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Columnists: The One with Connections

4 minute read

The day after President Kennedy’s assassination, William S. White, a syndicated political columnist, got a telephone call from Lyndon Johnson.

Would Bill and June take dinner with Lady Bird and the President? White had been half expecting the call. “It was a kind of reflex action,” he said later. “Just the sort of thing a fellow would do—to call up a friend and ask him to come over to dinner.” Since then, the Whites have been invited to dinner many times at the Johnsons’ 18-acre spread on Pennsylvania Avenue. Johnson has twice asked Bill White over for swims in the White House pool—a presidential invitation as highly coveted by the Washington press corps as it is rare.

No one in Washington stands much higher in Lyndon Johnson’s affection than the tall 56-year-old columnist. The President loyally reads White’s column, which appears three times a week in the Washington Star and 160 other papers, and he is not above calling White for advice. Together, the two men trade talk with unaffected ease; Johnson pays White the ultimate compliment of putting nothing off the record, relying on the total discretion of his friend. Once, while chatting with a group of reporters, the President suggested to his listeners that they could do worse than emulate Columnist William S. White.

No Reflex. White possesses matchless claims to the President’s high regard. Both men are Texans, although White considers himself a Southerner and considers Johnson a Westerner. Their friendship has ripened for 31 years. It began when Johnson was the gangly 23-year-old secretary to Texas’ U.S. Representative Richard Kleberg and White was a Washingtoncorrespondent for the Associated Press.

Far more than friendship, though, binds the two men. Thirty years in the company of politicians have instilled in White an ineradicable appreciation of the genus. He likes politicians, and they respond by liking him; such disparate types as Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Byrd, Richard Russell, Richard Nixon and the late Robert A. Taft all warmed to Columnist White. From White’s host of friends, Johnson emerges as the man who best typifies all that Bill White says he values in the political craft. “He is a pragmatic man and not a theorist, an actionist and not a philosophic thinker,” White once wrote of Johnson.

Self-styled as an independent, White shifts in print from party to party in pursuit of the middle ground. He likes to dismiss Democrats who respond reflexively to liberal shibboleths as “knee-jerk liberals.”

There is no automatic reflex in White’s positions. He is opposed to De Gaulle’s lofty intransigence, in favor of a sterner U.S. attitude on Cuba, against state presidential primaries as unrepresentative of the “direct democracy process,” and for civil rights, but with one reservation. “I’m of the Mrs. Murphy school,”* he wrote. “I think there should be a slower approach where private property is involved.” Mistaken for a Senator. Son of a DeLeon, Texas, justice of the peace, Bill White dropped out of the University of Texas after three years to try journalism. His calling took him, by easy stages, to Washington, where in 1933 he formed lasting friendships with Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn and a veritable slew of Southern U.S. Senators. After a stint as a wartime correspondent for A.P., White returned to Washington, caught the eye of Arthur Krock, then the New York Times’s Washington bureau chief.

Assigned by the Times to cover the U.S. Senate, White soon became the ranking senatorial expert in the Washington press corps. He was even mistaken for a Senator, for he is a distinguished-looking man in a silk vest and a conservatively cut suit, the whole effect crowned by grey hair. “It was never necessary for him to see Lyndon,” says a press-corps colleague who remembers White’s intimacy with the Texan, who was then Senate majority leader. “He always knew instinctively what Lyndon was thinking.” He still does. And now that he has abandoned the Times for a syndicated byline, his intimacy with the President is hardly a hindrance. Houghton Mifflin has given him a $50,000 advance on a book in progress, appropriately titled The Professional: Lyndon Johnson.

*A name given early currency in the civil rights debates by Vermont’s Republican Senator George Aiken. Contemplating the difficulty of policingall small enterprises, Aiken championed the right of a fictitious landlady, whom he called Mrs. Murphy, to have her little boardinghouse exempted from the public accommodations section.

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