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Johnson came out guns blazing in his 'War on Poverty'

October 18, 1996
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EDT

Editor's Note - In this, the fourth of a five-part series focusing on recently released tapes from the Johnson White House, Correspondent John Holliman shows us President Lyndon B. Johnson's strategies to create the "Great Society" and try to end poverty in America.

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Lyndon B. Johnson saw poverty as the major domestic problem in the country. As just-released, secretly recorded tapes of the president's White House telephone calls reveal, he pulled strings and applied his infamous powers of persuasion -- called the "Johnson Treatment" -- to make sure that his solution to poverty was put in place.


The first to get the Johnson Treatment in the War on Poverty was Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver. At the time, Shriver was reluctant to switch jobs and become head of the poverty program, but he eventually gave in to Johnson's battering.

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"You appoint all the committees you want to, confer with everybody, consult with anyone," Johnson told him. "This is number one of the domestic front. Next to peace in the world, this is the most important."

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says Johnson made a point of lobbying Republicans, business leaders and labor unions. "He felt that if he was able to build enormous support for fighting poverty, then that wouldn't seem something that was liberal and off on the left," Beschloss said.

Despite Johnson's best efforts, there was major opposition from Republicans. Their resistance to Johnson's anti-poverty plan drew the ire of liberal reformer Hubert H. Humphrey, who made a fiery speech attacking them.


Johnson liked this speech by the man who would later become his vice president. He liked it so much he couldn't resist reading it back to Humphrey over the phone. The issues Humphrey laid out as important then might sound familiar even today: "The War on Poverty, economic growth, world peace and security, Medicare, human dignity, human rights, education, opportunity for the young."

Johnson concluded, "That couldn't be better."

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But Johnson's War on Poverty had its limits. He demanded that budget officer Elmer Staats reduce federal money for illegitimate children, decreasing the $2.5 million he had budgeted in the Aid to Families of Dependent Children program.

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During that conversation, he referred to the parents as "the unemployed parents, the ones that just stay up there and breed and won't work and we're feeding them."

The only memento Johnson left of his War on Poverty was a display of the pens he used to sign the poverty legislation into law in September 1965. Those 50 pens, on display today on a wall of the White House press corps office, remain a visible reminder of the Johnson legacy.


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