Profiles in Persuasion: President Lyndon B. Johnson

profiles-in-persuasion-lbj

This is the first in a series of posts that will outline the persuasive tactics of ten presidents, focusing on a specific trait for each respective leader.


Perhaps no former president exemplifies the power of one-on-one conversations than Lyndon Baines Johnson. Born in Stonewall, Texas in 1908, LBJ went from an impoverished and troubled childhood to the highest office in the land. Often, he did so through sheer force of will.

“If two men agree on everything, you may be sure that one of them is doing the thinking.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson

Upon his entry into politics, Johnson was not an immediate powerbroker. He first served as a congressman for a Texas district, finding it difficult to pay his bills and live in DC. In no small part, his lack of financial security informed the way he interacted with others to accomplish his goals. Without the means to persuade through wealth or power – yet – it was his personality filling the void. In no small part, his lack of education and feelings of inferiority when surrounded by Ivy Leaguers in Washington led to his strategy of leveraging his physical size and temper to effect the change he thought necessary.

His internal drive also pushed him to accomplish aspirational goals. Without a plan, one has no reason to persuade. There is no common goal toward which to lead others. But Johnson developed his vision and went about cajoling and corralling others to play their role in it.

“What convinces is conviction. Believe in the argument you’re advancing. If you don’t you’re as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn’t there, and no chain of reasoning, no matter how logical or elegant or brilliant, will win your case for you.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson

Vision alone cannot convince, and Johnson was keenly aware of this. The landmark projects LBJ set into motion were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and more broadly, the Great Society. Neither of these goals were simply accomplished, and it took the entirety of Johnson’s power and persuasive prowess to bring them to completion.

The 36th president’s persuasive tactic was so well-known that it earned a name of its own, The Johnson Treatment, pictured below in action.

President Johnson cajoling Senator Theodore Green of Rhode Island
(Photo from George Tames, New York Times 1957)

Context is everything: Johnson ascended to his most powerful prior to the presidency near the end of the 1950’s. He is remembered as perhaps the most powerful Senate Majority Leader, whipping his caucus together to pass legislation that would not otherwise succeed absent a strong-willed leader.

When a significant portion of your caucus is made up of Southern Democrats averse and downright hostile to Civil Rights, it takes a big personality to bring together the votes needed.

“Dick, I love you and I owe you. But…I’m going to run over you if you challenge me on this civil-rights bill.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson

The Johnson Treatment was key to LBJ’s success. At 6’4”, he towered over many of his peers, jamming his finger in their direction and sticking his face right into theirs. His ability to persuade others by occupying their personal space and forcing their hand went unmatched.

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