Lyndon Baines Johnson

Legendary CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite and former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson will be among the 12 inaugural inductees into the Daily Texan Hall of Fame during a reception dinner Nov. 8 at Etter-Harbin Alumni Center.

The event is organized by The Friends of the Daily Texan, an organization made up of Texan alumni interested in promoting the 113-year-old news organization’s sustainability by working closely with current staff members through mentorship, fundraising and networking.

The 12 inductees, according to a press release, also include founding editor Fritz Lanham; Helene Wilke McNaughton, the Texan’s first female editor, who ran the paper during the dismissal of former UT President Homer Rainey; former editor Willie Morris, who fought the University’s attempts to censor the Texan after he wrote several editorials criticizing segregation and the University’s ties to oil and gas interests; and former editor Dick Elam, who pushed for racial integration and fought against anti-communist hysteria.

They also include former managing editor Karen Elliott House, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her reporting on the Middle East; Bill Moyers, who was President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s press secretary and hosts the American Public Television show, “Moyers & Company;” Ben Sargent, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who drew cartoons for the Austin American-Statesman for over 30 years; and Karen Tumulty, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

The event will also honor Bryan Mealer under the “Rising Star” category. Mealer has freelanced for several publications including Esquire magazine, Texas Monthly and the Associated Press.

Here in Austin, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson is considered a tragic figure whose many social programs (Medicare among many others) were marred by the war in Vietnam. Former President Richard Nixon, meanwhile, is viewed as Machiavellian, almost evil. Nixon is often most remembered for the Watergate scandal, in which his staff broke into the 1972 Democratic headquarters and tapped the phones of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Nixon, despite his push for universal health care, his launching of the Environmental Protection Agency and his extension of Johnson’s programs, is remembered more for his “silent majority,” “southern strategy” tactics and crass interventions in Latin America. It’s time rethink this narrative, and the resources at the LBJ Presidential Library can help us do so.

Recently, allegations about Nixon staffers’ alleged meddling in the Vietnam peace talks have come back into the news, with an article by the BBC’s David Taylor citing Johnson administration officials saying that in October 1968, Johnson had knowledge of the parallel dialogue regarding his efforts to stop bombing in Vietnam but did nothing, fearing a political backlash should his surveillance of Nixon’s aides come to light. Taylor cites recorded telephone conversations between Johnson and then-U.S. Senator from Georgia Richard Russell to back his claims. This would seem to confirm the running narrative of a fiery Johnson pitted against a cold and calculating Nixon. However, other phone calls during that time period paint a more complicated picture. 

The tapes with the phone calls reveal that Johnson was conflicted over Nixon’s intervention, but also over his protege Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s handling of the war issue. Commenting on Nixon’s intervention he says, “It’s not very easy for me to work under those conditions, anymore than when Hubert [Humphrey] says he would stop the bombing ‘without a comma, semicolon, but period.’” At one point in the tapes, Johnson says that Nixon “has the right [electoral] formula” and predicts that Humphrey could hurt himself by positioning himself as a dove. All in all, the conversation reveals subterfuge, but also striking continuities. Johnson clearly favored Nixon’s position over former presidential contender and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had defeated LBJ in New Hampshire’s primary. “Up till now Nixon and the Republicans have supported me ... better than Eugene McCarthy, [Arkansas Sen. J. William] Fulbright and the rest of them,” Johnson says in the tapes. Johnson also makes the case that he sacrificed his political career to exit gracefully from the war, saying that “if [he] had wanted to sell the country out,” he would have left Vietnam “five months ago” and gotten “overwhelmingly reelected.” Johnson longs for continuity as he recalls his support for Eisenhower and a tradition of not undermining the commander in chief in the area of foreign affairs. Johnson emphasizes in his call to Humphrey the day before the proposed cessation that he is not announcing a peace, but a “discussion.” He fears that the North Vietnamese will “take advantage” of the temporary halt to the bombing.

The tapes reveal broad bipartisan suspicion of communist regimes and expose the healthy egos that prevented peace from then going forward, evidenced by the Nixon campaign’s maneuvering and Johnson’s demand that the bombing cessation be conditional. The LBJ Presidential Library’s exhibits generally and erroneously portray Johnson as tragically noble; they fail to question his dubious claims with respect to the Gulf of Tonkin attacks that triggered the escalation and fail to grapple with Johnson’s own conflicts with his predecessor John F. Kennedy and, before his death in 1968, Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

More generally, the tapes are one more example of how political interests and rhetoric mask a bipartisan consensus. Former President Ronald Reagan is remembered for his announcement heralding the end to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, although Reagan’s election opponent that year, former President Jimmy Carter, negotiated the release. Former President George W. Bush successfully negotiated the status of forces agreement that withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Next time UT students visit the LBJ Presidential Library, they should reconsider the standard assessments of our former presidents and look not at each individual color but at the tapestry that weaves together U.S. foreign policy.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas. 

Oscar Griffin Jr. smiles in this March 1962 files photo. On March 30, 1962, the Independent came out with a headline saying “Federal Charge Jails Estes.” The article, written by Griffin, said that Estes was arrested by FBI agents at 6 p.m., March 29, 1962, and booked into the Reeves County jail about

UT alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Oscar Griffin, Jr. died from pancreatic cancer earlier this month in New Waverly, Texas. Griffin was 78 years old.

Griffin won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for the investigation of a scandal involving Billie Sol Estes, a former financier who borrowed money supposedly to build fertilizer tanks but never constructed them. Griffin learned of the situation from an overheard conversation and investigated the scandal by personally searching for the tanks. He learned Estes had the tank numbers moved around in order to fool investors and keep his secret safe.

Griffin worked for the Pecos Independent Enterprise, now the Pecos Enterprise, while investigating the scandal.

“Only two people on the Pecos Independent Enterprise staff knew about the articles before they were written,” Griffin said in his Pulitzer acceptance speech. “Marj Carpenter, the news editor, was not sure what they would contain until printed, but shouldered more than her share of the load on the paper while the articles were being compiled.”

Jon Fulbright, current managing editor of the Pecos Enterprise, said Griffin’s work helped distinguish his newspaper from another Pecos publication. Fulbright said following Griffin’s receipt of the Pulitzer, the competing newspaper was purchased by the owners of the Enterprise.

“Pecos has always been a place where battles are fought in the open,” Fulbright said. “[Media] was pretty competitive back then.”

Meg Griffin, daughter of the Pulitzer Prize winner, said her father’s life was full of many other accomplishments in addition to the honor of the award. Griffin earned an MBA from Harvard, served as a White House correspondent and was personal friends with former President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Meg Griffin said her father often told stories of visiting the LBJ ranch.

“Once my dad brought his dad to meet the president,” she said. “To him, LBJ was no big deal.”

She said her grandfather, LBJ and Griffin were enjoying a few beers when the president jokingly told Griffin he was not allowed to drink another.

“My dad took one anyway,” Meg Griffin said. “My grandfather got scared because he had disobeyed the president, but my dad said, ‘Oh, that’s just Lyndon.’”

Meg Griffin said the family will miss her father’s sense of humor, in addition to his sense of social justice and internal urge to make things right. She said he was also known for his love of Longhorn football, but died too soon to see the Longhorns beat the Aggies one last time.