The Atlantic City Convention
The President struggled with both ideological wings of the party in the run-up to his nomination at the Atlantic City convention. From Senate liberals,, the main problem came from Illinois senator Paul Douglas (a former economics professor at the University of Chicago) and Pennsylvania senator Joe Clark, who wanted a platform plank denouncing the Tuck bill, which sought to invalidate the Supreme Court’s one-man/one-vote ruling. Johnson fumed about the duo’s efforts in this August 21 call with Bill Moyers.
President Johnson: Why in the living hell they want to put it [a plank supporting the reapportionment decisions] in the platform, notify every little state. [Majority Leader] Carl Albert’s district [in Oklahoma] is put together and he’s abolished from Congress. Now who wants to do that to Carl Albert, when he’s the best instrument the liberals have for achievement in this town, since [former House Speaker] Sam Rayburn? Now, why would they want to abolish his district?
It’s not so bad if the Senate abolishes it, or the Court abolishes it. But it’s awful if he is asked—the [Democratic National] Platform Committee of which he heads—to abolish himself. That’s just cruel, inhuman punishment. Now, it looks like even a goddamned college professor could understand that.
Bill Moyers: All right.
President Johnson: Paul Douglas has got less sense than any man I know when judgment’s required. He’s always off chasing some damn balloon in the air.
Moyers: That’s right.
President Johnson: So . . .
Moyers: All right.
President Johnson: Bill, the pitch is this: they’re coming—the Congress hasn’t adjourned. It was due to adjourn; it didn’t adjourn. Does Dr. Douglas know that?
Moyers: I hope he does.
President Johnson: All right. Now, why didn’t they adjourn? What are they coming back for? They’re coming back to consider the Tuck bill, and the Dirksen bill, and the Mansfield bill.
Now, what they ought to do—if the liberals want a real plan of attack, [if New York Times reporter] Tony Lewis wants something to do, is get ten of them out here at a Georgetown house some night with [historian and former Kennedy aide] Arthur Schlesinger, and let ‘em all agree that one of ‘em will talk four hours and the other one will talk four hours. And that’s what they [the liberals] do best: is talk.
[Senate Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield won’t run after 6.00. They’ll do that for two weeks, and the show will be over. The Tuck bill will be dead. The Supreme Court will be riding high. That’ll be it—period. That’s simple. You don’t have to be smart to know that. Hell, I knew that before I left Johnson City. [Snorts.]
The hardest problem of the convention, however, was the question of seating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation. On the convention’s first day, DNC chairman John Bailey called to update the President on the credentials committee fight, and to complain about one of the MFDP’s key backers, Oregon congresswoman Edith Green.
President Johnson: I think we’re doing the best we can, John. I don’t imagine there’s much we can do. You’ll probably have a roll call on the Minority Report, I gather.
John Bailey: I think we better have it late tonight, don’t you, if we’re going to have it?
President Johnson: I don’t know; I don’t know. I don’t care much. I’m awfully disappointed that folks would act that way. And I’m distressed that they would treat me that way. But I don’t want to say anything about it. I may—I may . . . well, I may be in touch with you a little bit later.
But I just—I think you will have it, and I know it’s pretty difficult on both sides.
Bailey: Well, there’s no need of it, really.
President Johnson: No. not a bit. But . . .
Bailey: Well, some of the people have got the bit in their teeth. You know, between you and I, that Mrs. Green is a bitch.
President Johnson: Yeah.
President Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.
Bailey: And Joe Rauh keeps saying he wants to help, but he can’t get on the television often enough.
President Johnson: Yeah, that’s right.
Bailey: Just stirring the dogs up.
President Johnson: That’s right.
To Johnson’s delight, a compromise was brokered, to ensure the full seating of the Mississippi regulars. Then, to his astonishment, even Southern moderates opposed the deal. The President made clear his displeasure to Georgia governor Carl Sanders, in one of his most emotional calls of the campaign season.
