LBJ gives Senator Richard Russell the "Johnson Treatment." (12/7/73) photo: NARA
Johnson appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair the commission. LBJ also wanted to appoint his long-time Senate mentor, Georgia Democrat Richard Russell. But Russell didn't like Justice Warren and didn't want to serve under him. So, Johnson simply announced Russell's appointment to the press and then phoned him. They spoke on November 28, 1963 at 8:55 p.m.
LBJ: Dick...it has already been announced and you can serve with anybody for the good of America and this is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface and we've got to take this out of the arena where they're testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that and kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour.
Russell: I have never...
LBJ: You're my man on that commission. And you're going to do it. And don't tell me what you can do and what you can't, because I can't arrest you and I'm not going to put the FBI on you, but you're goddammed sure going to serve. I'll tell you that.
Russell: Mr. President, you ought to have told me you was gonna name me.
LBJ: I told you. I told you today I was gonna name the chief justice when I called you.
Russell: You did not...
LBJ: I did...
Russell: You didn't tell me you was gonna name him...
LBJ: I told you I was gonna name Warren and you said it would be better to name Harlan.
Russell: Well you ought not to be so persuasive.
LBJ: Well, I think I ought to.
Russell: I think you did wrong getting Warren and I know damned well you did wrong in getting me. But we'll both do the best we can.
LBJ: No. I think that's what you'll do. That's the kind of American both of you are. Good night.
The dispute with Russell over who said what is an example of why Lyndon Johnson taped his phone conversations. John Powers, an expert on the presidential tapes at the National Archives, says LBJ used transcripts of the recordings to keep track of details and hold people to their word, especially during the hectic first two years in office when Johnson set out to fight poverty and reform America.
"President Johnson was a consumer of information," Powers says. "In 1964 and in '65 he was right in the thick of doing a 101 different things - the Great Society program as well as the beginning of Vietnam. His primary way to communicate was the telephone, and he would make between 40 and 60 telephone calls a day. He recorded many of them."
The president twirled his finger or said "take this" when he wanted one of his secretaries to tape a call. The secretaries often forgot to turn the machines off, capturing conversations the president didn't necessarily want on record. On an August Sunday in 1964, President Johnson was at his ranch in Texas. He called the chairman of the Haggar Company in Dallas to order some custom-made slacks. LBJ's instructions were particularly graphic.
President Johnson: And make these a half an inch bigger in the waist. And make the pockets at least an inch longer, my money, my knife, everything falls out - wait just a minute.
Operator - Would you hold on a minute please?
[Haggar is put on hold]
LBJ: (cont'd) -Now the pockets, when you sit down, everything falls out, your money, your knife, everything. So I need at least another inch in the pockets. And another thing - the crotch, down where your nuts hang - is always a little too tight, so when you make them up, give me an inch that I can let out there, uh because they cut me, it's just like riding a wire fence. These are almost, these are the best I've had anywhere in the United States.
LBJ: But, uh when I gain a little weight they cut me under there. So, leave me, you never do have much of margin there. See if you can't leave me an inch from where the zipper (burps) ends, round, under my, back to my bunghole, so I can let it out there if I need to.
As the telephone tapes reveal, Lyndon Johnson would be a very different kind of chief executive than his predecessor. Johnson made it clear he was in charge and would do more than just carry on the Kennedy legacy. Historian Bill Doyle says LBJ's larger-than-life personality was key to his power.
"Johnson went through life violating all the laws of interpersonal behavior," Doyle says. "He would wrap his arms around you and shake you and breathe into your nose to get you to do something. Maybe he realized the dramatic value and the shock value of pretty much everything he did. He should not be ashamed of the fact that he used this shock and this personality to deliver the transfiguring moment in American post-war history, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which was a shining transformation of our nation."