Mason Historian to Host Panel of LBJ’s Former White House Staff

Posted: February 15, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

The Mason Forum, a speaker series hosted by scholar-in-residence Richard Norton Smith, announces the first program in the series, “Remembering LBJ,” on President’s Day, Monday, Feb. 19, at 11 a.m. in the Mason Hall Edwin Meese Conference Room.

The program is free and open to the public and media; C-SPAN will cover the event live.

More than 30 years after his death, Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House tapes are contributing to a significant reassessment of his presidency – confirming the old adage that history itself is “argument without end.”

This forum will examine Johnson’s presidency from the inside out, and features former Johnson White House staffers Jack Valenti, Bess Abell and Roger Wilkins, who is currently Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at Mason.

All are historical players and observers of some of the landmark legislation and significant events of our time, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Great Society, the Vietnam War and Medicare.

“A number of observers are suggesting that the appropriate historical parallel with the current administration and its Iraq policy is not Harry Truman and Korea, but Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam,” says Smith, former director of several presidential libraries who teaches in Mason’s School of Public Policy and the Department of History and Art History.

“I can’t imagine a more intimate or useful look behind the scenes of a presidency that continues to affect us all.”

In 1952, Jack Valenti co-founded the advertising and political consulting agency Weekley & Valenti, which was in charge of the press during the visit of President John Kennedy and Vice President Johnson to Texas in 1963.

Valenti was in the motorcade, six cars behind the president, in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. Within an hour of the assassination, Valenti was aboard Air Force One flying back to Washington with Lyndon Johnson as the first newly hired special assistant to the president. Valenti resigned this post in 1966 to become president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, which he led for almost four decades.

Lyndon Johnson once called Bess Abell “a Kentucky girl, who walks with kings and prime ministers and never loses the common touch to the extent but what she can lecture the president.”

Abell was the assistant to Lady Bird Johnson during LBJ’s vice presidential period, from 1961 to63. She was then the White House social secretary from 1963 to 1969. LBJ said she was “the only person I know who can do something at the last moment and have it turn out like she had all the time in the world.”

During the Johnson administration, Roger Wilkins was the first African American appointed assistant attorney general. In a distinguished journalism career, Wilkins wrote for both the New York Times and the Washington Post, and he was associate editor of the Washington Star.

While on the editorial page staff of the Washington Post, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Herb Block in 1972 for their Watergate coverage. His highly acclaimed autobiography, “A Man’s Life” (1982), was reprinted in 1991, and he was co-editor with Fred Harris of “Quiet Riots” in 1988.

The next Mason Forum will host Bob Woodward on March 7 at the Arlington Campus for a talk and book signing.

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