Horace Busby

Advisor & Speechwriter to LBJ | Political Consultant & Publisher of The Busby Papers
Author, The Thirty-First of March, An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson's Final Days in Office

What We Did:
Scott Busby discovered and edited a lost manuscript written by his father – Horace W. Busby, a longtime advisor and speechwriter to LBJ – three years after his father’s death. The book, The Thirty-First of March, is an intimate memoir of the elder Busby’s 20-year relationship with LBJ. It was published in 2004 to critical acclaim by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“May well by the best and most honest book we have about LBJ.”

– Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“A brief and brilliant memoir.”

– The Houston Chronicle

“Always, [Busby] was an insider, and a shrewd, observant and eloquent one at that. One of Busby’s best and most important chapters explains his role as a key Johnson functionary on the day President Kennedy was killed and through the subsequent transition. Here are dramatic, intimate details of an uncommon and historically important variety.”

– Publisher’s Weekly

“[The Thirty-First of March] will help future biographers, historians and students of American history by showing the human side of one of the 20th Century’s most fascinating political figures.”

– The Dallas Morning News

Horace Busby
Horace Busby
Horace Busby
Horace Busby

The Story Behind The Book

Excerpted from Scott’s Preface to The Thirty-First of March:

“On an overcast weekend in June, 2003, I drove to my sister Betsy’s house in Encinitas, California, to do something I had long resisted – sort through my father Horace Busby’s papers and memorabilia.  My sisters and I had moved him from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles in 1997 because of his failing health.  It had not been an easy transition for a man who had been a close associate and aide to Lyndon B. Johnson and who, after LBJ left the White House, remained for nearly three decades in the nation’s capital, where he built a considerable reputation as a political consultant, publisher and pundit.  He died in May 2000 in Santa Monica.  Betsy’s garage became the repository for what was left of his possessions.

“I had avoided making the journey for many reasons. The thought of spending countless hours in a hot, dusty garage digging through thirty-odd boxes of old papers wasn’t exactly a drawing card. I knew Betsy, the most organized and meticulous member of our family, would want to look at – and discuss – every piece of paper and photo. Things might, God forbid, get emotional. But deep down I guess what I dreaded most was what the process would mean – bidding a final farewell to my father.

“We foraged through two long file boxes that first morning, sipping coffee, reminiscing. Then, at the bottom of a storage container, I found an unmarked blue stationary box. I opened it. Betsy saw my expression. “You found it,” she said, smiling.

“It was a manuscript my father had worked on for more than a decade about his long and extraordinary relationship with LBJ.  For reasons his family and friends have never understood, he didn’t publish it.  When we moved him to Los Angeles, he told us he had never finished it and had thrown away its various drafts. This saddened me greatly, because no one in Washington or Texas had known Lyndon Johnson, the man and the politician, in quite the same was as my father had.”

Horace Busby

“More than any other member of the staff, Lyndon Johnson believed, Horace Busby, thought and felt like him.  This did not leave Busby entirely comfortable, but at least with respect to a number of hour-by-hour situations, it was accurate and Busby was most often the man who served as LBJ’s other self.”

Eric F. Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson

“Horace Busby went to work for Congressman Lyndon Johnson in 1948 at the age of twenty-four. He served on LBJ’s staff in the House and Senate, again when he was Vice President, and at the White House, where he was secretary of the cabinet from 1963 to 1965.  He wrote many of the President’s important speeches, including his civil rights orations, his announcement of the end of U.S. bombing in Vietnam, and – the heart of this book – his decision not to run for reelection in 1968.  He also had a hand in drafting much of Johnson’s Great Society legislation.

“My father’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson was often tumultuous. Tempers would flare, and he would abruptly leave Johnson’s service – only to be asked to return.  But a powerful bond existed between the two men.  “‘More than any other member of his staff, Lyndon Johnson believed, Horace Busby thought and felt like him,’” wrote Eric F. Goldman in The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. “This did not leave Busby entirely comfortable, but at least with respect to a number of hour-by-hour situations, it was accurate and Busby was most often the man who served as LBJ’s other self.’

Horace Busby
Horace Busby
Horace Busby

On the night of the Kennedy assassination, Horace Busby joined Scott’s mother, Mary V. Busby, at The Elms, the vice president’s resident in northwest Washington, to meet and support the newly sworn-in President as he returned to D.C. after the horrific events in Dallas.

Scott wrote: “My sisters and I were watched over that night by our neighbors – Congressman Joe Kilgore of Texas and his wife, Jane.  It was a night when a 12-year-old boy and his younger sisters would have liked to have been with their father.  There was so much we didn’t understand.  But for the next week we hardly saw him. Looking back now, I realize that I grew up resenting my father’s absence during those traumatic days – and on many other occasions during my childhood and teenage years. 

