The Johnson Treatment

The Johnson Treatment
 A Hapless Victim       

If it doesn’t seem quite fair to be an earwitness to the unraveling of one man’s perfectly ordered world, the compensation of hearing the “Johnson Treatment” first hand is justification enough.

From a communications perspective President Lyndon Johnson was a fascinating figure.  Most political communication scholars mention his speeches, particularly the disastrous ones defending the Vietnam War and the successful ones on civil rights.  Indeed, his address to a joint session of Congress arguing for voter rights legislation in March of 1965, is one of the towering achievements of the presidency.  He virtually shamed his southern colleagues into relinquishing their stranglehold on voter access, especially in the south. Johnson’s rhetoric could be lumbering and labored.  And he could be terribly insensitive. But in that speech the angels sang, and the nation finally got a Voting Rights Act that would enfranchise millions.

Johnson the communicator is also remembered for another reason that can be summed up in three words: the Johnson Treatment.  To put it simply, the former Senate Minority Leader was an incredibly persuasive man in one-to-one meetings with his colleagues.  To go through the experience was to be subjected to a nonstop barrage of arguments, pleadings, commands, threats and intimidation until the target could take no more.  Some of what he did was genuine persuasion.  Some was simply hammer-lock coercion building off Johnson’s power in the Senate, and later, as the accidental president.

We know this from first-hand accounts of those who faced the Johnson gauntlet.  But we can also hear what the treatment sounded like.

It wasn’t just Richard Nixon who recorded many of his White House conversations.  Johnson taped many of his own phone calls.  And so we have a record of endless day and late night conversations, sometimes with Johnson just thinking out loud (especially with his Senate mentor, Richard Russell).  But among the calls are a number where Johnson is demanding compliance from a cabinet member, a senator, or some other victim in the far-flung federal establishment.  We can hear the insistent gale force pressure of his words overwhelming a surprised minion, some of whom were not happy to be strong-armed.

“Sarge was reluctant to accept the post; LBJ refused to take “no” for an answer.”

sargemt shriver
             Sargent Shriver

Such was the case with a fateful 1964 call to Sargent Shriver, who was then living his dream job as head of the Peace Corps.  Shriver loved the agency, with its mission of humanitarian work performed by a growing cadre of the young and idealistic Americans.  But Johnson had bigger plans for the Marylander and former Kennedy administration official.  He wanted Shriver to head up the ambitious but unbelievably complicated effort of the administration to wage a full-scale “War on Poverty.”  If the idea itself was inspiring, Shriver surely knew that it would be a hornet’s nest of overlapping and competing federal programs.  It promised all the organizational headaches that were mostly avoided in the much smaller Peace Corps program.

Here’s the call, which starts with a pause while White House operators bring the two together: 

If it doesn’t seem quite fair to be an earwitness to the unraveling of one man’s perfectly ordered world, the compensation of hearing the Johnson treatment first hand is justification enough.  The call is reminder that persuasion is not always polite, fair, or pretty.  But fascinating?


By the way, by most accounts, Shriver brought credit and success to the mammoth undertaking of the administration’s  War on Poverty.