President Johnson: What’s happening is we’re doing four or five things. Number one: we’re coming in there and seating the state of Mississippi. Every damn one of them. Now, they oughtn’t to be, Carl. They oughtn’t to …
Carl Sanders: I don’t—
President Johnson: You and I just can’t survive our political modern life with these goddamned fellows down there [white Mississippi leaders] that are eating them for breakfast every morning. They’ve got to quit that. And they’ve got to let them [African-Americans] vote. And they’ve got to let them shave. And they’ve got to let them eat, and things like that. And they don’t do it.
However much we love [Democratic Senators] Jim Eastland and John Stennis, they get a governor like Ross Barnett, and he’s messing around there with [George] Wallace, and they won’t let one [black] man go in a precinct convention. We’ve got to put a stop to that, because that’s just like the old days, by God, when they wouldn’t let them go in and cast a vote of any kind.
You’ve put a stop to it in your state. But we’re going to ignore that. We’re going to say, “Hell, yes, you did it. You’re wrong. You violated the ’57 [civil rights] law, and you violated the ’60 [civil rights] law, and you violated the ’64 [civil rights] law, but we’re going to seat you—every damn one of you. [dripping with sarcasm] You lily white babies, we’re going to salute you.”
When Sanders informed Johnson that the Mississippi and Alabama delegations (the latter headed by former Birmingham police chief Bull Connor) didn’t want to sign separate pledges of party loyalty, the President again turned sarcastic.
President Johnson: . . . Now, I’m a poor old man here that’s got a government falling on me.
In Vietnam today, I just walked out of the [National] Security Council. I’ve got [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara coming in here at 6:00 tonight. I’m bringing [Ambassador to Vietnam] General [Maxwell] Taylor back. I’ve got Cyprus in a hell of a war.
I can’t go up there and tell those damn fellows, and argue with [Harlem congressman] Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King and the fellow from Alabama—Bull Connor. They ought to try to make it as easy on me as they can, because they’ve all been in these things in their own state conventions. They’ve got problems, and they’re going to have them.
Now, this doesn’t hurt anybody. I’m for everybody taking the oath. Nobody claims they won’t do it except Mississippi and Alabama.
Sanders: That’s right, and now they say they’ll do it. They just don’t want to be singled out in writing.
President Johnson: Well, just tell them that every national committeeman has taken it, from every state, speaking for his state.
Sanders: Well, I agree with you. I—
President Johnson: Every one of them have already done it. But I don’t object. I’d come up there myself, walk out naked and take it, if it would ease Bull Connor’s pressure any.
Fannie Lou Hamer, testifying on behalf of the MFDP before the Credentials Committee
Johnson ultimately avoided a Southern walkout, and turned to the question of his nominators. He outlined his specifications in this clip with aides Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti.
President Johnson: What I’d try to do is get some good woman, or something—we don’t want a boss image there.
Bill Moyers: All right, sir.
President Johnson: Now, if they want a white woman to do something, she could get up and say . . . some real young, pretty woman.
Moyers: All right, sir.
President Johnson: I don’t want a boss doing it—[John] Bailey or [NYC mayor Robert] Wagner, or any of those.
President Johnson: There’s a pretty woman in the Georgia delegation; they’ve acted pretty nice.
Moyers: All right.
President Johnson: And I want to tie into the South a little bit.
President Johnson: What do you think about it? Can you think of anything letter? [to Moyers:] Wait a minute.
Jack Valenti: Let me make one other suggestion—how about Florida? Somebody from the state of Florida—which is a key state, 14 electoral votes. Not part of the South, it’s in between.
Moyers: I’ve got a very attractive, young woman, about 35, who was on the Platform Committee [Mrs. Lloyd Damsey]. This is her first convention. She’s a little bit naïve, but she could be coached, and she could do it.
A photo from the convention rafters, at Atlantic City: