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David and Art - LBJ vs. The Artists, Part 1

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

For President Lyndon Johnson, hosting artists at the White House during the Vietnam War was risky business.

In the spring of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had just announced the members of a new National Council on the Arts, and Congress was holding hearings on creating an endowment that would help fund art in America. White House cultural advisor Eric Goldman suggested to the President that he and the First Lady host a day-long White House Festival for the Arts later than year. It would be an “especially striking way of stating the interest of the White House in all the arts,” Goldman said, and could rally public support for the foundation legislation. LBJ liked the idea.

The timing however was far from perfect. That same spring, the administration had started bombing North Vietnam in an operation called ROLLING THUNDER, and in March two battalions of Marines were deployed to protect a U.S. airbase in South Vietnam. It was the beginning of the escalation of the war and protests erupted almost immediately. Over the next few months, more and more students, professors, artists, and writers joined their voices in dissent.

Less than two weeks before the White House Festival was to take place, poet Robert Lowell, who had been invited to read selections of his poetry, publicly withdrew his acceptance and published his letter of refusal in the New York Times. It inspired twenty of the nation’s leading writers and artists to draw up and sign a petition condemning the President and his policies and supporting Lowell. The New York Times published that one, too. While most of the signers had nothing whatsoever to do with the upcoming Festival, three, however, did: Painters Mark Rothko and Larry Rivers, and critic Dwight MacDonald were on the invitations list. While works by Rothko and Rivers were already going to be part of the exhibit, their invitations had not yet gone out, so their names were quietly taken off the list.

Dwight MacDonald, however, presented another problem. His invitation had already been mailed. He in fact received it the same morning the New York Times published the petition he had signed. Certain that MacDonald would refuse the invitation the moment he received it, Goldman simply told the President that only two, instead of three, of those who had signed the petition were in any way involved with the upcoming Arts Festival. LBJ had no idea that MacDonald had signed the protest yet was still invited to the program. Goldman waited impatiently for MacDonald to decline the invitation, but to his great surprise, he instead accepted. “I assume you would have no objection to my writing something later about my impressions of the Festival,” he wrote to Goldman, “since you were kind enough to invite such an inveterate writer and critic as myself.”

As actor Ben Johnson said in the movie Chisum, “There’s gonna be some interesting people at that party.” Tune in next week.