An excerpt from
Robert Clifton Weaver
and the American City
The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer
Wendell E. Pritchett
HUD, Robert Weaver, and the Ambiguities of Race
On 9 September 1965, President Johnson held one of his famous parties in the Rose Garden of the White House to sign the law establishing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In his remarks, Johnson noted the many problems facing urban areas, and he acknowledged the crisis facing America. “Unless we seize the opportunities available now, the fears some have of a nightmare society could materialize,” he claimed. The new department, Johnson argued, was “the first step toward organizing our system for a more rational response to the pressing challenge of urban life.” In his remarks, Johnson thanked several senators and congressmen who had aided the bill’s passage. Johnson had Weaver stand close by when he signed the bill, but in his remarks he made no mention of his Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA) head.
Since for five years he had run the agency that would become HUD, since President Kennedy had stated his intention to appoint him secretary four years before, and since Johnson had given such attention to civil rights, most observers assumed that Johnson would quickly name Weaver the secretary. But Johnson made no comments on the matter, and his staff deferred questions on the new department’s leadership. Weaver would eventually become the nation’s first African American cabinet secretary, but not before four months of delay from Johnson and turmoil and embarrassment for Weaver. Johnson’s tortuous path to Weaver illuminated many of the contradictions of Weaver’s career and the complexities of racial liberalism and urban policy in the mid-1960s.
Although in the end he secured the job, the very qualities that enabled Weaver to achieve success—his unassuming personality, his commitment to moderate change, and his agreement with the central premise of liberal government (reliance on professional expertise)—were all perceived as liabilities in this new era of urban turmoil. In addition, despite the significant progress made in the fight against racial discrimination, Weaver’s color continued to pose a significant obstacle to his advancement. The irony that a man who had worked assiduously to earn the proper academic and career credentials would find these achievements held against him, and that a president committed to racial equality would hesitate to promote him, reveals the complicated nature of race in this period of turmoil.
Just a month before the HUD bill passage, at the August signing of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, Johnson had made a point of singling out Weaver for praise. After thanking the many people who aided the bill’s passage, Johnson said, “And last, but certainly not least—he has been for months the leader of us all in this field—the modest, retiring, and able Administrator—Bob Weaver, who finds not much satisfaction in the compliments paid him, not even in the recognition accorded him by his superiors, but who finds ample satisfaction in the achievements that come his way. And this Bill is a monument to him.” The president’s public statement was a high point in Weaver’s career.
Weaver was not one of Johnson’s closest confidants, but the president did call on him for advice about many issues. Earlier in 1965, after heeding Weaver’s advice about relations with black politicians, Johnson sent Weaver a signed photograph. “To Bob Weaver, A Wise Man,” the inscription read. Johnson also discussed Weaver’s status with Martin Luther King. King had called the president to report that civil rights leaders were very interested in getting him to appoint a black person to the cabinet. That action, he argued, “would be a great step forward for the nation” that would “do so much to give many people a lift who need a lift now.” Johnson told King that he was “pretty half way committed” to Weaver, who was viewed as “a very able administrator and has done a good job.” Johnson said that he felt a “moral obligation” to Weaver and compared him to an assistant pastor of a church who deserved promotion when the pastor retired.
During the summer of 1965, however, Johnson expressed his doubts about Weaver to associates. In July, during one of his frequent telephone conversations with NAACP head Roy Wilkins, Johnson stated, “You know, I love Bob Weaver and I admire him, but Bob Weaver’s not a dynamic fellow that we’re going to need and I don’t know whether we really want to insist on putting a Negro at the head of urban affairs when we get it.” Johnson told Wilkins that “we ought to put someone that will do more for the Negro than a Negro can do for himself in these cities.” He stated he wanted a “Goldberg type,” referring to Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and suggested Laurence Rockefeller as a potential candidate.
After the bill creating the new department passed, and two weeks before the president signed it, John Macy, the head of the civil service and Johnson’s main headhunter, recommended that Johnson appoint Weaver to the position. “Mr. Weaver has had a long and distinguished career in housing and urban matters, and he has served well in his capacity as Administrator of HHFA,” Macy argued, and he noted that Weaver had been vetted by the FBI and that Macy had cleared the appointment with the Democratic National Committee and congressional leaders. However, Johnson decided to delay the appointment and search for other candidates. According to Johnson aide Joseph Califano, Johnson was afraid that he would not be able to get the Senate to confirm Weaver. In the aftermath of the Watts riots, Johnson worried that the Senate would not approve of a black person for the job. The HUD secretary would be the federal government’s point person on urban issues, which had become increasingly complicated as urban rioting increased. In addition, Califano noted, “Weaver was not personally popular on the hill.”
