BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jeff Shesol, author of "Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and the Feud that Defined a Decade," if someone buys your book, what do they get?
Mr. JEFF SHESOL, AUTHOR, "MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY AND THE FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE": Well, they get a lot of action, actually. These two were in combat for the whole course of the 1960s over a whole variety of contentious issues. So they get that at first. And then I like to think that it goes a little deeper than that as well, in that I try to assess the impact that this very intense rivalry had on policy and politics in the 1960s.
LAMB: Because I've had so much trouble with it, what's the name Shesol?
Mr. SHESOL: Shesol--it is a Russian-Jewish name, and the family has never been quite sure that it is actually the name that existed across the sea. My great-grandfather insisted, until his dying day, that, indeed, it was. But there are no other Shesols that we know of in the United States, other than our immediate family.
LAMB: All right. How do you get people past the obvious difficulty of knowing how to pronounce it? Do you have any...
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I usually suggest that it sounds like vessel, which helps a little bit. But it's the S-H and the S together that throw people a little bit.
LAMB: When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1964, how old were you?
Mr. SHESOL: I was born in August '69. So I was not old at all.
LAMB: Did you ever see Lyndon Johnson?
Mr. SHESOL: Never saw Lyndon Johnson. I have--I wish that I had. I wish that I had memories of Lyndon Johnson. Some of my contemporaries claim to remember Watergate. I remember the fact that Richard Nixon was president, but that's about as early as my political consciousness goes back.
LAMB: Here's a picture of the two of them. When was this taken?
Mr. SHESOL: The picture on top was taken during the 1960 Democratic Convention, July 1960, a rare moment of relative calm between the two of them because it was a very turbulent couple of days.
LAMB: Why was it turbulent?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, Johnson had arrived at the convention having not taken the Kennedys seriously at all as a political threat, until the very end when it was clear that John Kennedy had run away with the primaries and was about to win himself a first-ballot victory. Johnson had bitterly attacked not just John Kennedy but the whole Kennedy family. He called Joe Sr. an `appeaser,' a reference to his work as ambassador to Great Britain during the early part of the Second World War. Johnson actually said to a group of delegates at that convention, `I never thought Hitler was right.' And these are the kind of comments that just sort of burned in Robert Kennedy. John Kennedy shrugged them off, but Robert Kennedy was a more intense individual.
One Boston politician said that John--that Jack Kennedy was `the first Irish Brahman and Robert Kennedy was the last Irish puritan.' And certainly they responded to political mudslinging in that way. And so it got off on a very bad foot. And then the issue of the vice presidency arose and threw the relationship into turmoil, from which it never recovered.
LAMB: You create a scene during the convention, the back and forth, about whether or not John Kennedy was going to choose Lyndon Johnson as the vice president. Expound on that.
Mr. SHESOL: Well, John Kennedy was ambivalent, and so was Lyndon Johnson, about Johnson taking a second seat on the ticket. Johnson, obviously, wanted the first seat. That was not going to happen. But he had been sending some signals to John Kennedy through some political intermediaries, people like Tip O'Neill and Hale Boggs and some of the big power brokers on Capitol Hill, telling Kennedy that maybe Johnson wanted it after all, which was a shock to Kennedy.
Johnson had been the most important--or had been the most powerful majority leader in the history of the US Senate in the 1950s. Some even said he was the most powerful man in the United States. The Eisenhower presidency was not a particularly activist presidency, and some thought it was actually Johnson and Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House, who were driving events. So few believed that Johnson would actually willingly accept such a powerless role as vice president. But he was tiring of the job of majority leader. The Democrats were no longer as easy to control. He was worried about his health. And he thought maybe the vice presidency might be an acceptable role.
John Kennedy saw the obvious strength that Johnson added to the ticket in Texas, in the South, and so he went to the Johnson suite and made a very tentative offer, just to see what Johnson was thinking, whether this could really be the case. And Johnson saw this tentative offer. John Kennedy later described it as a `holding the offer out to here, and Johnson reached and grabbed it.' And Johnson took this offer, said that he'd be happy to be vice president and John Kennedy was shocked and sent reeling back up into the Kennedy suite. And he told his brother, and Bobby said, `Oh, my God, I--I can't believe he took it.'
And the two of them spent the next several hours debating whether or not they could possibly live with Johnson on the ticket, decided they couldn't and JFK sent Bobby down to talk him off the ticket. And that is when the relationship was dealt its final blow, really, that early on. It never recovered from Robert Kennedy's visit down to the Johnson suite when he tried to talk LBJ off the ticket.
LAMB: What role did The Washington Post publisher, Phil Graham, have in all this?
Mr. SHESOL: Phil Graham was a close associate of both Johnson and Robert Kennedy, and he played the role of an intermediary through all of this, going back and forth tirelessly, along with his sidekick Joe Alsop, the great columnist. And the two of them had a decent enough relationship with both Johnson and John Kennedy that they were able to play that role of seemingly honest broker. And they were both very interested in trying to force this alliance between Johnson and John Kennedy because they thought it was the only way the Democrats would win in November.
LAMB: `O'Donnell was almost hysterical. Turning on Bobby, O'Donnell denounced the choice of Johnson as a disaster, told JFK it was the worst mistake he ever made. "In your first move after the nomination, you go against all the people who've supported you," he said. O'Donnell, JFK's liaison to labor, was so furious'--this is in quotes--`"I could hardly talk. I thought of the promises we'd made to the labor leaders and the civil rights groups. I felt that we had been double-crossed."' Where did you get that quote?
Mr. SHESOL: I...
LAMB: And who--who was O'Donnell?
Mr. SHESOL: Kenneth O'Donnell was John Kennedy's top political aide. He helped to run the 1960 campaign. That's a picture of him there during that campaign. And he was Kennedy's top political lieutenant through his years in the White House. And he was a Kennedy bitter-ender. He loved John Kennedy. He was utterly devoted to him. He despised Lyndon Johnson and the sort of politics that he represented. And he was also, as you suggested, John Kennedy's link, among others, to labor--organized labor and the liberals in the party. Kennedy was not seen as a liberal, did not feel himself to be a liberal, like Hubert Humphrey or someone like that.
And labor was very dubious about John Kennedy to begin with because he had supported labor reform in the 1950s and Johnson had as well. And so there was the feeling that putting the two of them together on the ticket rather than combining, say, John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, who was adored by organized labor, that this would be the death knell to the Democratic ticket.
