President Lyndon Baines Johnson was famous for his ability to coerce members of Congress into supporting his legislation. LBJ’s combination of charm, persuasion, and sheer intimidation came to be known as the “Johnson treatment.”
Johnson was notoriously aggressive, especially when he wanted to achieve one of his political goals. LBJ managed to rise from his simple beginnings in the tiny, rural town of Johnson, Texas and reach the White House.
Historians say that he managed this ascent by ruthlessly seeking out power and never losing sight of his goals. Even while he was a college student, Johnson reportedly declared that he was only interested in dating girls with “rich daddies,” who could presumably give him access to power and money.
LBJ held on to this drive for power throughout his career, even once he had reached the White House. He was highly skilled at identifying people’s insecurities and worming his way into their confidence.
As a negotiator, he knew exactly how to wheel and deal, offering each member of Congress just the right concessions to get them on his side. Both over the telephone and in face to face meetings, Johnson was a persistent, tireless dealmaker, who juggled a detailed knowledge of the law with an intuitive understanding of what made people tick. And, when all else failed, Johnson did not hesitate to use his physical presence to frighten his opponents.
Congressman Richard Bolling, who experienced the Johnson treatment himself, described Johnson as a man with no natural boundaries, who didn’t hesitate to be rough and even animalistic when it could help him. Bolling said, “I wouldn’t say Johnson was vulgar — he was barnyard.” Johnson had no sense of personal space and treated conversation as a creepy hands-on affair. Miller learned from Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee that, “You really felt as if a St. Bernard had licked your face for an hour, had pawed you all over.”
New York Times reporter Tom Wicker wrote, years after the fact, about his own experiences with the Johnson treatment, during the years that he spent covering the White House for the Times. Wicker described a time when he was called into LBJ’s office after writing something unfavorable. The president was having his hair cut and stared Wicker down:
I had thought I was on easy terms with the senator, then the vice president. But was this the same garrulous man I had known — this silent, staring president? Whoever it was, I was quickly intimidated, unnerved, reduced to a sort of nothingness by those unblinking eyes, that jowly familiar face turned implacable, that motionless form under the barber sheet, the brooding silence in which I was being regarded, or perhaps measured.
I shuffled and writhed. He still said nothing. Finally I knew I was beaten, and to my shame I mumbled some banality about the nation’s good fortune in having such a man to take over. Only then, as if just noticing my presence, he whipped off the barber sheet, stood up and spoke, as if those interminable moments had never happened.
Forty years later, whenever I remember that first interview with a new president, I still feel diminished by my small experience of the Johnson Treatment.