Sid Davis recalls LBJ’s launching the War On Poverty

Jan 09, 2014

I was with LBJ in Ann Arbor May 22, 1964 when he delivered the Great Society speech launching the War on Poverty. He spoke at commencement under a bright May sun in the U of Michigan Stadium, sweat soaking his body as an estimated 80,000 listened. It was memorable. The applause was more like cheering, 14 interruptions. I was a pooler on Air Force One returning to Washington. LBJ boarded, changed shirts, I think, and came forward to the press table. It was obvious how pleased he was with the crowd's response. "I can lose five or ten  pounds when I deliver a speech like that one," he said. "I got 16 applauses." He beamed. 

"No Sir. You got 14," AP's Frank Cormier answered, stunning UPI's Merriman Smith, me, and the fourth pooler, not to mention The President. LBJ's eyes searched the cabin. Though we were airborne, LBJ was standing in the aisle beside the press booth. "Valenti," he called out. 

His aide, Jack Valenti, came quickly down the aisle. "Yes, sir?" says Jack.

"Cormier here says I got 14 applauses and you told me I got 16, which is it," LBJ asks.

Both Cormier and Valenti start flipping their pads recounting of their notes. Yes, it is determined there were 16 so-called "applauses," a term I never heard before that speech.

There was no discrepancy. Valenti had counted the applause at the introduction and close. "The Associated Press," Cormier said, "does not include those two applauses." They are ceremonial gestures, not part of the speech." Everybody involved got a good laugh.

Those early days of the Johnson presidency were full of optimism, LBJ's bills were winning passage with ease, so much so that a large plaque was made for the wall in the press room at the 100 day mark as a constant reminder things were working. LBJ's domestic travels complemented his speeches. The itineraries were to Appalachia and similar places of poverty, LBJ bypassing fancy presidential watering holes, believing that the TV cameras, the press would follow, showing America firsthand the pain of poverty. 

--Sid Davis