the johnson treatment


LBJ, Texas and American Hero.

On March 13, 1965, LBJ gave George Wallace the Johnson Treatment:

“George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985. We’ll both be dead and gone then. Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. A lot of people need jobs; a lot of people need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that hot caliche soil that says 'George Wallace: He Hated’?”

Later Wallace said, “Hell, if I’d stayed in there much longer he’d have me coming out for civil rights.”

George, you and I shouldn’t be talking about 1964, we should be talking about 1984. We’ll both be dead and gone then. Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. A lot of people need jobs, a lot of people need a future. You could do a lot for them, George. Your President will help you. Now, in 1984, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says, ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil that reads, 'George Wallace: He Hated’?

President Lyndon B. Johnson, imploring Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace to help protect Civil Rights activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who planned to finish the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights which was originally interrupted by violence from law enforcement and white citizens against the non-violent protesters on Bloody Sunday in Selma.

Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was in the Oval Office during the meeting between President Johnson and Governor Wallace and witnessed LBJ used his famed Johnson Treatment" against the staunch opponent of civil rights later said, “That was the most amazing conversation I’ve ever been present at.”


July 2nd 1964: Civil Rights Act signed

On this day in 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed school segregation, had sparked a new and more direct phase of the struggle for racial equality in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement that followed involved defiance of discrimination in the United States, especially Jim Crow segregation in the South and restriction of black voting rights. The movement initially had little support from the federal government, who instead focused mainly on foreign Cold War policy. It was in 1963 that the violent resistance encountered by peaceful black protestors, including children, by whites in Birmingham, Alabama, led President John F. Kennedy to call for a civil rights bill. After his assassination Kennedy’s successor Johnson, who was a vocal supporter of civil rights, took charge of the fight for the bill. Facing opposition from conservative Democrats and Republicans, Johnson utilised his personal forceful nature (known as ‘The Johnson Treatment’), the power of the executive to provide incentives for congressional support, and the legacy of Kennedy to push the bill through Congress. The Civil Rights Act passed the House in February 1964 and the Senate in June, before it was signed into law in July by Johnson. Those present at the signing ceremony on July 2nd included prominent African-American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King Jr. The Act focused on racial discrimination, banning segregation and unequal voter requirements. However it also included a prohibition on sex-based discrimination which fuelled the burgeoning feminist movement; though some claim it was added by a Virginia Democrat in an attempt to derail the passage of the act. The Civil Rights Act, along with the Voting Rights Act a year later, were the primary legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, and remain the cornerstone of American civil rights legislation. 50 years on, it is a time for reflection on how far America has come since the days of Jim Crow segregation and black disenfranchisement, but also how much further is still left to go in the struggle for racial equality.

50 years ago today

Brújula: Lyndon and Lady Bird's Love Story

He was coarse and obnoxious.  A big, overbearing, profane, restless, ambitious Texan who pushed and prodded and wheeled and dealed his way from poverty in the Texas Hill Country to the most powerful office in the world.

She was soft-spoken and eloquent.  A gentle, quiet, polite, and comforting presence for her father, her husband, her children, and her country.  As the social fabric of the United States began to tear during her husband’s Administration, she found a way to literally beautify the nation.

On November 17, 1934, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a 26-year-old secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg, the member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 14th Congressional district of Texas.  Johnson was a tall, gangly, anxious, antsy young man.  So driven was Johnson that he made sure to personally answer every letter which arrived in Kleberg’s office – whether the Congressman deemed them important or not.  Johnson had started his career as a teacher, but it was politics that he was drawn to and politics which he was obsessed with.  Very few people truly knew Lyndon Johnson, but everyone who came in contact with him knew that he was somebody.  Lyndon’s confidence in himself was never quite as high.  Throughout his entire life, Johnson felt he needed to press on further and faster in order to prove himself.

On November 17, 1934, Claudia Alta Taylor was 21 years old.  When she was born, Claudia’s nurse said “She’s as purty as a lady bird” and the nickname had stuck.  Almost nobody called her “Claudia”, she would always be “Lady Bird” and it was a fitting name.  Lady Bird’s mother died when she was just five years old and her beloved father, a wealthy man actively engaged in business, couldn’t provide all of the attention she must have hoped for.  What he could provide for his lonely daughter was opportunity.  Although she came of age in a time (during the Great Depression) and a place (southern Texas) where women rarely received a thorough education, Lady Bird was able to make the most of her intelligence and determination.  Not only did she attend college, but Lady Bird graduated from the University of Texas with two bachelor’s degrees – one in history and one in journalism.  Following her graduation, Lady Bird hoped to teach in an exotic locale such as Hawaii or Alaska, “But all that never happened because I met Lyndon.”

