Q&A with Michael Beschloss: Tapes provide record of Johnson’s Vietnam dilemma

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
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When the White House’s elaborate taping system was revealed during Watergate, the immediate benefit was to enemies of Richard Nixon. The long-term beneficiaries, however, have proved to be presidential historians. Michael Beschloss’ new book, Reaching for Glory, is the second part of his trilogy examining the secret tapes President Lyndon Johnson made in the Oval Office. The book, which covers 1964 and 1965, outlines Johnson’s relationship with the Kennedys, his relationship with Congress, and his spells of depression. But it is Johnson’s newly revealed thoughts on the war in Vietnam that have gotten the most attention. Dr. Beschloss sat down with Dallas Morning News staff writer Joshua Benton and members of the newspaper’s editorial board during a recent stop in Dallas. Here are excerpts from their discussion:

QUESTION: What surprised you most listening to these tapes?

ANSWER: The main thing that surprised me was that Johnson said in private that he didn’t feel we could win the war. This was at the same time he was making the decision to escalate. The first thing I thought at the time was: What do you say to a veteran who went to Vietnam, or a veteran’s family, when the president has these secret doubts? The other side of these doubts is that I think humanly, it speaks well for him that he was so anguished about the war. A lot of people who hated Johnson in the anti-war movement thought he was an icy figure with no pangs of conscience. The fact is he knew, probably more clearly than anyone else, what kind of problems he was putting the country through. It’s chilling to listen to these tapes and hear Johnson say he’s scared to death, that he feels chained down, that he doesn’t believe we can win the war. At one point, he says, “I feel as if I’m in a plane crashing and I don’t have a parachute.” It’s horrifying, because we like to think our presidents have freedom of action.

QUESTION: If Johnson knew the war might be unwinnable, why didn’t he pivot and say, “This isn’t our war”?

ANSWER: He could have done it, but he would have paid a price. If you listen to Johnson on these tapes, talking about the war, he foresaw the problems more clearly than anyone. He said you can’t fight a war if you’re divided at home. The Senate and the House will walk away from it, the campuses will go up in flame. He listens to his friend Richard Russell saying it could take 10 years, 50,000 men could die, and we still might not win – which was exactly right, as it turned out. And Johnson agreed with all this. My point is, if that’s what a president thinks, he should level with the American people. That’s the way democracy works. He could have gone to the American people and said, “I think Vietnam is important and we should defend it to win the Cold War. Yet you should know the costs could be very high. You the American people should choose.” If he had presented it that way, there’s a possibility people would have said, “Maybe this isn’t our fight.” That’s how the system is supposed to work. It didn’t work this time because Johnson didn’t come out and say what he believed.

QUESTION: Would another president in the same situation have done differently?

ANSWER: It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have been president in 1965 doing much else. It’s only speculative, but I think if John Kennedy had been president in 1965, there’s a very good chance he would have done roughly what Johnson did. He might have been more open about it, but Kennedy was, like Johnson, very concerned about being labeled as soft on communism. Both men had wanted to advance a big domestic agenda. Johnson saw no way out. He thought it was just a given that you had to defend Vietnam. And he had people like Robert Kennedy saying, “My brother made a commitment to Vietnam and you’d better keep it or we’ll go after you” – ironically enough, considering what happened later on.

At the same time, he wanted to save his position in Congress to get these great things through, like Medicare and voting rights. Johnson, whose entire background was in Congress, had an instinct that said, “Let me find a way to get through this.” For Johnson, that meant you say the war is going to be won, and you keep the response to the war at bay long enough to get your domestic agenda accepted, which is what he really cared about. The irony is that this is the year he thought he would become the equal of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. And to a great degree he deserved to, with his domestic accomplishments. Instead, as I think he was very much aware, he was committing political suicide.

QUESTION: Did Johnson rely too much on his foreign policy advisers because of his lack of confidence in that area?