Weaver did not receive much praise from those with the ear of the president. Throughout the fall, Johnson solicited advice from congressional leaders, administration officials, and other confidants. Weaver was not warmly regarded by his future colleagues in the cabinet. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh, Budget Director David Bell, and Boston urban renewal head Ed Logue were all “superior to Weaver.” Stewart Udall, Johnson’s interior secretary, told the president that Weaver was “competent. He is not dynamic. He lacks the spark that might inspire the American people. Can he provide the challenging leadership you want and deserve? I seriously doubt it,” Udall concluded. Udall recommended that Johnson select “one of the Rockefellers,” though he did not specify which one.
Members of Congress also were less than enamored with Weaver. Senator Abraham Ribicoff told Johnson, “I don’t gather that there’s anything inspirational about Weaver, and you’re gonna have to have an inspirational man because your programs keep funneling into the cities.” Robert Kennedy stated that he had “never been very impressed with Mr. Weaver” and repeatedly told Johnson that President Kennedy had made “no commitment” to him. Kennedy argued that “having a Negro heading up housing would create problems in the North as well as the South,” and he agreed with Johnson that there would be “some advantage to having a white man in there.” Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was also critical of Weaver. “I’m afraid he’s not really up to the kind of job that you want done,” he told Johnson.
These comments laid bare the casual racism held by men who had never worked on a professional level with an African American. Though they all called themselves liberals, few of them believed blacks were equal to them in intelligence or performance. These men expected little from blacks and looked for evidence that supported their prejudices. But these criticisms also reflected the reality that Weaver was not a dynamic leader in the Johnson administration. Rather, he was a scholarly technocrat and a loner who did not frequently socialize with other high-level officials. This was partly because it was not in Weaver’s personality to do so and partly because the “old boys club” was not fully open to him. Whatever the reasons for their negative opinions, the views of Johnson’s advisors did not help his cause.
During September, Johnson asked Califano and Macy to solicit suggestions from national leaders for the post. They received at least sixty serious recommendations. None of the other prospects were African American. Reviewing Macy’s list, the president responded that “none of these appeal to me.” Although Johnson and many others in the administration were less than effusive about him, Weaver received support from leaders across the nation. The White House mail on the topic was overwhelmingly in favor of Weaver’s appointment. Boston urban renewal head Ed Logue told the president that Weaver would make “a first-rate Secretary” and argued, “Under Weaver’s leadership the Housing Agency became, for the first time, an agency with a unified approach instead of a collection of scattered programs that were accidentally located in one place.” Logue acknowledged that because Weaver was “a proud man” he was “perhaps not inclined to go out and attempt to cultivate the clientele of his agency assiduously,” but Logue concluded, “Looking back over the last four, almost five years, I think he has stood the test very well, and I would hope has earned this promotion.” Kansas City mayor Joseph McDowell called Weaver “the most refreshing HHFA Administrator we have had.”
Legislative politics during the fall hurt Weaver’s standing with Johnson. The administration had barely protected the rent subsidy program during the consideration of the 1965 housing bill, and in the middle of October the House voted to eliminate funding for the program from its annual appropriations bill. Several senators attempted to have the money included in the final bill, but in the closing moments of the session the senators, eager to go home, gave up the fight.
Part of the reason for the administration’s defeat was the release of the program’s proposed operating regulations before the vote. The regulations stated that in selecting projects consideration would be given to the proposal’s contribution to furthering “equal opportunity in housing.” Since, unlike public housing, the developments could be built without local approval, this preference for integration raised the ire of southern Democrats and northern suburban representatives. In addition, the vague wording of the rules allowed opponents to argue that the program could be used to help wealthy people, in violation of the law’s spirit. Opponents interpreted the regulations to allow families with incomes well above the national median to secure federal subsidies. Some argued that under the rules families with assets of $25,000 were still eligible. Weaver responded that these claims were exaggerations and his staff quickly pulled the document, but the damage had been done. Columnist Arthur Krock argued that Weaver had “made several grave tactical errors which, superimposed on the burden the project already carried as clearly socialistic in concept, proved too heavy for it.”
