The following article on LBJ’s personality is an excerpt from Mel Ayton’s Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts—From FDR to Obama. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson had a notoriously caustic personality. He famously bullied senators into falling in line on votes by using a mixture of intimidation, threats, and promises of rewards. But much of LBJ’s personality can be gleaned from stories of those who saw him at his most up close and personal: his Secret Service detail.


The director of the White House Military Office, Bill Gulley said that Johnson did not respect his agents. “Look at those bastards back there,” LBJ once said, “They’re supposed to be Secret Service but they look like a bunch of goddamn Mexican Generals. . . .” Dennis McCarthy, who served on the White House detail during the last two years of Johnson’s presidency, said the president treated agents who accompanied him on visits to his Texas ranch as though they were “hired help.” The president often ordered them to carry out menial jobs including washing his car. Agents acceeded to LBJ’s wish for the pool to be cleaned at his ranch but drew the line at washing the car.

Most of Johnson’s detail disliked him, some to the point that they looked for ways to “get even” with him. When the president ordered one of his agents to walk his dog during a rainy stay at his Texas ranch, the agent took the muddy dog to the president’s bedroom and left it there. The next morning, LBJ ordered that his dogs be cleaned up before they were returned to him.

Agents who had been on LBJ’s vice presidential detail advised their peers “to stand up to [LBJ] or he would bowl you over.” One agent took that advice. Once when he was seated in the front seat of the presidential limousine, he was struck by a newspaper-wielding Johnson. When the agent asked the president to stop hitting him, LBJ ignored him. The agent ordered the driver to stop the car, opened the back door, and punched the president in the eye.

Johnson did not know the names of any of his agents except for three or four of the most senior members of the detail. He would usually simply shout, “Secret Service!” followed by some type of demand. Johnson sometimes got violent with the agents, pushing them and, according to former agent Tony Sherman, on one occasion even knocking an agent off a motorcycle. Johnson, who had a quick temper, would frequently swear at his protectors. “You never knew what kind of mood he would be in and what might suddenly set him off in a tirade,” Gerald Blaine said. McCarthy said Johnson was “generally a royal pain to deal with.”

Rufus Youngblood took a more balanced view of Johnson, saying, “[LBJ] . . . had a streak of impetuosity . . . [he] could chew you out in a way that would have been the envy of a seasoned Marine drill instructor, yet, when the mood was on him, he could be the most sentimental of men, sometimes almost to the point of being maudlin. If you could not adjust to this pendulum action, it could be unusually difficult working with him.”

Johnson was not altogether insensitive about the demands he made on his protective detail. In 1966, he invited twelve agents and their wives to a pre-Christmas barbecue on his ranch. The group had a tour of his ranch, and each wife received a gift of an oak tree picture autographed by the president. Shortly before he left the presidency, during a ceremony on the White House lawn to honor James Rowley for his distinguished service, Johnson acknowledged that he had been less than civil with some of his agents. “A lot of things you have had to live with through me,” he said. “If I could rewrite them, I would change a lot of them. I have spent more time telling you what you did wrong than what you have done right. But Luci, Lynda and Mrs. Johnson remind me every day of how blessed you have been to them.” 

This article on LBJ’s personality is from Mel Ayton’s Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts—From FDR to Obama.. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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