And so there was a lot of outrage, and a lot of it also had to do with simply a general disdain for Lyndon Johnson's personality and his lack of--alleged lack of cultural grace and so forth, all the things that would emerge during the Kennedy presidency as be--being bones of contention between the Kennedy circle and LBJ.
LAMB: How did you get the quote?
Mr. SHESOL: The quote came from oral histories that were conducted by the Johnson Library. That one in particular--even though O'Donnell was a Kennedy man, that one was conducted by the Johnson Library in about 1969--the late '60s, just after the Johnson administration. The oral history project down there interviewed just about anybody who had anything to do with the Johnson presidency, and it's an incredible resource.
LAMB: How many oral histories did you listen to?
Mr. SHESOL: I listened to--oh, actually, I should say that rather than listening to them, I read them. They've all been transcribed and transcribed very reliably. And so I read through the transcripts of somewhere in the order of about 200 oral history interviews, between the Johnson Library and the Kennedy Library.
LAMB: You didn't listen to any of them?
Mr. SHESOL: I didn't listen to them. They don't generally make the take--tapes accessible.
LAMB: So you couldn't hear their voices.
Mr. SHESOL: No, I couldn't hear their voices, which is why the Johnson tapes that have emerged over the past four years have been so exciting, to me in particular because I've been able to hear actual conversations between Johnson and Kennedy that were not reflections; they were conversations that took place in real time. And th...
LAMB: You mean even though you were doing this, they wouldn't let you listen to the tapes so you could get a sense of what they sounded like?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, you know, I didn't ask, to be honest with you, because I had heard these individuals in interviews, I'd seen them in video, in documentaries and so forth. And so I had a sense of the individuals and who they were. And many of them, actually, I conducted my own personal interviews with. O'Donnell has since passed away, but I interviewed many, many other participants: men who were on the Kennedy White House staff or Robert Kennedy's Senate staff or Johnson's White House staff or even Cabinet.
LAMB: Of all the interviews you did, give us a couple that have meant the most in putting this book together.
Mr. SHESOL: I think two of the most helpful interviews really were with Kennedy's legislative assistants, Adam Wolinsky and Peter Edelman. Peter Edelman is well known, I think, not only because of his wife Marian Wright Edelman, but certainly for the work he has himself done. He was a member of the Clinton subcabinet. He was a top official at Health and Human Services and resigned very publicly recently over the welfare reform bill that Clinton signed. So he's known in that sense. But the connection between Wolinsky and Edelman and Robert Kennedy is not as well known as the connection between Sorenson and Salinger and some of the big names of that era.
And so these are men, Edelman and Wolinsky, who have not written their memoirs, but they have lots to tell. They worked with Robert Kennedy each and every day on all of the important issues. All of the important speeches tended to be written by Wolinsky and others during his Senate career. And so nobody knew the public--or --the private side of Robert Kennedy, the political figure, as well as those two individuals. And they were just a fount of information which was very helpful to me in putting that together.
LAMB: How about on the Johnson side?
Mr. SHESOL: On the Johnson side, there were a number of people. And one thing I should say at the outset is that on both sides of this divide, people were very forthcoming with their stories, not just the same stories that they spun in their memoirs, but they were willing to take it a step further as I asked the questions that seemed to be raised by their memoirs and by their oral histories. People were very forthcoming, and I'm very thankful for that because it really adds a lot to the historical record.
There were a couple of individuals who were very helpful. Harry McPherson was one. He was a top aide to Lyndon Johnson through-- beginning and during his Senate career and lasting through most of his years at the White House. And he was very helpful to me. And...
LAMB: Where is he in this picture?
Mr. SHESOL: He is on the left of that picture. He's speaking with Joseph Califono, who's in the background, who was Johnson's chief domestic aide, and Bill Moyers on the right, who is obviously well known today. But, of course, those of us too young to have lived through the era, we don't remember that he was Johnson's press secretary and in many ways his top assistant through those years. He was like a son to Johnson in many ways.
LAMB: When did you start this book?
Mr. SHESOL: I began this book, actually, as my senior honors thesis in college.
Mr. SHESOL: At Brown University. And, actually, the genesis of the book goes back even further to my freshman year when a book of interviews with Robert Kennedy was released. It's a book called "RFK In His Own Words," and it's a collection of previously sealed oral-history interviews that had just been opened up to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his death in 1988. I picked it up as a vacation read; that's my idea of a vacation read. And I was utterly struck by the language Kennedy uses to describe LBJ. He describes him as an animal, in many ways: `mean, bitter, vicious.' And as someone who was weaned on the standard survey histories of the period, this was a shock to me. I had no memory of this. I had no memory of the era, in fact.
And it stuck with me. And when I was a--approaching my senior year and I was ready to settle on a thesis topic in the history department, I remembered this. And I dug a little deeper to see whether there was, indeed, a story there. And I found that there was a great story to be told there, not just one of petty slights on both sides, not just one of nasty words being thrown back and forth, but one of real issues and issues that had a real impact on the 1960s.
LAMB: Now was this the undergraduate thesis?
Mr. SHESOL: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: How much--how big was it? H...
Mr. SHESOL: It was big as undergraduate theses go; it was about 75,000 words. It was somewhere around 150 pages, which was on the long side for the history department. But...
LAMB: What year?
Mr. SHESOL: This was--I graduated in '91.
LAMB: What kind of a grade did you get?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, they didn't give us letter grades, but I won a distinguished--I won distinguished honors for the thesis, so I was very pleased about that.
LAMB: When you were in college and your senior year, how far did you go? Did you travel to places to do this?
Mr. SHESOL: I traveled only to the Kennedy Library. I was in school, of course, in Providence, so it was an easy trip to make. The Johnson Library lends out oral histories by mail, which the Kennedy Library doesn't do, and that was very helpful to me. So I did a lot of that by mail. But it wasn't--I didn't quite have the resources at the time to go make a trip, unfortunately, to the Johnson Library. In writing the book, I spent quite a bit of time down at the Johnson Library, of course.
LAMB: And what other education do you have besides the Brown?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I spent--after I graduated in '91, I spent the next two years on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford doing a masters in British history--modern British history.
LAMB: And you reminded me that we met when we did that special on Oxford back at the beginning of the Clinton administration. You were there. We interviewed a bunch of Rhodes scholars that day. And when you were there, what was your career goals at that point?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I was actually very eager to get back into this. I had decided at the end of my senior year that I both wanted to continue my thesis project and develop it as a book, and I also wanted to develop my comic strip. I draw a syndicated political comic strip called "Thatch," and that runs seven days a week in about 150 papers. And in college it ran in The Brown Daily Herald, and I had signed a syndication deal for that toward the end of my senior year. So I knew that when I was--when I returned from Oxford, that I would begin both of these projects in earnest.
