LBJ Poverty Transcripts

Below are two transcripts, the tapes of which we'll hear in class, that offer some insight on LBJ's attitude toward poverty.  The first contains a portion of an early February conversation between the President and Sargent Shriver, whom LBJ was about to appoint as his special assistant to coordinate the anti-poverty campaign. Question: Do you get a clear sense of LBJ's anti-poverty agenda from this conversation? Did Shriver?

The second call concerns the traditional Labor Day campaign kickoff speech, and is between LBJ and one of his closest aides, Bill Moyers.  Here, the President offers a glimpse of his overall economic philosophy. Question: What was LBJ's ideal vision of economic policy, at least based on this call? (Note: Moyers originally had considered becoming a Baptist minister; this will explain a few of the President's jokes in this conversation.)

President Johnson and Sargent Shriver, 1:02 PM, February 1, 1964

President Johnson: Sarge?

Shriver: Good morning, Mr. President. How are you?

President Johnson: I’m going to announce your appointment at the press conference.

Shriver: [taken aback] What press conference?

President Johnson: This afternoon.

Shriver: Oh God, I think it would be advisable, if you don’t mind, if I could have this weekend. I wanted to sit down with a couple of people and see what we could get in the way of some sort of plan. Because what happens, at least what my thought is, [that] you announce somebody like me or somebody else, and they don’t know what the hell they are doing or what this program is going to be specifically, and who is going to carry it, then you’re in a hell of a hole, because they are going to call you up and say, "Well now, what are you going to do?"

President Johnson: Well—

Shriver: And you don’t know what you’re talking about.

President Johnson: Well, just don’t talk to them—just go away to Camp David and figure it out. We need something to say to the press. I’ve got to tell them what I talked to you about yesterday. You can just take off and work out your Peace Corps any way you want to. You can be head of the committee and have some acting operator, and if you want Bill [Moyers] to help you, I’ll let him do that. I’ll do anything—but I want to announce this and get it behind me, so I’ll quit getting all these other pressures.

You’ve got to do it. You just can’t let me down, so the quicker we get it behind us, the better. You can talk to them as special assistant to the President a hell of a lot easier than you can talk to them just as Peace Corps administrator. If they want to talk to you, just tell them to speak to me.

Shriver: Yes. Well—

President Johnson: But don’t make me wait until next week, because I want to satisfy them with something. I told them we were going to have a press meeting.

Shriver: Let me say this. Can I make just one point—

President Johnson: They’re going to have all these damn questions and I don’t want to be indecisive about them.

Shriver: I understand. But I think that there is one point that’s worthy of your consideration. It’s this. Number one: I’m not going to let anybody down, last of all you. You’ve been terrific to me.

Second: this appointment, if it’s announced without the proper preparation with our people abroad around the world, as I tried to indicate to you yesterday—and I think Bill will confirm this to you, Mr. President—would cause an awful lot of internal [searches for word] apprehension.

President Johnson: Well, I—

Shriver: [continuing] In the sense that I would like to have a chance to prepare the Corps, not only my top people here in Washington, which I can do, but I’ve got four or five guys coming back here from abroad right now.

President Johnson: But that will leak out over 40 places. Why don’t I tell them you are not severing your connection with the Corps, that you are still going to be identified with the Corps, and the details of what you will do there can be worked out later, and you’ll announce them. Generally speaking, I’m—

Shriver: Could you say this: that you have asked me to study how this thing should be carried out? That’s the way that I did it for President Kennedy when he asked me to look at the Peace Corps, and to study how it should be organized and carried out. And that I will do that for you, and that, based on what I have proposed then, you will make your move. What I will propose, of course, is what you want to have done, but at least, it doesn’t look as if I have left the Peace Corps.

President Johnson: Let me make it clear: let me say that I have asked you to study this, and I’m going to ask you to direct it, but that does not mean that you are going to lose identification with the Peace Corps, and what responsibilities you will have with the Peace Corps you will announce at a later date.

Shriver: Could you just say that you have asked me to study this?

President Johnson: No. Hell, no. They’ve studied and studied and studied. They want to know who in the hell is going to do this, and it’s leaked all over the papers for two weeks that you’re going to do it. They’ll be shooting me with questions—they’re already doing it. And . . .

Shriver: Yes, yes, I’m all set on that. That Shriver is going to be the person that is going to organize this thing. He’s going to study it, come in with a report to me on what he wants to do with it within two or three weeks, whatever it was, that we spent a month—

President Johnson: I’m going to say that you’re going to be Special Assistant to the President, and executive in charge of the poverty program. And how that affects your Peace Corps relationship—you’ll still maintain it, but you’ll be glad to go into that with them at a later date. At the present, you’re working up the organization of this. What’s wrong with that?

Shriver: Well, the problem with it is that, you know, it will knock the crap out of the Peace Corps.

President Johnson: Not if they tell them that you’re not severing your identification with the Peace Corps.

Shriver: Then you’ll say that I’m going to continue as the director?

President Johnson: Well, I’ll just say that you’re going to continue your identification with the Peace Corps, whatever identification you want, whatever you want to do with it.

Shriver: I think it would be better if you would say, if you have to, that I’m going to continue as director.

President Johnson: They’re going to say then, "Are you going to have him directing two jobs?" I’m going to say, "I don’t know." That’s the next question, you see. I’d say he’s going to continue his identification with the Peace Corps, in what capacity he’ll explain to you in great detail. But he’s going to see that it functions, and he’s also on the poverty assignment.

Shriver: [disspirited] Mm-hmm. Of course, you’ve got the sense of the situation. I must say that I would prefer, Mr. President, if I had 48 hours even to work with our staff around the world, so they won’t hear this over the worldwide Voice of America, or something like that.

