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Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vanities of Famous Men


The following is an excerpt from the oral history interview with George Tames, Washington photographer for the New York Times, conducted by Senate historian Donald Ritchie on March 8, 1988.

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RITCHIE: It was a wonderful account of the vanities of famous men. And I wondered how much a photographer you had to take those vanities into account. Or how much did you run the risk of running the ire of some of them if you didn't take the pictures they wanted?

TAMES: Oh yeah, sure you ran the risk. LBJ used to blame me for every picture that he considered unflattering that ran in the New York Times. He never bothered to look at the credit. I just caught hell, because I was his friend, and I was supposed to make sure that these types of things did not get in, that's all there was to it. And of course--so it was almost impossible to avoid Lyndon Johnson's left side of his face, because he deliberately presented that every time that he possibly could. I think I must have mentioned in the two previous times we talked about that at one time I told him that if he could walk on the stage backwards, just so his left side showed, he would do it. But I think if you'll notice, at every one of his rallies, that when he walked on stage he came from the right and walked on stage with the left side of his face showing. And he never came from the right--that is, I mean he came from the right and went up on the stage. So his left face was showing when he cut into the audience. He didn't come in from the left so the right--so he would be coming on stage with the right. He always entered from stage right. Or how do they say that? Would that be stage left? When you say "from stage right" are you saying--are you looking from the stage out or are you looking at the stage? See I'm obviously confused about that. In other words, he always entered from the right of the audience.


TAMES: So when he stepped on stage, in other words, when he was introduced and he came up the steps, it was always the left side of his face that was showing when he walked across stage.

RITCHIE: Do you recall that night you told a story about taking a businessman or a banker to see Johnson?


RITCHIE: Could you tell me the story again? I have vague memories of that.

TAMES: Didn't you tape that last time?


TAMES: Well I took--it really was an IBM-er. It was a group of IBM-ers were going through the Hill that day. He was Majority Leader, or was he Vice President? One or the other, I don't recall now which. But it was either late in his majority leadership or early in his vice presidentship. And we went through his office. And I told them before we went in that he was going to give them his "sound dollar" pitch. I always called it his "sound dollar" pitch, where he starts talking about "what makes Amurrica great: it's the dollar that makes Amurrica great." And you could see these business people's eyes start sparkling when he starts talking about it. Then he would take out a dollar bill and very dramatically flatten it out and used his fingers as if he was cutting with scissors and says: "This much for defense, and this much for this." He was showing how much of the dollar it took to run the federal government, and their eyes would light up.

But just before we went in, the public relations man for the group that was with them was also about six foot five, big outdoor type, and he said to me could we get a picture of him with Johnson. I said, "Sure, I'll make the other pictures and I'll introduce you to him and make a picture of you." I said, "Sure, that would be alright." He said, "Well, before we go in there I wanted to let you know that." I said, "Don't tell me that you have a favorite side of your face." He said, "Yes." I said, "Which side?" He said, "The left." I said, "No way. LBJ thinks the left side of his face is the best, so we're going to stand with his left side showing your right showing." And he said, "Well, I'll take care of it." I said, "You take care of it, I'll photograph it, but I know what going to happen."

And anyway, we go in and I introduce him to the Vice President, and I said, "Can I get a picture?" And LBJ said, "Sure." Gets up and buttons his coat, and just as he was buttoning his coat, this friend of mine grabs him by the elbow and spins him around so his right side is showing, and the other fellow steps in left. And just as fast, LBJ spins him around. Then they spin around again. So finally I said, "Hold it guys! If you both want the left side of your face to show, stand back to back!" I said, "and I'll make it that way." And LBJ said, "No, George, I don't mind, you know that I don't mind." I said, "Yeah, I know you don't mind." So we made the picture with LBJ's right side of his face showing. And he was very unhappy with that, I could tell that. So I said, "Now, Mr. Vice President, that was nice behind your desk, but let's make a different picture over here by the fire place. I think this is a nice mantle here." He said, "Oh, sure, George." We went over there we stand. And he stands with the left side of his face showing, and this time I signaled to my buddy just to go along with it. And we went along. And he was smiling and shaking hands and I'm banging away. Then LBJ, as we were going out the door, he puts his arms around my shoulder and gives me a big squeeze. He looks down and says, "You pick the best one, you hear?

So when I had them printed, this friend of mine said, "Jeez, I'd love to get it autographed." I said, "He'll never autograph that one with the right side of his face showing." So what I did was to take a mounting board and lightly tap or glue the picture by the mantle place, with LBJ's left side showing, and put it on paper--on the board. Then I took it in and had LBJ look at it. He liked it and he signed underneath. And when I left the room, I just removed that picture and put the other one on, and everyone was happy. That's called diplomacy. Anyway that was it.

RITCHIE: Were there many members of Congress who had sort of vanities about how they wanted to be photographed?

TAMES: Not that I'm aware of to the extent that LBJ did. There were quite a few who would joke about not having had a good picture made, or I'd do this or do that, but I never really had any problems.