LAMB: You have, in the beginning at the introduction, a couple of lines I want to ask you about, if I can find it here. `The Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation generously funded my extended stay in Austin. The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston showed similar generosity by providing a Kennedy research grant.' Were you reluctant to take these grants from these libraries? Explain how you could do that and stay objective.
Mr. SHESOL: Well, each-- they do not exercise a heavy hand at all in the projects that are undertaken. One applies for these grants. You simply let them know what the project is about, what you hope to achieve at the Kennedy Library or the Johnson Library, and you basically flush the project out for them and give them your general conclusions. I did not tailor those conclusions to what I thought they wanted to hear because, really, what I'm trying to do here is to be as fair as possible to both sides, to both men, as somebody who didn't live through the era and doesn't have that sort of emotional investment in either of the characters. I've certainly developed one over the past few years, but I didn't live through it. I'm not a partisan on either side. And I hope--and I believe that that came across in my applications.
And so they don't exercise any sort of editorial control after that. Basically, what it is is a travel stipend. They put you up in a hotel so you can do whatever work you're going to do at the hotel--at the--at the libraries. They give you a little bit of money for photocopies and things like that. So that was very helpful to me as a first-time author with something less than an enormous advance. It was very helpful to me.
LAMB: Are the two sides still fighting for who was right and who was wrong?
Mr. SHESOL: They are, although, as you might guess, the emotions have been tempered a little bit by time. It is interesting and you do get a very different spin from both sides. The stories that they tell you sometimes contradict directly, and that was one of my great challenges in writing this book--was to try to sort through all that and try to get a sense of what the truth really was. In not all cases was I able to do that, but I try to be as up front about the two different accounts and let the reader decide for his or herself. But, yes, that was a consistent challenge for me.
LAMB: If Lyndon Johnson were here and Robert Kennedy were there, sitting next to us, what kind of questions would you want to ask them after all this time you've spent with them?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I would want to get at the heart of the conflict. What was it really about? Johnson says in his memoirs that it was a matter of chemistry. I think that only goes part of the way in explaining the intensity of this rivalry. He denies that there were any issues really at stake between the two of them, and I think that's certainly disingenuous. It's the kind of thing that a president writes in a president's memoirs. Robert Kennedy had spoken very frankly in those oral histories, I mentioned earlier.
But I would want to take it a little bit further. How much in--upon reflection had to do with Lyndon Johnson, and how much of it had to do with Johnson's policies? Can we separate those two things? It certainly was very hard at the time for Robert Kennedy to separate those things. And so that's something that I get out in the book; and then I have often wished I could ask the two men, not that you could be sure that you get a straight answer or that they even would know the answer. Sometimes these things are complicated in our own minds. Is it an honest difference on the issues, or is it a personal grudge? It's all blended together.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite among the two?
Mr. SHESOL: No, I don't. And I mean that honestly in that I am sympathetic, I think, toward both of them. I went into this project, I think, believing that Kennedy was in the right more often--more often than not. But what I came to understand was that it's quite a bit more complicated than that. And drawing clean lines between good and bad and right and wrong can be done in some cases, but not in most of them. And, again, that's what makes this so interesting, is that it's such a complex interweaving of ideas and ambitions and personal slights and pettiness and so forth. And so, no, I don't really come down on one side or another. And I went into it intending to be as even-handed as possible, and I hope that that's what I've achieved.
LAMB: You have quite a bit devoted to the assassination and what happened right after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Where was Lyndon Johnson on that November 22nd, 1963, date, and where was Bobby Kennedy?
Mr. SHESOL: Lyndon...
LAMB: And what was Bobby Kennedy's job then?
Mr. SHESOL: Lyndon Johnson was in the limousine behind the president's in the motorcade when the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza in Dallas. And a Secret Serviceman threw himself on top of Lyndon Johnson, and they all sped together toward the hospital. So Johnson was with the dying president from moment one and then spent much time sitting in Air Force One, on the plane--or sitting in Air Force One on the tarmac at Love Field in Dallas.
Robert Kennedy was at Hickory Hill and had received the news from J. Edgar Hoover in a rather insensitive phone call. Hoover was not a big fan of Robert Kennedy, who was attorney general during those years and that's particularly why he was not fond of Robert Kennedy. The two of them had overlapping jurisdictions, and Robert Kennedy was in some senses Hoover's political senior in that way. And Johnson placed a phone call to RFK, placed the phone call from Air Force One, reaching Robert Kennedy by the poolside at Hickory Hill where he was in utter state of shock, and asked Bobby, as attorney general and as the leader of the Kennedy family now that JFK was dead, whether it was appropriate or even constitutionally necessary for Johnson to be sworn in on Air Force One before it left the ground.
Robert Kennedy was not in a state to really assess these con--these constitutional matters. He passed it on to his assistant, Nick Katzenbach, who said, `Well, the president can do whatever the president wants to do.' And Johnson then called for a district judge to be brought to the plane, and the plane sat and waited and waited and waited for Judge Sarah Hughes to arrive and give the oath.
People were getting very, very upset. And Johnson told them all, `Well, it's all right. Bobby says that I have to be sworn in now.' And this was a bitter bone of contention between them in the days afterwards. He had gotten Bobby's professional advice and had then twisted it a bit in order to sort of calm very frayed nerves on the plane and said, `This was actually Bobby Kennedy's idea, not mine.' And that, as I said, was a great cause of bitterness later.
LAMB: And where do you get the information about that, for instance?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, there are a number--the most valuable resource in that regard is a book called the "Death of a President" written by William Manchester. It's a book that's fraught with all sorts of difficulties that I actually get into in this book because that book itself became a matter of great contentiousness between Johnson and Robert Kennedy when that book came out in 1967. Johnson saw it as an attempt to undermine the Johnson presidency right in time for the 1960 president--'68 presidential race.
But, nonetheless, Manchester did some incredible research and interviewed Jacqueline Kennedy, among many others. There are many oral history accounts of--of those hours. I interviewed some of the individuals who were present myself. I interviewed Jack Valenti, for example, who was there on the plane and was witness to the events there. So I've tried to weave all of these different accounts, again some of which conflict. I've tried to weave them together and try to get at what really happened there.
