Let’s put this as charitably as possible and simply say that Lyndon Baines Johnson was comfortable with his body. The 36th president of the United States wasn’t shy about belching or breaking wind audibly. He sometimes summoned his aides to talk while perched on the commode. He famously yanked up his shirt to show photographers the scar from his gallbladder surgery. And, as five journalists from Look magazine learned when visiting the White House in 1964, LBJ occasionally enjoyed entertaining guests with a display of presidential nudity.
Johnson became president when John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Facing election in less than a year, he started wooing powerful media figures. In January 1964, he instructed his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to call Gardner “Mike” Cowles, the owner of Look and several newspapers, to invite him and Look’s editors to lunch at the White House. Naturally, Cowles accepted. Naturally, when he and four Look colleagues arrived at the White House, they wore nice clean suits. They had no idea that they were about to shed them.
Escorted into the Oval Office, they chatted briefly with Johnson and then the president said, “Let’s go to lunch.” But as he led the editors toward the chow, LBJ changed his mind.
“Suddenly,” Cowles later wrote in a memoir, “I felt a wallop on the back that almost knocked me over.”
It was Johnson, demonstrating his affection for a man he barely knew. He wrapped his arm around Cowles’ shoulder. “Mike, your figure is as bad as mine,” LBJ said. “I’m not going to feed you until we have a swim.”
The president led his visitors into a locker room, then he disappeared through a door, leaving the Look editors wondering what to do next. They soon found out.
“Mike!” Johnson bellowed from the next room. “What’s the matter with you? Are you afraid to see me nude? Come on in here and get undressed with me.”
Cowles and his cronies complied. So did Salinger. Soon everybody, including the president, was buck naked.
“Like most males of his age,” Cowles noted, “Lyndon was not a very prepossessing figure in the nude.”
Johnson hopped into the pool, which was heated to 92 degrees, and started swimming laps, paddling slow enough to keep talking. He informed his guests that the pool was built for Franklin Roosevelt, and that John Kennedy had used it frequently because the hot water relieved his back pains.
After a few laps, LBJ hollered to his press secretary: “Pierre, get our guests a drink!”
“I don’t know what they like, Mr. President,” Salinger replied.
“They’re damn Yankees,” Johnson said. “Just get them some Scotch. I’ll have a double bourbon.”
Like many Johnson aides, Salinger was accustomed to skinny-dipping by executive order. He climbed out of the pool, picked up a phone and called in the president’s drink order. Soon, a black man wearing white gloves brought the drinks on a silver tray.
“As we stood in the shallow end of the pool, Lyndon began telling corny jokes about events in small Texas towns during his various political campaigns,” Cowles wrote. “We all laughed dutifully. Ten minutes later, Lyndon ordered another round of drinks. And so there we were: a group of grown men of assorted shapes without a stitch of clothing gathered in the White House swimming pool in the early afternoon with a second stiff drink, listening to the President of the United States recount stories of the good old days. I had made a fair number of trips to the White House in my time, I reflected as Lyndon talked, but there had never been a scene to equal this.”
After the second drink, everybody got dressed and headed to lunch. As usual, Johnson did most of the talking. He showed the editors a paper bearing the latest statistics on America’s booming economy. He also showed them a funny photo of Salinger riding a jackass at the LBJ ranch. (Working for Johnson required a high tolerance for humiliation.)
By then, it was 3:30—four hours after the editors arrived—and Cowles stood up. “It’s been absolutely delightful, Mr. President,” he said, “but we really should leave.”
“Oh, not at all,” Johnson replied. “Sit down.”
Cowles sat down and Johnson resumed his monologue. After another 15 minutes, Cowles again tried to escape. “We really must not keep you any longer, Mr. President.”
“Well, you can’t go until you see Lady Bird,” LBJ insisted. “She’s most anxious to see you.”
Cowles knew that was baloney. He’d met Mrs. Johnson exactly once, and only for a moment.
As Salinger took the other editors for a tour of the White House, LBJ escorted Cowles upstairs to the presidential residence.
“Lady Bird!” Johnson bellowed as he walked down the hall. “Lady Bird!” There was no answer, so Johnson started bursting into rooms, hollering for his wife. Cowles hoped that they wouldn’t burst in on the first lady while she was undressed. He’d already seen enough Johnson nudity to last a lifetime.
“Finally from down the hall came a faint sound,” Cowles recalled. “We marched toward a door and Lyndon burst in. Fortunately, Lady Bird, who was dictating to a secretary, was fully dressed. She was also furious.”
Johnson ignored his wife’s anger. “Lady Bird, here is our dear friend Mike Cowles,” he said “Do you remember we were talking about him just two, three nights ago, saying how long it had been since we’d seen him? Well, here he is!”
Lady Bird stifled her anger and smiled, trying to play along with her husband’s blatantly bogus attempt to feign friendship with Cowles.
Soon, LBJ took Cowles downstairs and escorted the Look editors to the Truman balcony, where they gazed out on the Washington Monument.
“Mr. President,” said one editor, “it has been said by other presidents that the White House is a lonely place. Do you find it so?”
“Yes, I do get lonesome,” Johnson admitted. When he was vice president, he said, he would lunch with his friends in Congress and they’d call him “Lyndon.” Now, he lamented, they insisted on calling him “Mr. President.”
Then LBJ told a story about his mentor Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texas congressman and longtime speaker of the house. Vice President Harry Truman was in Rayburn’s office when he got the news that FDR had died. “This is the last time I ever will call you Harry,” Rayburn told Truman. “You will go to the White House, and you will have advisors. They will build you up and tell you how right you are, and what a great man you are. And, Harry, you and I know that is not true.”
Was Johnson suggesting that he, too, lacked the greatness necessary for the presidency? He didn’t say. But Cowles thought the president seemed a bit wistful as he ended the story with a melancholy lament for his departed friend.
“I only wish Mr. Sam was around now,” LBJ said. “I could just pick up the phone and Mr. Sam would come a’runnin.”
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.