Lyndon Johnson and National Politics





KC Johnson

Brooklyn College

Lyndon Johnson voting, Election Day 1964
Photo from LBJ Presidential Library

This module contains three parts, a prerequisite, and a conclusion; you should complete only those sections requested by your instructor.

Part One In-class assignment: LBJ tapes and the "frontlash"
Part Two Blackboard assignment
Part Three Out-of-class writing assignment
Part Four Conclusion


During his 5-year tenure as president, Lyndon Johnson secretly recorded around 642 hours of phone conversations and (in 1968) cabinet meetings. The bulk of the available tapes come from 1964 and 1965, the years of his greatest political and legislative triumphs. This unit uses clips from these recordings to glimpse inside the White House at a time when LBJ made some of his key decisions--regarding civil rights politics and policy; Vietnam and foreign affairs; and his 1964 reelection bid.


Activity One: (In-class assignment)

For a sense of how Johnson conceived of the "frontlash," listen to these conversations--clips from August and September 1964 calls between the President and aide Bill Moyers.

  • Johnson first picked up on the "frontlash" concept at the Atlantic City convention, as he demonstrated in this conversation (mp3 file) with Moyers. Moyers was at the convention hall, the President was in the Oval Office. Click here for a transcript of these clips.

  • Articulating a positive economic agenda that would appeal to frontlash voters, however, was difficult for a committed New Dealer like Johnson. In this conversation with Moyers (mp3 file), the President attempted to outline the main economic themes of his campaign, to be unveiled at the traditional Democratic campaign kickoff, a Labor Day speech in Detroit.

Discussion Questions:

  • Based on his conversation with Moyers, what did LBJ see as the central task of the Detroit speech?

  • What domestic agenda did he envision for a completed term?

  • How did LBJ hope to appeal to the "frontlash" constituency? What kind of voters was he talking about in his conversations with Moyers?

Activity Two: (Blackboard assignment)

The 1964 presidential campaign was the first in which the majority of commercials run by the two candidates--Johnson and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater--were negative; and the race produced the most famous attack ad in American history, Johnson's "daisy ad," which featured a countdown to a nuclear explosion superimposed over a little girl picking the petals off a daisy, with the implication that Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected President. Watch these 20 television commercials from the campaign.

Text Questions:

To what extent did Johnson accomplish the goals he outlined in his conversations with Moyers and Reedy? What message did Goldwater hope to convey, and was he successful in doing so?

Source Questions:

How should we analyze a source like TV ads, which rely on visual messages as much as the text or the sound? What did you consider the most effective ad of the 20? Why?

You should post at least twice, with the second post at least 12 hours after the first, and to include responses to the arguments of the other posters.

Activity Three: (Writing assignment)

Listen to this remarkable (lengthy) October 1964 conversation (mp3 file) between Johnson and his chief aide, Walter Jenkins, in which the President, functioning as his own campaign manager, surveyed the state of the race against Goldwater, discussed political tactics, and outlined his vision for the future political state of the country. Historians (and contemporary political commentators) often remark on the contradictions between the necessities of campaigning for office and the more idealistic vision of public policy held by politicians. Compare and contrast Johnson's political goals with the tactics that he is willing to pursue. Be sure to consider the following issues:

  • How Johnson conceived of the power of the presidency;
  • The relationship between LBJ's personal style and his functioning as President;
  • The similarities and differences between American political culture in 1964 and that of today.


Presidential biographies are among the most common, and popular, type of political history, and presidential historians have to balance the sometimes competing needs of presenting a faithful portrayal of the President's personal life with an understanding of his public policies. Striking this balance can be especially difficult when dealing with the tapes, since the recording systems often picked up unusual and perhaps atypical moments in a President's life that under any other circumstances never would have been retained.

How much attention should historians devote to the private traits of 1960s chief executives? Keep this question in mind when listening to the following two calls: the first, between Lyndon Johnson and Joseph Haggar, in which the President ordered some slacks, giving some very specific tailoring advice; the second, between Richard Nixon and the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time US ambassador to the UN, in which Nixon discussed his theories on the capacities of different races for effective governance.