Nicholas Katzenbach on RFK and LBJ

Question: What did Bobby Kennedy think of you?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I don’t know what Bobby Kennedy thought of me. Oh, I know he liked me and I know he respected me. And we got on very well together professionally, very little socially together. Often we go out to his, Lydia, my wife, we’ll go out to his house but it was always for a big party of one kind or another, or I would go out there with some colleagues and we will talk about problems in the department. Bobby, when I started, I wondered, I liked him, but, you know, he was awfully young and I wondered about him. And the thing about Bobby was he was as conscious as any critic of his shortcomings, his faults as anybody that I know. He was also the most honest person I think I’ve ever met. And the result of this was that he used me and others in the department very bright, some very bright people and he would, you know, we would go to Bobby with problems. He would get us together as a team and I can recollect, I think I say it in the book, he would say, “Come on, fellas. You’re all better lawyers than I am. Now, tell me what you think I should do?” And he was that kind of a person. I feel… I feel when Bobby was killed, this country lost a person who might have been one of our great presidents.

Question: Did Bobby trust LBJ on civil rights?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Oh, he disliked LBJ intensely and it was all personal. He, Bobby was direct and honest. Nobody really ever refuse LBJ of being direct and honest. LBJ knew how to get what he wanted and he used all the political ideas, speech, techniques and he was good at it to get what he wanted and what he wanted was good, and he was a man of much more intelligence than most people gave him credit for. He didn’t have a good formal education, but, boy, he was bright as all get out. And just as a sort of footnote that relationship which continues, they didn’t like each other. They had to work together politically and they did but it was not easy for either of them. But as a footnote, when near the end of Bobby’s life which we didn’t know is going to end but near the end of it, I saw him and he said, “You know, he said I’m opposed to President Johnson on Vietnam, strongly oppose, but I have absolutely no criticism of what he has done in this country in the domestic program.”

Question: Why did LBJ leave government?

Nicholas Katzenbach: Why did President Johnson decide to leave government is a good question. I think it was health and I also think, I think he felt he hadn’t been able to solve the problem in Vietnam, maybe somebody else could.

Question: Why did you leave?

Nicholas Katzenbach: I was broke. I left government, I was tired too and I felt that, I felt that I’ve been something of a failure in the State Department where I went over there to try to get us out of Vietnam which was probably a very arrogant thing I think I can do. And, well, there were few things that I got done in the State Department, I didn’t get us out of Vietnam and that was the most important thing of all. So, I was tired. I’ve gone through what little money I had and I thought it was time for somebody fresh. I’m not thinking of Mr. Nixon, but somebody to come in and do my job at least who was fresher and had more energy than I had left.


Recorded on: 10/22/2008

Katzenbach reflects on their approach to Civil Rights, what they got right and where they went wrong.

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