How Conflict Creates Presidential Progress

How Conflict Creates Presidential Progress
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Tevi Troy’s new book, “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump,” examines the feuds —some over important issues, some over petty issues, some ultimately constructive, others decidedly destructive — at the pinnacle of American governance over the last seven decades.

Troy himself is an interesting figure: Holding a PhD and having authored four books, he has, at the same time, worked in high positions in government, including in the Bush 43 White House. As a result, he can tell historical stories from both a professorial and an experiential perspective. (Full disclosure: This author is quoted extensively in the book’s chapter on the presidency of George H.W. Bush, mostly from a 2009 oral history for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.)

Meanwhile, those thirsting for a gossipy take on West Wings over the last 70 years will not be disappointed. We learn for example, that in John F. Kennedy’s White House, first brother Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, harbored an inordinate dislike for the vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson. As Troy writes, Bobby Kennedy dubbed him “Rufus Cornpone,” and his wife Ethel derided him as “Huckleberry Capone.”

Why all this hostility to LBJ? He was, after all, the powerful senator who John Kennedy had chosen to be his running mate in the 1960 election, and he had undoubtedly helped JFK win Texas, and thereby the presidency. Troy suggests that the reason for Bobby’s hostility was simple snobbery: the jowly and rumpled LBJ simply did not meet RFK’s sleek and well-coiffed standards.

Yet the White House took a fateful turn on Nov. 22, 1963, when JFK was assassinated. Johnson now was president, and the Kennedy team, including Bobby, were soon out the door.

Yet as Troy records, the RFK vs. LBJ rivalry did not stop there — and the biggest single issue was the Vietnam War.

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