LAMB: When they flew back to Washington on that November 22nd, what did President Johnson do that made Bobby Kennedy so mad regarding the Oval Office?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, as soon as he-- there were some matters on the plane and Johnson's allegedly rough treatment of Jacqueline Kennedy, which is really unfounded in truth, as I was able to determine. And Jacqueline Kennedy never argued that it had actually happened that way. There were matters that occurred on the plane on the way, and then as soon as Johnson got to Washington, wanted to move into the Oval Office immediately--had been advised, in fairness, by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that he really needed to move in right away and assume the reins of the presidency so that there was no question in the world, particularly in the Communist world, that there was order in the United States and continuity.
So Johnson wanted to move into the Oval Office and very callously told John Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, to get her stuff together by 9:30 and--so his girls could come in. That's the way he put it. Robert Kennedy walked into the Oval Office to--moments later to get some of his brother's belongings out of the desk, found Evelyn Lincoln weeping and was just enraged at Johnson. He just couldn't believe that Johnson could be so callous.
He stormed into the Oval Office and attacked Johnson for it. Johnson blithely sort of waved his hand and gave Evelyn Lincoln another hour to get her things together. So things got off to a very bad foot between the two of them--on a very bad foot.
LAMB: Page fif--354, you talk about William Manchester and you say that, `The Kennedys imposed on their historian for hire, William Manchester, a mildly accomplished writer. It was a 1961'--well, I'm--I've jumped ahead here. Let me just ask you about that controversy. Who is William Manchester?
Mr. SHESOL: William Manchester was both an historian and a novelist; is still living--and had written a book about--a very, very flattering book about President Kennedy while President Kennedy was alive that had actually been cleared through the White House press office and given the stamp of approval. So his objectivity as a reporter was really in doubt from the very beginning, which is exactly what the Kennedys wanted. They were very afraid, John--or, I'm sorry, Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, that there would be, as we've since seen, a glut of books about the Kennedy assassination. And they wanted one definitive volume about the events of November 22nd and the surrounding days that would be written and would be written so decisively that it would scare everybody off; that no one else would even want to get into the subject because it'd been covered so thoroughly.
So they signed on William Manchester because they trusted him and they knew that he would do nothing to discredit the family and so forth. And Manchester actually signed a contract that said that he would not publish the book until hid--it had been approved by both Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. There's a writer throwing away his integrity in many senses. And so when the book--when the galleys of the book were circulated in late 1966, the readers, men like Arthur Schlesinger, were just shocked at the portrayal. Even Kennedy men, like Schlesinger, were shocked at the portrayal of Johnson. He came across horribly. He came across as a boorish, insensitive, callous man who had treated Jackie Kennedy with utter disregard and treated all the Kennedys with contempt during those days; that he had just grabbed for power.
It was a terrible portrait of LBJ and an inaccurate portrait of LBJ. Those who were on the plane, reporters and sort of neutral observers, said that Johnson acted with dignity and with restraint. And that is certainly what most of the accounts bear out.
LAMB: There's one little note here: that the William Manchester editor is a man named Evan Thomas with--at that point with Harper & Row, the father of the Evan Thomas with Newsweek magazine. What role did he play in all this?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, Evan Thomas was the editor at Harper & Row of this Manchester book. And he, too, was concerned that it was too antagonistic to Johnson; that it would be seen as a political bombshell delivered by the Kennedys since this was, after all, their house writer delivered by the Kennedys at Johnson. And he urged Manchester, as did a lot of others, to tone down the anti-Johnson parts, which Manchester did. But it was still an incendiary book. It made Johnson look utterly chavvy at the very best.
And when excerpts of it began to be run in Look magazine in--at the end of 1966, it was, indeed, a political bombshell and Johnson was being forced to respond--or his White House was being forced to respond to all these horrible charges. And the telephone tapes reveal exactly how upset Johnson was about this whole thing and traced it back to RFK.
LAMB: There are two other names that popped up in the media years later: Ed Guthman and John Siegenthaler--John Siegenthaler, the former publisher of USA Today.
Mr. SHESOL: Yeah.
LAMB: What role did they play in that whole time period?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, the two of them were Kennedy men from the Justice Department. They had worked--they were Bobby Kennedy men. Guthman had been--they had both worked in the political office in the Justice Department, so they were on Bobby Kennedy's personal staff. They weren't lawyers at the department. And the two of them, because they had a lot of familiarity with the publishing world, the world of journalism, acted as intermediaries between the Kennedy family and Harper & Row because the Kennedy family, interestingly, had its own problems with the Manchester book because they thought that the portrait of Johnson made them look bad. And, also, Jacqueline Kennedy had told Manchester a lot of things in confidence in the first couple of days or weeks after the assassination. Actually, she had told these things to Theodore White, the historian, in the privacy of Hyannis Port, and White had been given permission by her to pass those notes along to Manchester. She, on second thought, wasn't so happy that these things were actually in the text, and so they sued Manchester to stop publication of the book. So you had Johnson upset and the Kennedys upset, but they were also upset at one another.
LAMB: Did you try to get ahold of William Manchester?
Mr. SHESOL: William Manchester was not easy for me to reach on this, and there's been quite a bit written about the conflict, so I felt that I was on pretty stable ground. Really, what interested me most about the whole thing was not so much William Manchester's perspective on it, but Lyndon Johnson's perspective on it. And that's something that we've really just learned over the past few years with the release of these Johnson tapes.
LAMB: Who is Bobby Baker?
Mr. SHESOL: Bobby Baker was a Johnson political lieutenant. He was secretary of the Senate. That was his official title in the 1950s. But everybody referred to him as either `the 101st senator,' because he was that powerful; he was very tight with Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kerr and the other leaders of the Senate--Richard Russell--he was so powerful that he was almost like an extra senator. They also called him `little Lyndon Johnson.' He was so tight with LBJ, as I suggested.
And his significance in all this is that towards the end of the Kennedy administration, in the last year or so of Kennedy's life--or the last--actually, the last nine months or so of Kennedy's life, Baker was caught up in a financial scandal. He had been taking favors and bribes and had been buying hotels, and there were all sorts of conflicts of interest that he had hidden pretty well in the 1950s. But the whole edifice began to crumble by about 1963.
And he had given some gifts to LBJ; he had given a gift of a stereo to LBJ, he had helped --he had brokered an insurance policy and taken a commission on it and so forth. And so there was some real concern that this was going to bring down LBJ as vice president and that he was gonna be dropped from the ticket. Of course, the center of the investigation was the Justice Department under Robert Kennedy, and Johnson was convinced that Robert Kennedy was using this issue to force Johnson off the ticket, as he had tried to before.
