All the Way with LBJ

A Review of The Thirty-First of March: Lyndon Johnson's Final Days in Office
by Horace W. Busby, Jr.

Author Biography

Horace W. Busby Jr. was born in Texas, 1924. He attended the University of Texas at Austin. Johnson hired Busby in 1948 as a speechwriter, advisor and secretary of the cabinet. Busby drafted Johnson’s Great Society and left him in 1968. He published many newsletters including "The American Businessman" and "The Busby Papers." The Thirty-First of March wasn’t published until after his death in California, May 2000.

Horace Busby was Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speechwriter, hired “to read, think, and come up with new ideas.”1 During his twenty years of working under Johnson, Busby compiled a manuscript about “his long and extraordinary relationship with LBJ,”2 which was believed to have been destroyed. It was discovered and published by Scott and Betsy Busby, Busby’s son and daughter, in 2005 and titled The Thirty-First of March for the day during which “on national television [Johnson] gave up the presidency [and explained that] ‘I can’t get peace in Vietnam and be president too.’”3

The book begins on the morning of March 31, 1968, and after establishing Johnson and his predicament in Vietnam, Busby returns to “the start of the day [he met Johnson].”4 Hired to work under Congressman Johnson on March 16, 1948, two years after receiving his undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, Busby’s employment was solely based on his “uncompromisingly liberal editorials in The Daily Texan,”5 the University of Texas’s school newspaper. “[Johnson didn’t] know anything else about [Busby]—[he was] just going on [Busby’s] editorials.”6 Busby’s work was that of an out-of-sight political bomb-thrower with “a mean streak… enough [to help Johnson take on] Washington [with his fixated obsession] on this domestic business,”7 and upon arriving in Washington, D.C. he encountered Johnson’s many personalities. A protégé of Franklin D. Roosevelt and supporter of the New Deal, he labored all his life to work for the people as their “faithful public servant”8 instead of bowing down to “petroleum, utilities, and privilege”—the political power-houses of Texas. Johnson, who “seldom invoked the glories of the Alamo”10 and never followed the Texas political laws of nature, “might have voted wrong, behaved wrong, said what [was] considered the wrong things to the wrong people, but he had a personality… which, it was just possible might take over the state.”11 In 1948, Johnson ran for the Senate. Busby witnessed Johnson’s preparation for the final campaign days through solitude, forming his thoughts on the speeches, that when delivered, would rattle the state and get “the little people [to shake] their fists, [stomp] their feet and let tears run down their cheeks, while the opposition—which had been so close to victory— gnashed their teeth.”12

Jumping to July of 1960, Busby documents Johnson as he trails behind Kennedy during the presidential campaign. “The Kennedy-Johnson ticket was an alliance of adversaries, compounded in its contradictions by unnatural reversals of roles.”13 Young Kennedy, who was too secure to feel threatened, didn’t offend Johnson. Many noticed they were never deeply friendly and Johnson “never once laid his hand or his arm on John Kennedy’s shoulders, as he invariably did with other men.”14 They did respect one another politically, but there was a cultural barrier between the Massachusetts man and Texan. As vice-president, Johnson feared being replaced in the reelection and was anxious about the November Kennedy visit to his ranch, which was in his eyes, a last chance to save his career. Many saw it as Kennedy’s attempt to gain Texas’ support so he could relieve Johnson of his position. Unfortunately, none of it came to be. On November 22, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.

When Johnson was appointed thirty-sixth President of the United States, “the power had passed. A nation so close to the abyss one week before now stood on solid ground.”15 Many were “afraid the country may start coming apart.”16 Johnson reassured the people that “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose. And I am resolved that we shall win the tomorrows before us.”17 Surviving the country’s suspicion, Johnson managed to be elected in 1965. January of 1968, the reelection year, Busby is summoned to rewrite Johnson’s fifth State of the Union speech, but instead Johnson tells Busby he will not run for reelection. Many of those who followed him throughout his political career knew that he’d “done all he came [to the White House] wanting to do, and if he [had] four more years, [Congress wouldn’t] let him do anything more”18 in regards to the Great Society. They also knew that not pursuing a second term would “help in the long term for people to see better all that [Johnson had] accomplished in [his] administration.”19 Those who knew him as Mr. President felt that three presidents in a decade would be hard on the country’s people.

