The TV camera and Lyndon B. Johnson weren’t always friends. The rough-hewn, yarn-spinning Texan could never measure up to his youthful, martyred predecessor’s video charisma.
The TV camera and Lyndon B. Johnson weren’t always friends. The
rough-hewn, yarn-spinning Texan could never measure up to his youthful,
martyred predecessor’s video charisma.
By contrast, John F. Kennedy could scarcely compete with his vice
president in the personal persuasion department. The strength of
Johnson’s communication style centered on one-to-one interaction. The
36th President strategically used flattery, salesmanship, ire and sheer
power to influence Congressmen, bureaucrats and reporters. And new
insights are emerging from taped telephone conversations being released
by the LBJ Library at the University of Texas in Austin.
LBJ wasn’t the first chief of state to tape his conversations, but he
probably was among the last. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy
all recorded some of their telephone calls, says George Christian, the
last of Johnson’s four press secretaries. ’It was too big a temptation
not to do it for the purposes of history, and ... if somebody made a
commitment to you ... you had something to back it up,’ he notes.
The memory of Watergate and the power of the Freedom of Information Act
- which Johnson himself signed into law - caused post-Nixon presidents
to largely abandon the practice. ’You would have to be almost a lunatic
to write a memo that you didn’t want to be seeing on the front page of
the newspaper two days hence,’ historian Michael Beschloss told the AP
shortly after publication of his book, Taking Charge: The Johnson White
House Tapes, 1963-64.
On the record
That a president who favored secrecy as much as Johnson would record his
calls seems unthinkable today. But in the mid-’60s, the president
worried little about the tapes falling into adverse hands. Johnson
rarely used them except while working on his memoirs, Christian notes.
Secretaries initiated most tapings at LBJ’s request, but those who have
listened think many were made inadvertently. ’It’s pretty obvious that
he didn’t pay any attention to whether they were recorded or not,’
Christian says. ’It’s pure him.’
A former staff member gave the tapes and partial transcripts to the
library stipulating that they not be released until 50 years after LBJ’s
But the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 prompted
archivists to catalogue tapes from late 1963. With the blessing of
Johnson’s widow Lady Bird, the library then decided to release the rest.
So far, the staff has made public tapes recorded up to the fall of 1964.
The tapes confirm what researchers already knew - few targets of LBJ’s
person-to-person persuasion walked away unaffected.
Some historians agree that the Senate proved an ideal forum for
Johnson’s unique brand of influence. The Senate’s size enabled LBJ and
his staff to know members personally and issues thoroughly. He used this
knowledge to individually tailor appeals made to key senators in private
After becoming majority leader, he became a funnel for much of the
Senate’s news and applied some of the same strategies to reporters.
When he moved to the White House, intimacy with Congress and the press
became more difficult. But through his wide network of contacts and
almost obsessive following of the news, LBJ remained among the
best-informed people in Washington. ’He never felt that the reporters
knew more than he did,’ Christian recalls.
Johnson preferred informal, impromptu press conferences to choreographed
television spectacles, Christian notes. The president often would call
reporters into his office or walk into a briefing unexpectedly. He would
phone editors or publishers to plant story ideas, ask favors or complain
about the first leads of stories that came across the wire service
teletypes in his office.
Tapes show a common pattern. LBJ would begin with flattery and praise,
sometimes asking advice or implying that the person on the other end of
the line was providing valuable counsel. In one example, he flirted with
Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, lamenting that he was
married and didn’t get to see her often. ’I’d like to be like one of
these young animals on my ranch - jump a fence,’ he joked.
Johnson would soon segue into the true purpose of his call, a monologue
about the issue of the day. Frequently, he wrapped up by implying that
the reporter could do the country a great service by helping the
’I’ll just leave it with you for your own patriotic judgment,’ Johnson
told James ’Scotty’ Reston of The New York Times when trying to kill a
If a wire article didn’t meet his approval, a writer or editor might get
a call before it ever hit the morning papers. LBJ once phoned UPI’s
White House correspondent about a story that described the president as
declining to comment on issues. Although his carefully chosen words
didn’t place blame on the reporter, his voice conveyed irritation. ’That
’declined’ just got in that typewriter and the damn thing kept repeating
itself,’ the president bellowed.
Johnson’s efforts to manipulate and control the press contributed as
much as anything to the widely discussed ’credibility gap’ that expanded
after his election. Scholars say the seeds of discontent were sown
during his 1964 presidential campaign. His pronouncements on Vietnam
grew increasingly vague as Election Day neared, and the public
interpreted them to mean he wouldn’t escalate the war. When he later
sent ground troops, some felt misled.
But smaller irritations had long plagued the DC press corps. The
president kept things to himself as long as possible so as to leave his
options open. This predilection applied not only to major policy
decisions, but also to mundane choices such as whether he would go to
his ranch for the weekend, Jack Valenti writes in A Very Human
President. In 1967, Johnson traveled from Australia to Vietnam to the
Vatican in four-and-a-half days without telling the press pack where
they would stop next. ’We abused the press,’ Christian admits. ’They
Dropping a bomb
Despite the criticism, Johnson saved his biggest and best secret for
last. ’One of the great delights of his presidency was deciding ... that
he was going to not run for re-election and then fooling the press
completely,’ laughs Christian, who began working on the announcement
months before his boss told the rest of the world.
Overall, Christian describes the press corps’ feelings about Johnson as
a love/hate relationship. ’They liked that fact that he was a whirling
dervish and interesting to cover,’ Christian observes. ’I don’t think
they liked being sold too hard.’