Looking back on it now I wish Dwight Eisenhower had left in that paragraph he deleted in his whistle-stop speech at Green Bay, Wis., Oct. 3, 1952.
And I am glad that Lyndon Johnson said what he did to that joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, when he was talking about civil rights.
Over the years a Washington correspondent collects memories about presidents, and I have total recall about both these incidents. Historians are arguing the merits of these two different men, President Eisenhower and President Johnson. As a reporter I liked both of them.
Writing in this newspaper under dateline ''With Eisenhower Party in Wisconsin'' in October 1952, when Ike was running against Adlai Stevenson, I noted that Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (D) of Wisconsin was on the campaign train rolling through the state. What a contrast! I noted that McCarthy had attacked Ike's ''beloved patron, Gen. George C. Marshall,'' charging him ''with aiding Communists and with questionable loyalty.'' McCarthy had just won an almost 4 to 1 primary victory in Wisconsin. What would Ike say about his fellow Republican? Would he praise Marshall? Would he repudiate McCarthy? He did neither.
He had a rear-platform speech ready which at one time contained a paragraph praising General Marshall. His advisers, however, noted McCarthy's presence and counseled against a public breach. The passage was deleted. What they didn't know was that the passage had leaked.
It was a crisp day. We stood below the Pullman on the rail tracks. I wrote:
''A large number of reporters were out to see the incident because of the savage attack made by Senator McCarthy. . . . Several reporters came from the East particularly to see how General Eisenhower handled the difficult affair.''
Ike spoke in generalities and promised that there would be no subversives in his administration but that at the same time people would be presumed innocent until proved guilty. ''A nice speech,'' McCarthy said smugly later.
It was a mistake by Ike to delete the paragraph. Historians have agreed upon that now. Ike worked behind the scenes, and his reputation has risen; he gave the nation just what it wanted most at the time, eight quiet years. The Senate rid itself of McCarthy in time. Yet I shall remember vividly the wait on the railroad tracks at the candidate's special train that chilling day in Wisconsin for the denunciation that didn't come.
The other incident is about Lyndon Johnson. He seems to be under attack on all sides now as reviewers rub their hands over the first volume of Robert A. Caro's hostile biography. Peter Prescott, writing in Newsweek, finds Johnson ''thoroughly corrupted . . . -vicious and treacherous.'' Some Washington reporters gasp. Sure, there was much to attack. But was this the man we watched in Congress and the White House all those years? How did the nation survive?
I wrote about him in this and other outlets. Yes, he certainly had faults; we delighted to recount them. He was breathtaking, too. I encountered him in his office as Senate majority leader in 1959 in his old Capitol suite. It was like the Sistine Chapel with allegorical nymphs floating around on the ceiling from some forgotten painter. I called it ''a kind of vast, ornate, de Medici magnificence.'' He fitted right into it. His huge desk had so many telephones, buzzers, and desk speakers that operating it was like playing the organ. His drive and energy were overwhelming. I was caged with a restless tiger. He was defending himself to me for some reason that I didn't understand and expostulated that he wasn't ''a motherless child.'' Before I could catch my breath he had bounded from his chair and was pacing the floor, over the thick carpet, rocking an imaginery waif in his arms.
As I read the new vitriolic attacks on LBJ, I recall watching him from the House press gallery that March day, 1965, before the joint session of Congress; a watershed speech. He gave everything he had to the pending voting rights bill to try to end racial discrimination. My penciled notes are jerky; I was moved: ''Strong and uncompromising speech,'' I jotted; ''. . .speaks slowly, effectively . . . -seems from the heart . . . confident, self-assured . . . his best speech. . . .''
He had put a Negro in the Cabinet; another on the Supreme Court. He made America poverty-conscious. He had plenty of faults; at another time I wrote ''a strange man; a man hard to love.''
But I return to his big speech to the joint session that day in March where he carried the crowd with him. I look at my jotted notes. He rejects constitutional objections and moral quibbles.
''It is wrong, deadly wrong,'' he says, ''We cannot, we must not refuse. . . . The time for waiting has gone. . . . I want to be the President who helped the poor.'' And he finished it with the tingling phrase - ''We shall overcome!'' That day they applauded him 40 times, and I jotted down in my notes:
''I shall always like Lyndon better for this speech.''