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LBJ and the politics of a hurricane

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  • LBJ and the politics of a hurricane

    L.B.J.'s Political Hurricane

    Published: September 24, 2005
    New Orleans

    GIVEN President Bush's final decision not to head to Texas in advance of Hurricane Rita, it's worth noting that American presidents have long found both political riches and peril at the scene of a storm. A listen to the tapes of President Lyndon B. Johnson's White House telephone conversations of 40 years ago reveals that history does indeed repeat itself, even if presidential reactions and motivations have varied widely.

    On the evening of Sept. 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm, roared into Louisiana with winds of up to 160 miles per hour. The next day, President Johnson followed coverage of the damage, watching the three television sets in the Oval Office and monitoring the news service wires clacking away inside the soundproof cabinet next to his desk. Then, at 2:36 in the afternoon, Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, son of the legendary Huey Long, called the president and urged him to come to New Orleans. Floodwaters had spilled over the levees, and three-quarters of New Orleans was under water.

    The senator opened with a geography lesson. "Mr. President, aside from the Great Lakes, the biggest lake in America is Lake Pontchartrain," he said. "It is now drained dry. That Hurricane Betsy picked up the lake and up and put it inside New Orleans and Jefferson Parish." Long said that his own house had been destroyed, but that his true concern was "my people - oh, they're in tough shape."

    Not fully convinced that his message had gotten through to his old friend and fellow Southerner, Long chose the most direct route to Johnson's famously weak heart: electoral politics. "If you want to go to Louisiana right now - you lost that state last year ... you could save yourself a campaign speech," the senator insisted. "Just go there right now 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!' "

    Johnson replied that he had a "hell of a two days" ahead on his schedule, so Long went in for the kill: "If you go there right now, Mr. President, they couldn't beat you if Eisenhower ran!"

    Minutes later, Johnson had his staff make arrangements for a trip to New Orleans. He explained in a phone call to his director of emergency planning, Buford Ellington, that the people of Louisiana "feel like nobody cares about them, and they voted against us, and they feel like they're kind of on the outside." Johnson added, "I feel about them like a 17-year-old girl; I want them to know they're loved." At 5:18 p.m., Air Force One took off from Andrews Air Force Base.

    Approaching New Orleans, the 707 made a low pass over the city. On board, the delegation included Senator Long and Representative Hale Boggs, who described the damage over the aircraft's public address system. After landing, with a 25 m.p.h. wind still blowing and no power for the loudspeakers that had been set up, Johnson was forced to shout his arrival statement. His words nonetheless bordered on the poetic: "I am here because I wanted to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and its people."

    The presidential motorcade drove down Canal Street, broken store windows lining both sides, and made several stops. Johnson spoke with bystanders and toured a shelter packed with storm victims. An aide wrote, "Most of the people inside and outside of the building were Negro ... the people all about were bedraggled and homeless ... thirsty and hungry."

    At one point, a woman rushed up to the president to tell him that both of her sons had drowned. The next day's New York Times reported, "according to Bill D. Moyers, the presidential press secretary, Mr. Johnson was 'almost overcome.' " He watched the stream of evacuees who had been rescued by boat from the rooftops of their houses and were now on foot, carrying whatever possessions were left.

    When another woman asked the president for drinking water, Johnson dispatched a Secret Service agent to make sure it was delivered. An entry in the White House travel diary paints a grim picture: "Calls of 'water - water - water' were resounded over and over again in terribly emotional wails from voices of all ages." The president suggested that local soft drink bottlers (in an era before bottled water was an American staple) make their inventory available. Seventy-five people died in the storm, most of them in the city. Hurricane Betsy caused $1.4 billion in damage.

    Lingering bad weather made a planned flight to Baton Rouge impossible. At 8:29 p.m., a little over 24 hours after the eye of the storm came ashore, Air Force One lifted off from New Orleans. En route home, the president of the United States retired to his stateroom on the plane, changed into pajamas and went to bed.

    Senator Russell Long was not on that flight back to Washington. He had stayed in New Orleans. The scion of Louisiana political royalty had lost his home to the storm, but had delivered the ultimate prize to his people: a visit by the president, and a promise of federal aid to build up the levees surrounding his beloved city.

    Brian Williams is the anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News."
    Dude. Can. Fly.

  • #2
    "I feel about them like a 17-year-old girl; I want them to know they're loved." [/b][/quote]

    Now we know where Clinton got his inspiration.