Pope and President, Paul VI and Lyndon B. Johnson: Christmas on the Tiber, Texas Style

By the time pope and president met in the presidential suite at New York’s Waldorf Astoria on October 4, 1965, Paul VI and Lyndon Baines Johnson were relatively new in their respective positions. Both men assumed their offices two years previously—in 1963—on the death of their predecessors. They had the unenviable task of succeeding two very popular and much-loved leaders, one through natural death—John XXIII—and the other through the violence of assassination—John F. Kennedy. 

It would not be easy for either new man, given the different circumstances they found themselves in; their common problem was to console grief-stricken people while at the same time providing a way of consolidating and continuing the work of the fallen leader while pointing the way forward by way of new visions and aspirations. Though they were relatively “new,” neither man were novices in their respective capacities; they each brought to the papacy and the presidency a lifetime of experiences and worldviews.

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Transitions are easier for popes; when one dies, another is “elected,” or chosen—as held in Catholic belief—by the Holy Spirit. A new pope is at the same time a caretaker and an innovator: while holding onto the eternal truths, he is also tasked with the problem of making those ancient truths applicable to the modern times in which he, and others, live—a responsibility that is not always easily understood or always appreciated. Such was the case for Pope Paul, when he had to carry forward Pope John’s Second Vatican Council, which aimed to make an ancient faith appear—once again—ever new, and to offer that faith to a world that was always in a constant search for a more hopeful existence. Pope Paul was, by training, a priest, a diplomat and an intellectual. He was a man of knowledge imbued by faith, and his ministry was at the service of both God and man.

As for Lyndon B. Johnson—simply put, he was a political animal through and through. Diplomatic niceties weren’t part and parcel of the Johnson credo; grandiose actions and ever grandiose words were. He was a driven man of vaulting ambition with goals and dreams to match. He was long known for the infamous “Johnson treatment,” his unique method of getting people to be in sync with his worldview.  It was a blend that involved both literal and figurative arm-twisting, complete with a virtual stare-down and an invasion of personal space. (He was a human “drone” long before the word came into existence. An “encounter” with LBJ was one that left its imprint on many a person.)

It was not for nothing that when he ran for president in his own right in 1964, his slogan was “ALL THE WAY WITH LBJ.” That pretty much summed up the man, for he didn’t do anything half-way or half-hearted in his life —he bore through existence at full throttle, like an over-heated steam engine. His kinetic energy plowed down more people than a back-yard mower; and woe betide the reporter or journalist who was assigned to the presidential beat—if they weren’t careful, they would find themselves checked into a hospital as a result of the stress and exhaustion that incurred from covering such a larger-than-life force that was LBJ.

It was an electrifying moment when Pope Paul announced his intention to come to the United States in 1965; it would be the first time as pontiff that he—or any pope, for that matter—came here. As a cardinal, though, he had been here before: in 1959, he had been awarded an honorary degree at Notre Dame, along with President Eisenhower. So he had an acquaintance with America and American culture.

The 1965 excursion had its genesis in Pope Paul’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land of the previous year. While there, he had a private audience with Sargent Shriver (a Kennedy-in-law who worked for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson). The question was put as to whether President Johnson would be amendable to a papal visit to the United Nations, as Pope Paul wished to speak to that assembly on the pressing need for peace. That request was met with alacrity and found a resounding yes from Washington; the arrangements were made, and the pope made his memorable peroration before the world: “No more war! War never again!”

This particular pilgrimage to New York would barely last one day; with the address to the UN, a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a Mass at Yankee Stadium, and besides the meeting with President Johnson, there was a quick visit to the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. After that whirlwind day in the New World, Pope Paul got back on the plane and went back to ancient Rome. Brief though it was (just 50 minutes), the meeting between LBJ and Pope Paul would not be their last; their next (and last) one would be in 1967—and that session that would end up being possibly the most memorable of pope and president encounters.

By 1967, both pope and president were 4 years into their respective capacities. They both started out with a great reservoir of goodwill; but given the challenging atmosphere of the 1960’s, it was becoming harder to have a positive influence on events, as each man was to painfully learn. They were both preoccupied with matters within their own spheres; but they were also concerned with the policies and politics of that Cold War period in which they lived. Ever since the near-nuclear showdown between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev early on in the decade, the problems of world peace were of paramount importance. Part of that equation dealt with the war in Vietnam, a place that gained increasing significance as the years wore on in the chess match that was the Cold War. It was that conflict which engaged pope and president, and which made December 23, 1967 a seminal event.

When presidents are beset by domestic political difficulties, the proverbial wisdom holds that they get aboard Air Force One and take off on a foreign trip in an attempt to escape the pressures from back home. (It is not always successful, but it makes presidents feel a lot better.) Such was the case for LBJ when he headed for Asia that December.