ANSWER: Absolutely. John Connally said, when Johnson took office, the first thing to do is fire the Kennedy people. Not because they’re bad people, but because you need to have people whose loyalty you could be absolutely certain of. He knew how suspicious Johnson could be. You hear on the tapes, when Johnson is talking to his own aides on domestic policy, he’s in command, he knows what to take with a grain of salt. When someone’s trying to B.S. him, he knows what to believe and what not to. But with the foreign policy people, who are mainly Kennedy people, he doesn’t ask many questions, he’s very deferential, and that handicapped him.

QUESTION: Is there anything Johnson could have done that might have made getting out of Vietnam easier?

ANSWER: When you’re understanding these presidents, you have to understand what they were really facing. In retrospect, we know what a disaster it was. If you rewind the tape, the way I would do it would be to have Johnson probably call on Richard Russell, his old mentor, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from Georgia – he was Mr. Defense, and no one could ever call him weak. Get him to stand on the floor of the Senate and tell the American people what Russell was saying in private, that it might take 10 years and 50,000 men, and we still might not win. If Russell demanded that Johnson not bring us into a war that was stacked against us, it might have helped Johnson. But even if he had done that, remember there were many millions of people who voted for Barry Goldwater. They would have crucified Johnson for doing that. It wouldn’t have been easy. It would have been horrible, and it probably would have destroyed his domestic program. He would have had trouble passing a lot of the things he was able to get passed, because he would have spent all of his time defending himself on Vietnam.

QUESTION: Will we have the same sort of historical record of future administrations as we did of Johnson’s?

ANSWER: When George W. Bush took office, he was told to stop using e-mail, which he had used to use a lot, because people worried it’d be too transparent. Presidents are now told to keep as little on paper as possible. People are self-censoring. It’s the ultimate cover-up. In 30 years, there will be no way to get into the mind of a president and learn about his decision making. I usually think it takes 30 or 40 years to get the proper perspective on a presidency. It takes a while to even know what are the right questions to ask. If you were writing about the Clinton presidency a few months ago, probably the biggest question to ask would be what role did he have in the remarkable economic growth America had during his terms in office. But now, the top question would probably be how well did he prepare the country for a major terrorist attack like the one we saw in September? When Herbert Hoover took office and the economy was still good, people might have asked similar economic questions about Calvin Coolidge. But when the stock market crashed, the question became what did he not do that might have averted the Depression? You need time to get perspective.

Dropout study paints worse picture than state; Criticized report shows just over half of DISD students graduate

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
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Barely half of all high school students in Dallas and Fort Worth schools graduate, according to a new study by a conservative think tank. That includes less than 40 percent of Latino students.

Those numbers are sharply different from the numbers reported by the Texas Education Agency, which says 75 percent of Dallas students graduate within four years, including 67 percent of Latinos. But Dallas officials acknowledge that state data may underestimate the size of the problem.

“[Superintendent Mike] Moses has said the dropout problem is probably a lot bigger than what any of the other figures report,” said Donald Claxton, Dallas district spokesman. “We know it’s a major problem, and we’re trying to do something about it.”

The study, from the Manhattan Institute, is an attempt to compare the dropout records of all 50 states and the country’s 50 largest school districts. Texas was 39th, and most of its biggest districts placed near the bottom in the study.

Calculating the size of a state’s or district’s dropout problem is a notoriously slippery task. There are more than a dozen different accepted ways to crunch dropout data, which can produce wildly varying results. And dropouts, by their nature, have removed themselves from the mainstream of American education, making tracking their whereabouts difficult.

The Manhattan Institute calculated graduation rates, a method attractive in its simplicity. The study examined the class of 1998 at two points – when the group was in eighth grade and when they should have graduated. If the two groups are the same size, the graduation rate would be 100 percent.

According to that method, the national graduation rate is 74 percent. Texas graduates 68 percent of its students: 59 percent of blacks, 56 percent of Latinos, and 76 percent of whites. Dallas was found to have a 52 percent graduation rate, and Fort Worth 53 percent.

