Governor Hoff Remembers LBJ

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(Host) Forty years ago, Vermont elected its first Democrat as governor in more than 100 years. Philip Henderson Hoff was elected three times, and his tenure as Vermont’s governor lasted throughout the turbulent sixties.

During those years, Hoff was highly regarded by President Lyndon Johnson, and they developed a lasting relationship. Newly released tapes of phone conversations between Hoff and LBJ provide an insight into the period when democrats established a foothold in Vermont.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff reports.

(Johnson) “Well, you just let ’em know, cause we gotta hang together and I want you to kind of be one of my lieutenants, move around and look out for things. ‘Cause I’m not gonna be there, I’m gonna have to be there in Washington working, but I want you to get to Cliff Carter and Walter Jenkins and those boys and kind of look after my interests, don’t let anybody slip up on me.
(Hoff) “We’re with you all the way, Mr. President.”
(Johnson) “Thank you , Phil.” (Phone hangs up.)

(Charnoff) In this phone conversation from 1964, President Lyndon Johnson discusses political strategy for the upcoming elections with Vermont Governor Philip Hoff. The LBJ Library in Austin, Texas recently released a series of phone conversations between Hoff and the president. They include Johnson asking Hoff to represent the United States in Zanzibar, plotting a strategy for Democrats in Vermont, and rejoicing following the Democratic landslide in 1964.

Philip Hoff’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson began while Johnson was still vice president. They met at a civil rights conference at the White House, and Hoff invited the president to visit Vermont. Hoff says that visit, like most of Johnson’s activities, was politically motivated.

(Hoff) “One of the things about Lyndon Johnson you have to recognize is that essentially he was a very garrulous man and there’s nothing he liked better than campaigning. So in a sense, his coming to Vermont was in part kind of a campaign. He was the most political animal, in some ways, I’ve ever known.”

(Charnoff) In 1963, just ten days after the assassination of President Kennedy, the new president asked Hoff to represent the United States at an Independence Day celebration in Zanzibar. Hoff recalls the conversation with a still somber LBJ.

(Hoff) “Finally this male voice came on and I said, ‘Well who’s this?’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s Lyndon Johnson.’ So he invited me to go to Zanzibar and I pretended I knew where it was but I hadn’t the foggiest idea”:

(Johnson) “December 9 is when you’d have to go, be there the ninth and tenth and there will be, uh, President Kennedy had selected a State Senator, a negro, State Senator from Georgia, and perhaps a couple of other members, a delegation that he had selected. And if you could this I’d appreciate it very much, I talked to Senator Aiken about it when I was unable to get you earlier, and he thought it would be a good thing, and I think it might, if it does interest you it might be very good.”

(Charnoff) Hoff accepted the invitation.

(Hoff) “But I can recall at the conclusion of the telephone conversation, we ran to the atlas to try figure out exactly where this island off the east coast of Africa was.”

(Charnoff) One result of the Zanzibar trip was that Vermonters saw they were on the new President’s radar. Likewise, Johnson realized that Vermont could play an important role in the 1964 elections.

Joe Sherman of Montgomery is an author and Vermont historian. He believes that Johnson recognized Hoff’s Kennedy-esque youth and appeal as political assets. Sherman says that Johnson also saw he could take advantage of Hoff’s ambition.

(Sherman) “I mean, Johnson was an old-style, behind the scenes in your face politician who remembered everything, and you owed him and he made sure you paid up if you wanted favors in the future. So I think he was astute enough to realize that Hoff also may have looked to him as being a possible player on the larger scale in the future.”

(Charnoff) In a phone conversation from July of 1964, Johnson and Hoff discuss strategy for the upcoming election.

(Hoff) “I was right down in the heart of Republican country, way down in the south and in the central part of the state last night, and very encouraged, particularly with respect for yourself. Vermonters are not going to take kindly to Mr. Goldwater.”

