David and Art - LBJ vs. The Artists, part 2
The 1965 White House Festival of the Arts brought artists and politicians together at a tense time in the country’s history.
When last week we left President Lyndon Johnson, he was storming around the White House complaining about the artists and writers who were constantly criticizing him and his administration. He was soon going to host a grand White House Festival for the Arts but now some of the very people on the guest list were denigrating his foreign policy. He didn’t need this. He alternately threatened to call the whole thing off or simply just not show up at it. His aides had to talk him into attending.
June 14 was a beautiful day in Washington. The Festival began promptly at 10:00 in the morning with the First Lady receiving guests and hosting a coffee in the Blue Room. Poetry readings, dramatic presentations, and music provided highlights through the day. Scattered around the house and grounds were thirty-nine paintings and twenty-six sculptures. Charlton Heston hosted a showcase of American motion pictures featuring snippets from High Noon, North by Northwest, On the Waterfront, and other acclaimed films. Stage actors performed excerpts from The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman.
Circulating among the crowd was critic Dwight MacDonald, trying to convince people to sign a petition supporting poet Robert Lowell’s condemnation of the President. “I came here to make trouble politically,” MacDonald grinned. “I’m the bad fairy come to the christening.” Around six in the evening, MacDonald confronted Charlton Heston in the Rose Garden. The men began to argue and for a tense moment an actual fight seemed possible. When MacDonald began to shout, Heston gathered his composure and walked off. “Why should I sign his lousy petition?” he later remarked.
During evening cocktails, the First Lady circulated among the guests, gracious and indefatigable. President Johnson appeared around 8:00 to deliver a few words. He was obviously uncomfortable and gave a snipped version of some prepared remarks. “Some of them insult me by staying away and some of them insult me by coming,” he grumbled to a nearby reporter. He turned on his heels and went back inside as applause rang out and champagne corks popped. The President spent the rest of the evening shut in his office as the happy sounds of Duke Ellington’s orchestra drifted by his window and up into the clear summer night.
When he heard about what had happened, novelist John Steinbeck wanted to make sure that LBJ had not misinterpreted his not being able to be there. “I want to make it very plain that my absence had nothing to do with foreign policy,” he wrote the White House. “I’m glad I wasn’t there...I’m afraid I would have been in a fight.” “Please make sure the boss knows my sentiments in this matter. I would hate him to think that I ran out on him.” Johnson was impressed and thanked Steinbeck sincerely. Less than a year later, he put Steinbeck on the National Council for the Arts. Dwight MacDonald received no such honor.