LAMB: Let me just jump in and--because it gets confusing about time. A--go back to November of 1963. And you write here that, `The attorney general had concluded that Johnson, if not lily white, was innocent of any crime. And though Kennedy knew Baker to be guilty of everything from sketchy loans to shady investments, Kennedy hardly seemed eager to destroy Johnson's protege.'
Bobby Kennedy was attorney general, Lyndon Johnson was president--no, he wasn't.
Mr. SHESOL: Vice president.
LAMB: He was vice president. John F. Kennedy was president. But here's what I want to ask you about--and I just kinda want to relate it to today: If the attorney general made this call to someone like Bobby Baker now and said, `I want you to know'-- this is Bobby Kennedy saying this to Bobby Baker, who was at that time secretary of the Senate, still?
Mr. SHESOL: I--no, he had resigned by that point.
LAMB: He had resigned.
Mr. SHESOL: Yes.
LAMB: He wasn't in the Senate, OK.
Mr. SHESOL: That's right.
LAMB: He said, `I want you to know,' Bobby Kennedy told him, `that we have nothing of any consequence about you in our files except for newspaper clippings which I'm certain you've read. My brother and I extend our sympathies to you,' Kennedy continued, `I know that you'll come through this.'
What would happen today if Janet Reno called somebody in a similar position and said the same thing? I you know, I'm certain that--`My brother and I extend our sympathies to you.'
Mr. SHESOL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: `I know you will come through this.'
Mr. SHESOL: I think it's pretty clear that she would be impeached for something like that today. The standards were a little bit different back then and it was...
LAMB: When did this come out?
Mr. SHESOL: This came out in Bobby Baker's memoirs, which were published in 1976.
LAMB: Do you trust those memoirs?
Mr. SHESOL: I do trust those memoirs. Bobby Baker is a little bit given to hyperbole, so I try to preface everything he says there in the book with an `according to Bobby Baker,' because some of it has to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt, which is why I don't rely on Bobby Baker. But I do think that it's a curious phone call, and, actually, Robert Kennedy himself makes reference to it in his oral history interviews and says that, you know, he called Bobby Baker just to wish him well, essentially. So th...
LAMB: And Bobby Baker went on to be indicted...
Mr. SHESOL: He did.
LAMB: ...and convicted.
Mr. SHESOL: And actually served time in prison, yes.
LAMB: So was-- what was that call all about then?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, what I argue --and this is my
interpretation--it's an utterly puzzling call and Bobby Baker didn't know what to make of it--but I think what may be argued is that it was a signal to Lyndon Johnson, who everybody knew at this point was up in arms about what he saw as a Bobby Kennedy-led conspiracy against him to cut him off the ticket. And so by calling Baker and offering a sort of friendly disclaimer to Baker, he knew--Robert Kennedy --understood that this would get right back to Lyndon Johnson and maybe could cool things down a little bit, which it did not, if that was the intention.
LAMB: Go on to the Vietnam War and what was that relationship--I don't know if you want to go back to the beginning--what was Bobby Kennedy's original feeling about the Vietnam War and what was Lyndon Johnson's?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, Robert Kennedy was uneasy about the conflict from the very beginning. It's widely believed that Robert Kennedy was gung ho about the war. He certainly was not particularly restrained during the Kennedy years and his enthusiasm for military action, particularly in Cuba. He was very eager to foment a counterrevolution in Cuba to bring down Castro. But he saw Vietnam as a similar test case for counterinsurgency, using the Green Berets to go in, as they put it at that time, `using knife thrusts, not tank blasts.' He did not foresee Vietnam as a battleground for a--massive Army units and a massive bombing campaign and so forth.
He thought that the political--the weak political structure of South Vietnam needed to be shored up by an American presence, but he did not foresee Americans leading that fight, and he was very uneasy about it from the very beginning. There's a conversation that I report here from the Johnson tapes, which I think is so important that I quote it verbatim. It's a conversation between Robert Kennedy and LBJ in May of 1964. Now this is several months before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And it is a full year before Johnson really beefs up American forces in Vietnam.
LAMB: I have some of it here. Is there any particular thing that you want me to read?
Mr. SHESOL: The very beginning of the conversation, I think, is the most...
LAMB: `Being quite frank about it, he told the president on May 28, "Based on my two meetings with the National Security Council"'--this is Bobby Kennedy speaking--`"I thought there was too much emphasis, really, on the military aspects of it. I would think that the war will never be won militarily. That's where it's gonna be won, really, is the political war. And the best talent, of course, is over at the Pentagon because you have Bob McNamara. But that same kinda talent really has to be applied to doing what needs to be done politically in that country and whether it's setting up an organization for each one of those countries politically."'
Mr. SHESOL: Exactly. The counties in the south of Vietnam is what he was referring to. He really did not see this as a struggle, as he says quite frankly there, quite boldly to the president, `We're not going to win this war militarily.' And Johnson, of course, agrees with him. Johnson does have a tendency to agree with whoever he's--whomever he's speaking to at the time. And I think he saw the wisdom of Kennedy's comments, but he also saw the wisdom of the others who said that there was no way to withdraw and there was no way to avoid a--a bigger military commitment.
But Robert Kennedy comes down very early on--not on the side of the doves or a unilateral withdrawal--nobody was talking about unilateral withdrawal at that point in time. Richard Russell talked a little bit about it, but it wasn't coming from the same place that the doves came from later in the 1960s. But he's casting serious dou--he's expressing serious doubts about a military course in Vietnam, and Johnson knows this. But later, as the disputes over Vietnam became more and more fractious between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, Johnson always argued, and so did Dean Rusk, and the others in that White House, that Robert Kennedy's opposition on Vietnam was just purely political, that he didn't really believe this stuff, and if Johnson were pulling out of Vietnam, Robert Kennedy would become a hawk and outflank him on the right. And a number of Johnson's men told me that.
George Reedy, one of Johnson's press secretaries, said to me that Kennedy cultivated the anti-war issue because it was anti-Johnson. And that's just a little too simple. I think there were doubts that went way back and he was not at all enthusiastic about the big troop buildup in July of 1965.
LAMB: Other names--and some of them are still well-known today-- here's a picture of a man that's married to Doris Kearnes Goodwin, who's been on this show, and we hear--see a lot about her, but we've seen him also recently. Who is this?
Mr. SHESOL: That's Richard Goodwin or Dick Goodwin, and he had been a top adviser to JFK. And Johnson saw Goodwin's value in that White House and wanted to keep him around. He promised him that he would make Goodwin his own personal Ted Sorenson, that Goodwin would write all the important speeches, be in on all the top decisions about domestic policy. And, in fact, that's what he did for a while. It's Goodwin who coined the term, `The Great Society.' Goodwin wrote the Great Society speech. He wrote the We Shall Overcome speech. He wrote many of the most important speeches and helped design many of the most important policies of those early days.