On the night of August 1, 1934, Lyndon and Lady Bird met for the first time, introduced by a mutual friend, Eugenia Boehringer Lasseter in Austin.  Though their initial meeting was brief, Johnson asked Lady Bird if she would meet him for coffee the next morning and she agreed.  Lady Bird nearly had a change of heart on the morning of August 2, 1934 and was close to leaving Johnson stood up on what was supposed to be their first date.  That morning, Lady Bird was scheduled to meet with an architect in downtown Austin who the Taylor family had hired to remodel their mansion, the Brick House in Karnack, Texas.  The architect’s office happened to be next door to Austin’s Driskill Hotel and Johnson – sitting alone inside the hotel’s coffee shop – spotted Lady Bird walking by.  Johnson urged Lady Bird to join him and when she did, one of the more unique marriages and partnerships in American political history truly began.

Lyndon Johnson hated wasting time.  His entire life seemed like a race against the clock.  Most of the men on the Johnson side of his family tree had lived relatively short lives before dying of a heart ailment.  Johnson always felt that he would not live long, and he often lived each day as if he were going to die that night.  Whether it was in the jobs he worked prior to entering public service or in his political career, Johnson wanted results and answers, and he wanted them immediately.  In his personal life, Lyndon Johnson was really no different.

As they enjoyed coffee and breakfast at the Driskill Hotel during their first date, Johnson peppered Lady Bird with dozens of questions and bombarded Lady Bird with his own feelings, goals, worries, and intentions.  Lady Bird was a well-refined, polite young lady with impeccable social skills, so she must have been taken aback by Johnson’s unabashed energy and intensity.  Yet, she was also captivated by Johnson’s passion.  After breakfast, Lady Bird accepted an invitation to take a drive through the rural areas surrounding Austin.  An early version of LBJ’s legendary “Johnson Treatment” persisted throughout their whirlwind afternoon together.  By the time Lyndon dropped Lady Bird off – after spending just a few hours together and meeting her for the first time only 24 hours earlier – he had proposed marriage. 

Lady Bird said no to his immediate proposal.  Not only did she barely know Lyndon Johnson, but earlier that morning she had even considered skipping their coffee date.  But while she declined Johnson’s marriage proposal, she didn’t deny her interest in him.  Later, she would say of their first date that Lyndon “told me all sorts of things that I thought were extraordinarily direct for a first conversation…about how many years he had been teaching, his salary as a secretary to a Congressman, his ambitions, even about all the members of his family, and how much insurance he carried.  It was as if he wanted to give me a complete picture of his life and of his capabilities."  In truth, that’s exactly what Lyndon wanted to do.  Although she turned down his proposal, Lyndon and Lady Bird spent several days together that week before Lyndon returned to Congressman Kleberg’s office in Washington.  Johnson couldn’t leave her alone because he wanted "to keep her mind completely on me until the moment I had to leave for Washington."  By the time Johnson went back to the Capitol, Lady Bird had met Johnson’s parents in Johnson City and Lyndon had met Lady Bird’s father in Karnack.

Lady Bird’s father, Thomas, was an old-fashioned Southern gentleman and Lady Bird was his youngest child and only daughter.  A successful businessman and self-made man, Thomas Taylor didn’t seem like the type who would mix well with impatient, boorish Lyndon Johnson from the Hill Country.  Lyndon himself was full of nervous energy as he and Lady Bird drove to Mr. Taylor’s Brick House mansion near the Texas/Louisiana border.  He was worried about whether the wealthy Mr. Taylor would look down on the Johnson family’s hardscrabble roots and hoping to conduct himself in a way that would impress both Lady Bird and her father.