The failure of Congress to fund the program was a major defeat for Johnson, and he blamed it on Weaver. Joe Califano later remembered that Johnson “privately blasted Weaver’s `political stupidity’ in having anything on paper until Congress provided the funding.” Califano also noted that Johnson “ignored the fact that he would have roasted Weaver unmercifully had the housing administrator not been ready, upon getting the appropriation, to award the first rent supplements.” Johnson referred to the defeat frequently in his deliberations over Weaver. He lambasted Weaver for being “off in New Jersey making a Chamber of Commerce speech” when “he should have been in D.C. making sure the program was safe.” He told Roy Wilkins that Weaver “pulled the biggest bonehead any man ever pulled” and informed him that Weaver could not be nominated because Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield was so upset about Weaver’s performance that Mansfield told the president he could not support Weaver for HUD secretary.
In later recollections, Weaver argued that “the faux pas was not mine, the faux pas was the FHA’s. But when you are in a job like this, you know, when something happens, you don’t go around saying, `He done it,’ or `They done it,’ you just take it.” Weaver understood that the conflict might have had some impact on the president, but he believed that “the President and those around him knew what was happening, and I think they knew this was a matter of a political attack really on him and on this program. But it didn’t help.” With regard to complaints from Mansfield, Weaver said, “He certainly had never indicated anything to me of displeasure.”
Over several days in late October and early November, legal issues surrounding the new department brought the question of Weaver’s appointment to a head and almost resulted in Weaver’s resignation. The law creating the department stated that it would come into being sixty days after the president signed the bill. As the 9 November deadline approached, Weaver and other members of his staff, along with others in the Johnson administration, began to worry about the legality of the new department. If Johnson did not appoint at least an acting secretary, Weaver argued, there would be no one to approve contracts and other decisions necessary for the federal government’s housing programs to function. On 27 October Weaver went to Califano asking him to have the president sign several documents that were necessary to create the new department and designate an acting secretary.
Johnson, who was recuperating in Texas from gall bladder surgery, did not want to appoint Weaver secretary or acting secretary. Congress had adjourned for the session, and Johnson argued that, even if he was ready to appoint Weaver, he did not want to do it during the recess, which would anger members of the Senate. Johnson did not want to designate Weaver as acting secretary because he worried that Weaver might make a mistake during this period that would require Johnson to expend additional political capital when he made the permanent nomination.
He also was far from certain that Weaver was his man. In a long, rambling telephone conversation with Roy Wilkins on 30 October, Johnson tried to gauge the ramifications of choosing someone other than Weaver. He told Wilkins that “first of all, I like Weaver. He is a good man, he is a fair man, he likes me, we get along good together. We don’t have any abrasiveness or any irritations or problems. I can’t find any faults there. He knows more about the housing job than anybody in the Government.” But, Johnson argued, citing the rent supplement loss, “he doesn’t do his homework on the hill, he is not an imaginative person. His program for next year . . . just had to be sent back. It is just plain vanilla—about a C minus.” He also argued that Congress would criticize the selection. “When I name him I am going to start catching hell that I have not picked an imaginative person, I have not picked the biggest man in this country for the job—that I just picked him because of his race. Now that is what is going to hit me and it is going to hit me pretty heavy in Congress where I am getting pretty weak.” Furthermore, Johnson claimed, “a white man can do a hell of a lot more for the Negro than the Negroes can do for themselves in these cities. I don’t think he will carry the handicap in these Congressional Committees that are packed and loaded.”
At the same time, Johnson worried that, if he did not appoint Weaver, it would disappoint the “little Negro boys in Podunk, Mississippi,” and he felt that many blacks would say that, even though Johnson had done a lot for civil rights, “when you get down to the nut-cutting . . . this Southerner just couldn’t quite cut the mustard—he just couldn’t name a Negro to the Cabinet.” Three days later he told Wilkins, “If I had my way I would certainly lean towards Weaver. But a good deal of that is just because of my feeling for the Negroes.” Johnson speculated about making Weaver an ambassador or comptroller general, but he decided that “the only thing that is interesting at all to him is to be the first Negro in the Cabinet in a field where he has worked hard and where he has prepared himself.” Johnson told Wilkins that his top choice for the job would be Laurence Rockefeller. Any of the Rockefellers—David, Nelson, and Laurence—were possibilities, but Dean Rusk and others had told him that “Laurence was the best of all of them.”