Horace Busby
Horace Busby
Horace Busby

“The discovery of the manuscript, and his firsthand account of events surrounding the tragedy in Dallas, and its aftermath, stirred up all those emotions again – and then laid them to rest.  Reading my father’s story, I learned many things I hadn’t known, but two things stand out: during those dreadful nights and days in November 1963, his wife and children were constantly on his mind; and his hands were very full counseling the new, troubled President of the United States. 

“The hundreds of neatly typed manuscript pages he left behind were clearly of historical value.  In time, I’ve come to see the work as a gift to his family, one that allowed us to rediscover him.  Far from saying goodbye to my father on that trip to Encinitas, I was given a remarkable second chance to know him better.”

Horace Busby
Horace Busby
Horace Busby

Time Magazine Editor Hugh Sidey’s Introduction to The Thirty-First of March:

“When I read through the copies of those manuscript pages rescued from a blue cardboard box in California, “old” Buzz, my friend of so long ago, rose up, and as if he were standing beside me, I could hear his soft chuckle again and see the intelligence in his eyes and his modest body padding quietly through the shadows in those majestic corridors of the United States Capitol.

“Horace Busby, thirty-three then, wasn’t “old” and he was never really “Horace.” He was Buzz, a term of deep affection and respect. He knew a lot about the volcano in our midst named Lyndon Baines Johnson. He could dispense his insight with candor and humor better than anyone around the Senate in those wonderful days when the United States stood astride the world with wealth and power.

“There were a dozen years in my life when understanding and writing about LBJ was near the center of my universe at Time magazine. And Buzz had written his speeches and talked out his issues and run his errands and sometimes for hours just sat in silence with the brooding LBJ. ‘You feel each other,’ I once said to Buzz, who smiled and replied, ‘Yes, especially in the silences.’ In these pages he writes: ‘It was this solitary Lyndon Johnson that I came to know best.’ A rare privilege granted; a trust carried out to the end of the lives of both men.”

Excepted from Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

“In 1948, still stuck in the House, [Johnson] was about to turn forty, and a new assistant, Horace Busby, saw that ‘He believed, and he believed it really quite sincerely . . . that when a man reached forty, it was all over. And there was no bill ever passed by Congress that bore his name; he had done very little in his life.’ Hopeless though his ambition might seem, however, Lyndon Johnson still clung to it. Instructing Busby to refer to him in press releases as ‘LBJ,’ he explained: ‘FDR–LBJ, FDR–LBJ. Do you get it? What I want is for them to start thinking of me in terms of initials.’ It was only presidents whom headline writers and the American people referred to by their initials; ‘he was just so determined that someday he would be known as LBJ,’ Busby recalls.”

* * *

“But the Senate, into which [Johnson] was sworn in January, 1949, was also only a step toward his goal, only the second rung on a three-rung ladder [to the Presidency].

“It was a rung on which he seemed very much at home. Lyndon Johnson was, as I have written, a reader of men. He had promulgated guidelines for such reading, which he tried to teach his young staff members [Busby, Moyers, Reedy, Valenti]. ‘Watch their hands, watch their eyes,’ he told them. ‘Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.’ Teaching them to peruse men’s weaknesses, he said that ‘the most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say’—and therefore it was important not to let a conversation end until you learned what the man wasn’t saying, until you ‘got it out of him.’

“These gifts served Lyndon Johnson better in small groups—men marveled at his ability to ‘make liberals think he was one of them, conservatives think he was one of them’—since that tactic worked best when there was no member of the other side around to hear. It worked best of all when he was alone with one man. ‘Lyndon was the greatest salesman one on one who ever lived,” [one counselor] was to say.

“Lyndon Johnson rose to power in the Senate with unprecedented speed. [He] became the Majority Leader, the youngest Majority Leader in history, the most powerful man in the [United States] Senate after just a single term there.”

Excerpted from The Thirty-First of March by Horace Busby

These selections from two chapters – titled “Forebodings” and “The President: Poison in the Power” – recall the traumatic and chaotic aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and LBJ’s return to his private residence in the nation’s capital later that night after being sworn in as President of the United States onboard Air Force One.

“Then it came; the longest, the most unreal, the most terrible minute I had ever known.

“Thirty feet away, in the empty reception room [of Busby's office in Washington, D.C.], the bells of the teletype machine began ringing, four short, rapid rings, repeating over and over. This is the least-heard signal on teletypes, but anyone who has worked for a wire service knows what it means: a ‘flash,’ the terse one-line report of a major news development.