President Johnson: It’s not going to be anything but a compliment to you. They’re going to be proud of you. They’re going to be applauding you. Everybody is.

Shriver: Would you ask Bill? He would confirm to you on the point that I’m trying to make, namely, that within the Peace Corps right now, there is a very great sort of a personal problem about me, with a whole lot of people that are in it.

President Johnson: I’m not taking you away from them. I’m just giving you a billion dollars to work with. And you figure out how you want to work.

Shriver: I was thinking about this last night, and I talked with a couple of fellows this morning: the returning Peace Corps volunteers could be tremendous assistants.

President Johnson: Of course they could. They could be out there. You could build your organization out of a good many of them.

Shriver: That’s right. What I would like to do is to get that,the way this thing is going to be integrated, so that when we announce something we’re really ready to talk about it really intelligently.

President Johnson: I don’t think you could do that until you make this whole study and come up with a message. I’m talking about the man who is evolving the organization, and in charge of perfecting it right now, and his name is Sargent Shriver. He still has his identification with the Peace Corps, and he will keep it to such extent as he deems desirable. And if you can’t run a $100 million program in your left hand and a $1 billion with your right hand, you’re not as smart as I think you are.

Shriver: [laughing] Besides, the money has no problem at all. It’s the people that I’m interested in. I want to keep all these people for the government that are in the Peace Corps and bring them into any other program.

President Johnson: Well, that’s good. I’m not going to sever you from the Peace Corps at all. I’m just saying that you’re going to maintain your identification with the Peace Corps. And how much of the details you’re going to do, whether you hire them or sweep out the room, is going to be a matter for you to determine. I am going to make that clear. But I am [also] going to make it clear that you’re Mr. Poverty—at home and abroad, if you want to be. I don’t care who you have running the Peace Corps. If you can run it, wonderful; if you can’t, get Oshkosh from Chicago and I’ll name him.

Shriver: I can’t get anybody. The only guy that could possibly do it, Mr. President, is Bill.

President Johnson: You can write your ticket on anything you want to do there. I want to get rid of poverty, though.

Shriver: Yes.

President Johnson: And you can organize poverty right from the beginning. You’ll have to get on the message Monday. But the Sunday papers are going to say that you’re Mr. Poverty unless you’ve got real compelling reasons, which I haven’t heard. And I’m going to say that you’re going to maintain your identification with the Peace Corps and operate it to such an extent as you may think desirable.

Shriver: I thought, as I looked over the papers, it seems to me that this is a thing that really ought to operate out of HEW. I don’t mean right at this moment—

President Johnson: It can’t operate out of HEW.

Shriver: Well, I mean, it seems to me this is a—

President Johnson: Well, you wait till we get by an election before we go to operating out of HEW. We’ve got to get by this election. I’ve thought of all those things. Got some good ideas on them, which you would approve of. But I’ve got an election ahead of me now.


September 5, 1964, President Johnson and Bill Moyers, 4:20 PM

Operator: We find that Robert Weaver is in New York. Do you want me to reach him?

President Johnson: No, I don’t want him. Get Bernie Boudin for me, and see if you can’t also get Gene Fougin, before I forget what I want to talk about. He’s the small business administrator. [They then discuss Fougin’s schedule, and Moyers comes to the line.]

President Johnson: Walter Reuther’s going to say that he’s there for Johnson because he’s for the poverty program, and he’s for education, and he’s for taking care of the sick. He wants a real strong sentence on medical care. I assume there is a sentence on medical care in here, and on education in here.

Moyers: Yes, sir. And on poverty.

President Johnson: I want one paragraph lifted—Dick Goodwin can work on it till dark, or you—along the lines of the other day that I took out of the [John] Steinbeck speech, I think it was, where we have a right to wish for what we want to, think what we want to, worship where we want to, sleep where we want to. Everything like the basic fundamentals that—the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution thing, wrapped up in one paragraph.

Do you remember the paragraph I’m talking about?

Moyers: Yes. I sure do.

President Johnson: But I want it elaborated on a little bit—"Mind to be trained, child’s mind to be trained. Church to pray in. A home to sleep in. A job to work in."

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: Let’s get education, religion, free speech, free press—"read what he pleases." Round him out as a well-balanced, tolerant, understanding individual, instead of one of these cooks. [Chuckles.]

Moyers: OK.

President Johnson: Do you follow me there, now?

Moyers: Gotcha.

President Johnson: I want that one paragraph so that I can have all the Johnson philosophy.

He said, "Well, you’ve got to speak some on poverty. You’ve got to speak some one education. You’ve got to speak some on Medicare." Somebody’s told him it’s got to be a high level speech. He wants it a party hack speech.

I said, "I’m going to refer to all of them." I want it in one paragraph—my philosophy. So that when you quote what I had in that Southwest Quarterly—"I’m a free man, an American, and a senator, in that order." Do you remember?

Moyers: Right.

President Johnson: I want something that you can quote like this the rest of our lives. You can put it in the preface of your book. "I have a vision—a vision of a land where a child can [pauses] have a home to live in." And then repeat what I just said to you. "And read what he wants to, and can wish what he wants to, and can dream what he wants to."

And then the words, "I have a vision." Let’s get a little bit of this holy-rolly populist stuff. [voice rising] "I have a vision of a land where every child [pauses] can have training to fit his abilities, a home to protect him from the elements, a church to kneel in." Throw at least two biblical quotations in, that are very simple, that every one of them have heard—these working men, these auto mechanics.

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: It’s what you Baptists just report to them all the time.

Moyers: [chuckling] All right.

President Johnson: Make it simple; don’t give me one of these long ones.

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: Go back and get me one of the commandments. These Baptists preachers—don’t get on that adultery one. Get some of these, "Thou shalt not [pauses] lie on thy brother."

Moyers: [tartly] All right. OK.