Miller Center

Edward R. Murrow & LBJ

by Kent Germany

Two days before Murrow's departure was official, Lyndon Johnson tracked him down in an airport as the newsman was traveling to La Jolla, California, to visit with Jonas Salk. Johnson wanted to talk to talk about Murrow's replacement, the journalist and U.S. ambassador to Finland Carl Rowan, and to express his fondness for Murrow's work. At the end of the conversation, after hearing the President's compliments, Murrow's emotionally-laden voice cracked. Those would be his final recorded words to Johnson. He died 15 months later, on April 28, 1965, at the age of 57, three months after Jennings went on the air.

President Johnson and Edward R. Murrow

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January 20, 1964

President Johnson: Ed?

Edward R. Murrow: Mr. President.

President Johnson: I'm sorry I missed you, my dear. They just—”

Murrow: It's quite all right, sir.

President Johnson: They surrounded me with so many things.I had to rework your letter, and I didn't want to accept your resignation for a day or two until I could make up my mind just where I was going.I just wondered if I couldn't send you the letter out there, and...

Murrow: [Unclear] time. As I told Jack Valenti on Friday, Mr. President, when I tried to reach you, that I was going to ask whether, when you were teaching school in Texas, the kids held up two fingers when they wanted to leave the room. [Johnson chuckles.] The last thing I wanted to do was to create the impression that I was leaving the room without permission.

President Johnson: No. Well, you've got perm[ission].

Murrow: Everything is shipshape at the agency. [Don] Wilson and [Thomas] Sorensen have it in line. Everything is in order, and, as I told Jack, if you want me to stay, I'll stay here [unclear].

President Johnson: No. No. No. I want to you to do what's best for you, because you've earned it and deserve it. If you can get that plane to wait another minute, I want to say something else to you.

Murrow: Yes, sir.It'll wait as long as—”

President Johnson: This is what I'm saying:—Dear Ed:—It is [with] the greatest reluctance that I yield to your insistence and accept your resignation as director of the Information Agency effective January the 20th.— (Now, we may substitute that date.)

Murrow: Of course.

President Johnson: —I respect your feeling that a long convalescence from illness precludes your remaining on the job. The same high sense of duty which brought you to Washington now obliges you to depart. Nonetheless, I must admit that I've been hoping you'd find it possible to stay on. After your recovery, I'll be calling on you for advice and for help.

—You have done a magnificent job in this post.Your entire life, your eloquence, your idealism, your sound judgment, your determined drive, your sparkling personality all combine to make you superbly qualified for the task of conveying the true picture and purpose of this country to the world. You will be sorely missed. —You leave with the thanks of a grateful President and a grateful nation. I close, Ed, with a paraphrase of the words that you made forever famous on radio and television, in your own country and around the world: Good-bye and good luck.—

Murrow: Well, sir, I don't deserve a word of it, but I'm grateful for it. [Laughs.]

President Johnson: Well, you deserve it all. Now, I have been seriously considering Carl Rowan.

Murrow: Ah-ha.

President Johnson: I don't know.I haven't made that decision. I have talked to one or two folks on the Hill.I don't know what problems I would have.I have the feeling, though, that because he sits on the [National] Security Council that it might give me a chance to pick someone that had some State Department experience, some foreign experience, and also give some people a little hope—”

Murrow: Yes, sir.

President Johnson:for the first [Black] man to ever occupy a place on the Security Council. That might keep a lot of people working to do better here at home.

Murrow: There are obvious advantages and disadvantages...

President Johnson: Yes.

Murrow: But your point, if I may say so, seems to me very well taken, sir.

President Johnson: Give me any reactions, and I'll treat them very confidential. What do you know about him?

Murrow: I have watched him at the State Department since he first came there. I knew him when he was a journalist before. I hold him in very high regard as a professional in the news business. He was one of the more candid members at Rusk's staff meetings. He would have the obvious handicap, by which I mean that a fair amount of the agency's work abroad in the course of the next few years is obviously going to be in the field of civil rights.

President Johnson: Yeah.

Murrow: Here, he would have both advantages and disadvantages—”

President Johnson: Yeah, yeah.

Murrow:but he enjoyed the respect, so far as I know, of everyone who worked with him.

President Johnson: He'd have trouble with [John] McClellan and folks like that, I imagine.

Murrow: That is true. I have not much doubt about that.Some of the people he would have to work with in Africa would regard this as a sort of Uncle Tom gesture—”not the more intelligent ones, but some of them would. He's a very able citizen, Mr. President.

President Johnson: He went around the world with me, and I was quite impressed with him. I've given some thought to [NBC President] Bob Kintner. What do you know about him? I'm talking to no one but you. It'll never go beyond this phone.

Murrow: And I'm not talking to anyone.

President Johnson: That's right.

Murrow: Kintner is [searching for word] able.Whether he would have the required flexibility to deal with the bureaucracy and to follow the guidance as laid down by the Department of State, I would not be quite sure, Mr. President.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Murrow:I would have a certain reservation there.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.You think Rowan would do what the policy was?

Murrow: Yes, sir, and this, as you know, is a very important aspect of the operation.

President Johnson: Yes, it is.

Murrow: I may be doing Kintner an injustice, because—”

President Johnson: No.

Murrow: —I've seen very little of him for the last four years.Folks change in that time.

President Johnson: I asked [CBS President Frank] Stanton if he would do it and he told me no.

Murrow: Mm-hmm. Well, I'm sorry, because, as we both know, he is an exceedingly able citizen.

President Johnson: He has some problems I don't know, maybe family or something. I don't know what they are.

Murrow: Yes, well, he's also got a big financial stake in that company. I don't know whether that influenced him [unclear].

President Johnson: Well, damn it. He ought to have it now—he's made it. Why doesn't he—”

Murrow: I would damn well think so. [Laughs.]

President Johnson: Come on and save the country now. Well, I won't bother you anymore. I'm stopping you at the airport.

Murrow: [Unclear] Mr. President, I—”

President Johnson: My office will always be open to you, and my heart will always be grateful.

Murrow: Thank you, sir. And as I told you, if I can run any errands in [the] meanwhile, I will go on as Sierra and I have agreed, saying simply that anything that's said about me and my future will be said by the White House.

President Johnson: That's right. Now, where will you be—”Where are you going?

Murrow: I am going to Los Angeles now, and I will be down in La Jolla with Jonas Salk, the chap who invented the Salk [polio] vaccine.

President Johnson: Yes. Yes. Yes—”I know him.

Murrow: My office can reach me at any time, day or night.

President Johnson: That will be fine.Remember this, Ed: When this resignation becomes...when it's accepted, that this door is always open to you and this telephone's always open, too.

Murrow: I thank you, sir, very much indeed.I thank you for one of the most gracious letters I have ever heard.

President Johnson: I'm very proud of your friendship and your service.

Murrow: Thank you, sir.

President Johnson: Bye.

Murrow: Thank you. Bye.

Excerpted from Kent B. Germany and Robert David Johnson, eds., The Presidential Recordings, Lyndon B. Johnson, Volume 3: The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, January 1964 ( New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), pp. 642-46.