“It could not have taken more than two or three seconds for me to reach my secretary’s side and begin reading myself the incredible message on the teletype. But in that dash across the office, I had thoughts enough to crowd an hour. First, I did not believe the news; I was absolutely, positively, unquestionably certain that there must be some mistake–’Shot at,’ the message should read, not ‘shot.’ The President of the United States could not be shot, not with the Secret Service, not with the security, the protection, the caution I knew accompanied every presidential step. The reporter was confused, the machine wrong, the ‘bulletin’ to follow would surely correct this error.

“The reports from Dallas continued. It had become apparent that President Kennedy’s wounds were grave–and so were John Connally’s. On the open line, I read the teletype bulletins to Mary V. [Busby's wife and Scott's mother]. She, by now, had no more conversation in her; like a woman obsessed, she began repeating, “He won’t die, he won’t die, I know he won’t die, he can’t die.” [Special Assistant to the President George] Reedy called, then [Presidential Aide Walter] Jenkins. The three of us were to pass the next hours of the afternoon reaching for each other, all of us sharing the same sense of horror and terror, for we each had one thought. I put it to Reedy bluntly.

“If the president dies,” I said, barely able to get out the words, “can the vice president govern?”

“This exposed the raw edge of the afternoon. Whatever had happened had happened in Texas, the home state of the vice president. Any responsible person, aware of the intensity of national feelings about Texas, would have a sense of dread at the realization that first the world, then the nation, could become consumed with the notion that this was somehow, in some remote, unreasoned way, a conspiracy. It was unthinkable, unimaginable, yet horribly real. I could feel a terrible wind beginning to rise and blow about us.

“We knew when the death message came there would be no trip to Dallas. We did not know what would be next. As is not generally realized, the fear of all the security forces, both civilian and military, was that this might be a signal for a massive planned outbreak of civil disorder–or the start of World War III.

“It was that latter possibility that led to Mr. Johnson’s taking the oath as president–and commander-in-chief –before Air Force One departed Dallas.

“I had known Lyndon Baines Johnson for almost 16 years: as congressman, senator, majority leader and vice president. Over that span, I had liked him and disliked him; respected him and disrespected him; thought his public performances, at times, to be magnificent, and, at other times, thought his private preoccupations to be monumentally boring. I had traveled with him, campaigned with him, laughed with him, worried with him, shared with him moments of both greatest consequence and complete unimportance. I knew him better than I wanted to know any man. But on the night of November 22, 1963, waiting for him to arrive at The Elms [the Northwest Washington house where he lived], I was not waiting for any man I had ever known; I was waiting for the President of the United States.

“For more than an hour around midnight [at The Elms that night], I sat in the bedroom listening when he wanted to speak. The silences were long. His thoughts were of what he had now to do. Mostly he emphasized the legislation that had been stalled in Congress. He thought there was a chance that it could be gotten through early in the coming year. But as he went down a mental list of the pending measures, he paused to observe: ‘You know, almost all the issues now are just about the same as they were when I came here in Congress nearly 30 years ago.’

“What do you say in such a situation? Very little. Not of the day or of the morrow. I can only describe it as a night–and a room–almost unbearably alive with quiet and stillness.

“Thirteen months before, I had met there in eerie similarity–during the Cuban missile crisis. The news that night in 1962 was bad–and it grew worse. Just before dawn, I had left to drive the few blocks to our house through lifeless streets, thinking, as no mind could ever forget, that by late that afternoon, these houses and the people sleeping in them would almost surely be destroyed and dead. It was an awesome and agonizing memory, made all the more unforgettable by arriving at home, seeing the children asleep, finding Mary V. awake, searching my eyes for what I could not tell her. This time, on November 22, Mary V. and I were together as we drove those same blocks through the late still night. How different the feeling–certainly no less awesome–to sense the responsibility toward all those people asleep so hopefully in those same homes we passed.

“There was one considerable difference. In October 1962, I went home and slept–there seemed nothing else to do. This time, I believe, it may have been Wednesday [four days later] before I went to bed again.

“Saturday and Sunday [Nov. 23-24] are blurs. Chiefly I remember being with [former] President [Dwight] Eisenhower, and then with [former] President [Harry] Truman, talking with them while President Johnson made telephone calls and received intelligence briefings. Late that night, as he was to do again each night until Thanksgiving, the president called for me to come at bedtime and asked explicitly that I remain at the bedside until he was asleep. This, I might explain, I had done before, especially abroad–we call it ‘hand holding,’ or sometimes ‘gentling down,’ as with a thoroughbred race horse. In the darkness of the bedroom, I am sure the scene would have brought smiles–if not laughter–as I, after suitably long silences, would rise and tiptoe toward the door, only to be snapped back just as I was slipping through the exit: ‘Buzz, are you still there?’

“The power had passed, but there was poison in the power. The taste of it was to run through all the days of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. The first tastes of it began during the first seven days.”