THE POWER OF PR: POLITICAL PR - LBJ and his power of personal persuasion

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.

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.

Great flatterer

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.’

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