KC Johnson

Congress in the Classroom–2013

Bringing Procedure to Life

In this clip from Dec. 1963, Johnson complained about being outmaneuvered by Louisiana congressman Otto Passman on the level of foreign aid appropriations. A Passman amendment to cut foreign aid spending by almost 33 percent passed, thanks to votes from five conservative Texas congressman. The President made clear to Austin representative Jack Brooks that he would remember who stood with him.

President Johnson: You want to know honestly how I feel?

Jack Brooks: Yeah.

President Johnson: I’m really humiliated that I’m President, and I’ve got a friendly Speaker, and I’ve got a friendly Majority Leader, and I’ve got a friendly Albert Thomas, I’ve got a friendly Jack Brooks, and Otto Passman is king. I think that’s disgraceful in this country.

Because I want to tell you when I see you the next time—confidentially—

Brooks: Mm-hmm.

President Johnson: —what we’re looking at in the world. And it’s a hell of a lot worse than it was last year. And you’re giving us 3 billion [dollars] to deal with, and you gave Kennedy 3.9 [billion dollars].

And I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think it’s right. I think it’s awful that a goddamned Cajun from the hills of Louisiana has got more power—

Brooks: He’s no Frenchman, though!

President Johnson: —has got more power than all of us. I just think that’s awful.

Brooks: Yes.

President Johnson: But that’s what you’ve got to do. And some day we’ll get our way, and if I ever walk up in the cold of night and a rattlesnake’s out there and about ready to get him, I ain’t going to pull him off—I’ll tell you that.

Brooks: No, I understand.

President Johnson: Now, you remember that.

Brooks: I want you to remember it. We’ve got some people from—

President Johnson: I remember it. Now, you just go and tell all these Texans that want to hit Russia that I want to put those sons of bitches in uniform.

Brooks: They ought to be.

President Johnson: Let ’em go fight the Communists for a while. They like to talk a big game—

Brooks: Yeah.

President Johnson: —but they don’t want to do a damn thing about it.

Brooks: I’m with you.

President Johnson: OK.

Brooks: Good night. Bless your heart.


The Johnson Treatment

In contrast to the caricature of LBJ as a bully, the President knew that different approaches worked best on differing members. In this late 1967 conversation, he employed shameless flattery in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to persuade Wyoming Democrat Gale McGee to give up his seat in the Senate and accept the UN ambassadorship.

President Johnson: I’m thinking about what’s best for the country.

Gale McGee: Well, that would be—

President Johnson: And I don’t know of a human that I think is as knowledgeable in this general field, that is not New York-oriented, that is as articulate, that I think makes as good impression on TV. And I’ve watched them all.

I think you have a little of the mold of a Wilson and a Lincoln combination. I think you have a little of the George Marshall and Sam Houston. I think you look a little bit frontier, and pioneer, and a fellow that’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But I think you have enough sophistication and articulation that you’re effective as hell.

Now, that’s my type of man. I don’t want one of these Adlai Stevensons. I liked him, but he’s not—to me, I always kind of felt like he had to squat to pee.

[Arthur] Goldberg, on the other hand, is the best negotiator I have ever known.

McGee:  Yes.

President Johnson: He does just absolutely have hydrophobia [excessive leaking].

McGee: Yes

President Johnson: And he talks a good deal when he ought to be listening.

McGee: Mm-hmm.

President Johnson:  Now, you’ve got the great problems of the Middle East—and that’s the most dangerous thing. Vietnam is just chickenfeed compared to what the Russians are doing over there, and what may happen there. You’ve got this Cyprus thing that’s rough and tough.


President Johnson: Now, I wouldn’t agree, and I wouldn’t imply, and I’d think of several people if something happened to Rusk as secretary of state.

McGee: Yes.

President Johnson: But I would say right in the beginning that one of the three names I would think of would be yours.

McGee:  Oh, my.

President Johnson: And I know you never have thought in those terms—

McGee:  No.

President Johnson:  But that’s the way we think.

McGee:  Yes.

President Johnson: I don’t want that to enter into it, and I don’t want it to be an implication, because I just very likely would appoint somebody else.

McGee: Yes.

President Johnson: But that’s what we think.


