LBJ Sounds Off

The fulminations and bluster of the 36th president.

The president of the United States had a problem: His pants didn’t quite fit. That was by no means his only problem. It was, after all, the summer of 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson had been president for nine months. Already, he had signed the Civil Rights Act, accelerated the war in Vietnam, and watched entire neighborhoods in Harlem go up in smoke. Now, on Aug. 11, Johnson telephoned Joe Haggar, president of a clothing company, from the Oval Office. “If you don’t want me running around the White House naked,” Johnson told Haggar, “you better get me some clothes.”

Then Johnson described in detail how he wanted Haggar to make six new pairs of pants. “Now, another thing, the crotch, down where your nuts hang, it’s always a little too tight,” said Johnson. “So when you make them up, give me an inch where I can let it out there, because they cut me. They’re just like riding a wire fence.” The image of Johnson in the White House naked–or, as he pronounced it, “nekkid”–is not one I am anxious to ponder. (Do your own pondering; click here for an audio excerpt.) Yet it floats up from the sea of recently released recordings of conversations that Johnson taped secretly in July and August 1964. Most of us who were alive back then remember what the public LBJ sounded like–ponderous, faux-sincere, amazingly awkward for a man reputed to be one of the most persuasive politicians of the age. The private LBJ revealed on the tapes may be no more lovable, but he is, at least, more understandable.

As I pursue my research on the Johnson family in my cagelike cubbyhole in the LBJ library in Austin, Texas, I listen to his voice and remember how it sounded when I was a kid growing up in a forlorn little timber town in Texas. Then Johnson seemed all-powerful, Jehovahlike in the execution of his swift and terrible authority. Everything about him–his body, his ranch, his Lincolns, his bear hugs, but most of all, his voice–seemed ridiculously out of proportion. Even at 13, I understood that when the rest of the country heard Johnson’s voice, it thought immediately and bitterly of Texas, where John F. Kennedy, the president with the graceful voice, was murdered. God, I used to think every time Johnson grabbed another microphone, why does he have to sound like such a hick?

His was the unapologetic voice of those who used to be called “yellow-dog Democrats,” country people who bragged that they would rather vote for old yellow dogs than Republicans. Texas is mostly urban now and the yellow-dog Democrats are all gone, doomed to extinction–as Johnson knew they would be–by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Texas has a Republican governor, and it has two Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and for the most part, all its people talk as if they grew up in California and are auditioning for the latest Coca-Cola commercial. We aren’t hicks anymore.

Johnson was the last of the really big hicks. Yet, as you eavesdrop on him in recordings he left for posterity, like Dorothy peeking behind the screen at the Wizard, you find not a giant but a fearful and uncertain man with a very big voice.

In a conversation with Bill Moyers July 7, the president sounds like a tyrant one moment, a confused child the next. “Don’t just lope off,” says an exasperated Johnson, speaking to Moyers as if he were a horse. “I want to know where I can reach you on a minute’s notice.” Then his voice drops an octave or two, and he becomes more subdued. He warns Moyers not to let the War on Poverty go too far, and to keep it out of the hands of Kennedy’s men. Eventually Johnson would go on to surpass the early New Deal, but at this moment, he didn’t know how to proceed.

What he wanted, he told Moyers, was a poverty program that would hire high-school students who were about to drop out, and put them to work picking rocks off highways or sweeping the floors of government buildings. “Now I never heard of any liberal outfits where you could subsidize anybody,” Johnson tells Moyers. “I’m against all that. If you want to do it in the Peace Corps, then that’s your private thing and it’s the Kennedys’; but my Johnson program, I’m against subsidizing any private organization.” Beneath the bellow (click here), you can tell how baffled he is by the enormity of what he had earlier promised the nation–“an end to poverty and racial injustice in our time”–and picture the deep furrows of anxiety on his brow.

Or listen to him talk with Robert Kennedy, whose family still holds the nation in thrall. The conversation took place July 4, 1964. It was a courtesy call, but tensions between Kennedy and Johnson were at an all-time high. Kennedy was still attorney general but was pressing to be named Johnson’s running mate in that year. Johnson, however, wanted nothing more than to dump Bobby. He placed the call from his ranch in Johnson City.