Wilkins, who had known Weaver for more than thirty years, did not press the president on the decision but mostly parroted Johnson’s observations. “Laurence would be a ten strike and would help in alleviating this other situation,” Wilkins replied. In a conversation the next day, Wilkins, in a very obtuse manner, explained to Johnson his view of the problems Johnson would have if he did not select Weaver. “Because the minority is sympathetic and emotional they would probably feel for the man as a symbol of the goal, even though they may or may not have any warm feelings for the man—only great admiration.” There would be, Wilkins argued, “some slipping in affection on the part of the group itself.” Never mentioning Weaver’s name, Wilkins also stated that, since he had known “the man” for so long, he would “have to say something” if the president chose not to nominate him. But, if the president nominated Weaver, “I think looking a year ahead, you will be in trouble, the Department will be in trouble and he will be in trouble . . . when the situation becomes impossible, then he may have to withdraw.” Wilkins told Johnson, “You have to get the best man and if we don’t happen to have the best man then we will just have to keep on trying until we get the best one.”
Because of the complicated politics of the matter, Johnson decided to wait. “I am going to ask Weaver to stay on and do nothing until January. Than I am going to ask the best five people in the world for this job for which he would be one,” he told Wilkins. To enable him to delay the decision, Johnson directed Califano and Attorney General Katzenbach to write a memo declaring that the decision did not have to be made by the deadline. Katzenbach first determined that the president did have to act, but then he and Califano reinterpreted the statute to conform to the president’s desires.
Weaver’s personal correspondence reveals varying emotions during this period. In early October, he wrote Frank Horne that “all I can do is wait. . . . As to how real the reported reservations are—anybody’s guess is as good as another.” Throughout October, he told people that he expected a decision very soon. Weaver received several inquiries into his availability, including job offers from Harvard University, the University of California, and City College of New York. Newly elected New York mayor John Lindsay also publicly stated that he would like Weaver to return to the city to chair the Housing and Redevelopment Board if he did not get the secretary’s job. Weaver told suitors that his plans were “iffy,” but he did not reject any of these entreaties.
In later interviews, Weaver was emotional about this difficult period. He told an interviewer that he felt he should resign because “I did not want to be in the unfortunate position of being a sort of hanger-on on the one hand. And secondly, I did not think that anybody who would be the Acting Secretary would be able to get the sort of cooperation that one needed, and the department would not really get going.” He remembered that the son of one of his associates told someone in his office, “Robert Weaver thinks he is going to be Secretary, but he ain’t going to be Secretary,” and that the boy’s father resigned his position in anticipation of Weaver’s departure. So, Weaver recalled, “I indicated strongly my attitude” to Califano and Lee White. He told several associates that he was resigning, he wrote a letter, and he “set up an appointment to see the President and tell him that.” After being urged not to resign by Califano, White, and several others, Weaver said he decided to wait. “This waiting had become a very, very difficult thing,” he remembered. “It was one of the times I must say my feelings toward President Johnson were less than warm.”
Califano’s recollections of the period, which he recorded in a 1991 memoir, are more robust than Weaver’s. When Califano told Weaver about Johnson’s decision to delay, Weaver threatened to resign. “It would be embarrassing, downright humiliating,” Weaver told Califano. “He was still angry when he left my office,” Califano recalled, “but he did commit himself to sit tight.” Hearing about Weaver’s threats from Califano, Johnson became upset and told Califano to ask for Weaver’s resignation. “Let him resign. If he’s that arrogant, the hell with him. You just tell him to resign. Call him tonight and tell him,” the president told Califano.
The next day, when Weaver returned, Califano “suggested he consider resigning,” because the president did not want to make a recess appointment. He was not going to make a decision until January, and he was going to consider other people. Weaver returned to his office and wrote a letter of resignation directed to Califano. “As you appreciate, I have been beset with conflicting emotions during the last few days,” it began. Weaver acknowledged he would be “less than honest if I didn’t say that I should like to be Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” but “I still have to live with myself and my values.” Weaver was “not convinced that a recess appointment is fraught with the dangers you [Califano] delineated,” and he was concerned that further delay would “bring an impossible administrative situation.” Because he believed that HUD would face difficult problems if it was not organized immediately, he concluded that, “reluctantly, I must decline the offer to perform a holding operation which I cannot justify.”
When Califano called Johnson again to inform him that Weaver was drafting a resignation letter, Johnson told Califano, “what the hell is he doing that for? I don’t want him to resign. You tell him not to resign.” Johnson told Califano to say that he had no authority to accept Weaver’s resignation; only the president could. “Weaver entered my office, letter in hand,” Califano recollected. “He looked so broken—his dreams of a lifetime shattered over the past twenty-four hours—that I thought he might welcome the news. When he offered his handwritten letter of resignation, I said, `The President doesn’t want your resignation.’ Weaver was utterly confused, so disconcerted and agitated that he spit his words out. `No,’ he said, `I’m through. I don’t want any more of this. I’m through.’” But Califano refused to accept Weaver’s letter, and Weaver left to think about his decision. “That night,” Califano continued, “Weaver called me. He sounded exhausted and tipsy. He wasn’t happy with me or the President. But when the President called me late that evening to check on the situation, I was able to report, `He’s not going to resign. He’ll sit it out.’”