The “Johnson treatment” sometimes could be forceful indeed, as in this March 1965 clip between Johnson and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee.

President Johnson: Hello?

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell: How’s my friend?

President Johnson: [stonily] Fine, Adam.

What the hell’s been happening to your [Education and Labor] Committee? I thought you told me two months ago that you were going to pass a [education] bill for me.

Powell: That’s right. Well, what happened: all hell’s broken loose, because—

President Johnson: Well, now, what the hell are you blackmailing me on a—

Powell: That’s not—

President Johnson: —four hundred . . . Well, hell, you didn’t—[because] you want a $400,000 appropriation for you, we couldn’t pass a billion, two hundred million [dollar funding bill] for the schoolkids.

Now, you know I’m for you, and you know that I’m going to help you any way I can. I’ve got nothing to do with what you’re doing in the House investigation [of Powell’s personal finances]. But you damn near defeated the best education bill I’ve got. And I hope you’re going to be proud of it.

Powell: No. Now, you know in your Appalachia bill, that there is—

President Johnson: Well, now, Appalachia ain’t got a damn thing to do with you. If you handle your committee and let us handle the other one!

Powell: Yeah, but there’s a clause in there, Mr. President—

President Johnson: There’s a clause that’s been in there for a long time.

And if you’re going to let [Ohio congressman William] Ayres [the committee’s ranking Republican] and [Oregon congresswoman] Edith Green [a conservative Democrat] lead you off the reservation, well, then I ran for nothing last year—

Powell: No—

President Johnson: [continuing] With 15 million votes. If you’re going to tie up this Congress, and screw it up—which you’ve done for three weeks, by running off [to Bimini, in the Bahamas] till you got a 400,000 [dollar] appropriation—why, we never can get anywhere.

And you defeat this [bill], and you hold it up, and you delay it, and you get us in this kind of shape, why, we can’t pass anything.

And that’s all right. But I think you’ll beat a hell of a bunch of your liberal Democrats [in the 1966 midterm elections]. I’m going to be here—it’s not going to bother me. But I just sure thought I had better leadership on that committee than what I’ve got without even talking.

Powell: Well—

President Johnson: And I’m awfully disappointed. Just very disappointed.

Powell: Now, Mr. President, don’t you think I have an entitlement to—

President Johnson: [forcefully] No, I don’t think you’re entitled to a damn thing that you did.

I think you told me, and looked me straight in the eye—

Powell: Mm-hmm.

President Johnson: [continuing] And said, “I’ll report this bill, and I’ll get it on the floor.” And you didn’t do it.

Powell: [By] March 1st.

President Johnson: And you did not do it.

Powell: It was [by] March 1st, because—

President Johnson: Well, Adam—

Powell: It was March—

President Johnson: [voice rising] No. Oh, hell no, you didn’t say till March 1st. You told me you were going to do it. And then you ran off for three weeks and they couldn’t even locate you . . . And your people [African-Americans] are being damn well taken care of in it [the bill].


With Powell’s return, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act sailed through. But a parliamentary logjam caused by the immigration bill, the farm bill, and the higher education bill involved Powell again–and Johnson’s Senate bete noire, Oregon senator Wayne Morse, who by this point had emerged as a fierce administration critic on foreign policy but was the floor manager for the Senate bill. Here LBJ functions as a de facto prime minister.

President Johnson: We got a chance to make the greatest record in the history of the world! [Albert concurs.] All right. Now, I’ve given you all a list for three weeks, and you haven’t knocked a bill off of it. So I want to really pass ‘em!

Carl Albert:   We had a really bad week this last week.

President Johnson:  You didn’t do a damn thing.

Albert:  We didn’t do a thing except civil rights.

President Johnson:  [The] interest equalization [bill] is all you passed.

Albert:  Well, we had civil rights.

President Johnson:  Well, they had a conference report, but that ain’t . . .

Albert:  We’re going to—

President Johnson:  But I don’t count conference reports.

Albert:  We’re going to pass one of the big ones next week.

President Johnson: What’s that?

