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LBJ and the power of the presidency

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October 17, 1996
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EDT

Editor's Note -- Lyndon Johnson had power and he knew how to wield it. To advance his agenda he wasn't shy to twist arms -- or give favors. In this, the third of a five-part series focusing on recently released tapes from the Johnson White House, Correspondent John Holliman shows us the power of his presidency.

From Correspondent John Holliman

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Lyndon Johnson loved power, and he loved to get things done. The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library has just released audio tapes from his administration that illustrate his mastery, and a carefully crafted strategy that made him successful.

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He came to the White House via Congress, where he perfected a way of lobbying for his legislative agenda that came to be known as the "Johnson Treatment." It was a combination of Southern hospitality plus judicious use of power, plus lots of horse-trading.

Once in the White House, his top domestic priority was passing the anti-poverty program -- "The Great Society," he called it. The Texas Democrat lobbied from the halls of Congress to state and local power bases to get his program passed.

In January 1964, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (the father of now-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley) said he would support the anti-poverty legislation, and could use Johnson's support for something in return: the appointment of another Democrat, Ed Hanihan, as district attorney. "You got him!" Johnson told Daley. (23 sec. /256K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

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Where Johnson didn't want to spend favors, he used forceful argument instead. When he wanted a tax bill passed to fund the anti-poverty program, Senator Vance Hartke, an Indiana Democrat, held out because musical instruments would be taxed. Such a move would hurt an instrument manufacturer who was a big Hartke supporter.

Johnson didn't care. "The goddamn band and musical instruments, they won't be talking about it next November. What they're going to be judging us by is ... whether we can pass a tax bill or not and whether we've got prosperity. ... Every day it's costing us $30 million in our economy, so get in there and try to help me on this thing," he told Hartke. (17 sec. /192K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

And for Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Johnson offered to trade future favors to get the anti-poverty bill passed, promising, "I'll save your face." The president won the vote, and made a point to get in touch with Ribicoff with promises of future assistance.

(15 sec. /150K AIFF or WAV sound) icon Twisting Senator Ribicoff's arm
(11 sec. /128K AIFF or WAV sound) icon ...and delivering his thanks

Presidential scholar Michael Beschloss is compiling a book based on the 80 hours of tapes the presidential library released. He says some of them are magical:

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"We had always known that Johnson was very good at getting members of Congress to do certain things they were reluctant to do. It's a very different thing to hear about that on the one hand, and on the other hand to see it in action."

Next: LBJ and the war on poverty


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