The Johnson Treatment
(clockwise) w/ Theodore F. Green, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1957; w/ Abe Fortas, associate justice to the Supreme Court, 1965; w/ Senator Richard Russell, 1963; w/ civil rights leader Whitney Young; w/ President John F. Kennedy; w/ Irish president Éamon de Valera, 1965
While campaigning in 1964, President Johnson ordered a Secret Service agent to stand in front of him so that he could urinate on the sidewalk. After a few seconds, the agent said, “Sir, you’re pissing on my leg,” to which Johnson matter-of-factly responded, “That’s all right, son. That’s my prerogative.”
It was known as the Johnson Treatment—unrelenting mental and physical intimidation by any means necessary.
And the 6’3″, 250-pound president had plenty of means…
These days, employing the Johnson Treatment will, at best, land you in an unscheduled—and awkward—meeting with human resources. For example, LBJ often called staffers into the Oval Office bathroom for nearly an hour to take dictation while he sat on the toilet.
That said, we find nothing wrong with keeping adversaries on their toes—particularly if you have a sense of humor: Johnson once conducted an interview while driving a group of journalists down a steep incline toward a lake, yelling, “The brakes don’t work! We’re going in! We’re going under!” As the car splashed into the lake, the journalists screamed in horror—and Johnson doubled over, laughing. They were riding in an amphibious vehicle.
But our preferred intimidation technique was also LBJ’s most effective one. As former New York Times White House correspondent Tom Wicker recalls of his first interview with the new president…
He was having his hair cut and just stared at me from under heavy, lowered brows, across the sheet littered with his hair clippings. I shuffled from one foot to another; still he said nothing, nor did he even move, as the seconds came to seem minutes, then hours…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.
Thursday: The 10 Most Intimidating American Men Since LBJ.
- — C. Brian Smith