Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with John H. Kelly
LBJ must have been in Wellington for 36 hours at the most. It was very exciting and I enjoyed that experience. I figured out that there was a pecking order on a Presidential trip. I learned that it was very important to figure that out. I also learned that White House staffs were mercurial and that in the case of LBJ, it reflected the personality of the President. LBJ did outrageous things; I remember one night, at 3 a.m., Johnson wanted something to eat. He wanted beef salad, strawberries and red wine. It was the sort of whim that only despots get. But people did get up and went shopping, looking for stores that might have the desired goods. Then they woke up the owners, asked them to come from their beds to the store and bought the food. And sure enough, LBJ's wishes were satisfied that night. Of course, the President traveled with his own chef and a huge larder of foods—Texas steaks, hamburgers and all of his favorite foods. But I think, just to be devilish, he ordered things in the middle of the night that he knew had not been brought on his plane. In any case, not many of us go much sleep during that visit. A lot of my colleagues were appalled by the antics; I was fascinated.
Idar must have thought that I had done a reasonably good job because before leaving Wellington, he asked me whether I wanted to go to Australia to support that visit. I did that and then Idar sent me to Bangkok to work on that advance. The other junior officers had all returned to their posts; Idar must have thought that I had some talent or that I was a real glutton for punishment. Bangkok had a large Embassy, run by Ambassador Graham Martin. No ne at the Embassy could figure out why this young whipper snapper, junior officer named Kelly had been sent. But since they had received instructions from Idar, they put me to work. In retrospect, I did learn a lot of trivia about Presidential visits, but as anyone who has had any experience with them knows, trivia is what makes or breaks Presidential visits.
I can remember, for example, an episode in Bangkok which illustrates the importance of trivia. At every post, after a Presidential visit, lots of “Thank You” letters are written for Presidential signature. Johnson had a particular style which I had absorbed watching the process in Wellington and Canberra. In Bangkok, I noticed that the Embassy was writing the letters in advance even of the visit. Someone asked to take a look at them, since I had seen others at previous stops. Every letter read: “Claudia and I want to thank you for.....”. No one in the world called Mrs. Johnson “Claudia”; she was “Lady Bird”, particularly the President. So I told the officer who was writing these letters that “Claudia” was not the right name for Mrs. Johnson. He told me that when he wanted my opinion, he would ask for it. Of course, when it came time to send the letters to the President, his staff noted the grievous error and all the letters had to be re-written, which kept half of the Embassy up all night retyping them. This were the days before computers and word processors and changing a letter meant a whole retyping. That is an example of the importance of details.