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.
•This is an Historically Accurate Transcription starring President Lyndon B. Johnson and President-elect Richard Nixon•
NIXON: Let me get this straight — you’re saying I should tape every conversation I have in the Oval Office?
LBJ: Absolutely. It’s the only way to go.
NIXON: I don’t know, Lyndon. It seems like something that could bite me in the ass.
LBJ: Not a chance in Hell. You’re going to be the President of the United States. You can burn the tapes and cover things up, if necessary.
NIXON: It doesn’t seem right. It seems like a risky move.
LBJ: Don’t be a pussy…it will make writing your memoirs much easier.
NIXON: Should I make it known that I record conversations?
LBJ: Hell no! Just do it! What’s the worst that could happen? Some asshole will get mad that their voice was recorded? Boo-fucking-hoo. Tell them that you’ll give them a copy of them chatting with the President so they look cool in front of their friends.
NIXON: What if Congress catches wind of it? It seems like I might be changing the nature of Presidential record-keeping and risking Executive Privilege.
LBJ: Dick…hahahaha…I said “Dick”! Anyway, Dick…hahahaha..
LBJ: Okay, sorry. Seriously, fuck Congress. What can they do?
NIXON: Impeach me?
LBJ: They never ACTUALLY impeach anyone. Especially since your Vice President is going to be that crooked retard Spiro Agnew.
NIXON: Good point. He’s from Maryland. Nobody wants a President from Maryland.
LBJ: Maryland doesn’t want a President from Maryland.
NIXON: Maryland is where Virginia and Pennsylvania stores garbage and sex offenders.
LBJ: If states were people, Maryland would be the creepy homeless guy who gives handjobs for crack money.
NIXON: Maryland is to Baltimore what bad parenting is to serial killers.
LBJ: Maryland gave Hepatitis to West Virginia and now they both make people sick.
NIXON: Okay…but back to the tapes…are you SURE this is a good idea?
LBJ: It’s a slam dunk. Tape the conversations, have them transcribed, make copies, and you’ll never have anything to worry about. Nobody ever got in trouble for telling everyone exactly what happened.
NIXON: But what if…
LBJ: No “what ifs”, Dick…hahahaha…”Dick”…just take my advice. Shit, you act like you’re going to mastermind a criminal conspiracy and then try to cover it up from the Oval Office. Tape the conversations and make sure not to make a bunch of anti-Semetic or borderline racist statements that will be preserved for history and kept in the National Archives. Why does this seem so hard to you?
NIXON: I just have a bad feeling about this. I feel like Maryland smells.
LBJ: Maryland eats dick sandwiches for breakfast and gets beat up regularly by Delaware.
NIXON: There’s a petition going around from women named Mary. They want their name removed from “Maryland” because it’s insulting to everyone named Mary.
LBJ: What are they going to call it? Shitland?
NIXON: Alright, we get the joke already, Maryland sucks.
LBJ: I wasn’t saying your name, I was using the adjective most fitting when describing you.
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
Yes, I think I’ve probably mentioned it on a few different occasions, but here’s the mention from my essay on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, “We Remember”:
When Democrat Lyndon Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader and Republican Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States, LBJ — one of the most intense, passionate political animals in our history — never attacked President Eisenhower. It wasn’t because LBJ agreed with Eisenhower’s policies. It wasn’t because LBJ was scared. It was because, as LBJ explained in 1953 in a comment that has an unfortunately haunting connection to 9/11, “If you’re in an airplane, and you’re flying somewhere, you don’t run up to the cockpit and attack the pilot. Mr. Eisenhower is the only President we’ve got.”
LBJ revisited the idea behind those comments during Richard Nixon’s Presidency, as well, but with somewhat different language. Johnson said that Nixon was a son of a bitch, “But he’s the only son of a bitch President that we’ve got.”
The Caro books really are a masterpiece, but they are definitely an investment. With the last book, Caro’s up to four volumes (and three out of the four are LONG volumes), and he’s just now getting to LBJ’s Presidency, so there if you’re looking for something now, there are plenty of one-volume treatments that I would highly recommend, especially these:
•Flawed Giant: Lyndon B. Johnson and His Times, Volume II by Robert Dallek (BOOK•KINDLE) — Dallek wrote two volumes, but Flawed Giant focuses on LBJ’s Presidency and works perfectly well as a stand-alone read.
“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