Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ability to convince others to see things his way, vote for his legislation, serve at his command, and do what he needed them to do is so legendary that there is even a familiar description of his tactics — “the Johnson Treatment”. Read any biography of LBJ and you’ll be sure to find the words “bully” and “cajole” somewhere in the text. The towering Texan often used his imposing physical presence (he was nearly 6’4”) to grab lapels, jab fingers in chests, wrap his arms on his target, and literally lean on others in order to get what he needed, as displayed in the famous series of photographs above of the Johnson Treatment being used on a somwehat terrified-looking Senator Theodore Green of Rhode Island.
But the Johnson Treatment wasn’t always a physical onslaught. Lyndon Johnson had an innate, often stunning ability to read the personalities of others and immediately understand exactly how to ingratiate himself with them. With giants of Capitol Hill like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and longtime House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, LBJ recognized two lonely, childless men who had nothing in their lives but an intense devotion to politics. With both men, Johnson built relationships bordering on familial. Russell and Rayburn both had something close to paternal affection for Johnson, who was endlessly deferential to them and brought them into his home for dinners with his family because, as he once explained to Senator Russell, who lived alone in a small apartment in Washington, “You’re gonna have to eat somewhere, you know.” The relationships he built were real, but there was a reasoning behind the deference and for the personal bonds forged with such men, too. Johnson recognized their influence and how they could further his goals for himself and for his country. As LBJ often said, “Power is where power goes.”
Johnson would tailor his strategy differently for everybody he approached, and his success rate was astonishing. The Johnson Treatment’s tactics were effective, if not always admirable. The man who would one day become LBJ’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, once pulled up the leg of his trousers to show bruises where Johnson had kicked him while saying “Get going!” after giving Humphrey marching orders. In the dark days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson decided to appoint a special Presidential commission to uncover all of the facts of the murder and report back to the country. To chair the commission, LBJ wanted Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, but Warren was opposed to Supreme Court Justices serving on extrajudicial commissions. When Warren declined, Johnson called him to the Oval Office and appealed to his patriotism, noting that rumors that the Soviet Union might be involved in Kennedy’s death could cause the Soviets to become nervous of an impending retaliation by the United States and launch a preemptive nuclear strike, which would kill an estimated 39 million Americans in the first hour. “All I want you to do is look at the facts, and bring any other facts that you want in here and determine who killed the President,” Johnson told Warren. “But here I’m asking you to do something and you’re saying no, when you could speaking for 39 million people. Now I’m surprised that you, the Chief Justice of the United States, would turn me down.” The Chief Justice, one of the most formidable and respected men in the country, was left in tears, and immediately said, “Mr. President, if the situation is that serious, my personal views do not count. I will do it.”
Richard Russell didn’t want to serve on the Warren Commission, either. One of the main reasons was that the staunch segregationist hated and distrusted Earl Warren, whose Supreme Court had ordered the desegregation of public schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Throughout their relationship, Johnson had always been deferential to the Senator from Georgia who, in turn, treated LBJ like the son he never had. Now, just seven days into his Presidency, LBJ used another form of the Johnson Treatment on Russell. A couple of hours after Russell had initially turned down Johnson’s request, the President called him back and told him that he wasn’t simply asking Russell to serve on the commission — in fact, he’d already announced it to the press. Russell was stunned and again tried to beg off, but it was no use. The protégé, now President of the United States, said, to his mentor, “You’re my man on that commission. And you are going to do it! And don’t tell me what you can do and what you can’t, because I can’t arrest you. And I’m not going to put the FBI on you. But you’re goddamned going to serve, I’ll tell you that!” There wasn’t anything else the Senator could do. Richard Russell served alongside the Chief Justice on the Warren Commission.
The Johnson Treatment — and LBJ’s unique way of adapting it to each person — even worked with people who knew Lyndon Johnson extraordinarily well, understood his modus operandi, and were somewhat “on-guard” for the Johnson Treatment. James H. Rowe was a cunning, tough politician and lawyer, who had known Lyndon B. Johnson since Johnson was a young, up-and-coming Congressman beginning to float into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rowe had been a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and became an ardent New Dealer. He worked on the Nuremberg Trials prosecuting Nazi war criminals following World War II, and was a Democratic operative who was a trusted political adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman. By 1956, Rowe had known Lyndon Johnson for nearly twenty years and had often seen LBJ get his way via the Johnson Treatment by bullying, flattering, and even sometimes making others feel pity for him.
On July 2, 1955, Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader, suffered a massive heart attack that very nearly killed him. Just 46 years old, unhealthy habits such as his blistering pace at work, his diet, his drinking, his lack of exercise, and the more than three packs of cigarettes that he smoked daily caught up with LBJ, who came from a family of men with a history of heart trouble. As he returned to work at the Capitol, Johnson asked Rowe to join him as an aide in the Senate. Rowe turned Johnson down because of his lucrative law practice in New York City — a job as an aide to the Senate Majority Leader would obviously result in a drastic pay cut for Rowe. LBJ put the Johnson Treatment into full effect, and not just on Rowe.
As Rowe continued to decline Johnson’s pleading, mutual friends were told that LBJ had nearly died and that Rowe wouldn’t help him out. Rowe’s law partner, another New Dealer and famed operative for FDR, Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, got on Rowe’s case, saying, “You just can’t do this to Lyndon Johnson!”. Rowe would later remember, “People I knew were coming up to me on the street — on the street! — and saying, ‘Why aren’t you helping Lyndon? Don’t you know how sick he is? How can you let him down when he needs you?’” Even Rowe’s wife was recruited and asked him one night, “Why are you doing this to poor Lyndon?”.
Then LBJ really turned it on. Over the years, Rowe had seen Johnson use whatever means necessary to obtain the support he needed and the people he wanted. But when Lyndon Johnson came to James Rowe’s law office, he was stunned by the display. Johnson’s was sobbing, with his head in his big hands, tears streaming down his face. “I’m going to die,” said Johnson. “You’re an old friend. I thought you were my friend and you don’t care that I’m going to die. It’s just selfish of you, typically selfish.” Pleading with Rowe that he had a big job to do as Senate Majority Leader and not much time left because of his health problems, he literally begged Rowe to come to work for him, even if it meant sacrificing his law practice for a while.
“Oh, goddamn it, all right,” said Rowe.
The Johnson Treatment had worked again, even on an old hand like James H. Rowe, who had seen it in action so many times. And, as soon as Johnson got what he wanted, the tears disappeared. The weakness was gone. He was no longer dying or crying or pleading. Instead, he stood up, looked his new employee, and gave him his first orders.
“Just remember, I make the decisions. You don’t,” LBJ commanded Rowe, and then stomped right back to work.