The thirty-first of March was chaotic and packed with debate over whether Johnson should end his political career. No one was sure of Johnson’s decision until he went on national television. Johnson then declared the halt of bombing in Vietnam and his resolution to not seek reelection. The American people’s response was respect and pride. Tragedy followed on April 4 when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis. Johnson immediately struggled to gain control of major cities with large percentages of residing blacks. Control was lost when arson began in Washington, D.C. and white residents began to race home. The nation was dividing itself. Johnson wanted to present legislation to Congress, but his aides only supplied him a speech. “Words without action [wasn’t] leadership”20 and Johnson refused to deliver the speech. On Nixon’s Inauguration Day, Johnson departed for his ranch in Texas “but it remained that as Washington once was his, so Lyndon Johnson would always be Washington’s.”21

Busby writes with a desire to inform the American public that Johnson was a good man who wanted to help the people. Often speaking of Johnson’s quirks and faults as skills and favorable traits that others simply did not fully appreciate, Busby makes an effort to shine constructive light on a man often criticized for America’s part in Vietnam. Despite the deep knowledge of politics that he developed while working under Johnson, Busby never criticizes or examines Johnson’s legislation, much of which Busby wrote. He assumes that the reader has a knowledge of the period and fails to speak of Johnson as Senator and majority leader. He bases the book on Johnson’s decision to not pursue presidential reelection and explains Johnson’s behavior that day by noting his behavior in past situations of great importance. Also, Busby chronicles each event specifically so that Johnson’s actions and reasoning are clear and visible. Intriguingly, Busby never speaks of Johnson’s Great Society, his superlative legislative achievement that Busby assisted in designing, which could only raise Johnson as a great political leader for having in fact worked for the people and not for himself. One must keep in mind that the book was written during the time that these events took place and Busby could not tell what would succeed in Congress and what would wilt only to embarrass Johnson. Busby describes his story of Johnson as a “far more real story: of trusting intimacy and sulking estrangement, of… name calling quarrels… and of awesome hours that made the heart pound.”22 Sadly though, Busby never actually published the work himself. Yet, from the text above, it can be derived that Busby felt his story should be known but was unsure of its possible effect. This would also explain his avoidance of the actual politics that occurred and his attachment to the personal events that would not draw criticism for being politically revealing of Johnson. Busby wrote what he saw and heard on a personal level, but, more importantly, he wrote what he felt and shared with Johnson.

As mentioned before, the book was written during the time periods it speaks of, analyzing each event as it occurred, affecting the piece overall in a more detailed way. It was not influenced by any consequential political situations but rather the emotions and doubts of the moment, giving the book a raw understanding of Johnson. It was affected by suspicions of the future and actions to prevent the adverse of those potential outcomes. Busby describes moments where it is evident that the current sentiment influences the description; such as when Busby, during the moments after the Kennedy shooting, asks, “If the president dies…can the vice-president govern?”23 because the assassination occurred in Texas, and Johnson could be replaced for reelection. In these moments, the story unfolds without a biased analysis of how it affected another time.

Busby, seen as “an insider, and a shrewd, observant and eloquent one at that”24,is praised in “Publishers Weekly”, for giving “dramatic intimate details of an uncommon and historically important variety”25 that undoubtedly can’t be matched by any other person. Publishers Weekly points out “the manuscript had no chapters addressing Johnson’s senate career and his rise to majority leader.”26 Since the manuscript was found incomplete, Scott Busby speculated that his father “had given his best recollections of that era to Robert Caro for use in his Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Johnson. Perhaps [his] father skipped over those years in his writings because he disliked the idea of being redundant, or he thought he’d come back and fill in the gap later. Unfortunately, we will never know. A stroke…eliminated that possibility.”27

Busby’s work was a piece that brought back what was “just about washed away by Vietnam and Caro’s hostile biography…because [Caro’s book bent] over backwards to confirm the comforting apprehension that [Johnson was] the villain of Vietnam,”28 according to Johnson Yardley of “The Washington Post”. The public opinion of him at the time was that he was “hopelessly out of his depth in foreign affairs at a time of great international tension.”29 He “rescued himself from history’s enduring opprobrium”30 by attaching the retreat with the bombing halt so that it would not be “interpreted as cynical play for votes rather than a genuine attempt to speed up the peace process.”31 This also aided in gaining Johnson respect and helped the people see all he had attempted to do for America.

“While much of [the book] reveals Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term… there are also intriguing anecdotes about Johnson’s caring yet bullying personality,”32 as reviewed by Karl Helicher of “Library Journal”. Johnson’s personality, as described by Busby, was erratic and often distracting of purpose of the “warm personal journal”33 making it hard to stay focused on Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection “so he could devote his energies to ending the Vietnam War.”34 Helicher also points out Johnson’s “fear that John Kennedy would replace him on the 1964 Democratic ticket”35 and how the man was “driven more by a dread of failure than a desire to succeed,”36 criticizing Johnson’s paranoia of losing his position.

