National Archives
National Archives

LBJ: The President Who Marked His Territory

National Archives
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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Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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On This Day in 1933, FDR Gave His First Fireside Chat
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Getty Images

On March 12, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat" on the radio. It was just eight days after his inauguration. He began: "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking." Citizens across the nation tuned in to listen.

During the depths of the Great Depression, FDR took to the airwaves to explain to Americans why there had been a recent, ahem, "bank holiday." After a series of bank failures, FDR closed all U.S. banks on March 6, to prevent them from failing as panicked citizens tried to withdraw their holdings. While the banks were closed, a program of federal deposit insurance was created in order to insure the stability of the banks when they reopened.

So imagine, if you will, that your bank has been closed for six days, banks are failing left and right, and the newly-inaugurated president gets on the radio to talk about the situation. You would likely listen, and you'd want a really solid answer. That's just what Americans got.

It was a stunning moment, a roughly 13-minute speech in which the American president spoke directly to the people and asked them to understand how banks work. As an extension of that understanding, he asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. While the chat didn't solve the country's financial problems overnight, it did create a remarkable sense of connection between FDR and the citizenry, and it helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.

FDR's "fireside chats" (the phrase was coined by press secretary Stephen Early, conveying the intimacy of communication) were among the best examples of a president using mass media to bring a time-sensitive message to the American people. He would go on to do 29 more chats over the course of his long presidency.

So if you've never heard that first "fireside chat," take a few minutes and listen. Here it is with slightly cleaned-up audio:

If you're not into audio, just read the transcript. The text is a model of clear communication.


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