Thomas Taylor told his daughter exactly how he felt about Lyndon Johnson.  After Taylor, Johnson, and Lady Bird had dinner at the Brick House, Mr. Taylor excused himself and asked to speak privately with his daughter.  With Lyndon no doubt concerned in the other room, Mr. Taylor held nothing back.  "Daughter,” he said, “you’ve been bringing home a lot of boys.  But this time you’ve brought a man."  Mr. Taylor adored Lyndon Johnson.

Scheduled to return to Washington, D.C. the very next day, Lyndon again proposed to Lady Bird that night.  Once again, she turned down the idea of a quick marriage, but she encouraged him with a kiss before he started his long drive back to the nation’s capital.  They had only known each other for a few days and she had declined two marriage proposals during that time, but Lady Bird "had a queer sort of moth-and-flame thing” she later said.  “I knew I had met something remarkable, but I didn’t know quite what.”

Once Lyndon Johnson returned to Washington, he continued his pursuit of Lady Bird Taylor.  If he didn’t talk to her on a long-distance telephone call from Congressman Kleberg’s office, Johnson wrote a letter to her every single day.  Lyndon was always consumed by work – particularly answering the Congressman’s correspondence – but things had changed after his visit to Austin.  Johnson would still work on the mail as soon as he arrived at the Capitol each morning, but before he did anything else he would find a quiet room and write his daily letter to Lady Bird.  To his co-workers, it seemed that every conversation or event or issue would remind him in some way or another of Lady Bird.  It was so unusual for Johnson to put so much focus on one of his own interpersonal relationships that the people he worked with at the time would distinctly remember the change in his ways even years later after he had been President of the United States.

Back in Texas, Lady Bird Taylor was having a similar experience.  “I had never before considered myself a lonely person,” she later said.  But she “had spent so much of my life by myself that I had gotten used to being alone."  The whirlwind that was Lyndon Johnson made an immediate impact on her.  "Lyndon came into my life and in one week’s time he had become so much a part of me that when he left, I felt his absence terribly.  It was embarrassing to admit that so much could happen in such a short time.  Here was this man I barely knew talking about marriage and I was seriously considering the idea.”

While Lyndon kept pressing the idea of marriage, Lady Bird’s heart agreed with Johnson while her mind told her that perhaps she should wait.  She still barely knew the man, and being married to the secretary of a member of the United States House of Representatives wouldn’t have provided any woman with a sense of security.  Lady Bird had inherited money from her mother’s estate and her father was a wealthy man, but she was unsure of how Lyndon might be able to support her.  She was also unsure about being a political wife, telling Lyndon in one letter, “Oh, I know I haven’t any business – not any proprietary interest – but I would hate for you to go into politics.”

Lyndon was certain of two things that he wanted and needed in his life.  One was politics and though he was just a Congressional secretary, he was also intensely studying how Congress worked and building a foundation and network of political contacts back in Texas with his voluminous correspondence from the office of Congressman Kleberg. 

The other want and need was Lady Bird Taylor’s hand in marriage.  On October 23, 1934, Johnson wrote Lady Bird a letter from Kleberg’s office that expressed both of those wants and needs.  “This morning I’m ambitious, proud, energetic and very madly in love with you,” wrote Johnson.  “I want to see people – want to walk thru’ the throngs – want to do things with a drive.  If I had a box I would almost make a speech this minute.  Plans, ideas, hopes – I’m bubbling over with them."  The hope that bubbled most intensely was his dream to walk down the aisle with Lady Bird.

An overlooked aspect of Lyndon Johnson’s life and character is his sensitivity.  In later years, that sensitivity was highlighted by insecurity and moodiness.  In the autumn of 1934, that sensitivity allowed him to articulate his feelings to Lady Bird with astonishing clarity and demonstrated an impressive ability to recognize and express exactly what he was doing and why he was proposing marriage so quickly:

"I see something I know I want.  I immediately exert efforts to get it.  I do or I don’t, but I try and do my best.  You see something you might want.  You tear it to pieces in an effort to determine if you should want it.  Then you wonder why you want it, and conclude that maybe the desire isn’t an ‘everlasting’ one and that the 'sane’ thing to do is to wait a year or so, and then if you still want it, to decide at that time whether or not you should make an effort to get it.”

