Kennedy and LBJ’s Fresca Summit
This week’s list looks at some of the late Ted Kennedy’s notable international achievements. Of course, it’s only a very partial list. See Joe Cirincione for Kennedy’s impact in the nuclear disarmament debate or UNHCR commissioner Antonio Gutteres on his longtime advocacy for refugees. There’s also a lot more to be said on Kennedy’s Cold ...
This week’s list looks at some of the late Ted Kennedy’s notable international achievements. Of course, it’s only a very partial list. See Joe Cirincione for Kennedy’s impact in the nuclear disarmament debate or UNHCR commissioner Antonio Gutteres on his longtime advocacy for refugees. There’s also a lot more to be said on Kennedy’s Cold War diplomacy and work on immigration reform.
Given the number of areas of U.S. foreign policy where Kennedy helped shape the debate, it’s actually a testament to his outsized impact on domestic politics that this isn’t a big part of his legacy.
There are so many great Kennedy anecdotes, but here’s one truly bizarre one from Peter Canellos’s book “Last Lion” about an awkward meeting between Kennedy, his advisor David Burke and President Lyndon Johnson, soon after Kennedy’s return from a trip to Vietnam in 1968:
Finally, in the last week of January, Ted received word that the president wanted to see him.
Burke and Ted prepared their presentation for Johnson and then sat with him in the Oval Office. As Ted began his remarks about the failure of the United States to win over hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, Johnson cut him off.
“Now wait a minute, Teddy,” the president drawled. “There’s no need to rush on this. There was something I wanted to ask you first, and then we can get down to what you wanted to say.”
“Teddy,” Johnson said, pausing for effect. “Do you want a Fresca?”
“Um, no thank you, Mr. President,” Ted stammered.
As Ted tried once more to deliver his report, Johnson again interrupted and turned to Burke. “Dave, would you like a Fresca?”
“No thank you, Mr. President.”
“Well, I’m going to have a Fresca,” the leader of the free world announced. Then he turned to look at his butler, who was holding a silver beverage tray. “I’ll ask you again, Dave, are you going to have a Fresca with your president? We’d enjoy it.”
Burke caved. “Yes, Mr. President, I’ll have a Fresca.”
Johnson smiled. “Good, good. Now that’s good.” He turned to his butler. “David and I will have a Fresca.” He waited several beats before adding, “Teddy doesn’t want one.
As the butler left the room, one of Johnson’s dogs came bounding into the room and leaped onto Burke’s lap. So in between sipping his Fresca, Burke sat in the Oval Office dutifully petting a dog. He couldn’t have looked more like and 8-year-old boy if he tried, which was precisely what LBJ had in mind. Ted tried to suppress a laugh as he glanced at Burke.
From there, Ted tried resuming his remakrs, but it was clear to both him and Burke that Johnson had absolutely no interest in anything he had to report. Their command performance in the Oval Office had been just one more exercise in Johnson proving who was top dog.
Something tells me this kind of thing wouldn’t have worked on Kennedy later in his career.
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating
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