But he, too, began to back--he was more of a Kennedy man, in truth, than--than a Johnson man. And he began to back away from Lyndon Johnson. He and Bill Moyers, together, began to feel that Johnson was, in fact, clinically paranoid. They actually flipped through psychiatry text books and consulted, on the sly, a psychiatrist, to get a sense of what the president's mental state really was. And they decided that it was clinical paranoia. Now I'm not a psychiatrist and I can't confirm that, but that is what the president's men, themselves, believed.
And as Goodwin backed away, Johnson sensed it and believed that he, like Bill Moyers and so many others, were, as Johnson put it, `In bed with the Kennedys.' And Moyers eventually left that White House and went to work for Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
LAMB: How long did Dick Goodwin work for Lyndon Johnson?
Mr. SHESOL: He stuck around into 1966, actually.
LAMB: And then how did Doris Kearnes and Dick Goodwin get together? And you quote Doris Kearnes from her book...
Mr. SHESOL: I do.
LAMB: ...which was what?
Mr. SHESOL: Her book is called "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream," It was published in the mid-'70s--'76, I believe--and it's a very, very valuable resource. She spent much of Johnson's last few years with him. She spent a year--a full year or two at the ranch. She had been a White House fellow in the Johnson White House in its last year, I believe, and had gotten to know Johnson a little bit there, but then took on this project and actually moved down into the ranch and spent all this time with him. They became very emotionally intimate and Johnson spun tales with her for hours upon end, and she recorded all of them and they wound up in her book. And--now some have raised the question as to whether Johnson was spinning her and spinning history, and you can see that in--in some of these long monologues. But at the same time, it is a very valuable indication of the president's mind-set.
LAMB: You also have a picture--we showed one earlier of Bill Moyers--but here's another one of Bill Moyers standing with Lyndon Johnson. What do you see in that picture?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, the--Johnson is giving Moyers `the treatment' in that picture. It was well-known in the 1950s when Johnson was the majority leader as `the Johnson treatment.' And he would use his huge size and his large hands to basically bend people backwards. He would get into their faces and cow them physically, and you can see him moving in on Moyers like that. It's a very intimidating thing and, certainly, many were intimidated by it through the '50s and --and '60s.
LAMB: What did you learn about Bill Moyers?
Mr. SHESOL: I learned that Bill Moyers was in a very difficult place himself, like Dick Goodwin and a number of others. But Moyers is unique in terms of this relationship in that he was one of the few individuals--there were only a couple of others, Robert McNamara is the one other that comes to mind--who were able to simultaneously, for a time, maintain the trust of both Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It was an almost impossible divide to straddle and one wonders how Moyers did that. And that's something that I look into the book. I think-- one of Johnson's men put it very aptly. He said that Moyers thought that Johnson was his past and his present--Johnson had weaned him politically--and he was, as I said, a man of many hats in the Johnson White House, and he was much, much more than a press secretary.
LAMB: Did you talk to --Bill Moyers?
Mr. SHESOL: I did not talk to Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers tends not to speak about these subjects, and so--I received a very nice note from him after--after having written the book, but he did not want to speak about this.
LAMB: Who else would not talk to you?
Mr. SHESOL: Robert McNamara would not talk to me. And, again, I don't want to make too many suppositions about why these individuals wouldn't talk to me, but I do think that it is interesting that those individuals who were caught between Johnson and Kennedy--Moyers, McNamara, Sergeant Shriver--would not speak to me. Just about everybody else was perfectly eager to speak to me and were very forthcoming. But those three were--in particular, were in a very difficult position and were very conflicted, I think, about their relationships with each man and knew that they were distrusted by Johnson for their relationship with Robert Kennedy.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
Mr. SHESOL: The picture--the full picture was taken at a stump speech in 1966. Johnson was campaigning for a fellow Democrat in New York and Kennedy is listening. And I think the expression on his face says it all. He is enduring that speech. He is certainly not enjoying it. And he's making no pretense about what he thinks about Lyndon Johnson. I think it's the most interesting photo ever taken of the two men in the same frame.
LAMB: Where'd you find it?
Mr. SHESOL: I found that in Life magazine. It's a William Eppridge photo. And it's an absolutely wonderful one. I might have put it on the cover of the book if--if Johnson hadn't been out of focus. The subject, really, of that photo is RFK and his emotions.
LAMB: Did you make the decision to put these two photos on the cover?
Mr. SHESOL: I did.
LAMB: Where'd you find these?
Mr. SHESOL: I found the one on the left, the Johnson photo, at the Johnson Library. And the one on the right is actually excised from the photo that you've just shown of Kennedy listening to that Johnson speech.
LAMB: Is he sitting in a JFK rocking chair there?
Mr. SHESOL: I don't believe he's actually--oh, you mean Johnson there. I don't know whether that's a rocking chair, to be honest with you. The way the photo had been cropped, it's hard to tell. But there were certainly rocking chairs around in the White House, and Johnson was very conscious of the need to continue the Kennedy image. As surprising as that is, I actually--I write about this. Johnson was--was reluctant to express his natural, cultural identity as a Texan. He was reluctant to sort of lay on thick the sort of homespun homilies that he used in private. In public, he contrived himself as something of a Texan Kennedy, if there could be such a thing. He wore the two-button suits. He did sit in the rocking chair in the Oval Office. And it was an ill-fated attempt to compete with Robert Kennedy for the Kennedy image.
LAMB: In this photograph, you see Bobby Kennedy on the left and President Johnson on the right and Ted Sorenson. What's this in here for?
Mr. SHESOL: That is during what i--what was called the unity meeting of April 3rd, 1968. Johnson, just a few days earlier on March 31st, had withdrawn from the presidential campaign of 1968, and he immediately--or Kennedy immediately requested a meeting with Johnson so they could discuss the important issues of the day and to make sure that Johnson was not going to interfere with Kennedy's run for the presidency after that point. And so Johnson invited him to the Oval Office. They actually sat in the Cabinet room there. That's what you're looking at. Kennedy brought along Sorenson, who, of course, had been one of his brother's top advisers and was one of his top advisers, and the two-- men, Johnson and Kennedy, talked about a whole range of issues, and it was a surprisingly, even pleasant talk. It was not only not contentious, but it was, actually, in a way, pleasant. It seemed that the two men had actually put all this behind them--all the fractiousness of the past five years, in particular, behind them.
