Robert L. Hardesty, Speechwriter for Johnson, Dies at 82
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: July 13, 2013
Robert L. Hardesty, who wrote speeches for President Lyndon B. Johnson, helped write and edit Johnson’s memoirs and served as president of Johnson’s alma mater, died on Monday in Austin, Tex. He was 82.
Yoichi Okamoto, via LBJ Presidential Library
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Alice.
Mr. Hardesty came to the attention of the Johnson White House while he was working for the postmaster general, John A. Gronouski, who had become a prolific Democratic spokesman, giving more than 400 speeches in his first 14 months in the job.
In 1965, at the request of the White House, the Democratic National Committee supplied a list of 50 stellar political speeches of the previous few years; 40 had been written by Mr. Hardesty. When he was hired for Johnson’s staff, it was with the understanding that his primary job was to make the boss look good.
According to Robert Schlesinger’s 2008 book, “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters,” Johnson himself told Mr. Hardesty he was interested in speechwriters with “a passion for anonymity.”
Johnson told his staff to write simply and to help him make news.
“We intend to land the first man on the surface of the moon, and we intend to do it in this decade of the ’60s,” Mr. Hardesty wrote for a presidential speech in March 1966, reiterating a goal set by President John F. Kennedy. The problem was that the progress of the space program had slowed, and Mr. Hardesty was putting an optimistic spin on information he had received from NASA.
He wrote the line thinking the president would surely check such a declaration before actually making it. When Johnson simply went ahead with the speech, NASA officials told Mr. Hardesty he had created mayhem in the space program, and Mr. Hardesty expected to be fired. Instead, Johnson congratulated him.
“Now that’s what I call a news lead,” he said.
And, of course, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in July 1969, NASA met its deadline.
Robert Louis Hardesty was born in St. Louis on June 4, 1931, the son of John Hardesty, an ophthalmologist, and the former Lucille Hetzel. He served in the Army and later graduated from George Washington University, where he honed his dual interests in writing and politics. Before joining the postmaster general’s staff in 1964, he worked in advertising and journalism, including a stint as a reporter and columnist for The Army Times.
Mr. Hardesty continued to work for Johnson after he left office. He helped write Johnson’s 1971 White House memoir, “The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969.” He subsequently worked with the speaker of the House, Carl Albert, on the 1972 Democratic Congressional campaign, an effort that helped maintain a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in spite of a landslide presidential victory by Richard M. Nixon.
In 1976, Mr. Hardesty served on the drafting committee for the Democratic national platform; he was also named by President Gerald R. Ford to the board of governors of the United States Postal Service. He served as chairman from 1981 to 1984.
From 1981 to 1988, Mr. Hardesty was the president of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos (now known as Texas State University). He oversaw an increase in the student population to 20,000 from 15,000, an improvement in test scores for incoming freshmen and a growth in endowment to about $7 million from $400,000.
He was nonetheless ousted by the State Board of Regents. His ouster was widely seen as a political move by a Republican-dominated board irritated by his ties to Democratic officials and his outspoken support for the social policies of Johnson, who graduated from the university in 1930, when it was known as Southwest Texas State Teachers College. A state district court overturned the firing, and Mr. Hardesty was subsequently given the title president emeritus.
Mr. Hardesty’s first wife, the former Mary Adelaide Roberts, whom he married in 1954, died in 2011. He married Alice McDonald in 2012. She survives him, as do two daughters, Elizabeth Hurst and Ann Hardesty; two sons, Bruce and John; a stepdaughter, Michel McDonald; two grandchildren; and a step-granddaughter.
“Brevity was the cardinal rule,” Mr. Hardesty said, recalling his years writing for Johnson. “Four-letter words, four-word sentences, four-sentence paragraphs.” Though the rule of fours was an exaggeration, he acknowledged, the pressure of writing according to the dictum of simplicity was brutal. Once, on a rare weekend off, he was asked how he would spend it.
“I’m going to go home, drink whiskey and do nothing for 48 hours but think in long, convoluted sentences,” he said.