Albert:  We should have passed higher education, if [Adam Clayton] Powell had been here. And Powell’s got to take responsibility for not being—

President Johnson:  Well, we got him back, though. We got him all the way from Puerto Rico, and we raised hell with him, and he agreed to come back. But by the time he got back, you all had flown the coop. Next time, you all tell me if you can’t get him—

Albert:  –trying to do when we’ve been—

President Johnson: No, you ought to have called me up and said, “Mr. President, your higher education [bill] ought to have come up Monday and I can’t get Powell.” Then I’ll say, “OK, let me get him.”

Albert:  Well, I worked on it; I worked on it all week. I called—

President Johnson: I know. But you ought to have told me; you ought to have told me—

Albert:  – and I called, and I called—

President Johnson: You didn’t call me.

Albert:  No, I didn’t call you.

President Johnson: I’ll call him, and go—I got to get him. We just can’t let him go this way, and we’ve got him now.

Albert:  Well—

President Johnson:  But we’ve flown the coop. He’s going to be here to be recognized Monday at 11.00. We told him—we sent for him—that damn near, “You’ve got to come.” And I’ll call every human being that you ask, and ask him to be here, if you let me. But if you won’t—

Albert: I would have if I’d have known. I didn’t want to bother you with it. I don’t think higher education is a major problem.

President Johnson:  It is, because we’ve got [Wayne] Morse and [Edith] Green. And anything they deal with, it’s major! Every inch, every hour, I’m scared of this Morse. He’s demanding I be impeached! I got the damndest thing with him, and he’s handling higher education [in the Senate].

Albert:  Well. Higher education—

President Johnson: And I can’t get him to pee a drop until you-all pee. And then you’re going to take another—

Albert:  We—we had told people that we needed you. Listen, we took this up with the top people in the House that are dealing with this.

President Johnson: Well, now, you see, if you had taken it up with me, and I had gotten Powell, as I have gotten him, you wouldn’t have had any problem, would you?

Albert:  Well, you . . . I didn’t—

President Johnson:  Huh?

Albert:  –know you all were going to call him.

President Johnson: I’ll just call him—

Albert: Nobody took it up with me, because I was—

President Johnson: I will call him. I thought you and [Speaker] John McCormack could deliver your own chairmen. If you can’t do it, let me know, and I’ll deliver ‘em.


Bipartisanship and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

In this conversation, the President and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen discuss scheduling for the measure, and reveal the differing institutional perspectives of a chief executive and a key senator–but also their willingness to cooperate.

President Johnson: How are you?

Everett Dirksen:  I’m all right; how are you?

President Johnson: Oh, a little bit grinding away.

Dirksen:  I am bushed. This goddamn voting rights bill . . .


Dirksen:  I hated like hell to leave some of them [senators] in the dark [about pending legislative strategy] because we had [South Carolina senator] Strom [Thurmond] this morning, and [Mississippi senator] John Stennis. We’ve modified this very substantially to make damn sure that we’ll be on good constitutional ground.

President Johnson: Yeah?

Dirksen:  But I couldn’t say it to ‘em. Now, they’re going to have to have a little time to look it over, and peck around. And I think if we work it out that way, that’s going to be all to the good, and it’s going to save us time in the end.

President Johnson: It is if we don’t get into another situation [like] Selma while we’re waiting.

Dirksen:  Yeah.

President Johnson: That’s the damn danger.

Dirksen:  Well—

President Johnson: Now, these boys—Strom and John are going to be as strong against it when they end, stronger than they are when they start. You got no chance there. And I sure don’t want to have to send another—go through a Selma, because we got through it locally pretty good.

Dirksen: Yeah.

President Johnson: But if they think we’re dilly-dallying, and off for Easter, why, it creates a hell of a lot of problems.

Dirksen: When you stop to consider the amount of staff work we’ve done on that damn bill, the senators are entitled to some time to have a good look-see; and that’s all the more reason, I think, why we ought to take that Easter recess as planned.


Trouble soon emerged, however, thanks to an amendment pushed by Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy to include in the VRA a provision outlawing all poll taxes, even in state elections. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach considered the proposal unconstitutional; so too did Sen. Dirksen. So the President reached out to Indiana senator Birch Bayh to discuss the issue in this May 1965 clip.

