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A president perturbed; a lesson ignored

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The president called the House speaker to complain about our 1st District congressman.

No, not Barack Obama, John Boehner and Mark Sanford.

Lyndon Johnson, John McCormack and Mendel Rivers.

A day before the president’s Aug. 23, 1965, phone rant, The News and Courier’s front page had quoted Rivers saying he was “tickled to death” that Johnson had signed a $600 million military pay raise bill.

Rivers, who wielded considerable clout as the House Armed Services chairman, explained: “Our committee feels that we had an awful lot to do with this.”

Johnson agreed that Rivers’ committee had an awful lot to do with it. But Johnson didn’t like Rivers — and others — politically cornering him into signing what he deemed a wasteful bill.

The president from Texas did tell the speaker from Massachusetts of their fellow Democrat from South Carolina, “Now I like Mendel.”

Then again, on that day Johnson sure didn’t sound like he liked Mendel when he derisively dubbed him “the admiral of the Charleston Navy Yard.”

You can hear the nearly 10-minute presidential tirade, on one of Johnson’s secretly recorded White House audio tapes, at

Full disclosure: I did like Rivers, who was a good friend to my dad — and a witty, sharp, generous old guy to me when I was a kid.

Back to the president’s call to the speaker about “our beloved friend Mendel Rivers.”

As LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson, not LeBron James) put his differences with Rivers on defense-funding timing:

“So I agreed to what I sent you in that memorandum. But I’m not gonna agree to any more. If he wants another veto, if he wants another ‘funds impounded,’ if he wants to take me on ... by God if he wants a war he can have one.”

The president then belittled Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s ability to stand up to Rivers: “Now he’s been playin’ with McNamara. McNamara doesn’t know how to fight. But I’ve got a good sharp knife and I’m gonna ...”

The president followed with a vulgar metaphor that can’t be printed here.

Hmm. If McNamara didn’t “know how to fight,” why was he in charge of the Pentagon — and our mission in Vietnam?

More of Johnson’s anti-Rivers diatribe to McCormack: “Just tell him this. He’s gettin’ too big for his britches, and I’m gonna ...”

Whoa. There goes that crude metaphor again.

OK, so Rivers, who was elected to the House in 1940 and served there until his death in 1970, occasionally elevated his hawkish rhetoric to reckless heights.

Get a weekly recap of South Carolina opinion and analysis from The Post and Courier in your inbox on Monday evenings.

As Johnson fumed to McCormack: “The damn fool is out here advocating bombing Peking.”

As for that military salary boost, Johnson decried it to McCormack as a $600 million betrayal of “fiscal responsibility.”

How quaint. In 1965, it took the federal government nearly two days to spend $600 million. In 2013, it takes less than 84 minutes.

And Johnson, unlike our last president from the Lone Star State, did take the prudent bottom-line step of raising taxes to help pay for his war.

Yet don’t give LBJ too much “fiscal responsibility” credit. Remember, he shifted the Nanny State into costly overdrive with his Great Society, including Medicare and the War on Poverty.

Back to what that president told that speaker: “Now this morning, McNamara, I got him out of a Joint Chiefs staff meeting [to deal with Rivers’ legislative mischief]. Now we got serious things these days. We got no time to be messin’ around with a nut from Charleston, South Carolina — [Strom] Thurmond or Rivers.”

Hey, Thurmond was from Edgefield.

And though Rivers lived in Charleston, he frequently reminded folks that he was “just a country boy from Gumville in Hell Hole Swamp.”

Johnson had a different destination in mind for Rivers when he told McCormack: “You tell him 30 days [on defense appropriations] or go straight to hell and I’ll veto whatever he sends me.”

Johnson also expressed exasperation about this public declaration from Rivers in the previous week: “I will accept nothing but total and complete victory in Vietnam.”

After a pause, Johnson slowly repeated, “but total and complete victory in Vietnam.”

After another pause: “Now who the hell is I?”

After another pause: “What meat does this Caesar feed on, John?”

Back to that Aug. 22, 1965, News and Courier front page: A headline reported: “Sources Say Reds Face Tough Choice.”

That Associated Press story cited the substantial body-count edge achieved by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Those Johnson administration “sources” theorized that the bad guys couldn’t long sustain such massive manpower losses.

That theory was wrong.

So on this Memorial Day weekend, remember that wars have a horrible habit of not turning out the way our leaders expect — a lesson grimly re-taught over the last decade.

As for Johnson’s aversion to — and Rivers’ demand for — “total and complete victory in Vietnam,” here’s an enduring Memorial Day weekend question:

When our nation’s foes are intent on “total and complete victory” and we’re not, for what exactly are our brave warriors fighting — and dying?

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is

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