Q: So where did your White House Fellowship come in here? Was it right here at the conclusion of your Harvard time?
TJ: I mentioned earlier Edwina didn't like Macon. A woman friend of hers brought to her attention this, White House Fellows program...her husband...her name was Carol Wyman and her husband, Bill Wyman, was going to apply for the White House Fellows program, just showed it to her. It was just a short three paragraph program on how President Johnson, who announced the creation of a fellowship program that would bring to Washington for one year outstanding young men and women, who could come there, learn about government and then go back to their professions. Edwina said, "You should apply for this." I looked at it, I talked with Bill. She was really pushing me without saying one of her motivations was not going back to Macon, truthfully. I applied, came through a regional panel in Atlanta with people on that like Mills B. Lane and Ivan Allen and Richard Rich and Boisfeuillet Jones, just a tremendous group. Once again, I was recommended, there were several thousand people who had applied, several hundred went to regional panels--Boston, Washington, New York, Atlanta, L.A., San Francisco--I was not their first choice. It's a regional panel. I was not their second choice. On their list, I learned this from Peyton, I was the third person out of their group to be recommended to the national panel. The national panel then headed by David Rockefeller and had John Oakes, the editor for the New York Times on it. I thought about it. Here, I was not first or second choice in the ninth grade for the Macon paper, and I was not the first or second choice, but I was the only one to win the White House Fellowship of all the candidates of the southeastern United States including Texas. So I say to people, don't worry about being the third nominee for something. Just give it your best! Just give it your best, so I applied for the White House Fellows program, walked into the White House in late August of 1965, was taken in to meet Bill Moyers who had picked me of the fifteen to work with him. Bill, age 31, White House Press Secretary, he said, "Tom, delighted to have you here. I want to you to meet some people here..." now again, I am right off the streets of Macon, Georgia. I'd just finished the summer at The Telegraph and so we walked down the hall and we walk into this room and there is this large imposing President of the United States. I'm serious. I parked my car on the west executive avenue. I was cleared through Secret Service. Met by Bill's secretary, Carol Welch, taken up to Bill's office where we met. Hadn't met him before. Had no political background. No power. No whatever...he said, "I'd like you to meet some of the people around here." He walked me in to meet the President of the United States. I'm 23 years old. I’ll also will never forget what President Johnson said to me. He said, "Tom, we don't have much experience with interns here in the White House, so we are just going to treat you like a full-time member of the staff." From that moment on, I was treated like a full-time member of the staff, to such a point that I sometimes had to miss some of the educational programs that the White House Fellows had. I should also tell you that during my fellowship year, they just gave me opportunities to travel with the President on Air Force One to work with the White House Press Corps, to write press releases, to work with the photographers..White House photographers...out of that, I'll never forget, what Helen Thomas told me. She said, "I've got one suggestion. Tell the truth. If you tell the truth, you'll do just right." It was almost like Sam Glassman telling me, "Get it right." Those little nuggets you never forget. I'll also never forget that I wanted to take my class of White House Fellows to my home state of Georgia. We had a tour arranged where the Fellows would have a chance to go to the space center in Alabama. We visited several other places, but I was so proud that my group was going to go with me and I'd have a chance to introduce them to some of my friends in Atlanta. There was this secretary who worked with me and I said, "Find a place for us to meet." Again, 1965. So she made some calls. You can imagine, when they say, "The White House is calling. You can get through to anybody. She came in and she said, "Tom, this is a really interesting situation about Atlanta. I can only find one place that will permit you to have your meeting." I said, "That's really odd." She said, "Yes, I told them that the group included Army Major Ronald B. Lee, combat veteran of Vietnam"...Black. The only club in Atlanta in 1965 that would permit me to have a luncheon with a Black White House Fellow was the Commerce Club. It is the only club to which I belong today. I will never forget that. The Commerce Club had also been a pioneering club in the admission of Jews, the admission of Blacks. They are doing a 50th anniversary of the Commerce Club, and I've just told that story. I even have a memo about that...1965 and how the world has changed. The White House Fellows program opened up the world for me like nothing else. It enabled me to meet people all over the world, to travel the world, to become friends with people at all kind of levels and among my best friends were the Secret Service agents. I got to be really close to the Secret Service agents, because we were all out advancing trips. We always said that President Johnson was an equal opportunity abuser...he would give us all hell. If he needed a rock picked up in front on the ramp in front of the car, you had either the Secret Service guys or me to go pick up the rock and get it out of the path. One of the Secret Service agents was from Macon, Georgia. Rufus Youngblood. He was the agent who threw himself on top of President Johnson in Dallas after the shots were heard a few cars ahead. He threw this large Vice President of the United States to the floor of the car and jumped on top of him. Not knowing what was happening to act, but in any case, I developed this lifetime respect for these guys. Why? First of all, almost all of them college educated, in great health, men of integrity and honesty, but everyone of them is prepared to step in front of the bullet--to take the bullet. If you think about that, how many people have jobs where every morning they walk out the door and their wives or their families know that their husbands or fathers have been trained to take the bullet just like that agent did who tried to protect President Reagan out front of the hotel in Washington a few years ago. I am one of the few honorary members, really few honorary members of the Association of Retired Secret Service. That's the kind of friendships you make. They say, well, you become friends with Mrs. Johnson and President Johnson and Dean Rusk. You get to know Dick Helms of the CIA and all. But the real people were people like that.