While Johnson complained about Weaver, the only person he fixed on as an alternative was Laurence Rockefeller. However, Johnson did not think that Rockefeller would accept the job, and it is unclear whether he ever discussed it with him. In the end much of Johnson’s reason for delay appears to be his concern that Weaver would have difficulty gaining Senate approval. Johnson believed he could convince the senators, but not in his current health. “Nothing has to be done in November, Weaver is there running it,” he told Wilkins. “What I want to do is come back to Washington and in my own way sit in my bedroom and talk to people and try to work this thing out to do what I am willing to stand on and defend.” The knowledge that previous confirmation battles had weakened his and other administrations clearly weighed on Johnson. “I cannot have another Cabinet fight.” Johnson asked Wilkins and Democratic Party leader Louis Martin to talk to Weaver and calm him down.
According to Louis Martin, during this period Weaver was “in horrible shape psychologically.” When Weaver read newspaper stories about Johnson interviewing other candidates, “Bob felt terribly humiliated,” Martin remembered. “Bob was distraught,” his colleague Morton Schussheim recalled. “The White House wasn’t talking to him much.” Many of Weaver’s friends were telling him that he should resign, because the president had embarrassed him, but Ella, who knew he desperately wanted the job, told him to hang on and discouraged others from talking negatively. Martin told Weaver to stick it out. “I think I know this man. He puts whites through the wringer; he puts everybody through the ringer. Don’t let it disturb you,” he said. According to Martin, Johnson had him, Califano, and Lee White all telling Weaver different stories about the job. “This was the greatest game I’ve ever seen.” Other friends told Weaver to persevere. Frank Horne wrote that “the administration is hunting high and low for a centerfielder when it has Willie Mays already on the roster.”
Although the confidential conversations between LBJ and his advisors did not become public for almost four decades, the White House and Weaver were both forced to make public comments on the matter. Press Secretary Bill Moyers told the media that Johnson was delaying his choice of a secretary until he received the report of the task force of urban experts he had organized. “There has been a meeting for sometime,” Moyers stated, “of distinguished persons on the varied and complicated problems that the federal government must deal with in terms of meeting the overall city, or urban, problems of the next five decades.” These “highly qualified Americans,” Moyers stated, were going to “study very carefully, and very thoroughly, the question of how this department should be organized in order to get the best possible start.” Moyers announced that all of the functions of the HHFA would be automatically transferred to HUD on 9 November and that there would be no problems with continuing the government’s programs. Asked whether Weaver would be temporary head of the agency, Moyers responded that everyone would remain in their existing jobs. Moyers did not expect the task force to report before Christmas, and he stated that the president did not want to make a recess appointment. In addition, the president felt, “because of his illness and convalescence,” that he had not had the opportunity “to talk personally to the people with whom he would like to discuss this in great detail.” Moyers told the press that Weaver was one of half a dozen people being considered.
On 8 November Weaver and counsel Milt Semer held a very awkward press conference to discuss the operations of the new department. Weaver began by stating that he realized there were many questions that the press might have about the new department, but he and Semer struggled mightily not to give any real answers. They repeated Moyers’s statement that the staff would continue to operate as it had previously, and there would be no immediate changes to the organization. “Well, I think tomorrow what I will do will be what I am doing today,” Weaver told reporters. Weaver said that they would continue to implement the 1965 housing act and that he did not foresee any immediate administration or morale problems, though he did acknowledge that problems might arise “after a while.” After several minutes of avoiding questions about his feelings on Johnson’s failure to select him, Weaver finally gave in. When asked, “would you still like this job?” Weaver replied, “yes.” When asked why, Weaver stated, “because this is a field in which I spent most of my adult career. And these last four and a half years have been extremely exciting.”
Another reporter asked, “somebody said one of the reasons why you might not be chosen is because your experience is primarily in housing, and the urban part has to have a broader jurisdiction. Do you think that’s a valid weakness, you might say, in your qualifications?” Weaver responded by referring to his last two books. “I think you’ll find that my interests and my concern is more than for housing.” As for his qualifications, Weaver finished, “that’s for somebody else to decide.”