Busby, described as “a sounding board, occasional whipping boy, and always fascinated observer of”37 Johnson, by Jay Freeman of “Booklist”, was criticized for portraying “Johnson as crude, overbearing, and frequently insensitive”38 in his book despite Johnson’s capability “of great compassion for the downtrodden.”39 Freeman felt that Busby didn’t give enough credit to Johnson for his work and effort. Despite this, Freeman points out and praises Busby’s attention to Johnson’s transitional periods and deems the book “wonderfully revealing”40 and full of “anecdotes and insights [to] Johnson’s career advances.”41

The book was an insightful and educating look on Johnson, but it lacked any political explanation. Much of the “Lyndon stories”42 were humorous and Busby’s description of the day of Kennedy’s assassination makes it hard to keep from feeling emotional. Yet, it is nothing more than a personal recollection of intimate times with Johnson. Busby got his point across in that Johnson “reached the people”, but he failed to lay the foundation of Johnson’s political achievements. He was flattering and critical, but dismissive of everything except emotion. Perchance a look into the Great Society would provide a better sense of what Johnson sought after reviving the New Deal and even how he felt about himself for having achieved that.43

Busby describes the sixties as politically unbalanced. From the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, to Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s airplane inauguration, the United States tottered between the Great Society and Vietnam, the bombing halt and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. Busby felt the nation being shred internally and externally. As the Cuban Missile Crisis hung over their heads, he had gone home thinking, “these houses and the people sleeping in them would almost surely be destroyed and dead.”44 After King’s assassination, Busby described how “if I were a kid in Harlem…I’d be thinking that the whites have declared open season on my people, and they’re going to pick us off one by one unless I get a gun and pick them off first.”45 He believed that during these turbulent times, one couldn’t know what would transpire next.

Although America experienced turbulence throughout the sixties, it also developed new ideas and new principles. The time brought forth a unity of whites and blacks in the inter-state bus movement with a generation of youths that stood for what they believed in. The period’s progressive attitude changed the roles of women, youths, African Americans, Native Americans and many other groups so that they might have a better life. The Great Society lowered poverty line and helped those who didn’t thrive in the fifties get back on their feet. But, at the same time, the Vietnam War loomed over a nation that had barely survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and the death of Kennedy. Men fled to Canada and college to avoid being sent to their death for a foreign cause and politicians were concerned with containing communism rather than realizing that it was not a deed of the devil. It was a time of drastic change that was much needed.

As change came and went, Busby wrote about a man who helped push it along with his legislation to aid the people. Johnson never felt that it was his place to exceed his boundaries by pushing his power over them. He didn’t pursue reelection because he could no longer look out for the people, and the president had become the commander-in-chief. As he explained to Busby “all my troubles put together aren’t as big for a president as that little fellow’s troubles are for him” and he could no longer protect the little fellows of America.46

review by Patricia Realini

  1. Busby, Horace. The Thirty-First of March: An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s Final Days in Office. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2005, Page 17
  2. Busby, Horace. Page viii
  3. Busby, Horace. Page xiv
  4. Busby, Horace. Page15
  5. Busby, Horace. Page 39
  6. Busby, Horace. Page 39
  7. Busby, Horace. Page 38
  8. Busby, Horace 27.
  9. Busby, Horace 27.
  10. Busby, Horace 23.
  11. Busby, Horace 26.
  12. Busby, Horace 27-28.
  13. Busby, Horace 102.
  14. Busby, Horace 104.
  15. Busby, Horace 157.
  16. Busby, Horace 147.
  17. Busby, Horace 157.
  18. Busby, Horace 202.
  19. Busby, Horace 195.
  20. Busby, Horace 243.
  21. Busby, Horace 250.
  22. Busby, Horace 14.
  23. Busby, Horace 146
  24. Publishers Weekly, The End of the LBJ Presidency.,
    visited May 30th, 2006, line 10-11
  25. 25. (Author) line 16-18.
  26. (Author) line 11-13
  27. Busby, Horace x.
  28. Yardley, Johnson. The Beginning of the End,,
    visited May 30th, 2006, line 85-87
  29. Yardley, Johnson line 37-39.
  30. Yardley, Johnson line 32
  31. Yardley, Johnson line 8-9
  32. Helicher, Karl. “Busby, Horace. The Thirty First of March: An Intimate Portrait of Johnson’s Final Days in Office (Brief Article) (Book Review).” Library journal 130.1 (January1, 2005):131 (1). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Irvine (CDL). 7 June 2006
    &tabID=T002&prodId=EAIM&docId=A128252594 &source=gale&srcprod=EAIM&userGroupName=ucirvine&version=1.07.
  33. Helicher, Karl
  34. Helicher, Karl
  35. Helicher, Karl
  36. Helicher, Karl
  37. Freeman, Jay. “Busby, Horace. The Thirty First of March: An Intimate Portrait of Johnson’s Final Days in Office (Brief Article) (Book Review).” Booklist 101.2 (Feb15, 2005): 1054 (1). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Irvine (CDL). 7 June 2006 &tabID=T003&prodId=EAIM&docId=A13108352 3&source=gale&srcprod=EAIM&userGroupName=ucirvine&version=1.0>.
  38. Freeman, Jay
  39. Freeman, Jay
  40. Freeman, Jay
  41. Freeman, Jay
  42. Busby, Horace 21.
  43. Busby, Horace 27.
  44. Busby, Horace 155.
  45. Busby, Horace 238.
  46. Busby, Horace 192.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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