At the beginning of November 1934, Lyndon Johnson couldn’t wait any longer.  It was obvious to him that Lady Bird loved him, and he knew he loved her.  Lady Bird was still turning down Lyndon every time he pleaded with her to marry him immediately.  They had only known one another for about three months, but Lyndon forced the issue by pulling his Ford roadster into the long driveway at Lady Bird’s father’s mansion, the Brick House, in Karnack, Texas.  “Let’s get married,” Lyndon said.  “Not next year, after you’ve done over the house, but about two weeks from now, or right away.  We either get married now or we never will  And if you say goodbye to me, it just proves to me that you just don’t love me enough to dare to.  And I just can’t bear to go on and keep wondering if it will ever happen." 

Lady Bird was still torn and turned to her father for advice.  "Bird,” said Mr. Taylor, the successful businessman who admired the guts and determination of Lady Bird’s suitor.  “Some of the best deals are made in a hurry."  Thomas Taylor’s words seemed to validate one of Lyndon Johnson’s frequent exhortations in his letters to Lady Bird, "Why must we wait…to begin to do the things we want to do forever and ever?”.  On the evening of November 16, 1934, Lady Bird Taylor finally said, “Yes”, and agreed to become Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson.

Just because Lady Bird agreed to marry him didn’t mean that Lyndon was satisfied.  The very next day, November 17, 1934, the newly-engaged couple drove nearly 400 miles to San Antonio, Texas.  Lyndon had a friend in San Antonio who owed his political career to Johnson.  Dan Quill had been appointed postmaster in San Antonio after Johnson recommended his nomination to his boss, Congressman Richard Kleberg.  Johnson knew it would be difficult to find someone who would agree to marry him and Lady Bird on such short notice, but Quill was determined to return the favor for Lyndon.  As the couple drove to San Antonio from Karnack, Quill used his influence to acquire a marriage license for Lyndon and Lady Bird on almost no advance notice.  More impressively, Quill was able to talk an Episcopalian priest into marrying a couple that the priest had never met and who had only been engaged to be married for a few hours.

With obvious reluctance because he had no prenuptial meetings with Lyndon and Lady Bird, the Reverend Arthur E. McKinistry nevertheless officiated a wedding on the evening of November 17, 1934 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.  Quill served as Johnson’s best man, a surprised local friend of Lady Bird’s served as Maid of Honor, and there was just one other witness to the ceremony.  When Reverend McKinistry asked for the rings, the wedding ceremony was paused as Quill ran across the street to Sears, Roebuck and brought back a selection of wedding bands for the couple to choose from.  After paying $2.50 a piece for the temporary rings, Lyndon and Lady Bird placed them on each other’s fingers and were officially proclaimed husband and wife.

The Johnsons – lanky Lyndon in a perpetually rumpled business suit and petite Lady Bird in a basic lavender dress – celebrated their wedding with a dinner at a restaurant on the rooftop of St. Anthony’s Hotel two blocks south of the church.  They spent their first night of marriage together at San Antonio’s Plaza Hotel.  The next morning, the newlyweds drove to Corpus Christi and caught a train to Monterrey, Mexico for a brief honeymoon.  One of the earliest pictures of the couple shows them standing in a boat while visiting the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco.  For Lady Bird, the honeymoon was an eye-opener in many ways.  A passionate lover and advocate of natural beauty and wildlife, Lady Bird was thrilled to explore the scenery and culture in Mexico.  The honeymoon, however, also gave her an indication of the life she was beginning.  Lyndon spent a significant amount of time talking about politics and itching to get back to Washington.  As Lady Bird would later say, “I was a born sight-seer, but Lyndon was a born people-seer.  He indulged me on that trip, but the truth is he wasn’t much intrigued."  After Mexico, Lyndon and Lady Bird moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., and their life together truly began.

It is impossible to do justice to the story of the relationship of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson in just a simple essay.  It is worthy of (and has been the sole subject of) entire books.  There are so many levels, so much depth, and such extraordinary complexity to their marriage that a definitive history requires thorough study and an ample commitment of time and space.

We do know that Lyndon Baines Johnson was not always the greatest husband.  Just as apparent, however, is that Lady Bird Johnson was indeed one of the greatest, most influential, most loyal wives in American political history.  As First Lady, she not only understood her position in her home, but recognized the opportunities that she had to serve her country.  "The Constitution of the United States,” Lady Bird said, “does not mention the First Lady.  She is elected by one man only.  The statute books assign her no duties; and yet, when she gets the job, a podium is there if she cares to use it.  I did." 

