Sunday, August 17, 2014

JFK and LBJ and the stories about that deer hunt

The NYT has an interesting article on the disputed deer hunt on the LBJ ranch that then President-elect JFK and Vice President-elect LBJ had on Nov 17, 1960.  There's a fabulous photo with the article.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, 1960, before dawn, at the L.B.J. Ranch near Johnson City, Tex., Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson had his houseguest, President-elect John F. Kennedy, woken up to go deer hunting.
It was nine days after the two men had won the national election. Neither a natural early riser nor a hunter (although as president he would shoot skeet with friends at Camp David), J.F.K. pulled on a checkered sport coat, white button-down oxford shirt and penny loafers; his hair remained unkempt.
Someone present thought the president-elect looked “like a football fan.” Another felt that in the rural Texas setting, Kennedy looked as if he were “on Mars.”
The clashing versions of the deer hunt later provided by Kennedy and Johnson, the Bostonian and the Texan, foreshadowed the sharply different attitudes held today — often regional in nature — by many Americans about hunting and other recreation involving firearms.
William Manchester began an early version of “The Death of a President,” his widely read 1967 book on Kennedy’s assassination, by describing the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson hunt. (Manchester moved the section to a place later in the volume after being advised that starting his narrative with it seemed to imply that a “boorish” L.B.J. was part of a violent Texas subculture that was a breeding ground for the president’s murder almost exactly three years later.)
Drawing largely on his interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy, who told him what her husband had told her after the deer hunt, Manchester wrote that the president-elect, despite his belief that “all killing was senseless,” had “looked into the face of the life he was about to take,” then “fired and quickly turned back to the car.”
Manchester wrote: “Yet he couldn’t rid himself of the recollection. The memory of the creature’s death had been haunting, and afterward he had relived” it with his wife, “to heal the inner scar.”
According to Manchester, after Kennedy’s inauguration, L.B.J. brought the mounted deer head and antlers to the White House and insisted that the new president put them up in the Oval Office. After Johnson’s repeated requests, followed by Kennedy’s demurrals, J.F.K. finally ordered the trophy to be displayed in the West Wing’s Fish Room (now called the Roosevelt Room).
“The president,” wrote Manchester, “had granted a favor — how great a favor only the first lady knew — and his vice president had been genuinely pleased.”
Before Manchester’s book was published, Johnson and his advisers were poised to perform damage control. They knew that the author was no Johnson fan. As Manchester himself later confessed, J.F.K.'s successor reminded him of “somebody in a Grade D movie on the late show.”
When Johnson heard about Manchester’s take on his deer hunt with Kennedy, he was outraged. “Forcing that poor man to go hunting?” L.B.J. told his aides, while taping himself on his secret White House recording system. “Hell, he not only killed one deer; he insisted on killing a second!” he said. “It took three hours and I finally gave up. I said, ‘Mr. President, we just can’t do it.'  
Johnson dismissed Manchester’s insistence that Kennedy had been horrified about having to shoot a deer. “Poor little deer — he saw it in his eye and he just could not shoot it? Well, hell, he wasn’t within 250 yards from it,” he said. “He shot it and he jumped up and hoorahed and put it right on the fender of the car so he could kill another one.”
As for asking J.F.K. to display the deer’s head, Johnson observed that Kennedy had already installed in the Fish Room a large, taxidermized sailfish, which he had caught during his wedding trip to Acapulco.
With sarcasm, Johnson scoffed: “Even if we had made the tragic mistake of forcing this poor man to put up a deer head along with his fish — I do not know who forced him to put up the fish in the Fish Room that he caught on his honeymoon, but I damned sure didn’t force him to put up anything. It is just a manufactured lie.”
Noting that Manchester’s book also reported that his power had been severely limited as Kennedy’s subaltern, L.B.J. bitterly added, “I think it is the greatest desecration of his memory that an ‘impotent’ vice president could force this strong man to do a goddamned thing.”
One reason Johnson was so indignant about Manchester’s rendition of the deer hunt was that he knew that Kennedy’s assassination had jaundiced many Americans against hunting and guns, and he did not want to suffer unpopularity by association.
Just as he avoided returning to Dallas, scene of the assassination, until February 1968, a month before he announced that he would not face the voters for re-election that year, Johnson respected this cultural shift by winding down his old custom of prodding L.B.J. Ranch houseguests to go deer hunting with him.
(There is no evidence that his strong support for firearms regulation, an important force in moving Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968 — after the murders by gunfire of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy — grew out of anything but conviction.)
Let President Kennedy have his own last word. As it happened, not only did he talk to the first lady about his trip to the L.B.J. Ranch, but he also described it to a friend, Senator George Smathers, a Democrat from Florida.
In 1988, I asked Smathers (who died in 2007) what Kennedy had related to him about his experience deer hunting with L.B.J.
Smathers replied, “Kennedy told me, ‘That will never be a sport until they give the deer a gun.'  

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