It’s not unexpected for Texas to fall below the national average. Texas students are more likely to be poor, non-English-speaking, or Hispanic, all characteristics that have been linked to higher dropout rates.

The study found that Dallas graduated only 39 percent of its Latino students, compared with 60 percent of black students and 72 percent of white students.

But critics have long raised concerns about methods such as the one used in the study.

The study does not track individual students to see if they dropped out or simply transferred to a private school, for example. And high failure rates in a particular grade can skew the numbers. The study also did not count students who receive GEDs as graduates. State calculations do.

“There are differences in definitions,” said DeEtta Culbertson, TEA spokeswoman. “No single dropout rate provided by one group can provide all the information we need. But whether they say 8 percent or 50 percent, they all agree there are still too many students in Texas who do not complete high school.”

The Manhattan Institute’s numbers are only the latest attempt to get a handle on the size of Texas’ dropout problem. There are nearly as many estimates as there are groups willing to calculate them.

A slightly different attrition rate calculation is used by a San Antonio group, the Intercultural Development Research Association, which releases state and county dropout rates for Texas each year. Its latest figures, released last month, reported a 40 percent dropout rate in Texas.

A study conducted for The Dallas Morning News in May by the nonprofit group Just for the Kids found that about 20 percent of Texas students did not graduate within five years of entering high school.

A priest, a rabbi, and some ministers…: Clergy mix it up, theologically speaking, on longtime TV show

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
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One of the drawbacks of a life in ministry is that Sunday morning television – with all its political debates, spin doctoring, and ideological posing – is generally off-limits.

“I’m usually busy on Sundays,” jokes the Rev. Tom Plumbley, senior minister at First Christian Church in Fort Worth. “I don’t get much chance to watch the politicians argue.”

But for decades, religious leaders have been assembling in a Dallas studio to have their own version of Meet the Press or Face the Nation. Their show, The American Religious Town Hall Meeting, is one of the longest-running television programs of all time.

Its unique ecumenical ministry is also one of the few places where Americans can regularly see representatives of a half-dozen faith traditions debate the religious issues of the day.

“It’s just a bunch of preachers sitting around arguing about religion, and that’s really fun,” said Bishop Othal Lakey of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who, like Mr. Plumbley, is a panelist on the half-hour program.

“The format is almost identical to those political shows, and that’s what I like about it,” he said. “Religion is not the set thing we like to believe. It’s a fulcrum of activity. Religion does us a disservice when people think we’ve settled everything once and for all.”

The program, which debuted in 1952 and which has been based in Dallas since 1970, is seen on 300 stations across the country and transmitted over five satellites. Locally it airs at 6:30 a.m. Sunday on Channel 39.

It was founded in St. Paul, Minn., by Bishop A.A. Leiske, a Seventh-day Adventist minister who believed there was much to be gained from having an open discussion between faiths. The show usually features a Roman Catholic priest, a rabbi, and representatives of a variety of Protestant denominations.

“We believe there’s a lot we can learn from talking to each other,” said Pastor Robert Leiske, Bishop Leiske’s son and the show’s host. “It’s a great expression of our freedom in America to have these people openly discussing these topics on television.”

Their topics range from the deeply theological to politics, economics, and culture. The Town Hall will soon start a series on “America at War,” which will include shows on religion and patriotism, free speech, American Muslims, and racial/ethnic profiling. Recent shows have discussed issues as diverse as the
nature of Satan, free trade with China, Jewish-Christian relations, and the impact on faith of globalization.

“We’re not trying to proselytize anybody or save anybody,” said the Rev. Ray Flachmeier of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “We’re trying to give people an opportunity to think and reflect and grow.”

Some topics are more divisive than others. Mr. Plumbley said one “explosive” discussion drew heated responses from viewers.

Mr. Plumbley said most of the panel disagreed with his arguments supporting gays and lesbians’ full participation in the church.

