"The Greatest Man In The World"

On May 1, 1964, the Baltimore Sun had reported that President Johnson "dressed down" Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (the Democratic floor leader on the Senate civil rights bill) for suggesting that President Johnson might be willing to accept amendments to the version of the bill passed by the House. The Sun indicated that upon hearing of Humphrey's comments, Johnson called the senator and gave him "unshirted hell." Following the call from the President, Humphrey issued a clarification in which he stated that the President "is for the House bill." Later in the day, however, Humphrey turned to the Senate press gallery, smiled, and pulled on the tops of his ears. Reporters who saw the gesture interpreted it as an imitation of a beagle being lifted by the President, a reference to a controversial incident in which Johnson had picked up his dogs by their ears at a recent White House event as well as an indication that Johnson had disciplined the civil rights floor leader for his earlier comments.
In this conversation, Johnson and Humphrey discuss the source of the "unshirted hell" story. Two passages are particularly noteworthy. First, Johnson observed that in contrast to Humphrey, he had little credibility with civil rights activists as a result of his southern background. Second, Johnson attempted to convince Humphrey that he was primarily concerned with developing the senator's status and reputation, rather than demeaning him. The comments reflected not only the crucial North-South divide in the battle over the civil rights legislation, but also the President’s effort to control a senator who was already a leading candidate for the vice presidential nomination.

Date: 
May 02, 1964
Participants: 
Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey
Conversation Number: 
WH6405.01-3323