Max Holland and Tara Marie Egan: How LBJ learned that RFK wasn't trying to slander the Warren Commission

Last October, when the Lyndon B. Johnson Library released a new batch of recordings, one of the most revealing conversations went literally unnoticed. Yet the 13½ minute conversation between President Johnson and Justice Abe Fortas on January 11, 1967—”the day after LBJ had delivered his third œState of the Union address to Congress—”underscores one of the most astonishing insights ever to come from the once-secret tapes.

At the outset, in error, Lyndon Johnson blamed Robert F. Kennedy for fomenting the disbelief in the Warren Report that was widespread by late 1966. Indeed, both Johnson and Fortas viewed RFK’™s reach and influence with such suspicion that to them, it seemed conceivable that The New York Times had aborted its 1966 investigation into the Warren Commission because the Times’™s findings had turned out to be too favorable. Publication of a single story, much less a series, that put the commission in a positive light would supposedly run counter to Kennedy’™s interests and might presumably incur his displeasure, or so Johnson and Fortas mistakenly thought.

Johnson’™s toxic notions about RFK, to be sure, were not entirely unwarranted. A prima facie case could be made that Robert Kennedy was bent on putting the Warren Commission into disrepute. By the fall of 1966, despite a growing chorus of criticism of the Report, Kennedy, then the junior senator from New York, resolutely persisted in his policy of €“œno comment” with respect to all the controversies that had arisen in the assassination’™s aftermath. His refusal to put a damper on the damaging speculation—”in a way that only the slain president’™s brother could€—”had the net effect of allowing baseless criticism to grow and deepen. In addition, Kennedy acolytes, like former White House aide Richard Goodwin, were writing or speaking out about alleged shortcomings in the Warren commission’™s investigation. In the absence of comment from Kennedy, it was not unreasonable to believe Goodwin was acting as Kennedy’™s agent, writing what the New York senator dared not say himself.

Finally, of course, Johnson had every reason to believe Kennedy was intent on impugning the Warren Commission because of the publishing spectacle that had simply become known as the “œManchester affair.” Part soap opera, part opéra bouffe, this scandal had fixated the publishing world for more than three months by January 1967. Retained by the Kennedys to write the œ“œauthorized€” version of the most agonizing four days in American history, Manchester had produced a book, The Death of a President, that depicted Lyndon Johnson in an unflattering light€—”an uncouth power-grabber from the very state with the unspeakable city that was responsible for the assassination. Sitting presidents had never been treated this way by a major New York publisher like Harper & Row. And although Johnson’™s popularity was fast declining, the vast majority of the American people still appreciated the thoughtful and sensitive manner he had displayed immediately after the assassination, when the entire nation was on edge after the wrenching presidential transition. Now Manchester, the Kennedys’™ chosen instrument, was trying to rob Johnson of his finest hour. The conversation with Fortas occurred just days before the first excerpts of Manchester’™s book were to be published in Look magazine.

Johnson’™s near-paranoia about Robert Kennedy, however, could not have been more mistaken in this instance. The one person with the most to lose, and nothing to gain, from a re-investigation of the assassination was RFK himself. Re-opening the assassination would threaten again to expose one of the darkest secrets from the Kennedy presidency, namely, that RFK had been the leading advocate and motive force behind the CIA’™s plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Any re-investigation would almost surely tug again at the loose strands from these plots, and, as in 1964, threaten to unravel them. Ultimately, JFK’™s martyrdom would be put at risk, as would RFK’™s ambition to lead a Kennedy restoration, which might be the only way to repair the bottomless grief he felt over his brother’™s assassination.

Sooner than President Johnson could imagine, he would gradually become disabused of the notion that Robert Kennedy was intent on undermining public confidence in the Warren Report. Just five days after the conversation with Fortas, Washington columnist Drew Pearson would approach Johnson privately and tell him about an astonishing rumor: that the CIA had attempted to assassinate Castro numerous times in the early 1960s, and that most of these attempts had occurred at RFK’™s direction, when the then-attorney general was €“œriding herd” on the agency for his brother.[1]

Johnson, though so embittered that he was inclined to believe the worst about RFK, still found Pearson’™s story incredible. Later he would liken it to someone €“œtellin’™ me that Lady Bird was taking dope.”€[2] But as the rumor continued to gather force, the president would turn to CIA director Richard Helms and ask for a full report. On May 10, five months after LBJ’™s conversation with Fortas, the president would learn directly from Helms that the rumor was true, save for one aspect: there was no evidence that Castro had retaliated by ordering the assassination of President Kennedy.

Helms’™s caveat would fall on unreceptive ears. Confirmation of the efforts to assassinate Castro astounded Johnson. That, together with the president’€™s innate proclivity to relate things that were not connected, meant that LBJ would go to his grave believing that “€œKennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first.”€...

[The rest of this article consists of a transcript of the call.]

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