A Button Away from the Presidency

Recalling a funny memory from the late Marvin Watson


Marvin Watson’s recent passing at age 93 reminds me of a classic Washington story involving him, me, and a writer client.

Watson was a small-town Texas business executive who reluctantly became an intimate aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. For many years, Watson was LBJ’s most trusted confidant. A quiet, patriotic, religious man — the opposite of his boss — Watson shied away from public life until LBJ recruited him to be chief of staff, replacing Johnson’s then-aide, who had resigned because of a personal scandal.

Watson worked 18-hour days, never in the limelight, but always a shout away from the commander-in-chief. Watson later was appointed postmaster general and remained a close personal advisor to LBJ until the president’s death.

One of Watson’s jobs was to be protective of LBJ, especially in his ongoing, rancorous relationship with Robert F. Kennedy. Years after leaving government, Watson came to my office to discuss a book he wanted to write about his LBJ days with his former White House colleague, Sherwin Markman.

As we sat down to talk, Watson asked how I could be his literary agent when I had worked for RFK at the Justice Department and as his speech writer when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

I said, "Mr. Watson, I didn’t call you, you came to me. I don’t have a problem assisting you if you have a good book to write, so why don’t we discuss that question?” He and Sherwin described their book — Chief of Staff: LBJ and His Presidency (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004) — which I later sold.

The kicker is that, years later, I was discussing that book with another writer client, Martin Schram, who told me the anecdote I've waited years to tell.
Schram said he covered the White House for years for Newsday. As a rookie, he was called to the Oval Office with the rest of the press corps by the president. He noticed that LBJ had four buttons on the corner of his desk. They intrigued Schram. He couldn't take his eyes off them, wondering if one would set off World War III, and what the others might do.

Schram later asked Johnson’s press secretary, George Christian, about them. Christian replied, “I wondered when someone would ask.” He explained that one button meant an aide would arrive with black coffee for the president; another button was for tea; a third, for Fresca.

And when LBJ pressed the fourth button? Marvin Watson would come running through the door from his adjoining office.

Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author, and literary agent. His column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Independent.

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