The Man From Maine who prepared the way for JFK and LBJ

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It’s November 22, 1963, only an hour before gun shots ring out in Dallas. Jeb Byrne, the former press secretary to Maine’s governor, has just wrapped up his assignment as lead advance man for the Ft. Worth leg of JFK’s final trip as president. He’s put the 35th president on the plane for the 13-minute flight from Ft. Worth to Dallas.

Byrne was just becoming used to his new role as an advance man for Kennedy. Though another team in Dallas took over from Byrne’s, the events of Kennedy’s Texas tour along with Byrne’s subsequent role as advance man for President Johnson have left with Byrne a profound personal impression. Also leaving a lasting mark on Byrne was the 10 years he spent in Maine, first as a news reporter and then as a state official.

Byrne shares all of these in a fascinating new book, “Out in Front – Preparing the Way for JFK and LBJ.”

I reached Byrne at his Virginia home by phone just a few days ago and asked him more about the book and why he wrote it. Byrne, now 85, said the book fills in a void left by other leading accounts of the period, none of which cover the advance work done by Byrne and his colleagues. Byrne points to such classics as Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1964” and Evans and Novak’s “Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power” as examples of books that overlook the role he and other advance men played.

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It was Byrne, for example, who had to help bring together the notoriously feuding factions of Lone Star State Democrats during JFK and the First Lady’s visit. Byrne thus successfully ensured that Texas Sen. Yarborough and Vice-President Johnson — both of whom had been fighting for three years over who should get the right to name federal officials in the state — would at least temporarily bury the hatchet by placing them in the same convertible of the last motorcade before Dallas. How Byrne brought this about, despite initial resistance from a strong-willed Yarborough, is one of the book’s intriguing features. It also helps explain why LBJ himself hired Byrne to help head up his own advance work in the l964 presidential election campaign.

The esteem with which Byrne was held by the White House is borne out by the role Byrne was given in planning Johnson’s own birthday celebration held at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that year.

Johnson’s l964 and l966 presidential visits to Maine are also given vivid treatment by Byrne, who was a lead player in planning them. Both trips trigger memories Byrne has of his own previous ten years in Maine, particularly his eight years as head of the state’s United Press International bureau.

There’s his description of Johnson’s l964 Presidential motorcade down Portland’s Congress Street, one that attracted some of the largest mobs in the city’s history, for example. In it, Byrne lets the reader in on stories in Maine he once reported, brought to mind by the landmarks he encounters along the way. Glimpses of Byrne’s own 1950s experiences in covering the Portland trial of orgone energy scientist Wilhelm Reich, and Byrne’s interview with the somewhat “crotchety” widow of North Pole explorer Robert Peary, a Portland neighbor of Byrne’s, are among them. Encountering Portland Police Capt. Ed Kochian during LBJ’s visit revived memories Byrne shares with the reader of a bizarre Christmas holiday murder Kochian had investigated, this of a woman whose body was found by the Christmas creche in the city’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Another flashback occurs when Byrne describes how the Democrat LBJ managed to prevail on GOP Gov. John Reed to join him in the motorcade despite the pending election that placed both on the opposite sides of the political fence. At this, Byrne recalls his awakening Reed in the middle of the night a few years earlier to tell Reed that Byrne’s boss, Gov. Clauson, had died suddenly and that Reed, next in line as Senate president, was now governor. (Working for fatally stricken public figures seems to have been a trait of his career.)

The 1966 presidential visit to Lewiston is another part of the book of local interest. In it, for example, Byrne tells how he had to intercede to prevent Mayor Robert Couturier from being ousted from the welcoming party at Kennedy Park. To the Service, the 26-year old Couturier looked too young to be hobnobbing with the leader of the free world. (Couturier, who since 1999 has been the Androscoggin Judge of Probate, would not be so much at risk of such treatment today.)

Byrne’s story is well told. He is a talented and sophisticated writer. It thus comes as no surprise that among the accolades he earned after giving up advance work was appointment as director of the prestigious Federal Register, a Fulbright fellowship and a phD from George Washington University.

There is no headline0-commanding revelation that emerges from Byrne’s book. It does, however, offer a behind-the-scenes look at some dramatic episodes of presidential travel. Along the way, it imparts many of the author’s recollections of some prominent people and events of Maine in the l950s and 60s for which he was a front seat observer.

It is also probably one of the last books that will ever be written about the events it portrays by a person who lived them. For all these reasons, Jeb Bryne’s “Out in Front” is a book that may well have the last word and should not be soon forgotten.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@midmaine.com.

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