Because he committed the faux pas of publicly stating that he wanted the job, Weaver was the subject of much discussion among political insiders. Commenting on the press conference, White House aide Harry McPherson wrote Joe Califano that “some of this boggles the mind.” The editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concluded that Weaver’s statement “may have excluded him for consideration. That sort of arm twisting simply isn’t cricket.” Weaver later recollected that “you aren’t supposed to do that, apparently. But hell, I wasn’t going to stand up there and say, `No.’ Nobody would have ever believed me anyway, because if I didn’t want to be, I would have quit before that.” The whole incident led many reporters to conclude that Weaver was out of the running for the job, and several newspapers speculated that the mayor of a big city such as Chicago’s Richard Daley or Detroit’s Jerome Cavanagh would be named.
Before early November, the question of Johnson’s decision received only sporadic attention in the mainstream media. Not surprisingly, many black newspapers covered the issue with great interest. The editors of the Chicago Defender, responding to reports that Weaver would not be appointed, argued that Weaver was “perhaps the greatest authority to date on housing” and that none of the “other possible appointees” had the “experience and requisite background that Weaver could bring to the complex functions of the new federal government.” The Pittsburgh Courier argued that Weaver’s selection “would mean that a Negro was a full-fledged member of the top power structure and would counteract much of the urban Negro revolt to the Republicans reflected in many large and small urban community votes in the Nov. 2 election.” The Baltimore Afro-American argued that many big-city politicians and real estate interests were opposed to Weaver because he “would move boldly to wipe out big-city racial ghettoes,” and stated that “millions of Americans will be sorely disappointed if President Johnson bows to these pressures.”
Ignoring decades of civil rights work, several journalists argued that Weaver was not popular with African American leaders. Weaver, the Baltimore Afro-American reported, “has avoided direct involvement with the civil rights movement. He also has been criticized for not packing his agency with `colored professionals.’” Louis Martin argued that Weaver “wasn’t regarded as a very strong civil rights guy” and had to work to convince civil rights leaders to support him. “It wasn’t antagonism, but they felt that Bob was, in the vernacular, a white folk’s nigger.” Other black journalists cataloged Weaver’s weaknesses. Frank Stanley, president of the National Newspapers Association, noted that two criticisms of Weaver were that “he does not relate to the Negro masses” and that “he does not relate to the Negro members of Congress.” Stanley rejected these criticisms and argued that they were irrelevant to the question of Weaver’s qualifications.
The increased attention given to Weaver forced civil rights leaders to take public stands on the matter. On 19 November Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young publicly expressed their support for Weaver. In his travels across the country, Wilkins stated, many blacks had asked him about Weaver’s situation. He believed that blacks would be “disappointed” if Johnson chose someone else. “It could be that this might galvanize the Negro community into thinking that in rejecting Mr. Weaver he was rejecting them,” Wilkins stated. While Wilkins asserted that “an appointment to the President’s cabinet is not subject for lobbying in the ordinary sense of the word,” he argued that “there’s no question that he is regarded in the Negro community as having experience comparable to that needed for this department. So Negroes would be mightily pleased if he gets the job.” Young claimed that “there has been quite a bit of discussion about this among Negro leaders who strongly support Mr. Weaver. The Negro leadership strongly feels that in the year 1965 there ought to be a Negro in the Cabinet.”
A day later, in response to arguments that the civil rights leaders’ statements had hurt Weaver’s chances, Wilkins insisted that he had been “making no threats” in his statements and had “the greatest respect for the President’s sincerity on civil rights matters” and for Johnson’s “political knowledge and acumen.” Business Week reported “some surprise in Washington” regarding Wilkins’s and Young’s remarks, noting that Weaver’s “lack of identification with the civil rights movement—even in these past five years—has made Negro civil rights leaders very cool to him.” Just days later, Weaver, in one of his few press interviews, stated that “I feel the decision should be made—either way—on the basis of my record and not of my color.”
At the end of November, Johnson continued to express reservations about Weaver. He told Attorney General Katzenbach that if he appointed Weaver “you’re liable to get yourself in the same shape you did after Reconstruction and take you another 100 years to get back. I doubt this fellow will make the grade and he’ll be a flop and exhibit number one and if you get a white man he’ll do a hell of a lot more and then you can be preparing your other people to do these things.” But in the same conversation, it was apparent that Johnson had decided to select Weaver: “We’ve got to get a super man for number two place, and then send this fellow all around policy touring and let this second fella do the work with the Congress and with the President and with all the other people.”