That was, in fact, not the case, but it was actually a very productive meeting, and they talked about everything from the campaign itself to Vietnam, to the problem of the cities and the economy and so on. It was a very important meeting.
LAMB: I wrote this quote down from your book. On Page 454, you say, "Lyndon Johnson's presidency began and ended in the blood of a Kennedy."
Mr. SHESOL: He was very...
LAMB: How long did you think that sentence out, by the way?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I was certainly always careful when writing about the assassinations that-- it's difficult to write about those events without seeming either melodramatic or salacious or disrespectful. And so that's something that I kept very much in mind when writing things like that.
LAMB: Where was this photographed, by the way?
Mr. SHESOL: The photograph on the...
LAMB: Mrs. Johnson.
Mr. SHESOL: ...of Mrs. Johnson? That is the day of--or the day after Robert Kennedy had been shot and they are reacting to the news, and you can really see the expressions of sorrow on both Lady Bird's and Johnson's faces as they sit in the Oval Office and Johnson talks on the phone to someone unknown about the assassination.
LAMB: What was the impact on Lyndon Johnson of that exact quote, that Lyndon Johnson's presidency began and ended in the blood of a Kennedy?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, he very well understood that he was going to be see--he believed deeply--and through his presidency, he believed he was going to be seen as an interregnum between two Kennedy presidencies; that on the one side you had John Kennedy and all these questions of what might have been, the beautiful promise of the Kennedy years--there was a cartoon of the day, actually, that summed it up perfectly well. It was--it pictured a leather-bound volume--a thick leather-bound volume, handsome, that said, `The Johnson Years,' on the spine, but it was flanked by these absolutely beautiful baroque bookends. On one side, it said, `JFK,' and on the other, it said, `RFK.' And this was actually before RFK was killed. And the understanding--and this was very much Johnson's understanding--was that he would be this dull leather book between these two beautiful bookends of the Kennedy presidencies.
But when Robert Kennedy was killed, it did not necessarily solve that historical problem for Lyndon Johnson. All the questions of what might have been that lingered after JFK's death would now linger after Robert Kennedy's death as well. And so the ugly reality of the 1960s and the riots and the war and the student protests and so forth that clung to Lyndon Johnson's historical reputation were not problems for either Kennedy because they were both dead. They were both beyond reproach. And they both stirred up so much hope and optimism in the country that it did seem that whatever they would have done, it would have been far grander than what Johnson himself had done. And he understood that this would forever tarnish his historical legacy.
LAMB: What's the story behind the last moments in Lyndon Johnson's presidency regarding Robert F. Kennedy, the stadium and the grave-site costs?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, the grave site, in particular, is a really grim footnote to the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. He told Ethel Kennedy very warmly the day of the funeral, `Anything that I can do for you, you just let me know.' Well, the one thing that she had wanted to do was to have Robert Kennedy buried at Arlington Cemetery. And little did she know that in the interim, in the couple of days prior to this, Johnson had been trying to keep Bobby's body out of Arlington. Bobby was neither a president nor a war hero, Johnson reasoned, and there was no reason to give him a hero's burial. But, of course, the country and the family wanted him to be buried there by his brother's side, and there was nothing Johnson could really do politically to stop it. It would have just looked absolutely petty and would have really blackened his image even further. So he allowed that to go ahead, but he refused, then, to allocate--only--all it took was $400,000 to maintain the grounds around the grave site in the way that they had maintained the grounds around JFK's grave site. But Johnson refused--absolutely refused all of his aids and treaties to include that money in the federal budget or even the supplementary budgets that followed. And, as a result, it was left to Richard Nixon --to allocate that money and he did so on the first day of his presidency.
RFK Stadium is another story, and a very interesting one.
LAMB: That's the stadium here in town where the Redskins used to play football.
Mr. SHESOL: Exactly. And it had been called prior to that point DC Stadium, and there had been some talk in 1968 about naming it after someone and Johnson wanted it named after himself. He thought it would appropriately be named LBJ Stadium. But a group of Kennedy aides in the Interior Department under Stewart Udall, who was John Kennedy's appointment as secretary of interior and stayed on through the Johnson administration but was very close to the Kennedys--this plot was crafted under his supervision. It was not originally his idea, but he was able to implement it because the par--because the stadium was built on national park land--the Anacostia Park. And so the secretary of the interior, with a quick dash of his pen, could rename the stadium without having to ask the president's permission. And so they conspired to do this and they also conspired to do it on the very last day of the Johnson presidency so that the president could not countermand the order. So Udall went ahead and did this and Johnson was, of course, outraged, but there was nothing he could do. It had already been announced and leaked to the press.
LAMB: Where did you write your book?
Mr. SHESOL: I wrote the book in my home office on Capitol Hill here in Washington. I--because I draw the comic strip as well, the room is pretty well filled by two large desks, one of which has the computer on it and--and had all of my notes for this book on it. The other is a drawing table which is propped up at an angle and I use for my comic strip.
LAMB: How long did it take you to actually write the full book?
Mr. SHESOL: It took me about four to five years to get the research going again after the--this is putting aside the time I spent on the actual thesis, which was the better part of two years. Once I began again in earnest, I spent about two years researching and about two years writing.
LAMB: How concerned are you that a lotta people are still alive that were involved in this?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I'm not concerned about that, actually. I mean, I'm heartened by it in that it--I think it's important when a book like this comes out to get the range of responses. And I know that there have been responses, and they've been encouraging so far, I'm glad to point out, and there will be further responses. And I think that that's important because I would never presume that I've got it 100 percent right in here. I have strived to get it 100 percent right, but no one really ever does.
LAMB: Is there stuff that you wrote that didn't get in?
Mr. SHESOL: There sure is. I could have written--I now understand how biographers can spend 15 years and write 1,200 pages on a subject. There is just so much on these two individuals and there are so many directions in which one can go when discussing Vietnam or the war on poverty or just the political disputes between the two of them. So there was a fair amount of material that I had to excise. I wanted to make this a readable book. It's thick enough as it is. I didn't want it to be so imposing that people wouldn't pick it up.
LAMB: It's also $32.50. Did that concern you?
Mr. SHESOL: That did concern me a little bit. You never want a book to be too expensive. But the reason that it is that expensive is because we've got the nice semigloss cover and we've got the glossy photos in the center of the book and we had to pay a little money for some of the photos. The Johnson Library photos cost almost nothing, they're in the public domain, but when you're buying photos from Time-Life or any other private organization, you have to pay for those photos.
LAMB: I noticed--and correct me if I'm wrong--that you, all through the book, quoted from US News & World Report and The Nation. Was that deliberate on your part?
