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National Archives

LBJ: The President Who Marked His Territory

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National Archives

Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to be remembered as the greatest president who ever lived. With that grand ambition in mind (and an ego to match), he launched such sweeping social programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, public radio, public television, and food stamps. Regardless, Johnson will probably be best remembered for his blinding arrogance, and what many would point to as the result of it—the Vietnam War.

But here, we're choosing to remember Johnson not by the many political wheels he set into motion, but by the stuff he kept by his side—and close to his heart.

His Toilet

Johnson lived to dominate, and he used crass behavior to bend people to his will. At 6-ft., 3-in. tall and 210 lbs., he liked to lean over people, spitting, swearing, belching, or laughing in their faces. Once, he even relieved himself on a Secret Serviceman who was shielding him from public view. When the man looked horrified, Johnson simply said, "That's all right, son. It's my prerogative." His favorite power ploy, however, seemed to be dragging people into the bathroom with him—forcing them to continue their conversations with the president as he used the toilet.

His Car

When President Johnson was visiting his ranch in Texas, he'd invite friends down and take them for a joyride in his car. He'd drive down a steep incline toward the lake, pretend to lose control, and then yell, "The brakes don't work! We're going in! We're going under!" The car would splash into the lake, and as everyone else was screaming, Johnson would be doubled over laughing. Turns out, Johnson was the proud owner of an Amphicar, the only amphibious passenger automobile ever mass-produced for civilians.

His Presidential Buzzer

When people told stories about John F. Kennedy's great female conquests (and they often did), it made Johnson furious. He'd pound his fists on the desk and scream, "Why, I had more women on accident than he ever had on purpose!" And that may very well have been true. Johnson brought a lot of pretty young things back from Texas to work in the White House, even if they couldn't type. He even had a buzzer installed in the Oval Office so that the Secret Service could warn him when his wife was on her way.

His Helicopter Chair

LBJ loved riding in helicopters. He loved it so much, in fact, that his desk chair in the Oval Office was actually a vinyl helicopter seat—green with a built-in ashtray. In the event of a flood or an emergency water landing, the cushion could have doubled as a flotation device. No joke.

His Wife's Pecan Pie Recipe

Lady-Bird.jpgClaudia "Lady Bird" Johnson was her husband's most vital political ally. In the early days of their marriage, he could boss her into picking up his socks or shining his shoes, but by the time they moved into the White House, he couldn't give a speech without consulting her first. During the 1960 election, she traveled 30,000 miles campaigning for the Kennedy/Johnson ticket; and after they won, Bobby Kennedy said they couldn't have gotten Texas without her.

She played an even bigger role in the 1964 election. That July, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which barred racial and religious discrimination in public places and the workforce. In doing so, Johnson betrayed many good ol' boys in the South, where he desperately needed votes. Enter Lady Bird. Armed with big hair and big makeup, the Texas native spewed Southern charm from Louisiana to South Carolina. And everywhere she went, she handed out her recipe for pecan pie. The hospitality worked. In 1965, Mrs. Johnson held the Bible as her husband was sworn into office.

His Monogrammed Towels

Everyone in the Johnson family had the same initials—Lyndon Baines, Lady Bird, and their daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. Don't think for a moment that it was a coincidence, either. They named the family dog Little Beagle Johnson.

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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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