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The Presidency: Visitors’ Week

5 minute read

The last White House banquet of 1965 was in many ways the most memorable —if only because Lyndon Johnson was plainly in robust health again.

The occasion was a state dinner for West Germany’s Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. In his honor the White House invited a spirited, varied list of 140 guests, ranging from Dean Acheson to Gene Autry, George Meany to Thomas Dewey. By candlelight in the evergreen-decked state dining room, they feasted on roast duckling, Bibb lettuce salad, lobster imperial and “Yule log” dessert (chocolate cake coated with mocha butter)—the last culinary triumph of White House Chef René Verdon, a Kennedy find who heatedly gave notice a week before the party that he was leaving

(TIME, Dec. 24). Renaissance-costumed madrigal singers wandered among the tables during dessert, and Metropolitan Opera Star Robert Merrill led everyone in a post-dinner sing-along of both English and German lyrics to Silent Night. Afterward Lyndon Johnson and his guests sipped champagne and danced until 1:30 a.m.

The evening climaxed the President’s first full week of work in Washington since his Oct. 8 gall-bladder operation. Belying the frequent criticism that he has little skill or patience for subtle foreign-policy negotiations, Johnson dealt firmly but diplomatically with three heads of state.

First had come Pakistan’s President Mohammed Ayub Khan, who explained to Johnson that his government regards warm relations with Communist China as a strategic necessity. Though he protested that he was more pro-U.S. than proCommunist, Ayub was disappointed in his hopes of winning U.S. support for Pakistan’s view that Kashmir’s fate should be determined by the people of that disputed state.

Like Winston & F.D.R. Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson followed Ayub by a few hours. On his fifth visit to Washington since Johnson took office, Wilson felt sufficiently at home to josh the President on a sensitive subject. When Johnson commented lightly on the Labor Party’s precarious two-seat margin in Parliament, the Prime Minister shot back with a remark about Johnson’s “86 votes”—a nearly accurate reference to the scandal-tinged 1948 Texas senatorial primary in which Lyndon squeaked through by 87 votes. The President protested: “You haven’t been here six hours, and you’ve already taken one vote away from me.” Retorted Wilson: “Mr. President, you can afford to lose one vote. I can’t.”

Wilson’s most important assurance was a pledge to Johnson that Britain would not add to the U.S. military burden in Southeast Asia by dismantling any of its own major bases east of Suez. Johnson, in turn, promised to support Britain’s embargo on oil shipments to Rhodesia by offering U.S. aircraft to fly oil into landlocked Zambia during the crisis. Prime Minister Wilson was so cheered by his rapport with the President that he confided after the talks: “We are as close together as Churchill and Roosevelt ever were.”

Like Foster & Konrad. Chancellor Erhard came to Washington with the avowed hope of securing a bigger role for West Germany in NATO’s nuclear planning. Bonn had made no secret of its impatience over Washington’s reluctance to go ahead with controversial plans for a multilateral NATO force (MLF) of nuclear-powered surface ships or submarines. However, Johnson made no firm promises on the sensitive issue of a nuclear role for Germany, and made clear that the MLF proposal has now been permanently scuttled.

Though plainly disappointed by Johnson’s turndown, Erhard fervently pledged continued support of America’s determination to win the battle for South Viet Nam. Said the Chancellor in a National Press Club speech: “Yielding there may mean defeat here. Those who advise you to withdraw from Viet Nam and those who advise us to recognize the East German regime are ignorant of the lessons of history.” For home consumption, one of the Chancellor’s top advisers said proudly: “The personal relationship between President Johnson and the Chancellor can only be compared to the friendship between John Foster Dulles and Konrad Adenauer.”

Red Nose & Mistletoe. Johnson was almost up to his old working habits. Most days he was awake and reading the papers before 7 a.m. and well into his daily schedule by 8. Despite the heavy load of meetings and social events, he was usually up until at least 2 a.m.—either reading state documents or conferring with White House aides.

The strain began to tell. Soon after the German Chancellor went home, Lyndon Johnson climbed wearily into Air Force One and returned to Texas for a long, leisurely Christmas. At the ranch, the Johnsons’ stuffed deerhead hatrack sported its annual Rudolphian patch of red nose. Mistletoe, which is native to L.B.J. country, was pinned on fireplace mantels throughout the house. Lady Bird’s gift to Lyndon was a 30-page, red leatherbound album of family Christmas pictures dating back to 1936. The theme of the script running through the book was “Christmas Is a Family Time”—which, in a sense, was the message the President had preached to Ayub, Wilson and Erhard.

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