Monday, December 30, 1968
Lyndon Johnson, Edward Kennedy
LBJ Ranch

In a bid for a leadership role within the Democratic Party, Senator Edward Kennedy intended to challenge Senator Russell B. Long (D-Louisiana), the incumbent, for the position of assistant Democratic leader of the Senate, a post often known as the Whip. Kennedy claimed to have the support of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), the Democratic candidate for Vice President in the 1968 election. The move was widely seen as a maneuvre to position himself for the 1972 presidential campaign, and most observers predicted that Kennedy would find it difficult to unseat Long.1

Kennedy had tried unsuccessfully earlier to get hold of President Johnson; in this call, Johnson is returning Kennedy's call.

President Johnson: Hello?

Edward Kennedy: Oh, Mr. President?

President Johnson: Yes, Ted?

Kennedy: Oh, how are you?

President Johnson: Fine.

Kennedy: Well, you’re awfully good to call back. I—

President Johnson: Sorry I wasn’t here when you called today.

Kennedy: Well, I was sorry to bother you.

I wanted to call you early this morning. I’ve given some thought to this leadership position in the Senate, and I wanted to just bring you abreast of the developments in my own thinking, because I know you’ve been terribly interested in the, you know, the developments in the Senate. And I wanted you to at least know what was happening before hearing about it on the wires or news services.

And I’d given some thought to—during the last two or three days I had some of my colleagues speak to me about the possibility of running as—for—as Whip, and I had indicated to them that Ed Muskie had been my choice, and I was willing to speak for him, and talk for him, and help in any way that he thought I could. And Ed had indicated to me that he had given it some thought but had decided not to for a variety of different reasons. And then during the course of about 18 to 24 hours, I made some calls. And I wasn’t interested in getting in it if, you know, the horses were out of the barn. But in speaking around, I thought we could make a creditable showing. And I think it’s a difficult and, you know, an uphill fight, but I’ve been very much encouraged by the general reaction from the colleagues in the Senate. And I just wanted to, sort of, keep you abreast, and, as I say, I know, you know, how interested you are in, you know, following these events in the Senate. And that was really the [report?] of the call this morning.

I think it’s—you know, Russell [Long] is a very able fellow, and he’s, aas Chairman of the Finance Committee, of course, and all his other responsibilities, he’s stretched pretty thin there. And as far as, sort of, the Whip’s position, and I thought with the, you know, new administration and all, it might be of some value in being in that position.

So, I—as I say, I’ve known over the period that I’ve been there that you have been very interested in what’s been happening there, and I wanted to, sort of, bring you abreast and see whether you might have any other kinds of ideas or suggestions. I know it would be the kind of thing you’d probably want to, you know, stay away from, but at least I wanted, you know, raise it anyway as a [unclear].

President Johnson: Well, Ted, I’m glad. I appreciate your calling me. I haven’t talked to anybody. No-one has talked to me about it. I don’t think it’s a matter that the President ought to interfere with. They raised a question two or three days ago on the [Morris] Udall thing in the House, and I told my press secretary to just say to them that the only time that I remember that a president had openly indicated what he’d like to see done was [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt in the [Senator Alben W.] Barkley [D-Kentucky] campaign, when he won by one vote, but he lost a great deal because the divisions were so deep in the Barkley-[Senator Byron P.] Harrison [D-Mississippi] fight that the Harrison group and the Southern group never did go along with Barkley, although he was a gallant leader and a great man.2 He only won by one vote, and he divided the party, so that Roosevelt won the argument but really lost the sale. And I didn’t think that the House, or the Congress would want the President indicating preference, particularly when he wasn’t going to be President. [laughs]

Kennedy: Yeah.

President Johnson: And, so he has said that, and I wouldn’t take a position to try to dictate to either the House or the Senate. I think it’s up to every man to do what his conscience tells him he ought to do for the best of interests of his country and his party. And I don’t know what the situation is in the Senate. Not a single Senator has talked to me. I haven’t talked to a one of them. And I just came in tonight and they told me that you were calling me, and I picked up the phone this--

Kennedy: Sure.

President Johnson: But I think that it’s—

Kennedy: Well, I appreciate it, you know, very much. What I really, you know, intended by the, you know, the call, was really to, you know, to bring you up to date as to--

President Johnson: Good. Well, I—

Kennedy: --what was [unclear] here. And as, as I say, I know you’re interested. And this was really the, sort of, you know, the [unclear] and I, you know, I [unclear].

President Johnson: Well, I appreciate very much your calling me, Ted.

Kennedy: [Unclear] I think it's--you know--as I—all of us know, I think you've got a, you know, special kind of interest in the Senate, and I know you’ve maintained it, and so this is something that's up and around [unclear] see how it [unclear]. I’ve taken the liberty of touching base with [Senator Richard] Dick Russell [D-Georgia] and [Senator James] Eastland [D-Mississipi] and also with [Senator] John Stennis [D-Mississippi] and [Senator] John Sparkman [D-Alabama]. I’ve called my colleagues before it got out in the newspaper--as well as Russ Long. In fact, I talked to Russ Long, you know, this morning, about six or seven hours before this, you know, got on out, just to bring him up to date on, you know, where, at least what my thinking was. I’m afraid he’s been busy on the phone ever since.3

Both laugh.

Kennedy: That’s the way it goes, and we’ll—I think it’s—we’ll try and, sort of, keep it as low tempo as possible.

President Johnson: That’s good. When is the—

Kennedy: It's on Friday. Friday morning.4

President Johnson: When do you meet? That’s Friday. Well, I’ll be back Friday night. I’ll hear the news when I get back.

Kennedy: All right. Very good.

President Johnson: All right. Thank you, Ted.

Kennedy: Thanks, Mr. President.

The Senate Democratic Caucus voted on 3 January 1969. Kennedy scored an upset win over Long by 31 votes to 26.5

  • 1. John W. Finney, "Kennedy Seeking Key Senate Post," New York Times, 31 December 1968, p.1.
  • 2. On 26 December, Morris K. Udall, Democratic Representative from Arizona and the younger brother of Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, announced his intention to challenge the 77-year-old Speaker of the House, John McCormack [D-Massachusetts].Richard L. Madden, "Rep. Udall Seeking McCormack's Post as House Speaker," New York Times, 27 December 1968, p.1.

    Johnson is referring to a bitter leadership struggle that had erupted after the death of the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Joseph Taylor, in 1937. Before the Senate Democratic Caucus vote, President Franklin Roosevelt had violated his professed neutrality in the matter by endorsing Senator Alben Barkley, who ultimately won by one vote, 38-37. Barkley's victory was credited to Roosevelt's endorsement; several of those who had voted for him were first-term Senators who had been elected on Roosevelt's electoral coattails. Time, 2 August 1937.

  • 3. Kennedy is referring to Long being on the phone to drum up support.
  • 4. Both are referring to the meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus at which the vote would be held. It was scheduled for Friday, 3 January.
  • 5. Russell Freeburg, "Ted Kennedy Defeats Long in Contest for Party Whip Job," New York Times, 4 January 1969, p.N2.

Original tape courtesy of LBJ Library. This transcript is a working draft. Please let us know if you find important errors.