In early January, Johnson told Thurgood Marshall that “there is a good feeling that Bob Weaver ought to be given a chance. I rather like Weaver if it were just up to me and my personal association. I rather think that I would give him a chance.” When Johnson asked Marshall whether he would choose Weaver, Marshall said, “Yes I would. Honestly—and he is 100% reliable. That I know. I certainly would.” Johnson told Wilkins that “I have watched him carefully and given him every chance in the world to stump his toe. He has not done that so far. He just functions as perfectly as you would have.”
Two recommendations completed Johnson’s decision. The first came from MIT professor Robert Wood, who chaired Johnson’s HUD task force. Wood, whom Johnson described as “an exceptionally able man” who had “done an outstanding job,” told Johnson that Weaver’s “experience in the administration of urban programs, especially housing programs, is unparalleled in this country.” While acknowledging that Weaver “has a manner that does not excite sensationalism,” Wood argued that this trait was a good one. It would “enable the potentially controversial programs to move forward with the caution that should permit them to flourish with a minimum of controversy.” In managing an inherently flawed organization, Weaver had, Wood claimed, “succeeded in doing the impossible and in bringing new policy approaches and programs that have literally changed the entire direction and the entire tenor of America’s housing and urban aid programs.” Wood stated that Weaver was “as intellectually competent and as analytical of the urban scene as any major public figure in the United States today.” Johnson called Wood “an objective fellow that does not allow the Negro question to enter into this.”
The other recommendation came from an unlikely source, Texas congressman Albert Thomas, chair of the Appropriations Committee. Weaver later described Thomas as a man who “knew more about HHFA than I did,” because he had overseen the agency’s budget for years. In a phone call, Thomas told Johnson, “you just stand with ole Doc Weaver because he’s about as good a Negro I ever heard of in my life, he’s honest and he’s good and I back him.” Johnson called Thomas “a typical East Texas boy” who “has all the prejudice of Nagadoches, Marshall and Shreveport,” and he was impressed that Weaver had Thomas’s confidence.
On 13 January Weaver received a message to report to the White House. He was told to arrive at the residence and not to tell anyone where he was going. There Weaver met the president, who told him that he planned to nominate him for secretary of HUD. Weaver left the White House and found a pay telephone to call Ella so that she could be there for the official announcement. Later that afternoon, the White House announced an unscheduled press conference in the Fish Room. There, accompanied by the whole cabinet, the president introduced Weaver and Robert Wood, whom the president had chosen as undersecretary of the new department. Johnson stated, “After looking at over 300 outstanding potential candidates and talking to literally dozens of people about him, I have come to the conclusion that the man for the job is Robert Weaver.” The nominee, Johnson continued, was “a deep thinker and a quiet but articulate man of action. He is as well versed in the urban needs of America as any man I know.” His performance at the HHFA, Johnson added, “has been marked by the highest level of integrity and ability.” Johnson called Wood “one of the most imaginative students of urban centers.” After asserting that he was “presenting to the American people the best man I can to fulfill the pledge of this Administration,” Johnson concluded his remarks by turning to Weaver and saying, “may the good Lord have mercy upon you.”
Three years later, Weaver remained perplexed by the process of his selection. When asked why Johnson waited so long, Weaver said, “Well, I don’t know. That’s the inscrutable—I frankly don’t know.” Califano later remarked that “Johnson delayed until virtually every major black and liberal leader had asked him to name Weaver so that he could remind them that he’d done something for them.” Califano remembered that “the President left the new Secretary numb. He made it clear he could break or make Weaver—by doing both. He gave me a glimpse of a trait that sometimes drove him to crush and reshape a man before placing him in a job of enormous importance, much the way a ranch hand tames a wild horse before mounting it. To Johnson, this technique helped assure that an appointee was his alone.”
Reaction to the appointment was generally positive. A Washington Post editorial noted that Johnson chose the “best available man” and that Weaver had “served with distinction” in many positions. The editors of the Milwaukee Journal claimed that the choice was “a milestone in the history of his race and a splendid personal achievement by himself.” The paper also praised Weaver’s HHFA administration. “He has been just as `color blind’ as any white official would have been expected to be,” the editors argued. The editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argued that “Dr. Weaver will be able to give both knowledge and understanding to the achievement of the new goals of his department.” The editors of the Chicago Sun-Times said that Weaver “will need not only the mercy of the Lord, but also the accumulated knowledge of his years. We wish him luck.”
