speech at Chulalongkorn spoke of the universality of mankind, streams of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus forming a single mighty river. It was a global neo-con theme, somewhat utopian but tempered with a realism that stressed the predominance of national sovereignty. Power and passion were required to maintain great civilizations. I was proud of the speech I had drafted. That evening I shared a cab with Peregrine Worsthorne, a well-known conservative Brit writer with attitude. "What drivel," he said. I said not a word, proud of my discipline.

Excerpted from Fighting Words by Ben J.Wattenberg.

Copyright © 2008 by Ben J.Wattenberg.

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.