RFK and the Threat to LBJ by James Wagenvoord

One of the dearest men in the world to me is James Wagenvoord. I am fortunate enough to not only call him friend, but to have his thoughts, experiences and great talent in Pieces of the Puzzle. James writes the Foreword as well as the first chapter.  Below is a piece he wrote in reference to his job with Time/Life.  With the sad 50th Anniversary of RFK’s death looming next week, James felt this piece relevant to the history of the times and I am proud to share it here.

RFK Redux

What follows are facts and thoughts formed years ago.…based upon the actual calendar and my experience being privy to the editorial efforts made by LIFE Magazine regarding Johnson and the relationship of the LIFE top editors with the U.S .Department of Justice and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.  James Wagenvoord

On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States went on television coast to coast from the Oval Office in the White House to announce a halt in the US bombing of Viet Nam. He called for peace negotiations to begin. He ended his speech with the statement that he was dropping out of the 1968 race for the Presidency. It was a shock. No one, not his closest advisors, not his wife, or his daughters knew he would leave the Presidency. No one had notice or anticipated that he would not seek re-election. A few days earlier he had won the New Hampshire Democratic primary by a narrow margin over Eugene McCarthy—disappointing– it was close but not by any means the end of the road.

Two weeks earlier on March 16, Senator Robert Kennedy said “I am announcing my candidacy for President of the United States,” He followed his entry statement with appearances on March 18th to massive crowds—14,500 people at Kansas State University and later in the day 19,000 at the University of Kansas. Impressive–but in a three-way race Johnson, as the incumbent office-holder was far from being defeated.

It just didn’t make sense that Lyndon Johnson was quitting. His entire career, locally, nationally and internationally was based upon bravado–a fearlessness and determination to win out. Letting something like a regional war drive him from the arena was not possible. Facing a tough political campaign.–. that’s just what he did for a living, over and over. Throughout his political years the one consistent characteristic had been a fierce drive to compete…not be beaten. So, a Political Science question yet to be answered: Why did he do it?

Since the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza the death of John Kennedy has been trailed by questions, .e.g., Lone shooter?, How many “Oswalds ?, Where was the Secret service?, CIA involved? FBI?’ Johnson? Who knew? … Questions posed and addressed, not necessarily answered, have generated hundreds of books, major congressional investigations, symposiums, museums, film documentaries, TV programs, arguments in bars, at dinner tables, etc., Questions, theories, possibilities, conjectures addressed and re addressed. The question of why Lyndon Johnson stepped aside making the way clear for Robert Kennedy to frame a powerful candidacy in 1968 has never been fully considered.

Consider: Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to withdraw from the ’68 presidential campaign four years and four months after ascending to the office. It had been four years and four months since the cancellation of a LIFE Magazine expose’ of Johnson-driven political corruption. The LIFE effort had been produced with the cooperation and under the over- view of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Department of Justice investigators. The “piece”, if published in late 1963 would have led to a scandal concerning then Vice President Johnson, and effectively, as intended by the Kennedy’s, forced him from the 1968 Democratic Presidential ticket. As noted, within hours of John Kennedy’s murder all LIFE drafts — in the final stages of polishing— 7 individual copies of the planned article–were scrapped.

The President had been shot dead. Lyndon Johnson got the job. Long live the President!
Hence, what I’ve believe happened: LIFE Magazine destroyed the 1963 anti-Johnson editorial piece and much of the research. Further, an effort by a select editorial team was assembled headed by Dick Billings a few months after the assassination . The assignment — to re-examine the details challenging the Warren Commission conclusion that Oswald, and Oswald alone, was the no-conspiracy lone-killer. After a few weeks the assignment and editorial team was abruptly canceled. TIME Inc. in general and LIFE Magazine in particular, ceased to be a threat to embarrass President Johnson.

TIME Inc. no longer had the capacity or top management desire to take down Lyndon Johnson. But, the information and documentation, developed and transmitted to LIFE in 1963 by Justice Department investigators under then Attorney General Robert Kennedy still existed. It remained under the control of Kennedy’s closest associates–the original DOJ investigators.

Robert Kennedy, elected to the U.S. Senate in New York in 1966, or backers of Robert Kennedy, threatened Lyndon Johnson in the late winter of 1968– Get out of the way or the 1963 story will be released. He will finally be exposed. Senator Kennedy is running for President.

The decision presented to Johnson by the Kennedy group became, “Face the possibility of impeachment or finish this current term and leave quietly. Scandal could be avoided.
Lyndon Johnson stepped aside.

On June 5th, 1968, eleven weeks after President Johnson announced to the nation, “I will not be a candidate for President in the upcoming election.” Senator Robert Kennedy ( D-NY) won the California Democratic primary. Within moments of completing his victory speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Robert Kennedy, exiting through the hotel kitchen was shot in the head. He died on Friday, June 6, 1968.
Another victim of another “Lone gunman”.

James Wagenvoord

James Wagenvoord: author/editor/publishing consultant. Born in Lansing Michigan, graduated from Duke University, worked in editorial management for Time Inc: (Life Magazine– Editorial Business Manager, Asst to the Executive Editor, Chief of Time/LIFE Editorial Services); Field Publishing Corporation: Editorial Director; Reader’s Digest: Executive Editor trade publishing. Author of 43 published trade books including City Lives; Hangin’Out; The Doubleday Wine Companion; Miami Ink; Bikes and Riders, The Swim Book, Personal Style, and The Violent World of Touch Football. Currently working on Aging Up, the second volume of an unpublished memoir. Lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania with his wife and teen-age daughter.

From John Simkin’s Spartacus site:

At the time of the assassination of the president, Lyndon B. Johnson was being drawn into political scandals involving Fred Korth, Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker. According to James Wagenvoord, the magazine was working on an article that would have revealed Johnson’s corrupt activities. “Beginning in later summer 1963 the magazine, based upon information fed from Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department, had been developing a major news break piece concerning Johnson and Bobby Baker. On publication Johnson would have been finished and off the 1964 ticket (reason the material was fed to us) and would probably have been facing prison time. At the time LIFE magazine was arguably the most important general news source in the US. The top management of Time Inc. was closely allied with the USA’s various intelligence agencies and we were used after by the Kennedy Justice Department as a conduit to the public.”

The fact that it was Robert Kennedy who was giving this information to Life Magazine suggests that John F. Kennedy intended to drop Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice-president. This is supported by Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary. In her book, Kennedy and Johnson (1968) she claimed that in November, 1963, Kennedy decided that because of the emerging Bobby Baker scandal he was going to drop Johnson as his running mate in the 1964 election. Kennedy told Lincoln that he was going to replace Johnson with Terry Sanford.

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