Others were less effusive. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch argued that “perhaps a more aggressive table-pounder might fare better,” while the New York Times noted that the appointment was made “despite some criticism of his abilities and his imagination” but wished Weaver “the best of luck in this monumental job.” The editors of the Washington Star said that Weaver’s “personal competency as demonstrated in a number of public posts” seemed to support Johnson’s view that he was the most qualified.
The announcement was met with joy in the black press and by civil rights leaders. The editors of the New York Amsterdam News said, “Weaver’s appointment is the boldest strike toward the recognition of the Negro ever taken by an occupant of the White House.” The Baltimore Afro-American, emphasizing Johnson’s statement that Weaver was the “best qualified of some 300 persons,” argued that this was “an encouraging sign that the nation at last is approaching the mature day when ability rates above color as a qualifying factor.”
The appointment illuminated the complicated role of race in Weaver’s career. Many expressed contradictory attitudes about the meaning of the appointment, vacillating between praising its “historic nature” and noting it as a “victory for color-blindness.” In his syndicated column, Whitney Young called the appointment “an indication of how far we’ve come” and a challenge “to all other institutions in our society—corporations, churches, educational institutions, etc.—to make equally significant appointments or promotions in their areas of responsibility.” At the same time, he noted that Weaver’s qualifications earned him the job without the factor of race. Though Johnson had obsessed about the reaction of blacks to his decision, he wrote to Young: “It matters not the color of a man’s skin. What does matter is the commitment to the cause of his country and his capacity to rise to the challenge. These are assets that Bob Weaver brings to the job.”
Frank Horne told Weaver to remember the “thousands of hearts that were lifted as you were elevated to the seat you had surely won.” He prodded Weaver to “shake free” from any restraints that may have hounded him and reminded him that, “in the long run, the vital questions will not be so much how long you will stay there but rather what you can do with it to help Joe and Sam in the street.” Weaver promised Horne that he would “start to do the things that I have the power to do. I won’t be reckless but I won’t be hesitant either.”
Because Johnson and his staff worried that the delay had weakened Weaver’s relations with Congress and his ability to manage the new department, Johnson vigorously worked to publicize that Weaver was his first choice. He called several senators to tell them that the reports that Johnson had offered the job to others were false. “My inclination was to appoint him right at the beginning but when I had my little confirmation problem I decided it would be wiser to let you all talk it over and let it cool. . . . I talked to our Senate friends when I got back and they said well they were irritated but that they would support him and confirm him. . . . I would like very much for it to be unanimous but he is and does represent my first choice and anything to the contrary is just discrediting Weaver,” he told Senator William Proxmire.
The Senate’s consideration of Weaver in 1966 provided a stark contrast to his HHFA appointment in 1961 and signified both the president’s political brilliance and major changes in the politics of race during the interim. Receiving word of Weaver’s nomination, Senator Willis Robertson, who had voted against Weaver in 1961, quickly announced that he would support Weaver. “At one time I thought he was going to be prejudiced,” Robertson stated, “but I’ve watched him very closely and I haven’t found that he was prejudiced.” The Senate Committee on Banking and Currency met on 17 January to consider Weaver’s and Wood’s nominations jointly. Senator Robert Kennedy, who had criticized Weaver only months before, introduced him to the committee, stating that he was “glad and happy and proud” that President Johnson had confirmed his brother’s choice for the post. The hearing lasted less than an hour. Committee members made short statements generally praising Weaver and asked very few questions. After the committee voted unanimously to confirm the appointments, Senator Paul Douglas told the press that Weaver was “the first and only man” offered the job by Johnson. The appointments were sent directly to the Senate floor, which immediately confirmed Weaver and Wood.
The next day, Weaver and Wood were sworn in by Federal Judge E. Barrett Prettyman at the White House. Roy Wilkins, Louis Martin, Whitney Young, Howard Dean James Nabrit, several members of the cabinet and Congress, and union leader Walter Reuther were all in attendance. Johnson called it “a very proud moment for all of us and for all of America.” Noting that others said that “the city has become unmanageable, unworkable, and unbelievable,” Johnson stated that he did “not believe for a moment the cause of the American city is yet lost.” The organization of the new department, Johnson argued, was “the beginning of a very exciting adventure. We are setting out to make our cities places where the good life is possible.” Weaver, the president stated, “has his charge. It is to build our cities anew.” Before issuing the oath, Johnson turned to Weaver and said, “Maybe that is too much to put on the shoulders of one single man. But we shall never know, Bob, until we try.”