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.
I think that Eisenhower and Reagan probably would have been tempted to seek a third term, if possible. They both had health problems during their Presidencies, but I could see Eisenhower seeking a third term anyway. He had a difficult time stepping away, which is one reason why he waited so long to give Richard Nixon a solid endorsement in 1960. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of confidence in Nixon’s abilities, but partly because Ike felt that he (Ike) was still the best man for the job.
Reagan, like Clinton, loved being President, too. But when Reagan left office in 1989, he was about two weeks away from his 78th birthday and, according to his official biographer, Edmund Morris, there were signs that he may have been facing the early stages of his Alzheimer’s in the last few weeks of his Administration. Since President Reagan looked relatively healthy and definitely looked fit for his age, it’s difficult for people to realize that he was almost a full eight years older than Eisenhower (70) was when Ike left office. Even if Eisenhower had served another term, Ike still would have been four years younger than Reagan at the end of that third term. I think Reagan’s age and deteriorating health would have prevented him from a third term if it was Constitutionally possible. As closely as his public image was protected by Nancy Reagan, there is no way she would have stood by while he hung on for another term and publicly started to suffer from serious Alzheimer’s symptoms.
An interesting thing is that, if they had the opportunity to run for a third term and their health allowed it, I think Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all would have been easily elected to another term. I think George W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time with seeking a third term, if possible. However, I don’t think Bush would have run again even if he was Constitutionally eligible. In those last few months of 2008, President Bush looked SO ready to get back to Texas. Even if his chances of being re-elected were positive, I still think he would have chosen retirement instead of a third term.
As for the second part of your question, I think that Truman would have stepped away in 1952, no matter what. All Truman ever wanted to do was remain a U.S. Senator. When he was suggested as a potential Vice Presidential candidate, he was not interested, and when others reminded him that President Franklin D. Roosevelt likely wouldn’t survive the term, Truman declared that he didn’t want to be President either. Of course, he was elected Vice President and as in the case of almost every VP who succeeds to the Presidency, once Truman got to the White House he wanted to be elected to a term in his own right. Still, before Eisenhower declared that he was a Republican, Truman was suggesting that he (Truman) would be happy to step aside and be Eisenhower’s running mate if Ike wanted to run for President as a Democrat. So, Harry Truman did not mind retiring home to Missouri in 1952, and I think he would have done so, no matter what.
LBJ’s case was different. The fact that he was very nearly upset in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary by Eugene McCarthy really shook President Johnson up and showed that he was vulnerable. If there wasn’t a serious challenge from within his own party — first from McCarthy and then from RFK — LBJ would have stayed in that race in 1968. Despite his withdrawal from the race, deep down LBJ still had a flicker of hope that the Democratic National Convention would be deadlocked, turn to the outgoing LBJ, draft him into the race, nominate him, and he’d be the conquering hero, vanquishing Nixon and bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
LBJ was also a man of contradictions, though. Throughout his life, he always said that he would die young because all of the men in his family died by the time they were 64 or 65. As much as Johnson was addicted to power and craved the love of the American people (something that he never received like JFK did, which “broke his heart” according to Richard Nixon), he was also deeply worried that another four years in the White House would kill him. Worse yet, he would suffer an incapacitating stroke like Woodrow Wilson. LBJ often had a nightmare where he fell ill like Wilson and was an invalid — a shell of a once-powerful man bedridden or feebly being rolled through the White House in a wheelchair. It was an macabre thing to think about, but it was something that frequently haunted President Johnson, especially because he had suffered a near-fatal massive heart attack in 1955 when he was Senate Majority Leader. The confident, arrogant, impetuous, strong-willed LBJ wanted to take on Nixon and serve four more years in the White House. The sensitive, insecure, depressed LBJ considered resigning, didn’t think he’d live through the next term (1969-1973), and often had to receive a pep talk from Lady Bird to get his act together and go to work. So, with LBJ, it would actually depend on which LBJ you got on decision day when it comes to whether he would have sought a third term if not for the disastrous results of the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
By the way, Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. If he had served a third term, it would have ended on January 20, 1973, just two days prior to the day that he actually died.
•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
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
17th President of the United States (1865-1869)
Full Name: Andrew Johnson
Born: December 29, 1808, Casso’s Inn, Raleigh, North Carolina
Term: April 15, 1865-March 4, 1869
Political Party: National Union/Democratic
Vice President: None (Succeeded to office upon death of Abraham Lincoln)
Died: July 31, 1875, near Carter’s Station, Carter County, Tennessee
Buried: Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greeneville, Tennessee
Much like James Buchanan, whoever was in the pilot’s seat as the wounds of the Civil War began to heal and a bitterly divided nation worked towards Reconstruction was going to have a difficult time. Unfortunately, the man who led the nation through that Civil War ended up being one of its final casualties and Andrew Johnson was thrust into the White House. Johnson was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union, but he was also a vehement racist. He didn’t fight for equal rights or emancipation, he fought against a Southern aristocracy that he had long despised. Lincoln’s assassination robbed the nation of many things, the most important of which was a steady and gracious visionary with top-notch political skills committed to truly reuniting the North and South. Johnson made enemies in the South, in Congress, and in his own Administration, became the first President to ever be impeached, and barely survived a trial in the Senate so that he could finish the term of the martyred Lincoln.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 19 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 23 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune: 32 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 39 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 37 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 40 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 38 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 37 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 41 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 43 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 36 of 40