‘Don't get sucked into it’

‘Don't get sucked into it’

March 1, 1965: Listen as LBJ fights with Democrats to pass his education bill

“I just sure thought I had better leadership on that committee than what I’ve got,” President Lyndon Johnson told House Education and Labor Committee chair Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-New York) on March 1, 1965, after Powell failed to advance the elementary and secondary education bill through his committee. 

What the hell’s been happening in your committee?

Frustrated by Powell’s attempt to gain funding for other priorities as a price for reporting the education bill, Johnson dismisses Powell’s concern about an education clause in the administration’s Appalachia bill.

The recording offers unique insights into Johnson's priorities and governing style.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: How’s my friend?

President Johnson: Fine, Adam. What the hell’s been happening in your committee? I thought you told me two months ago that you were going to pass a bill for me.

Powell: That’s right. Well, what happened, all hell has broken loose, because— 

President Johnson: Well, what the hell are you blackmailing me on a 400— 

Powell: [speaking under President Johnson] I’m not blackmailing you. 

President Johnson: Well, the hell you didn’t. You want a $400,000 appropriation for you, [but] we couldn’t pass a billion, 200 million [dollars] for the schoolkids. Now, you know I’m for you, and you know that I’m going to help you any way I can. I’ve got nothing to do with what you’re doing in the House investigation [which investigation? TK], but you’ve damn near defeated the best education bill I’ve got, [Powell attempts to interject] and I hope you’re going to be proud of it. 

Powell: No. No. Do you know in your Appalachia bill that there is—

Appalachia ain’t got a damn thing to do with you.

President Johnson: Well, Appalachia ain’t got a damn thing to do with you. If you handle your committee and let us handle the other one! 

Powell: Yes, but there’s a clause in there, Mr. President— 

President Johnson: There’s a clause been in there all the time, and if you’re going to let [William H. “Bill”] Ayers [R–Ohio] and Edith [L. S.] Green [D–Oregon] lead you off the reservation, [Powell acknowledges throughout] well, then I ran for nothing last year with 15 million votes. If you’re going to tie up this Congress and screw it up, which you’ve done for three weeks, by running off till you got 400,000 [dollars] appropriation, well, we never can get anywhere. And you defeat this, and you hold it up, and you delay it, and you get us in this kind of shape, why, we can’t pass anything, and that’s all right. [Powell attempts to interject.] But I think that—I think you’ll be the hell of a bunch of your liberal Democrats. And I’m going to be here; it’s not going to bother me. But I just sure thought I had better leadership on that committee than what I’ve got without even talking. '

Powell: Well . . .

President Johnson: And I’m awfully disappointed [unclear]. Just very disappointed [unclear]. 

Powell: Now, Mr. President. Don’t you think I’m entitled to the money? 

President Johnson: No, I don’t think you’re entitled to a damn thing that you did. [Powell attempts to interject and acknowledges.] I think you told me, and looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I’ll report this bill, and I’ll get it on the floor,” and you didn’t do it. 

Powell: March 1st. 

President Johnson: And you did not do it. 

Powell: Now, what’s wrong with an amendment tomorrow on Appalachia, so the secretary of commerce cannot arbitrarily change the formula for education bills? [Unclear]— 

President Johnson: Well, if you can’t—listen to me, if you can’t trust me on Appalachia, you damn sure can’t trust an amendment or the Secretary of Commerce or anybody else. 

Powell: Mm-hmm. [Unclear.]

President Johnson: If there’s anything going to happen in Appalachia that’s anti-Negro, I won’t let it happen. Period. 

Powell: Well, I’m not talking about Negro. I’m talking about— 

President Johnson: Well— 

Powell: —the formulas for the education bill [unclear]— 

President Johnson: Well, they’re not going to do anything with education. What . . . Listen, Adam, don’t try to cover everything. 

Powell: No— 

President Johnson: Just let us . . . They’re trying to beat Appalachia. They’re trying to beat education. [Powell acknowledges.] They’re trying to do everything they can, and, for God’s sakes, don’t get sucked into it. 
But I want that bill reported out tomorrow morning like the administration wanted and what you want me to do, I’ll try to do. 

Powell: OK.

President Johnson: And you [unclear]—

Your word is my word.

Powell: Your word is my word. I’ll have it—I’ll [unclear] 11 o’clock tomorrow. 

President Johnson: Thank you, Adam.

This conversation was transcribed by the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program with the generous support of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.