On December 31, 1963, Lyndon Johnson had been President of the United States for just over a month. Forty days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas and LBJ was now entering 1964 — a Presidential election year — as the incumbent President, albeit an accidental one.
After several somber, tense, and exhausting weeks, LBJ was spending the Holidays at the LBJ Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. On that New Year’s Eve, many members of President Johnson’s staff gathered at the Forty Acres Club in Austin, Texas to celebrate a birthday party for LBJ aide Horace Busby. President Johnson wanted to join the festivities, but a tired Lady Bird wasn’t interested in going out, so LBJ gathered his secretaries at the LBJ Ranch and boarded a helicopter for the short flight into Austin.
Austin and its main businesses in the early 1960s were no different than any other city in the Segregated South. Although the party for Busby was being held at the Forty Acres Club on the campus of the University of Texas, the hangout’s strict code of segregation had previously led to controversy. In 1962, an African-American official from President Kennedy’s newly-formed Peace Corps was denied service at the Forty Acres Club, which led to a minor boycott and the resignations of several University of Texas staff members who had held club memberships. Still, segregation was strictly enforced, just as it was in restaurants, bars, hotels, bus stations, playgrounds, cemeteries, and basically anywhere that one group of people might come into contact with another group of people throughout the South.
When President Johnson and the secretaries that he had brought along with him to the party arrived at the Forty Acres Club, the simple fact that the President of the United States was about to attend a gathering at a segregated business could have caused a major national controversy. It was still early in LBJ’s Presidency and the fact that Johnson was from the South had worried civil rights leaders when JFK tapped Johnson as his running mate in 1960. Up to that point, LBJ had not yet done anything as President to neutralize the fears of liberal Democrats who mourned President Kennedy’s assassination as the loss of potential civil rights legislation.
Everyone inside the Forty Acres Club recognized that the President was about to arrive when Secret Service agents entered the building and began scanning the guests and taking up positions. Music was playing, cocktails were being served, conversations were cascading throughout the room, but there was also a sense of dread amongst those on LBJ’s staff who realized that the President’s decision to frequent a segregated nightclub in Austin would likely require some major explaining when the news got out.
And then, when Lyndon Johnson walked into the Forty Acres Club, it became clear that he might not be the President that some worried he may be. As he entered the strictly segregated club, the President of the United States was arm-in-arm with one of his secretaries — Gerri Whittington. One of the guests, Ernie Goldstein turned to LBJ aide Bill Moyers and asked, “Does the President know what he’s doing?” Moyers didn’t hesitate. He responded, “He always knows what he’s doing.” Whittington asked Johnson a similar question. “Mr. President,” she asked as they headed inside the club, “do you know what you are doing?” Johnson didn’t hesitate. “I sure do. Half of them are going to think you’re my wife, and that’s just fine with me.”
Gerri Whittington was an African-American woman and in the final hours of 1963, the President of the United States had taken it upon himself to integrate the Forty Acres Club in Austin.
Nobody had suggested it. Nobody had demanded it. Nobody had expected it. There were no focus groups convened and no polling data was consulted. Political calculations had nothing to do with it. It was as simple as Lyndon Johnson wanting to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his staff — a staff which included an African-American woman. On the last night of 1963, Lyndon Johnson brought a black friend to what had been a strictly segregated, all-white club because he wanted to, but he also did it because he realized that he was now the most powerful man in the world and it was something that he could do. As LBJ said in other situations, “Well, what the hell is the Presidency for?” On that last night of 1963, LBJ showed that the Presidency was for breaking down barriers and beginning the journey that made a big, brash Texan from the Hill Country the man who did more for Civil Rights than any other President besides (maybe) Lincoln.
Gerri Whittington, who had been asked to join LBJ’s secretarial staff in the White House shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated, continued to work in the White House for President Johnson until the day he left office and flew home to retirement in Texas. She was the White House’s first black executive secretary and one of her fondest memories wasn’t desegregating the Forty Acres Club with LBJ, but the day in June 1967 when President Johnson steppped out of the Oval Office with Thurgood Marshall and shared the news that he was appointing Marshall as the first black Supreme Court Justice. Other than the President and Marshall, Whittington was the first person to know of the historic nomination.
As for the Forty Acres Club, the rigid segregationist policy that had previously been the rule literally disappeared overnight. The very next day, January 1, 1964, a curious party-goer from the night before called the club to see if it might have been an aberration or a one-time concession to the power of the Presidency. When he asked if black guests were now allowed at the Forty Acres Club, he was told, “Yes, sir. The President of the United States integrated us on New Year’s Eve.”
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.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia
"Watch their hands, watch their eyes. Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes. The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say." — Lyndon B. Johnson
To my friends at the LBJ Library:
I am, of course, already your biggest supporter but if anything would unyieldingly keep me devoted to the cause of Lyndon B. Johnson and the LBJ Library, it would be a replica of that AWESOME belt buckle that I can’t believe it’s taken me 32 years of life and study of LBJ to notice.
P.S.: A closer look:
LYNDON B. JOHNSON
36th President of the United States (1963-1969)
Full Name: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Born: August 27, 1908, near Stonewall, Texas
Term: November 22, 1963-January 20, 1969
Political Party: Hubert H. Humphrey
Died: January 22, 1973, LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
Buried: LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
I’m guessing that many of my longtime readers will be surprised that LBJ is #6 instead of #3 (or even #1, as some people suspected). I will say that the distance between the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 is tiny and you can basically consider them tied for fourth place, but I couldn’t conceivably have a tie in my own personal rankings that have no statistics or metrics or anything that would lead to a tie. That would have been a cop-out. However, there’s not much distance between #6 and #4, while the distance between #3 and #4 and between #6 and #7 is pretty big. LBJ is a great President because of his domestic accomplishments and Civil Rights, even with the turmoil of the last few years of his Presidency and the drag that Vietnam places on his legacy. I am adamant that the passage of true, effective Civil Rights legislation during LBJ’s Presidency — legislation that was shepherded and piloted through Congress by Lyndon Johnson — is one of the great accomplishments in all of American History. I believe that LBJ did more for Civil Rights than anyone in American History — including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership when it came to getting legislation passed through Congress so that he could sign it never receives the full appreciation that I feel it deserves, so I’ll continue fighting my own battle for it. I have LBJ at #6, but again, I think the Presidents that I have ranked #4, #5, and #6 are interchangeable.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 12 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 15 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 14 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 41
2000: Public Opinion Poll: 19 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 18 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 16 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 11 of 40
“Let us now join reason to faith and action to experience, to transform our unity of interest into a unity of purpose. For the hour and the day and the time are here to achieve progress without strife, to achieve change without hatred — not without difference of opinion, but without the deep and abiding divisions which scar the union for generations.” — Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), 36th President of the United States (1963-1969), Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965