Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many speechwriters did you kill today?

LBJThanks to David Murray for pointing to a piece from DelanceyPlace.com about President Lyndon Johnson’s relentless work schedule that exhausted most of those who worked for him in the West Wing. This from the book Organizing the Presidency by Stephen Hess

He worked a two-shift day, 7:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M. Between 2:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. he took a walk, swam, ate lunch, napped, showered, and changed clothes. Then, returning to his office, he was known to say, “It’s like starting a new day.” Top assistants were expected to be available at all times, for both shifts.

This relentless determination to do more of everything for as long as he would be in office inevitably took its toll on those around him. For example, in 1964, an election year, when he made 424 speeches, almost everyone on the staff was pressed into service as a presidential scribe, and everyone joined the constant talent search for speechwriters. The length of the day, the intensity of the work, and Johnson’s reputation for verbally abusing those close to him also meant a ceaseless turnover of presidential assistants, which gave the executive mansion “the appearance of a well-slept rooming house.”

The challenge of working as a speechwriter in the Johnson White House are highlighted by Robert Schlesinger in his excellent book White House Ghosts. Writers had

…a struggle to find the right balance in Johnson’s rhetoric…His insecurities and moods, skills as an extemporaneous speaker and deficiencies with a text, and his inability to adapt to television had push-pull effects on the speechwriting process.

JumboThese difficulties were exacerbated by the President’s eccentricities, such as his habit of intimidating other men by showing off “Jumbo”– his masculine appendage, of which he was inordinately proud. Schlesinger reports that he interviewed speechwriter Douglas Carter by forcing him to join in a skinny dipping session in the White House pool.

The speechwriters serving Johnson lived life on the edge

The pressure was crushing. Waking in the middle of the night, Hardesty would realize that he had been editing a speech in his dreams.

and

A ceaseless week of drafting drove Goodwin to his physical and mental limit in the predawn hours of January 12, the day of delivery. At the end of a thrity-six hour jag, Goodwin could neither focus on his typewriter keys nor order his thoughts in complete sentences.

The root of these difficulties was a simple of case of Presidential envy

Kinter later said that Johnson was “Always angry” about the drafts he was getting. “He always felt they were inferior to Kennedy’s,” he said. “I’ve never known him to be satisfied with a speech, either before, after, or at any point.”

Alas, even Jumbo was no help.

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