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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William C. Friday, December 3, 1990. Interview L-0147. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Helping to form the White House Fellows Program under Lyndon Johnson

Friday discusses his work with the White House Fellows program under Lyndon B. Johnson. Friday was asked, along with other university leaders across the country, to form a commission that brought together student leaders to meet with Johnson. Friday describes the process of selection, identifies UNC students who participated, and notes the emphasis to include more women after the initial selection.

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Oral History Interview with William C. Friday, December 3, 1990. Interview L-0147. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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And Mr. Johnson then took over and that began a series of things thatߞis this too boring?
No. Not at all.
Well, it began really, I think, two days before Christmas. I was in the basement of the president's house in my work clothes, stripping furniture. And as I said the other day, Professor Eric Goldman of Princeton called me, and he said my dear friend Bob Goheen had said to him he ought to call me to see if I could respond to his inquiry; the President needed some ideas. The new President did. And that led to a lot of discussion. But one of the suggestions that I made to him was that Mr. Johnson had a huge gap in his circle of acquaintances. He did not have any connection with young people, to speak of. And he should develop that. Well, Frank Keppel was his Secretary of Education. And through a series of visits to Goldman's office, we worked out a plan where by on a given Saturday, he was to invite 300 young people, each of whom was the President of their student body, of his particular institution. And we had all varieties there. Major universities. Small colleges. Black schools. Girls' colleges. And the idea was that he would greet these young people. And then he'd have members of his cabinet visit with these young people. Tell them what they did. Engage in discussions with them. Dean Rusk came. McNamara. Willard Wurtz. Frank Keppel. A very, very fascinating East Room afternoon. And then we persuaded him that it would be nice to let his girls, who were then the age of these people, to give a little party for all their guests. And they had Stan Getz's band come. And they had a big to-do. And a picnic. And then they danced, and then they all went home. But the idea there was to begin to open the door for Lyndon Johnson and millions of young people out in the country, who were later to become very much involved with him in another way. After that, John Gardner entered the scene. I had known him when John was the President of the Carnegie Corporation. We'd became friends at that time. And they invited me as guest of Carnegie to go to Harvard, when I first got in office, to one of their so-called schools for presidents, to learn how to be a president. And Nathan Pusey, who was the new President of Harvard, was in that same group, along with Clifton Hardin, who later became Secretary of Agriculture. He was then President of the University of Nebraska. And some others. Out of these relationships came the implementation of a suggestion that John had in the back of his head, which was to develop in the United States a coterie of young people, who through some prior experience in high levels of government, could in times of national crisis be pulled back in to serve the government in many civilian-type roles. The name of the program was the White House Fellows. John saw to it, I supposeߞI don't know how I got on there, but I was on the original Commission, along with David Rockefeller, who was as Chairman. Mrs. Beech, of Beech Aircraft. Emory Kaiser's son. People like this. We had John Oakes, who was then head of the editorial page for the New York Times. And we got into this first competition, which was a very interesting experience. We had tens of thousands of young people apply. But the Commission didn't get into it until the last selection. And we went to (?) House down in Warrenton, Virginia, to choose eight out of the remaining twenty. We literally lived with these young people for two and a half days. It was a very hard thing to do. And we chose people like Tom Johnson, who later became Mr. Johnson's Press Secretary. And is today the head of CNN. Just talked to Tom last week. He came backߞhe was publisher of the Los Angeles Times. At that time he'd been accepted as a graduate student at School of Journalism in Chapel Hill. That's why I took such an interest in him, because he was from Macon, Georgia. And we had others. But we finished the process. Picked our people. And we drove back to the White House forߞto present President Johnson our nominees. Well, we did. And we had an occasion there. And, unhappily, we didn't pick a girl the first time. And the minute we got through with the first designation ceremony there in the White Houseߞit was a very lovely affair, that the President put onߞMrs. Johnson let the Commission know plainly that she expected to see some women in there before too long. [Laughter] So we go back to the process again the next year. And Doris Kearns, who you know as a biographer. Jane Pfifer, who is on the Knight Commission right now, was at that time a very bright girl, later became head of the NBC. They were chosen. And the next classes that followed. And soon after that I dropped out, because I figured it had to rotate. And it was taking a lot of time and I'd been serving as head of the Executive Committee of that Board. But, soon after that John Gardner called me one day and asked me to come to Washington to be the Assistant Secretary for Education. And I turned it down. And that, I guess, among other decisions that I'd have never known whether I was right or wrong. I know I was wrong in that one, because it would have been a great experience for me. And I was caught up in so much pressure here that I didn't feel right about leaving. But you have to break away once in a while. And I should have done it then, to gain the experience there.