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October 30, 2012 3:38 PM First Responder-in-Chief, 1965 Edition

By Andrew Rudalevige

Thanks to Will Nelligan for alerting me to this— Kent Germany of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center has produced an on-line exhibit giving – thanks to Lyndon Johnson’s proclivity for taping his telephone conversations – a fascinating view into LBJ’s response to Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm which made landfall in New Orleans in September 1965.  (The full exhibit is here, providing the phone transcripts and recordings excerpted below.)

The next day, Senator Russell Long (D-LA) called Johnson and strongly suggested he visit the disaster area. “If I do say it, you could elect Hale Boggs and every guy you’d want to elect in the path of this hurricane by just handling yourself right,” Long told the president. “Just go there right now. Just go, and say, “My God, this is horrible! . . . These federally constructed levees that Hale Boggs and Russell Long built is the only thing that saved 5,000 lives.” See now, if you want to do that you can do it right now. Just pick one state up like looking at it—you lost it last time…”

LBJ was initially noncommittal. That morning, according to LBJ’s White House daily diary, he had been discussing his presidential library (he was going to have “the greatest library ever in the world.”)  Former Tennessee governor Buford Ellington had told LBJ, “I actually don’t think this warrants a trip, but you’re the boss.” Johnson responded, “I’ve been asking Russell Long [for favors] all year, and he’s had a lot of things he didn’t want to do at all… Hale Boggs is the same way and he wants me to go. And [Louisiana Congressman] Ed Willis…. they got trouble with school plans, and they’re segregationists, and they feel like nobody cares about them… I feel about them like a 17-year-old girl; I want them to know they’re loved.” And less than four hours later he was on Air Force One with the Louisiana congressional delegation en route to New Orleans.

Whatever got him on the plane, Johnson was genuinely moved by his visit. After touring parts of the city, including an evacuation shelter whose residents begged for “water… water … water,” Johnson told the press he would “cut all red tape” to make sure New Orleans got help. (See Johnson’s daily diary for September 10, 1965, with detailed descriptions of his trip to New Orleans, here.)

A few days later Johnson made a round of calls to various government agencies, telling Louisiana’s state disaster coordinator Robert Phillips in Baton Rouge that federal resources were at his service. “We’ve got to cut out all the red tape. We’ve got to work around the clock. We’ve got to ignore hours. We’ve got to bear in mind that we exist for only one purpose and that’s to the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Later in the conversation he stressed: “I hope that all the government people can put their shoulder to the wheel without regard to hours, without regard to red tape. Bring to these people the kind of assistance they need in this emergency which is worthy of a great government and a great country. And I want to thank all the local officials and the city and county and state and parish officials, and I want to assure you that up here, if you have any problems, well, let me know about them. We’ll get them straightened out.”

Sounds like the script President Obama will be reading from shortly.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Rudalevige is a professor of government at Bowdoin College.
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Comments

  • jpeckjr on October 31, 2012 11:41 AM:

    Let's remember this was before FEMA was established to coordinate federal response. In 1965, federal response to disasters was divided between several agencies, if it existed much at all. The President's direct role in getting disparate agencies to work together was stronger and more essential than it is now.