This week, we recognized President Lyndon Johnson’s birthday by looking at his relationship with Senator Byrd.
Shortly after Byrd first entered the Senate in 1958, he became a close friend and protégé of Johnson. Their relationship carried over into Johnson’s vice-presidency. Byrd remained a loyal supporter to Johnson, providing him with an insider connection to the Senate. The two were so close, in fact, Johnson once said of Byrd, “he is like a son to me,” in a Veteran’s Day speech given in West Virginia.
When Johnson ascended to the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Byrd felt that he had a strong ally in the White House. Byrd biographer David Corbin provides various anecdotes about Senator Byrd’s visits to see Johnson, including one where Johnson spontaneously invited Byrd to the White House to watch football.
Senator Byrd was one of Johnson’s chief supporters during the first years of the war in Vietnam. Byrd would continue to back all of President Johnson’s decisions in Vietnam until the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, commonly referred to as the “Viet Cong,” launched the Tet Offensive. When it became clear that America was not faring as well in Vietnam as Johnson’s administration wanted the public to believe, Byrd began to question the war’s success and necessity.
Before Byrd began criticizing Johnson’s policies in Vietnam, the two clashed over another major issue: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson made it his goal to push for civil rights legislation during his time in office, and while Senator Byrd had voted for some civil rights bills in the past, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he questioned the constitutionality of the 1964 act and eventually filibustered the bill. Johnson attempted to change Byrd’s mind, but the senator refused to compromise.
In a telephone call between Byrd and Johnson in 1964, the President briefly brought up the civil rights bill before being shut down by Byrd and moving on to other topics.
Byrd told Johnson, “The only thing I won’t go along with, Mr. President, you and I have already discussed…that’s the civil rights bill.”
A transcript of the conversation highlights both Byrd’s stubbornness and the fondness the two men shared for each other, with Johnson ending the conversation, “God bless you and I love you and come see me.”
Despite their differences of opinion regarding the Civil Right Act and the Vietnam War, Byrd’s generally supported Johnson’s Great Society, especially the “War on Poverty” programs, which enabled Byrd to secure desperately needed financial aid for West Virginia’s citizens.
Byrd’s relationship with Johnson was among the best of those the Senator had with the eleven presidents he worked with. According to Corbin, Johnson left the White House in 1968 with these final words to Byrd, “I couldn’t leave Washington without a final warm farewell to a man who had been such a constant colleague and friend over the years.”
By Malorie Matos
David Corbin, The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S Presidents. 83.
David Corbin, The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S Presidents. 113.