“Pastor Leiske didn’t let me know about it at the time, but his wife told me later that some stations threatened to no longer carry the program because of the things I said on the air,” he said. “They didn’t want people saying those kinds of things on their station. That showed the kind of integrity he has in wanting to let people have their say.”

On the back wall of Pastor Leiske’s Buckner Boulevard office is a framed photograph of him meeting with Pope John Paul II – not something every non-Catholic clergy would display prominently.

“It is a bit unusual,” he said. “I’m a strong Protestant and a devout Seventh-day Adventist. But the Roman Catholic Church is a very important part of the world, and I sometimes feel that all of us are too suspicious of each other.”

That devotion to interfaith understanding is the basis for Pastor Leiske’s television show. Despite his strong beliefs, Pastor Leiske generally withholds his own point of view.

“Some of my brethren within the church have been upset over the years that I haven’t used this program as an opportunity to talk more about our faith,” he said. “But I work hard to make sure it’s not an Adventist ministry. That’s not what the show is for. If I were to get up and talk about Adventism, the interest would go away immediately.”

While the show does present a range of religious points of view, some panelists said it lacks diversity in other ways. All the regular panelists are male, all but Bishop Lakey are white, and most are at least 50 years old.

Pastor Leiske sometimes invites women and ethnic minorities to participate in specific shows. Imam Yusuf Kavakci of the Dallas Central Mosque will join the panel for shows related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example.

Pastor Leiske said he thinks that he has diversified the show’s guest lineup as much as he can.

“The panel can’t grow any bigger without it becoming very unwieldy,” he said.

Several panelists said the give and take of the program has affected the way they work with their own congregations.

“There’s usually a guy or two on the other side of the panel who disagree with me on most issues,” Mr. Plumbley said, mentioning Dr. Bert Beach, who represents the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the program. “So when I’m preparing a sermon, I always think, ‘How would Bert receive this?’ It helps me to think through my reasoning.”

Prentice Meador, senior minister at Prestoncrest Church of Christ, said the show’s interaction helps him minister to those with doubts about religion.

“I teach a ‘searchers’ class for unchurched people,” Dr. Meador said. “Those people are coming in to our church with caution, doubt, disbelief, questions. The work at I do on American Religious Town Hall helps me get over into the mind of someone who doesn’t believe in everything I do and say, ‘These are reasonable questions, and they deserve reasonable answers.’ ”

Appearing on the show has another side benefit for the panelists: It makes them into television stars. Admittedly, it’s a grade of stardom a few steps below Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts, but it’s stardom nonetheless. Panelists said they regularly get recognized when traveling as “that guy on TV.” Autograph requests aren’t uncommon.

“Last week, I was in Baldwin, Mississippi, for a funeral,” Bishop Lakey said. “My wife and I were sitting at dinner and this fellow came up to me and said, ‘Don’t I know you? Aren’t you on TV?’ He shook my hand and said how glad he was to meet me. He said he watches it religiously.”

It costs about $1 million a year to buy the airtime on stations across the country. But unlike many other religious programs, the Town Hall doesn’t ask viewers to send checks. Pastor Leiske and his staff run a chain of nursing homes and assisted-living centers, mostly in Texas, whose proceeds go toward funding their ministry.

Pastor Leiske, 70, plans to retire next year, when the program turns 50. Unlike his father, he has no family members interested in taking over his role. He’s looking for a successor.

His panelists hope he’ll be able to find someone to continue his father’s work.

“This is really a ’50s model of ecumenism,” Mr. Plumbley said. “Back in those days, people thought that if you could just get the different groups to talk to each other, you’d really accomplish something.”

What they’re accomplishing isn’t always easy to see, Pastor Leiske said.

“The goal, of course, is to be in a setting or society with the richness that each of us provides in a different way, and that in spite of that diversity we bury the things that divide us and emphasize the things that unite us,” he said. “It’s a very, very elusive thing.”