Mr. SHESOL: It was deliberate. US News, in particular, was a mouthpiece for the public fascination--the political fascination with this feud. There were almost weekly updates in US News about what was going on, what Kennedy was doing to undermine Johnson, and so forth. And I use those quotes not so much to report what Kennedy was doing to undermine Johnson, but the public perception of this, because most of the time it was ill-founded-- these articles. They believed that there was a Kennedy master plan--that underlies all the articles in US News--a Kennedy master plan to steal back the White House in '68.
LAMB: What was the politics of US News? It wasn't owned then by Mortimer Zuckerman.
Mr. SHESOL: No, it wasn't. It was, I believe, largely conservative at that point in time. And I think the fractiousness of this relationship between the nation's two top Democrats was of particular fascination.
LAMB: And why The Nation?
Mr. SHESOL: The Nation, of course, was on the left, and they expressed the sort of outrage that the left, and later the new left, felt toward Lyndon Johnson for a whole range of things. But anytime that he stopped a Kennedy proposal just because it was a Kennedy proposal--and that was something that Johnson did a lot--I discuss his--I call it a legislative blockade--I discuss that in detail in the book--anytime he did that, The Nation was the first to call him out on that and express the magazine's outrage.
LAMB: Amazon.com has your book listed and people get in there and they write things. And we just were lookin' at it and there's just one I pulled out here. This, obviously, isn't one that says sweet and wonderful things about the book, but I just want to get your reaction. This is by--from somebody named Danielle Renee Jackson from Wisconsin--the University of Wisconsin--and she writes, `We were assigned this rather repellant book for an advanced graduate seminar on the role of the presidency in post-war US history. Our professor raved about it probably because the author quotes him approvingly on several occasions, saying that it would force a radical reappraisal of the Johnson presidency. Both he and Shesol, the author, somewhat overstate the case. I find it hard to believe that a US president, even one as monstrously egotistical as Johnson, could really subordinate policy decisions to personal vendettas to the extent claimed. But Shesol certainly builds a strong argument from presidential documents and personal interviews. Whether or not his case is as solid as he would like to think, Shesol certainly entertains mightily while making it. The book is rollicking good read, full of hilarious anecdotes, mainly, though, not entirely at Johnson's expense.'
Mr. SHESOL: Well, I'm not entirely clear on where she stands on the book. She calls it repellant, but then she says it's a rollicking good read and entertaining and so forth. It won't surprise you that I'll say I think that's a little bit unfair. I think she's assuming a bit much on the part of my argument. I'm not arguing that this presents a radical reappraisal of the Johnson years in the 1960s. What I argue is that it's an important prism--it's a very valuable prism through which to view the events of the 1960s and to view these two powerful political leaders, the two most powerful leaders of the decade.
I've been tryin' to figure out exactly who this professor is at Wisconsin. I'm heartened that he has assigned the book for the course. But I think that the argument, really, in truth-- and certainly this is the response that I've got from the historians that have read the manuscript--that the argument is nuanced and that I certainly don't make any enormous leaps of interpretation here. I think that the record speaks for itself.
LAMB: Here's your dedication: `To my parents, Susan and Barry, and to Nancy.' Who's Nancy?
Mr. SHESOL: Nancy O'Neal is my girlfriend and she was a huge help to me through the writing of this, not just in terms of emotional support, but she was one of the finest editors that I had, and I had many of them.
LAMB: What does she do?
Mr. SHESOL: She works for USIA, for the US government. And she runs a program of civic education in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
LAMB: And your parents Susan and Barry are where?
Mr. SHESOL: They are in Denver, Colorado, where I grew up. And my mother works in real estate and my father is an entrepreneur who started a company of medical products.
LAMB: And why do you live in Washington?
Mr. SHESOL: I live in Washington because this is the sort of thing that interests me. And this place very much energizes me and infuses my reading--my writing, I think--both my writing of books like this and articles which I hope will follow, not about the 1960s, but about current politics, which is what I intend to keep writing about, and my comic strip as well, which is, as I said, a political comic strip. And it's helpful for me to be here and just sort of breathe in this atmosphere and get a sense of what's really going on.
LAMB: What's the politics of your comic strip?
Mr. SHESOL: The politics of the strip, I like to think aren't too heavy-handed and aren't--and aren't too obvious. I, personally, am a little bit left of center. But what I like to do in the comic strip is to bring both extremes into confrontation and see what happens. That's often where the humor lies. I'm not a dogmatist or a propagandist for one side or the other. I very rarely approach a plot line with the intent to convince people of A, B and C. I really try to sorta bring the extremes together, let them clash, and see what the readers think about that.
LAMB: What impact did the Rhodes scholarship have on you?
Mr. SHESOL: Well, in terms of personal impact, it was a an incredibly enriching experience. Oxford, of course, is a wonderful place to live, and I was surrounded by all sorts of interesting people my age from all around the world. I've made some lasting friendships--many lasting friendships. And it was also a nice respite after working very, very hard in college. The standards are very different at Oxford, as we may have told you five years ago, and it allows a little more time, it puts a little more emphasis on pursuing the muse and reading and drawing and things that lie outside your academic discipline. And that was wonderful for me.
LAMB: I mentioned to you before we started, the thing I remembered from the meeting with your fellow Rhodes scholars, they told us at that time they were most concerned that at 24 they were already a success and what happens from that point forward? Are you doing today--And what are you, 28, 29?
Mr. SHESOL: Twenty-eight.
LAMB: Are you doing today what you --dreamed you'd be doing when you were sitting there.
Mr. SHESOL: I am doing exactly what I hoped I would be doing, what I intended to do while I was there, and so...
LAMB: What's next?
Mr. SHESOL: What's next? That's a good question. I have as I-- suggested a few minutes ago, I'd like to continue to write. I definitely have the writing bug and--and there's al...
LAMB: Do you have a book in mind?
Mr. SHESOL: I don't have another book in mind just yet. I think these things have to occur to you naturally, organically. I don't want to sit down and try to come up with a book idea because the book and the subject own you for a considerable period of time. You really have to invest--if it's gonna be any good--you've really got to invest your whole self in it for a very long time. And I don't want to leap into that unless it's heartfelt. And so I'm ready to take a little time, step back, work on shorter subjects, write some magazine articles, continue the comic strip, of course, seven days a week and see what--see what comes up. But I definitely would like to write another book.
LAMB: Jeff Shesol is our guest's name, and here's the cover of the book, "Mutual Contempt." It's about Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and what they thought of each other.
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