“I grew up in Memphis and played baseball at the University of Memphis. I realized that if I couldn’t hit a baseball off college pitchers, I wasn’t good enough to go pro. I entered the Marine Reserves after college, never dreaming I would become a fighter pilot or an aide to the President of the United States.
After graduation, I went to boot camp at Parris Island. We were holding our weapons and standing at attention before a 20-mile hike. They instructed anyone interested in flight training to fall out. I didn’t know anything about flying, but I wasn’t dumb. I fell out. Two majors walked up, asking why I wanted to fly. My girlfriend was an airline stewardess, and I wanted to fly around and meet her. The majors laughed and said, ‘You’ll do.’ We went up in a plane and did a few rolls. I would have paid to do that again. I re-upped for three more years and became a pilot. That decision to fall out changed everything. I loved flying the hot jets.
I was on a carrier in the Panama Canal when I was called to Washington D.C. to interview for the Marine assistant to the armed forces aide to President Johnson. I got the job, but never understood why. Flying Air Force One was part of my duties.
The armed forces aide was promoted to general and left to serve in the Vietnam War. Soon after that, I flew President Johnson to Nashville for the dedication of the Percy Priest Dam. I planned to show Air Force One to friends while the President was at the ceremony, but the Secret Service said the President wanted me in the motorcade. He had me sit with him on stage. I felt big time sitting between the President and the governor of Tennessee. President Johnson walked to the podium and said that before he dedicated the dam, for the first time, a Marine would become the armed forces aide to the President of the United States. Who the hell was that? The aide had to be a colonel. I was a lieutenant colonel. The President called me up and promoted me to colonel. It was the first I heard about any of this. Everyone clapped. The President told me to sit down.
Back on Air Force One, the President said if he had known I was going to get such applause, he would have made the announcement somewhere else. I told him I would do everything I could for him. He said, ‘I know you will, Smitty.’
I was 34 and on call to the President 24 hours a day. I went with him everywhere for five years. Anything with the military went through me. I carried the nuclear football — the bag with the nuclear secrets. It also had a bunch of quarters, dimes, and nickels. If we were riding down the road during a nuclear attack, the President could pull over and use a payphone.
There’s a photo of the President and me at his ranch. It looks like we are talking in a golf cart, but he is chewing out my ass for making a dent in the ground when I landed the helicopter. He chewed me out regularly, often for what someone else did. Most of the time it didn’t bother me. He didn’t trust many people, but he trusted Mrs. Johnson and me.
The President would go out on the USS Sequoia, the presidential yacht, to the middle of the Potomac River. No one could bother him there. He was trying to pass Civil Rights legislation and took some senators on the Sequoia to talk. He told them the Civil Rights bill is right, but he couldn’t get anything passed. A senator replied, ‘Lyndon, if you give us a little credit, we’ll pass these bills.’ President Johnson told them to come to the White House and take care of it. They came together and passed Civil Rights legislation. I didn’t get into politics, but I was impressed with the bipartisanship and how they worked across the aisle. President Johnson got a lot of bills passed by working with Congress.
I saw the personal sides of the Johnsons. We were going to church, and one of the Secret Service agents said it would be a good day. In the back of the car, Mrs. Johnson asked the President for money for collection. The President said, ‘Lady Bird, use your own damn money.’ The Secret Service agent looked at me and said, ‘It ain’t gonna be a good day.’
President Johnson relaxed at his ranch in Texas, and I always went with him. One day, I answered my phone and heard, ‘This is your President. I’m going blind.’ His doctor called back, explaining why the President was mad. He drove his convertible with the top down and got dust on everything. The President thought the roads needed to be wetted down so he could drive without the dust. I got a sprinkler from the Air Force base and wetted the roads before he went out. He was proud of me for about 10 seconds. Whatever he wanted, I made it happen.
The President called me early one morning from his shower in the White House. He wanted to see me immediately. What could he want? I knocked on the door, wearing my uniform and tie. Still in the shower, he yelled at me to come in. The shower didn’t clean him. He wanted it running like his shower at the ranch. He had me put my hand in the shower to feel it. The water got all over me. I said, ‘Yes sir. I see what you mean.’ I told the White House plumber to make the water come out so hard it would blister the President.
President Johnson could also be kind. We were at his ranch when my wife, Jeanie, was in the hospital in Memphis. Mrs. Johnson found out. The President told me to fly the jet to Memphis to be with Jeanie. He also had a car waiting in Memphis to take me to the hospital. The Johnsons sent enough flowers to fill Jeanie’s room. That’s why I worked hard for him. I knew how he was. Hell, he chewed me out every day. But if he was wrong, he made up for it.
My secretary listened to all of my calls from the phone in her office and took notes. I still have the logs. They are records of history and include the day Robert Kennedy was shot. I was also at the White House when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I was getting Air Force One ready when I got a call to return to the White House. We weren’t going anywhere. There was rioting outside of the White House. We called in the National Guard for protection. The President met with Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King’s inner circle asking how to make the best of the situation. He feared rioting everywhere.
Those were tough years. The President listened to bad advice on Vietnam instead of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. He later realized he was wrong and had made bad decisions. That hurt him deeply. He would have been known as a great president if it hadn’t been for Vietnam.
We were at the ranch during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I was with the President at the pool when the phone rang. Hubert Humphrey agreed to give the nomination to President Johnson if he would run again, but the President needed to be at the convention to accept the nomination. Mrs. Johnson came from the house, and they talked it over. She didn’t want the President attending the convention — he wasn’t well enough to run again. The President told me to get Air Force One ready for Chicago. I took care of that, then walked back to the pool. Mrs. Johnson was still talking to the President. He looked at me and said, ‘We’re not going.’ That’s how close Lyndon Johnson came to running again. Mrs. Johnson was right. He wasn’t healthy enough to be President again.
After President Johnson died, Mrs. Johnson asked us what advice we gave the President. I never give him any advice. I just said yes sir and no sir. She said that was probably true for a lot of us.”
Haywood Smith, Part One (Part Two runs Sunday, November 12)