President Johnson:That [the Kennedy poll-tax provision] is not the real core of the bill; there’s not but four states involved. He [Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach] thinks that he can knock it our pretty quick with them.

And I’d hate to lose the whole bill on account of it. Or I’d hate to have the public interpret that we were a bunch of kids fighting among ourselves. I’m willing to move as far as a human being can; I have the same views that you do.


Birch Bayh: I just . . . I’m in a position politically, at home, and philosophically, the way I feel, and you feel—we share our antipathy toward the poll tax. But politically at home, I think I’m in a position where I have to make an effort on this one thing.

Now, if it were defeated, or if it gets in there and it looks like this is going to ruin the bill—and I think right now we can’t say that with good judgment—then I’m for taking it out of there. But I think right now it would be real bad for me, in my Negro communities at home, if I appeared less than enthusiastic. Because I feel very strongly about it.

Now, if it gets to the place where in my judgment it’s going to sink the ship, Mr. President, I learned from the man that I’m talking to right now that you’ve got to be able to perform what takes to get the job done.


President Johnson: And I don’t believe that we ought to have the brilliant young senators that we’ve got, that we want to make our future out of, and a brilliant young attorney general, and we can’t get together.

Bayh: This is certainly—

President Johnson: [continuing] Because it’s not a good omen. And if they came . . . If you got it down to me, and it’s a bill that he [Katzenbach] doesn’t want, don’t like—I’m not running for office—we’d have lots of difficulties. I just think the time to do it is before we get so far out that we can’t reason.

And as far as I’m concerned, I’m willing to be bound by anything you can agree on. I have no orders or no instructions. Not even any recommendations—except that as a party, it’s good judgment not to become divided, and not to become sectionalized.


 After passage of the bill, the President and Sen. Dirksen commemorated the occasion–in a conversation that unintentionally reveals the difference between the congressional environment of the 1960s and today.

President Johnson and Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, 4 August 1965, 6.58pm

                Dirksen: Hi.

                President Johnson: How are you, my friend? Glad to hear you!

                Dirksen: I’m all right; how are you?

                President Johnson: You and Mike [Mansfield] up there fraternizing together?

                Dirksen: Yes, sir.

                President Johnson: That’s wonderful, that’s good. How you feeling, Everett?

                Dirksen: I’d have felt better if you’d have hustled me a half a dozen votes [on the conference committee report].

                President Johnson: Well, you didn’t want me to. You told me you didn’t want me to do anything but sit there. All I’d have done is just stirred up 10 more against you. You—

                Dirksen: Well, I wanted you to interfere on the right side—that’s what I was saying. [Both laugh.]

                President Johnson: Well, you did a—

                Dirksen: We got the Voting Rights bill out.

                President Johnson: You ought to be proud of that, my friend.

                Dirksen: We are proud of it. And I—

                President Johnson: You had a lot to do with that, and—

                Dirksen: Give [House Judiciary chairman Manny] Celler a compliment. That House really abused him over there, when they had that—

                President Johnson: All right.

                Dirksen: [continuing] They cracked him for turning cold shoulder, not supporting the House position on the poll tax.

                President Johnson: All right, I will.

                Dirksen: They gave Manny a rough time.


                President Johnson: You must have made a helluva speech there today. The ticker’s made me wish I was there listening to you.

                Dirksen: Well, why weren’t you here?

                President Johnson: Well, because—you know I can’t have any fun anymore. [Dirksen chuckles.] They just lock me up. I can’t even drink Sanka. I just have to drink this damned old root beer.

They won’t let me get out. If I could get you and come and visit you, I’d do it nearly every night.

                Dirksen:  Well, why don’t you come right up here now, and I’ll pour you a drink? A good stiff bourbon.

                President Johnson: Well, if you and Mike will stay there about 10 or 15 minutes, I might do it. I’m a little lonesome and I’d like to see you.

                Dirksen: Are you kidding?

                President Johnson: No, I’m not kidding.

                Dirksen: All right, we’ll stay.

                President Johnson: All right. OK.

                Dirksen:  All right. My office.

                President Johnson: All right.

For additional clips:

See also: Miller Center for Public Affairs, Presidential Recordings Project

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