“Right Hand Man”: The People Around the President

By Kaleena Fraga

In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.

Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.

Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.

grant and rawlins
Rawlins, left, and Grant, center

Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”

Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.

When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.

Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”

Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.

Harry S Truman

When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.

truman and ross
Truman, Ross, and Eisenhower

Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.

In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:

“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”

When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”

That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.

The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:

“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”

George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

lbj and jenkins
Jenkins (far left), LBJ, and Lady Bird

Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.”  By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.

So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.

The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”

Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.

“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”

Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post. 

(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)

Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”

                           

When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.

Anthony Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Reshaping the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

On February 5th, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that he would attempt to expand the Supreme Court bench. His announcement incited instant outrage–Roosevelt’s opponents accused him of trying to pack the court so that he could push through his New Deal policies. Roosevelt’s plan was radical—he sought to completely reshape the court—but the idea of changing the number of justices is not, and indeed, Congress has adjusted the size of the Supreme Court six times in American history.

Originally, the Judiciary Act of 1789 ruled that there would be six justices. But when Thomas Jefferson swept to power in a Democratic wave that also put his party in Congress, the lame-duck Federalist Congress voted to reduce the number of justices to five. When the next Congress was sworn in, they repealed this decision, keeping the court at six justices. In Jefferson’s second term, they added a seventh, affording Jefferson the opportunity to appoint someone to the bench.

Thirty years later the size of the court changed again. Congress increased the court to nine justices, which gave Andrew Jackson the opportunity to hand-pick the two additions to the Supreme Court.

Change came again in the 1860s. This was a a turbulent time for the nation, and the Supreme Court. In the midst of the Civil War the court expanded yet again to an all-time high of ten justices–this time to protect an anti-slavery/pro-Union majority. But when Andrew Johnson became president following Lincoln’s assassination, the Republican Congress reduced the size of the court to protect it from a Democratic president. The court shrank from ten justices to seven. Congress effectively removed Johnson’s ability to appoint any justices. Then when Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1868 after Johnson left office, Congress voted to expand the court to nine justices. For many people in 1937 when Roosevelt made his pronouncement, nine justices felt like a norm—like an unchangeable fact of the judicial system.

Roosevelt’s plan, however, was not as simple as expanding the court. He wanted to enforce rules to make justices retire at 70, and, if they refused, give himself the power to appoint associate justices who could vote in their stead. This would effectively give him the power to sculpt the court, and to ensure the legality of his New Deal legislation.

FDR had had a productive first term, and had won reelection by a stunning margin. (He had won the largest popular vote margin in American history, and the best electoral vote margin since James Monroe ran unopposed). But the justices on the Supreme Court had publicly expressed opposition to Roosevelt’s policies. Because six of the nine were over 70, Roosevelt’s plan would boot them off the bench. His argument was that they had grown too old to do their work, and that they had fallen behind. A lifetime term, Roosevelt said, “was not intended to create a static judiciary. A constant and systematic addition of younger blood will vitalize the courts.”

But Roosevelt’s statement that the Court was behind on its work wasn’t true. His plan was met with roaring opposition as letters poured in from around the country. Even his vice president, John Nance Gardner, expressed displeasure as the plan was read aloud in Congress, holding his nose and making a thumbs-down gesture. In the Senate, Roosevelt could only gather 20 votes for his plan.

Roosevelt wasn’t able to make any changes to the Supreme Court. Yet, perhaps because of his maneuvering, he convinced one justice, Owen Roberts, to switch his vote to support many New Deal policies.

Given the outrage at the time of Roosevelt’s proposal, and it’s ultimate failure, it’s no wonder that the idea of changing the composition of the court is often met with distrust and derision. But there is nothing in the Constitution that says the Supreme Court has to stay at nine justices, and, indeed, it has fluctuated between six and ten throughout American history. Perhaps Roosevelt could have succeeded if he had merely attempted to expand the Court as Congress did under Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant. 

Today, with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s swing vote, the idea of changing the composition of the court has begun to gain traction among Democrats. As many liberals look down the barrel of thirty or forty years of conservative Supreme Court decisions, expanding the court to allow the appointment of more liberal justices could be the remedy they are seeking. 

 

The Ambassador Hotel: June 5th, 1968

By Kaleena Fraga

“What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together.

“We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

These were the last words Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of jubilant supporters after he won the California primary during his run for president in 1968. He and his team disappeared into the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles–minutes later, Kennedy was shot.

President Johnson, no fan of Bobby Kennedy, spoke to the nation following Kennedy’s death. Johnson said that Kennedy, “affirmed this country–affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all…Our public life is diminished by his loss.”

Today history is rife with what-if questions surrounding Bobby Kennedy. What if he had lived, and became president instead of Richard Nixon in 1968? Friends and family of Kennedy have recently thrown the resolution of his assassination into doubt. Although perhaps not as widely disputed as his brother Jack’s death, Bobby Kennedy’s son and his close friend and campaign aide, Paul Schrade, have both pointed to flaws in the case.

Kennedy’s assassination marked another bloody event in a year that had already seen student protests, climbing casualties in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to the American people, Johnson noted: “in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the lives of others, violence may bring down the very best among us. A nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to contain it to minor outbursts.”