“Hi, general,” Johnson says, straining to be polite. “How’s Texas?” asks Kennedy, his accent as thick as his barely concealed resentment toward Johnson. Briefly, he tells Johnson that he believes the Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Miss., had agreed to follow the law and desegregate schools; but he doesn’t really seem too interested in the problem. The following year, Kennedy would become more committed to civil rights, but in 1964, he was still equivocal, partly because he was worried about whether Communists had infiltrated the civil rights movement. On this particular day, he just sounds tired, all worn out. “Do you want to talk to one of your girlfriends?” he asks Johnson, trying to get rid of him.

A few seconds later, Jackie Kennedy comes on the line. As absurd as it may seem, she and Johnson sound like a couple of suitors (click here to listen in on the courtship). “Did you have a good day?” Johnson asks the widow, who coos that her day was just fine. Johnson then tells her he has been on his new ski boat all day and has become a little sunburned. “You’ll look marvelous with a sunburn,” she tells him, sounding all airy and breathless. It is a mesmerizing moment, one that shattered my childhood illusions. Clearly the Kennedys loathed Johnson, but they were as hypocritical as he was.

Twenty-five days after that conversation, Johnson invited Kennedy to the Oval Office and told him face to face that he didn’t want him as a running mate. In late August, Kennedy announced for the U.S. Senate race in New York, but not before he had had a conversation with Johnson in which he admitted his own insecurities about making the race. “I think it’s damn tough,” Kennedy told Johnson, sounding whiny. “I’d like to run. If I lose, then it’s a reflection on the whole family.”

Johnson encouraged Kennedy to run and promised to do whatever he could to help him. “I’m prepared to say what is desirable,” he tells him. “I have said that I highly regard you and that you have a bright future, and that the things about our relationship were without foundation. You know New York better than I do. It might be desirable for me to say nothing.” This was Johnson at his most evocative, trying to ease Kennedy out of his way while sucking up to him. It is the side of Johnson that we are most familiar with, Johnson as the brilliant conniver, trying so diligently and without success to free himself from the spell of the Kennedys.

He couldn’t free himself, of course, not from the Kennedys, not from anyone. Here was a man who whispered terrible, dark things about himself under his breath.

O n Aug. 25, after the Democratic convention had opened in Atlantic City, N.J., Johnson, then 56 years old, threatened in three recorded conversations to withdraw from the presidential race. Johnson actually drafted a withdrawal statement and read it to his press secretary, George Reedy. (To hear Johnson read a statement he never gave, click here.)

The president was overcome with doubts, which he expressed later that day to Walter Jenkins, a quiet, gentle man who served in effect as his chief of staff. “I don’t think a white Southerner is the man to unite this nation in this hour,” he told Jenkins. “I don’t know who is, and I don’t even want that responsibility. … I’ve had doubts about whether a man born where I was born, raised like I was raised, could ever satisfy the Northern Jews, Catholics, and union people.” He worried that he might be going crazy, and fretted over running against Barry Goldwater. “I really, I do not believe, Walter, that I can physically and mentally … Goldwater’s had a couple of nervous breakdowns, and I don’t want to be in this place … and I don’t, I do not believe I can physically and mentally carry the responsibilities of the bomb, and the world, and the Nigras, and the South, and so on and so forth.” (To hear Johnson whine, click here. To hear him whine some more, click here.)

Johnson does not really mean what he is saying, of course. If he had withdrawn from the race, Bobby Kennedy would have run, something Johnson’s pride could not have tolerated. What he wants from Jenkins is pity. Five minutes later, in another conversation, Johnson can be heard giving Jenkins instructions on how he wants Hubert Humphrey to work the floor of the convention. Yet, in this conversation with Jenkins, it is possible to perceive the depth of Johnson’s despair.

“I don’t see any reason I ought to seek the right to endure the anguish of being here,” said Johnson tearfully. “They think I want great power. What I want is great solace and a little love, that’s all I want.” He presses down hard on the word “love,” too hard, and it comes out in an apoplexy of twang. “Luv,” he tells Jenkins, “a little luv.”

“You have a lot of that, Mr. President,” Jenkins tells him softly.