Ostensibly, the reason for LBJ going on this trip to Asia was to attend the memorial service for Harold Holt, the Prime Minister of Australia, an avid scuba-diver who had recently been lost at sea and presumed dead. Holt had been an LBJ friend and a supporter of American involvement in Vietnam; LBJ felt he had to go to honor his friend. In order not to “waste” this trip, LBJ decided to tack on other stops onto the journey; places such as Hawaii, Korat (Thailand), Cam Ranh Bay (Vietnam), and Pakistan were to be graced with the Johnsonian presence. In detailing his itinerary to his Air Force One pilot, Jim Cross, he also added another, unpublicized stop: the Vatican. That was to be top secret; no one was to know, even the White House press corps. As Cross remembered it, his commander-in-chief told him “not to tell a damn soul” about what he was going to do. All these stops Johnson was making was with the aim of conferring with others about the Vietnam situation; he decided to cap it all off with a Christmas visit with his friend, Pope Paul VI—only the pope didn’t know that.

That December, Pope Paul was recovering from a serious—and secret—operation: he was treated for an enlarged prostate (which the Vatican newspaper delicately described as “the malaise from which the Holy Father had been suffering for weeks.”) Because of pressing tasks, Paul had delayed it for weeks—even months—until he could no longer do so. Incredibly, it the operation was not to be done at the Gemelli hospital (where medical procedures would later be done under John Paul II); tradition held that popes were not treated at hospitals, so an improvised operating theater was set up in the Vatican apartments. (Basically, Pope Paul was operated on a table. It was a mortifying thing for such a fastidious man to go through; because he had delayed the operation, he had to perform his papal duties for a period while wearing a catheter. Paul was no “showboat” the way LBJ was: he wouldn’t even dare to think of lifting his shirt to give people a peek at his post-operative scars the why Johnson did after his gall-stone operation.) So by the time he got word of President Johnson’s impending “drop-by,” Pope Paul wasn’t exactly in the mood for visitors, given how he was feeling—even if it was Christmastime.

Two days before Christmas, on December 23rd, the president and his party landed in the Vatican gardens, shocking everyone in that small enclave. They had landed in Rome’s Ciampino Airport, but it was not the Vatican, so LBJ helicoptered to the Vatican gardens at 8PM local time. The landing was a close call; since the pilot didn’t know where the Vatican gardens were, the deputy press secretary, Jim Jones, had to hop off the plane when it landed in Rome and rush into the airport gift shop and purchase one of those aerial postcards of Rome so the pilot could determine exactly the exact coordinates of the pope’s backyard—and all this for a two-hour stopover in a trip that covered 4 ½ days and 27,000 miles.

The pope was dressed as usual, in his white soutane and skullcap, with his pectoral cross around his neck by the time LBJ entered the papal apartments for the discussion on Vietnam and the feasibility of bombing halts. It wouldn’t be reported until much later that the meeting was fraught and tense; TIME’s Wilton Wynne would later recount in his Vatican memoir that an agitated pope “slammed his hand on the desk” and “shouted” at LBJ over Vietnam. That was the report; we don’t know for sure what happened between the two men. But we do know what officially happened: President Johnson decided to give Pope Paul VI a Christmas gift, one which left everyone—including the pope—flummoxed.

Normally, diplomatic gift giving involves the presentation of framed and signed photographs of the leaders in question; perhaps a rare book or artistic reproduction of some kind, like a painting. (LBJ loved giving gifts and he was gifted with a big ego: he reportedly told West German chancellor Erhard that he wasn’t born in a log cabin, like Lincoln; instead, he was born in a manger.) As a matter of fact, Paul had his gift ready; it was a reproduction of a Nativity scene, which was appropriate, given the time of year it was. But as far as LBJ was concerned, he’d “been there, done that” when it came to diplomatic presents; he’d go one better and present all the leaders he’d met on this trip—along with the pope—something that they would always remember him by: a bust ofhimself.

 Lyndon Johnson presented his Christmas gift with pride; he thought that it was a memorable and thoughtful gesture on his part. He gave gifts as tokens of his esteem and affection and perhaps he was doing so in the pope’s case. Whenever he traveled, he was in the habit of giving out tokens, souvenirs and knickknacks that tourists would usually get: the ubiquitous pens, notepads, boxes of candy and such. If he was really expansive, he’d give out expensive presents, like presidential watches or cuff-links. But not this time. He had over 200 specially-made LBJ bronze and plaster busts put onto the presidential plane, ready to be given to deserving world leaders –or anyone else—worthy of Lyndon Johnson’s friendship.

So, there they were, two days before Christmas, pope and president, in the Vatican, exchanging gifts. Pope Paul beheld not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but a facsimile of LBJ’s visage, which he held in his hands. As photographers recorded the moment, LBJ beamed while Pope Paul was straining to show gratitude when he really felt something less than that. But being the natural diplomat he was, Pope Paul accepted it with grace, tact and not a little intestinal discomfort.

Lyndon Johnson’s whirlwind tour came to an end when Air Force One landed in Washington on Christmas Eve, like Santa Claus and his reindeer sleigh on the roof, only all would not be quiet in Lyndon Johnson’s White House—at that or at any other time. Both pope and president would face many trials after this meeting, but neither would know what lay in store for either of them.

All they knew was that they spent some time together for Christmas 1967 and that it turned out to be—literally and figuratively—a  bust. And somewhere, down deep in the Vatican archives, amongst the scrolls, the papal bulls and associated worldly and spiritual artifacts, lies a replica of Lyndon Johnson’s head and shoulders, gathering dust.

This is the fifth in a series of vignettes on the popes and the presidents. These stories are presented to offer some historical background for those interested in American and Catholic history, ahead of the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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