(Charnoff) They also talked about the need for support of Johnson’s nominee for vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

(Johnson) “They’re tryin’ to stir up a little stuff about tryin’ to get a little competition in vice presidency, I wish that you’d tell ’em quietly, get it on their ticker some day if you can, that y’all are gonna be for whoever the vice-president, whoever the president wants, that he can’t have a man on the ticket he doesn’t like, doesn’t want, can’t get along with, cause you oughtn’t divide your ticket to start out with.”
(Hoff) “I’ve always taken that position.”
(Johnson) “You see that gets on the wire, let one of them ask you this morning, AP or UPI and don’t let ’em know you’ve talked to me, and don’t let anyone else know it¿.”

(Charnoff) In November of 1964, Hoff won a landslide re-election bid over his opponent, Ralph Foote. And Lyndon Johnson became the first Democrat ever to carry Vermont in a presidential election. The day after the elections, Johnson called Hoff to thank him for his support, and surprised him by putting a guest on the line.

(Johnson) “Phil?”
(Hoff) “Hi.”
(Johnson) “By God, I wish you’d teach me how to run, you run like one of these Texas jackrabbits.”
(Hoff) “I hate to admit it, Mr. President, but you ran ahead of me, not much but you did.”
(Johnson) “How’s that sweet wife of yours?”
(Hoff) “Oh, she’s great.”
(Johnson) “I got a fellow here that wants to say hello to you.”
(Hubert Humphrey) “Phil?”
(Hoff) “Yeah?”
(Humphrey) “Hubert Humphrey.”
(Hoff) “By golly¿.”
(Humphrey) “How are ya? Listen, it’s sure good to, we were sure proud of you, and it was sure good to see those results from Vermont.”
(Hoff) “Well, lemme tell you, we’re very proud of you sir.”
(Humphrey) “Oh, thank you Phil. And my wife wants to be remembered to you, she remembers our visit with your so well, and your pretty lady.”
(Hoff) “Well, by golly you people are great. Why don’t you go to bed and forget it, would ya?”
(Humphrey) “Oh no, my God, the President and I want you to know how much we appreciate what you fellas do.”

(Charnoff) The 1964 elections were the zenith for Democrats in Vermont. Hoff was re-elected for a third term in 1966, but by then, the unrest affecting the country was also taking its toll in Vermont. Hoff had to assist in quelling a near-riot at the University of Vermont over the Vietnam War. And ultimately, it was Hoff’s opposition to the war that ruptured his relationship with the President.

In my recent interview with Governor Hoff, he revealed for the first time his motivation for a trip to Washington prior to the Democratic Convention in 1968. He says that he and Maine Governor Ken Curtis met with Hubert Humphrey, and they tried to convince him to resign in protest over Johnson’s role in prolonging the Vietnam War. Hoff says Humphrey wanted to resign, but felt loyalty to the President was more important.

Hoff made his feelings known to Johnson during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House. The tree had been brought down from Vermont. Hoff says he was aghast that Johnson used the ceremony to defend his Vietnam policies:

(Hoff) “I’ll remember this if I live to be forever. At a certain point in time, I gathered all my courage together and I said, ‘Mr. President, couldn’t we give some consideration to the cessation of bombing in Cambodia?’ which I thought was working very much against us. And he turned on me as only he could, and he gave me about five minutes worth, and then he stood up, and obviously I stood up, and he said, ‘Governor, why don’t you go back to Vermont and do the things that you have to do there, and let us take care of our problem here.’ And I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President,’ and I exited.”

(Charnoff) Philip Hoff became the only governor to formally break with Johnson over the war. He says he’s surprised that Johnson didn’t hold the grudge.

(Hoff) “A rather interesting thing was that thereafter we had a governors’ conference¿and he came to the dinner to talk, and he made a point of coming over and chatting with me, so he didn’t hold any animosity to me. In some ways I think I represented to him a son¿. It would be carrying it to far to say I thought of him as a father figure, because I didn’t . But I really did like him.”

(Charnoff) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Neal Charnoff.

(Host) Tomorrow, a look back at how the Hoff administration changed the political landscape in Vermont.

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