When President Johnson Called Me a Liar

The death last month of Eugene Foley, one of many Minnesota political figures I covered as a Washington newspaper correspondent in the 1960s and 1970s, reminded me of the only time I've been called a liar by the President of the United States.

Well, Lyndon Johnson didn't actually call me a liar, but he said there was no truth to my story that Foley, who died Dec. 30 at the age of 87 at his home in Whitefish, Mont., had submitted his resignation as Assistant Secretary of Commerce and director of the Economic Development Administration in 1966.

Foley, then 37, had told me he was going to resign after the November elections as head of the Great Society's $3.25 billion program designed to pump new life into economically depressed areas, which I reported in a story that was bannered across page one of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Aug. 18, 1966.

I reported that Foley, who had headed EDA since its creation a year earlier, was resigning because the demanding job, which required 12-hour workdays and frequent traveling, prevented him from meeting social and financial obligations to his wife and four children. Foley also said he was disappointed that the Congress had drastically cut EDA's fiscal 1967 budget because of mounting Vietnam war costs.

But he was forced to backtrack when Johnson denied a few days later that Foley had submitted his resignation, and Foley described my story as based on "gossip and rumor."

But six weeks later, on Oct. 6, Johnson, who was famously adverse to having his personnel decisions announced by anybody but himself, told a news conference, at which he unveiled a 17-day trip to Southeast Asia, that he had accepted "with great regret" Foley's resignation.

Foley apparently was caught by surprise by Johnson's announcement that his resignation had already taken effect on Sept. 30 because he had said he was resigning in November. When I called his office, his secretary said he had left town and she didn't know where to reach him. When I finally tracked him down a week or so later, he sheepishly admitted that that Johnson was unhappy that he first learned about his resignation in my story.

In December, I reported that Foley, who had turned down Johnson's request to head the Democratic national campaign committee, had accepted a job as president of an economic research firm in San Francisco. The job paid $55,000, more than twice as much as his $27,000 government salary.

Foley, one of ten children of a prominent lawyer in Wabasha, Minn., was one of the many people attracted to politics by Hubert Humphrey. He managed then Sen. Humphrey's campaign in the 1960 West Virginia and Wisconsin primaries, and Vice President Humphrey's 1968 New York campaign. In 1961, Humphrey bought him to Washington to work in the Commerce Department and in 1963, President Kennedy appointed him head of the Small Business Administration.

He later went on to top jobs in New York at Occidental Petroleum and the Dreyfus Corp., and headed his own financial consulting firm. He moved back to Washington , where lived until 2006, before moving to Martha's Vineyard and then to Montana.

As his obituary noted, Foley loved the theatre and was a close friend of many of the actors and directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. He loved philosophy, poetry, science and sports. He was raised a Catholic and was particularly drawn to the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, but his daily religion was The New York Times. He loved the Yankees and the Giants and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He was a regular at Toots Shor's and other New York night spots.

A gregarious man and raconteur known by his friends as Genial Gene, Foley was once described by Jimmy Breslin, who encountered him on the campaign trail, as "one of those guys who can sit though a meeting with you until 4 a.m. and then be at his desk at 8 a.m. and work until an hour or so before midnight and then he will meet you for a drink."

Of the many people I got to know during a half century in Washington, Gene Foley was one of the most memorable. I will miss him as will his many friends.