Ridiculous History: LBJ Talked on the Phone More Than a Teenager


Phone in the bathroom? Check. Phone by the hammock? Check. Phone beneath the dinner table? Check. And that was only a few of the spots where telephones could be found at the White House and Johnson's ranch. PhotoQuest/Bettmann/Getty/Wikimedia Commons
Phone in the bathroom? Check. Phone by the hammock? Check. Phone beneath the dinner table? Check. And that was only a few of the spots where telephones could be found at the White House and Johnson's ranch. PhotoQuest/Bettmann/Getty/Wikimedia Commons

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office on Nov. 22, 1963, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within 24 hours, President Johnson ordered a dramatic increase in the number of telephones in the White House communications system, report Stephen Smith and Kate Ellis of American RadioWorks.

Johnson had phones installed absolutely everywhere — beneath dining tables, coffee tables and end tables, in bathrooms and on window sills, according to Johnson aide James Jones' oral history for the LBJ Presidential Library. Johnson basically built a wired mobile phone network, using phones as call-relay points, so he would never have to end a call.

The White House has seen odder things. Legend has it Chester A. Arthur had 80 pairs of pants, and changed them often throughout the day. During the Harrison administration, the White House pet was a goat. John Quincy Adams wanted Congress to fund a manned journey to the center of Earth, which he believed was hollow. Grover Cleveland apparently changed his name from "Stephen."

To Be Fair, Presidents Have a Lot to Talk About

Johnson had every reason to be on the phone. Smith and Ellis describe LBJ's early years in the White House as "frenzied," and LBJ conducted his business via telephone. It was his "preferred instrument of both administration and persuasion," to quote David Shreve in "The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson." About half of the president's "personal contacts" in 1963 and '64 were on the phone.

He secretly taped most of these calls. Johnson recorded at least 9,000 conversations during his presidency, more than 6,000 of which are available through the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. LBJ once said those tapes reveal more about how government really works than any textbook.

It wasn't a paranoia thing, really. He used the tapes as a record of his daily work. Any uncertainty about what was said on a call, he'd review the transcript. Quote in a paper that didn't seem quite right? Review the transcript. Legislator claiming he did not in fact agree to do what LBJ wanted? Review the transcript.

Johnson got a lot of people to do a lot of things over the phone.

His use of the technology to navigate his political realm was "extraordinary, even pioneering," Shreve writes, adding, "A large oak at his Austin residence in the early 1950s was ... wired with a telephone jack and a 35-foot cord."

And here, perhaps, is where we leave politics and enter "I LOVE PHONES!" domain.

No President Needs That Many Phones

Johnson's Texas ranch had more than an awesome tree phone. It had a switchboard.

The "Texas White House" also had at least 15 local and long distance lines and 72 handsets, one specially built to handle 24 calls at once. That was just in the main house. There were far more on the property as a whole: Johnson had all five outbuildings fully wired with underground cables, raising the number of phones on the ranch to about 300, reports CNN. He took White House phone operators with him, on Air Force One, to man the Texas switchboard.   

Estimates on LBJ's phone use range from about 40 to 100 calls a day, sometimes several at once. According to the LBJ Presidential Library, in aide George Reedy's oral history about his time with Johnson, he estimated the president spent 18 hours a day on the phone. Aide Jim Jones revealed he and Johnson would meet at 8 a.m. each morning "to go over the night reading and various other memoranda and take assignments for the day ...," and "you would start to talk about something, and he'd be on the telephone." (Both of those tidbits come from material supplied to HowStuffWorks by the LBJ Presidential Library.)

Shreve calls Johnson's use of the phone "passionate." Those tasked with transcribing the conversations — or, like Jones, receiving 7 a.m. calls from the president on their honeymoons, just to talk — may have called it something else.

But the White House phone operators, reclining on Air Force One, were stoked. In 1969, when Johnson left office, they were among the first to say goodbye.

If you'd like to listen in on LBJ's phone calls yourself, you can find a plethora of the recordings on the LBJLibrary YouTube Channel, like this March 25, 1965, conversation between LBJ and Jackie Kennedy. There's also a funny recording of LBJ ordering pants, but be warned that there's some  adult content not appropriate for kids.