Q: Some say that press secretaries figuratively have to be prepared to step in front for their president.
TJ: Yes, but those bullets are not real.
Q: But the Secret Service does it for real!
TJ: No, no. I had to step in front and take a lot of bullets but the nice thing about when I did the briefing…it was Bill Moyers would do the briefing at 10 and later George Christian, the morning briefing and the afternoon briefing, particularly for the AM cycle papers. Morning was for the whole day and the networks and everything, be prepared. When they shoved me out, I said, "I don't know," the Press Corps believed me. [Laughter]
Q: Comparable to deniability!
TJ: What was also interesting was President Johnson had me in his most secret meetings as the note taker of Tuesday lunch meetings later. I literally had the clearances as the same clearances as the President of the United States and had there been a nuclear threat where we had to go off to one of the destinations, the shelters, I was one of those, who would be going with him. I had some incredible experiences. I handed him the note that said that Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis, sitting in the room with him was the former Georgia governor, Carl Sanders and the then chairman of Coca-Cola, Mr. Robert Woodruff. Mr. Woodruff went over to a phone, I took the notes after President Johnson was calling the FBI and he called Ivan Allen here in Atlanta and he said, "Ivan, do what ever it takes today to keep Atlanta from burning." Added police, added fire, because that night as you remember, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, many cities burned that night. Atlanta did not.
Q: I don't want to skip one part. I know that at the conclusion of your Fellowship when Mr. Moyers and the President decided that they needed for you to stay. You had a moment of conscience, a moment of duty.
TJ: I told them I could not stay. President Johnson and Bill asked me to stay and I said, "I have a moral obligation to return. Peyton Anderson sent me through the University and Georgia, sent me through Harvard Business School, has hopes for me to really develop as an executive for the paper. That was when to my astonishment, President Johnson wrote a two page letter to Peyton Anderson...his last sentence was, "I need Tom Johnson. Can you spare him?" Peyton wrote back to me and President Johnson and said, "I don't know how you can turn down a President of the United States!" He also said, "And by the way. What's the status of that judge..." he had a judge he was recommending. Somebody was being appointed to a judgeship and Payton was having the possibility of a little horse trading there, maybe to get President Johnson to appoint this guy as a judge in return in my being permitted to stay.
Q: There is a picture that you talk about, and we could go for an hour just simply on your experiences on the White House, and we don't have that time, but there is a picture you shared that shows you in front of Mr. Kosygin, Secretary Rusk, the leaders of the world and Mr. Johnson has you by the coat collar and he's...
TJ: Picking me up!
Q: He's reading you the riot act of some kind.
TJ: Well, that is a photo of all of the hundreds of photos I have that I keep and I show to people occasionally. I say there is a great difference in life between perception and reality. This photo has me being held by, pulled close to President Johnson by his right arm on my lapel. Some of the reporters and even some of the cut lines of the photo said, “President Johnson Interrupts Glassboro Summit with Premier Kosygin to Confer with key aid Tom Johnson. That is what my mother read, that's what my friends at University of Georgia read, that's what went out...you know, here I am giving President Johnson advice on how to deal with the problems between the United States and the Soviet Union. Well, in fact President Johnson had brought Kosygin out, there were all the leaders of the United States foreign policy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara...there were the leaders of the Soviet Union from Kosygin and Gromyko and others. Out front of this news conference, there were at least a hundred photographers and reporters, many of whom were setting off their flashes, hitting their shutters, and in those days, if you know 16 millimeter film, those cameras also put off a little bit of a roar, unlike this one (pointing to video camera) anyway, he pulled me over and he said, "Tom, if you don't get the goddamn photographers to stop shooting, I'm going to take him back inside." So I get out there and all the photographers and I said, "Guys, if you don't stop shooting, there's gonna be no news conference!" So, almost everybody stopped there. You know, we used the word "shooting", there probably should be a better word than that, because it implies something differently, but they did. It finally got quiet, and he went back to his news conference and the rest is history.