The White House Speechwriter Who Refused to be Fired

To be fair, Peter had a demanding boss. Few people were harder to please than President Lyndon B. Johnson. The temperamental president was quick to find fault with anyone at any time. Anyone trying to work in the White House in those days could easily feel like a swimmer in shark-infested waters.

If Peter had done his homework before accepting a job as LBJ’s speechwriter, he should have known there would be difficulties. No amount of foreknowledge can adequately protect someone from the trauma of being the subject of the wrath of the President of the United States. That’s the uncomfortable position Peter found himself in just a few months after starting his new job.

The occasion was a state dinner for King Mahendra of Nepal on November 1, 1967. Peter was tasked with writing the president’s remarks. It was standard operating procedure for the speechwriter to include the phonetic spelling of all foreign names. Peter did that with each reference to King Mahendra. He did not, however, think to include the phonetic spelling of the name of the king’s nation. When LBJ was heard welcoming King Mahendra of the great kingdom of “Nipple” to the White House, there was a smattering of laughter among the guests. Johnson was embarrassed, and that meant someone had to pay.

The word came down from the highest levels that Peter’s services were no longer needed at the White House. Fortunately, Peter had an ally in the person of White House Cabinet Secretary Robert Kintner. It was Kintner who intervened each time the order came down to fire Peter.

Peter with President Lyndon B. Johnson

Sometimes it appeared as if Peter wanted to be fired. One night in 1968, he was at a Georgetown party when he was tracked down by the White House switchboard with an emergency call from Domestic Affairs Advisor Joseph Califano. Califano had an urgent assignment for Peter that required immediate attention. Peter didn’t think it was nearly as urgent as portrayed, however. He said he would deal with it in the morning and returned to the party. The next day, an angry Califano summoned Peter to his office and strongly suggested he would be happier working somewhere else.

Most of us would probably wither in the face of such powerful animosity. Peter was unperturbed. “If the president wants to fire me, he can do it,” he said and returned to his desk, fully expecting to have someone show up to escort him off the premises. Califano relayed the conversation to President Johnson, who was not pleased. He summoned Harry McPherson, White House Director of Speechwriting. LBJ said, “Every time I pick up The Washington Post, I read about how Joe Califano is the second most powerful person in Washington, but he can’t fire a writer. You’re in charge of the writers. You take care of it.”

McPherson went to Peter and delivered the news. Again, Peter’s response to his boss was the same as what he said to Califano: “If the President wants to fire me, he can do it.”

It seems that Robert Kintner intervened again because Peter didn’t get fired. As angry as LBJ was about the situation, he was not about to lower himself to personally terminating the employment of a junior staffer. Peter never did get fired. Years later, McPherson reflected on those days and said, “I did try to get [Peter] fired because I just thought he was a bad writer, but I never could do it because of Kintner.”

Although he remained in his position, that’s not to say that he got any more assignments. One co-worker recalls that Peter took guitar lessons and would spend some of his White House hours practicing. Mostly, he spent his time wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He once aspired to be a writer. Perhaps that was still a possibility. As he whiled away the hours at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he started to outline some writing ideas. Among the ideas he kicked around were those for a novel.

Peter never forgot Robert Kintner and how he intervened to shield him from the wrath of the President of the United States. About five years after Peter finally left the White House, his novel became a reality. Unsurprisingly and touchingly, he honored his benefactor by naming one of the novel’s characters after him. It was an honor that only those who swam in the shark-infested waters of the LBJ administration could appreciate.

Peter’s novel introduced the world to a little boy named Alex Kintner. Alex was playing on the beach of a New England resort community. Unbeknownst to the boy, he was being stalked by a predator. When he paddled out into the deep water, young Alex Kintner became the first human victim of a great white shark who went on to terrorize an entire community. The book was made into a movie that would cause millions of swimmers to think twice before entering salt water.

If you read the book or saw the movie, you have figured out that we’re talking about Jaws. What you probably didn’t know was that by making Alex Kintner the first human victim of that shark, Peter Benchley was honoring the man who dared to defy and run the risk of feeling the razor-sharp bite of the President of the United States.

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