Exceedingly capable, Lady Bird expanded the role of First Lady and marshaled all of her intelligence, ability, and beliefs in order to become a transformational activist in American life.  Every First Lady since Lady Bird has played an influential role in the lives of Americans, and that’s not solely because of Lady Bird but mostly so.  Whether it was her campaigns for environmental protection and conservation, beautification, her support for civil rights, or her advocacy for those suffering from poverty or social injustice, Lady Bird was a force for positive change.

It is her most important role, however, which is often overlooked.  Lyndon Johnson was not easy to live with.  His larger-than-life personality and overflowing ego was constantly engaged in a see-saw battle with insecurity, a lack of confidence, and an overpowering fear of failure.  In every election that Johnson ever contested, there came a point where he was dominated by the thought that he would lose and all but decide to quit the race before Election Day.  In almost every one of those elections (and he only lost one election in his long political career), LBJ fell seriously ill shortly before Election Day.  Whether it was due to Johnson’s tendency to work himself to exhaustion or partly due to a psychosomatic condition is not completely clear, but Doris Kearns Goodwin would later write that "Personal rejection was so unbearable to Johnson, so mortally threatening, that withdrawal was necessary…Episodes of rejection, actual or apprehended, seem[ed] to cripple Johnson’s faculties and even, at times, interrupt his normal state of physical health and vitality.”

It was Lady Bird who could calm him in troubled times.  While Lyndon Johnson is remembered as a political maestro, particularly in legislative politics, Lady Bird had great political intuition and knew how to handle Lyndon himself.  LBJ could be cruel and coarse – not just to his colleagues and staff, but to Lady Bird.  In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, Lady Bird admitted as much.  “Our was a compelling love,” she said.  “Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been.  I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment.”

That humility was not false humility; it was Lady Bird’s characteristically earnest belief.  Yet, she arguably offered him more than he offered her.  When he was sick, she helped care for him.  When he was depressed, she helped make his life as easy as possible.  She motivated him in a way that nothing else could – not even his intense drive to prove himself or ceaseless ambition for the power to help change things.  If Lyndon Johnson was a hurricane – a force to be reckoned with, Lady Bird Johnson was the quiet breeze and warm sunshine which helped settle everything in the storm’s wake.  I’m not sure Lyndon Johnson made Lady Bird more than she could have been, but I’m positive that Lady Bird helped LBJ become who he was.

In many of the books and interviews that I’ve read about the lives and times, accomplishments and failures of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, I have frequently come across the word “anchor” to describe her influence on the 36th President of the United States.  The intent of that description is to demonstrate how she helped LBJ remain grounded.  It’s a positive label, but it’s not the word that comes to my mind when I think about their unique relationship.

Instead, the word that comes to my mind is a word that Lyndon Johnson probably heard many times when he was just out of college and teaching at a small school for impoverished Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas.  The word is “brújula” and it is the Spanish word for “compass”.  Lady Bird wasn’t Lyndon’s anchor.  She was his “brújula” – the compass which helped him find his way. 

Lyndon Baines Johnson could never stay in one place, so an anchor wasn’t what he needed.  LBJ was always on the move, always going somewhere.  Perhaps that’s why he knew he needed Lady Bird before she realized how she felt about him.  He recognized what she could be for him, and he couldn’t let her get away.  For Lyndon, in a life full of historic accomplishments, it might have been his best decision.  Until the day he Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973, whenever he was lost, whenever he was disoriented, whenever he found himself wondering where he was, where he was going, and if he could go on, there was Lady Bird – his brújula, his loving compass, his most important adviser, his closest friend, his indispensable partner – to guide him on his way.

The Johnson Treatment

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. 


Photos of LBJ giving The Treatment

The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.

anonymous asked:

Which of our Presidents had the best taste for the jugular, if you know what I mean? Decisiveness, efficiency, taking advantage, and knowing the psychology and the weaknesses of rivals and enemies?

LBJ. “The Johnson Treatment” went both ways, he knew how to use the carrot and the stick. The classic example is how he forced Senator Richard Russell, who was a mentor and father figure to LBJ, to serve on the Warren Commission (and how he talked Chief Justice Earl Warren into heading the Commission). LBJ had incredible political instincts.