I’ve shared this tale many times in conversation with family and friends, but never written it down. One reason is I have no pictures to go with the story. Another is the nagging feeling it might be somehow disrespectful.
Nonetheless, I am bowing to repeated requests to tell the story of my memorable evening with President Lyndon Johnson around a campfire in Vietnam. Near Saigon, 1967.
1967 and 1968 are blurs in my sense memory. I had jumped directly from college and small time commercial radio to ABC Network News. The time was right and the opportunity was there, but I was just a 20 something kid. Suddenly, I was in the big leagues. My journalism baptism included the 6-day war, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the volatile ’68 Presidential campaigns — and a trip to Vietnam.
Vietnam really is a blur. It was a blur even as it happened. In New York, I was used to receiving reports from ABC’s field correspondents. I’d speak with them over static-riddled phone lines that made it difficult to hear. The daily MACV or war front reports were often significantly different than what the Pentagon reported.
ABC needed a grunt to help the news team covering President Johnson’s visit to Vietnam. I was it. The sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam are still clear almost 50 years later. But, my job required I keep a very narrow focus. I was a young reporter still learning the ropes. I had to stay focused on the story and exclude the harrowing images around me.
It was a typical evening with the ever-present sound of artillery barrages in the background. We were in what they called “down time.” Dinner around a campfire. GI’s, South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and news media, we all hunkered down for chow. Everything was off the record. Chow was beans and some unknown local meat. Most of us ate the beans and skipped the meat.
President Johnson or LJ as he told us to call him, sat or squatted at the point of the campfire and told some colorful tales about dealing with his pals in the Senate and Congress. The stories were punctuated with smiles and profanities. LJ was drinking from a bottle which he passed around. It was good stuff.
Halfway through dinner, a scene that I would later associate with the movie “Blazing saddles” unfolded. The beans began to resonate. The smell was pungent! I must’ve had a funny look on my face because LJ gave me a withering stare and asked if I had a problem. I remember sounding like a squeaky 16-year-old as I responded “No sir.” LJ guffawed and passed the bottle directly back to me.
Before completing his trip, President Johnson confided to some of us that seeing Vietnam up close confirmed his worst fears. He broadly hinted he probably wouldn’t be seeking re-election given the backlash of Vietnam at home in the States. I thought he sounded like one of my cowboy heroes putting duty above personal gain. But it wasn’t a movie.
One last encounter with handshakes and a smile about our campfire evening. LJ again was President Lyndon Johnson.