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Johnson to Marshall: 'I have a rather big problem...'

From Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
The University of Virginia released taped conversations between President Johnson and Thurgood Marshall.
The University of Virginia released taped conversations between President Johnson and Thurgood Marshall.
  • Excerpt from a conversation between President Johnson, Thurgood Marshall released
  • President asks Marshall to be his solicitor general, hints at an even bigger post to come
  • Johnson to Marshall: "Nobody will ever know I talked to you"
  • Johnson to Marshall: "I want to be the first president that really goes all the way."

Editor's Note: The Miller Center at the University of Virginia released its tapes of President Lyndon Johnson exclusively to CNN's Bill Mears.

(CNN) -- This is an excerpt from a recorded conversation between President Lyndon Johnson and then-Judge Thurgood Marshall, released by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, which has been compiling these once-secret audio tapes.

On July 7, 1965, the president asks Marshall to be his solicitor general, the first step in a grand plan to groom Marshall for the Supreme Court. As Marshall later recalled, he was summoned from lunch by an aide who said the president was on the phone. "The president of what?" Marshall says he replied.

When told it was Johnson, Marshall took the elevator and soon was being offered a chance to make history. Note: Marshall's words can be difficult to hear.

Tapes reveal Marshall's rocky road to Supreme Court

President Johnson: Yes?

White House operator: Judge Thurgood Marshall in New York on 9-0.

Johnson: All right, (unclear). OK, take this, will you?

Operator: Yes, sir.

Johnson: Hello?

Marshall: Yes, sir?

Johnson: Judge, how are you?

Marshall: Fine, sir.

Johnson: I have a rather big problem that I wanted to talk to you about.

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: I want you to give it some real thought because it's something that I have thought about for weeks, and I think that we can't think of how it affects us personally. We've got to think about the world ...

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: ... and our country.

Marshall: Yes, sir.

Johnson: And our government. And then ourselves way down at the bottom of the list. I want you to be my solicitor general.

Marshall: Wow.

Johnson: Now, you lose a lot. You lose security and you lose the freedom that you like. And you lose the philosophizing that you can do. And I'm familiar with all those things.

Marshall: The number one (unclear).

Johnson: Well, you won't lose any. And I want you to do it for two or three reasons. One, I want the top lawyer in the United States representing me before the Supreme Court ...

Marshall: (Unclear)

Johnson: ... to be a negro.

Marshall: Oh.

Johnson: And be a damn good lawyer that's done it before. That's ... so, you have those peculiar qualifications.

Marshall: (Unclear)

Johnson: Number two, I think it will do a lot for our image, abroad and at home, too, that this is the man that the whole government has to look to to decide whether it prosecutes a case or whether it goes up with a case, or whether it doesn't, and so on and so forth.

Marshall: Yeah.

Johnson: Number three, I want you to have the experience and be in the picture. I'm not discussing anything else ...

Marshall: Yeah.

Johnson: ... and I don't want to make any other commitments ...

Marshall: Yes, sir.

Johnson: ... and I don't want to imply or bribe or mislead you.

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: But I want you to have the training and the experience of being there day after day for the next few weeks anyway.

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: Maybe the next few months if you could do it. Now, I've talked to (Deputy Attorney General) Ramsey Clark, whose father (Justice Tom Clark) is on the Supreme Court. (Note: Marshall would later take Clark's seat on the high court in 1967.)

Marshall: Yeah (unclear).

Johnson: And both of them have a high regard for you. I've talked to the attorney general, Nick Katzenbach.

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: I've talked to you. Now, I haven't talked to anybody else. I don't want to talk to anybody else.

Marshall: Right, sir.

Johnson: Nobody will ever know I talked to you. If you decide that you can do it, I think you ought to do it for the people of the world. I just think it will be ... you've got a great job, you've got lots of security, but I don't think you'll lose any by this. And after you do it awhile, if there's not something better, which I would hope there would be, that you would be more amenable to, there'll be security for you because I'm going to be here for quite awhile.

Marshall: That's right. That's right.

Johnson: But I want to do this job that (Abraham) Lincoln started, and I want to do it the right way.

Marshall: Well, could I have a day or so?

Johnson: Yes, yes. You can have all the time you want. And you think it over, and you evaluate it, and ...

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: This is a nonpolitical job. It just determines what goes before that court and then you present it, at least all you want to, and then have other people -- Archie Cox (Solicitor General Archibald Cox) will be going back to Harvard (Law School to teach); he could stay. I could ask him to stay. But I want this man to ... I think you could see what I'm looking at.

Marshall: [Unclear.]

Johnson: And I want to be the first president that really goes all the way.

Marshall: I think that's wonderful.

Johnson: But I don't want anybody to be able to clip me from behind. I want to do it on merit.

Marshall: Right.

Johnson: I want to do it without regard to politics. I want to do it without any regard to votes, because I never ... I don't want any votes. I'm not looking for votes. I've had the votes. I had all the votes when I needed them.

Marshall: That's right.

Johnson: I had 15 million. And all I want to do is serve my term and do it well. But I also want to do something else. I want to leave my mark, and I want to see that justice is done. And you can be a symbol there, that you can't ever be where you are.

Marshall: The answer's "yes."

Johnson: Well, it's got to be.

Marshall: (Unclear) yes.

Johnson: It's got to be.

Marshall: I appreciate it, Mr. President, I really do.

Johnson: Any day or two you can come down, why, you just get on a plane and come down here and let my people know. Just call [aide] Jack Valenti here at the White House and we'll make the appropriate arrangement.

Marshall: All right, sir. I could ... the only time I'm stuck -- I'm stuck (unclear) on Friday, but I could if either one of those would be better for you, or Monday.

Johnson: Well, I expect to be better Monday or Tuesday. I'm going to be home on Friday. I'm going home Friday afternoon.

Marshall: Yeah.

Johnson: I'll be here this Wednesday. I'll be here Thursday and Friday, but I'll leave after lunch. Then I'll be there until probably Monday afternoon. I'll be back here Tuesday. What about Tuesday?

Marshall: Tuesday would be fine.

Johnson: We'll just ... now, you just forget this.

Marshall: All right.

Johnson: And let me talk to you about it in detail and we'll work it out and . . . you don't know, I've thought about it for weeks.

Marshall: (Unclear) I'm so appreciative to be able to help.

Johnson: Well, you can because you live such a life and they've gone over you with a fine-toothed comb, and they could never use anything about you to thwart us. And we're on our way now.

Marshall: Wonderful!

Johnson: And we're going to move.

Marshall: Right. Well, Tuesday would be fine if it's all right with you.

Johnson: All right, that'll be fine. You have any idea what time you'd like to meet?

Marshall: Any time, sir.

Johnson: Well, what about 11 in the morning?

Marshall: Eleven o'clock would be fine.

President Johnson: Thank you. Bye.

Marshall: Thank you, sir. Right.