Robert Hardesty, speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson; at 82

Robert Hardesty (center) was hired as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
Yoichi Okam/LBJ Library
Robert Hardesty (center) was hired as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

WASHINGTON — Robert Hardesty, a speechwriter for Lyndon B. Johnson who shaped the president’s legacy by assisting with his White House memoir, died from congestive heart failure on July 8 in Austin, Texas. He was 82.

Mr. Hardesty pursued a wide-ranging career, including stints as press secretary to Texas governor Dolph Briscoe, president of what is now Texas State University, and chairman of the US Postal Service’s board of governors. But he was perhaps best known as an aide to Johnson from 1965 until shortly before his death in 1973.

Mr. Hardesty joined the White House after a stint as chief speechwriter for Postmaster General John Gronouski, a prominent Democratic official and campaigner who was reported to have averaged, at times, more than one speech a day. During the 1964 campaign, when Gronouski spoke widely on the civil rights movement, Mr. Hardesty wrote many of his speeches.


After Johnson’s election victory in 1964, Mr. Hardesty told the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, the White House asked the Democratic National Committee for the 50 best campaign speeches written for Cabinet officials in the previous year or so. Forty were by Mr. Hardesty.

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Mr. Hardesty recalled that, as far as Johnson was concerned, brevity was the cardinal rule for speechwriters.

‘‘Four-letter words, four-word sentences, and four-sentence paragraphs,’’ he told author Robert Schlesinger for the book ‘‘White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.’’ ‘‘You’ve got to write it so that the charwoman who cleans the building across the street can understand it.’’

Johnson also demanded that speeches make news. In 1966, with only a few hours of advance notice, Mr. Hardesty was assigned to write a speech for Johnson to deliver after being honored for his work on the space program. Johnson objected to the first draft, finding it insufficiently newsy.

After consultation with space officials on the status of the Apollo program, Mr. Hardesty added a line: ‘‘We intend to land the first man on the surface of the moon, and we intend to do it in this decade of the sixties.’’


Mr. Hardesty assumed that the president would make sure the line — and its implicit commitment to beating the Soviets — was fully accurate before delivering it.

After the speech, a top space official called Mr. Hardesty and complained that he had thrown the space program into disarray. At the end of the day — which Mr. Hardesty assumed would be his last in the White House — he ran into Johnson.

‘‘That speech you wrote for me this morning,’’ the president said, according to Schlesinger’s book, ‘‘now that’s what I call a news lead.’’

Neil Armstrong did, in fact, become the first man to walk on the moon, in 1969.

Like other speechwriters, Mr. Hardesty sometimes butted heads with Johnson over how the president should present himself to the public. The speechwriters saw the rhetorical potential of the country charm that Johnson displayed for small audiences, but that seemed to evaporate when he went before a camera. Johnson, on the other hand, wished to appear statesmanlike.


That conflict resurfaced when Mr. Hardesty joined the team of associates who traveled to Texas to work with Johnson on his memoir, published in 1971 as ‘‘The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969.’’

Robert Lewis Hardesty was born in St. Louis. He graduated from George Washington University, served in the Army in the 1950s, and early in his career was a reporter and columnist at the Army Times.

In 1976, after a few years working for Briscoe, Mr. Hardesty was named vice chancellor for governmental affairs at the University of Texas System. He was nominated by President Gerald Ford to the Postal Service board of governors and served as chairman from 1981 to 1984, a period marked by divisive controversy over hikes in postage rates.