The American Johnson

By Elliot Sperber

Many are no doubt familiar with the fact that the Phallus is symbolic of, and is associated with, fertility and generative power. However, that the Greek word for phallus is related to the Greek word for whale – phalle – is not as well known. This should not come as much of a surprise, though, when one considers the fact that the phalle, or whale, is but another designation for the biblical Leviathan. And the leviathan, beyond its association with the satanic, is also the term that the great defender of political absolutism, Thomas Hobbes, used to designate the absolutist political structure intended to safeguard coercive political power.

The connection between the phallus and political power, however, does not begin with Hobbes. Indeed, one can trace the imbrication of the two concepts well into prehistory. Nor does this connection between political power and the phallus end with Hobbes. To be sure, Freud would link the phallic, by way of the Oedipal Complex, with socialization in general, as well as with coercive, dominating power. More recently, Jacques Lacan aligned the phallic with the symbolic realm, power and desire, as well as with law and language.

In light of the relationship between the phallic, language, and law (which is always rooted in violence) it should come as little surprise that the presidents of the United States, those manifestations of law and power, should consistently reveal a relationship to the phallus. Beyond the more obvious examples of the priapic Washington Monument, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick diplomacy, one finds a slew of nicknames attached to US presidents whose phallic nature is difficult to dispute. Aside from the relatively subtle nicknames attached to Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Franklin Pierce – all of which involve the term Hickory, which is not just a tree, but one known for its exceptional hardness – one finds the somewhat more overt Abraham ‘The Rail Splitter’ Lincoln, not to mention Tricky Dick Nixon and Slick Willie. Among the US presidents associated with the phallus, however, one stands out beyond the aforementioned. In addition to the fact that his actual, legal name is a popular term for penis, Lyndon Baines Johnson in many respects exemplifies the relationship between the phallus, desire and power.

Although Lyndon Johnson was a complex person, and a considerable degree of study is necessary to arrive at anything approximating a meaningful understanding of his life and work, it is nevertheless undeniable that certain traits predominate throughout his political career and illustrate the degree to which Johnson embodies the phallus. For example, in addition to the historical fact that LBJ had a penchant for giving all of his children (and even his dog, Little Beagle Johnson) names containing his selfsame initials – illustrating the affinity between the phallus and name-giving – Robert Caro, LBJ’s biographer, observed that “Johnson’s ambition was uncommon – in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs.” From his earliest years in politics, more than any particular goal or notion of justice, Johnson single-mindedly pursued power for its own sake, manifesting the Johnson.

Elected to the US Congress as a Democrat in 1937, Johnson served as a U.S. Representative for the 10th congressional district of Texas. Reflecting his party, he was a more or less typical Democratic congressperson. As such, he supported the New Deal, and the Democratic platform. By 1948, however, Johnson was running for the US Senate. Struggling for power in an extremely close race, he abandoned a significant component of his constituency in order to garner more political support. Turning against organized labor, Johnson voted in favor of the notorious Taft-Hartley Amendment to the Wagner Act. Known by its opponents as the slave labor bill, the Taft-Hartley amendment sought to place serious limits on the power of labor unions. Not only did it outlaw secondary boycotts, and wildcat strikes, it also made it illegal for labor unions to contribute financial donations to federal election campaigns. Passed by congress, the bill was vetoed by Truman. However, joining with congressional Republicans, Johnson successfully worked to overturn Truman’s veto and pass the law.

The contest for Johnson’s senate seat was renowned for its fraudulence. Hundreds of people who were dead at the time of the election somehow managed to cast votes for Johnson – and LBJ went on to win his senate seat by 87 votes. In spite of the narrowness of his victory, however, once in the senate Johnson would become one of the most powerful and effective senators the institution has seen. Aside from advancing his own power, though, it never did become entirely clear what his political convictions really were.

Among other things, Johnson’s role during the Suez Crisis of 1956 may shed light on his later foreign policy. Following the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Israel, France and Britain attempted to retake control of the canal by military force. And while the U.S. president, Eisenhower, tried to prevent larger regional unrest by placing economic sanctions on Israel, Johnson – who was by then the Senate Majority Leader of the Democrat-controlled Senate – would not allow the imposition of sanctions. While Eisenhower would ultimately prevail in his attempts to end hostilities, it is noteworthy that in order to do so he had to go over the Congress’s head. Significantly, unlike U.S. presidents do these days, Eisenhower did not bypass congress extra-legally. Rather, he went to the United Nations, and sought an international resolution. If Johnson had had his way, however, he would have extended U.S power, penetrating the American Johnson even further into the world.

In 1957, following ongoing unrest in the Jim Crow southern United States, with racist southern politicians refusing to desegregate its “separate but equal” institutions following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Eisenhower administration attempted to pass a civil rights bill to compel desegregation. While it would seem to be out of character for Johnson, considering the Great Society legislation he would be renowned for, as senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson opposed the civil rights bill. While it is unclear as to what his true feelings were regarding the legislation, it is undisputed that Johnson was concerned that the bill would alienate his racist constituency in Texas, and weaken the Democratic Party by dividing its anti-civil rights southern bloc from its pro-civil rights northern bloc. Although it would be signed into law in September of 1957, Johnson succeeded in weakening the bill to such an extent that it would have little power. Rather than seeing Johnson’s opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Bill as inconsistent from his civil rights legislation in the 1960s, however, there is an overriding consistency at play: Johnson’s fidelity to his own aggrandizement of power.

By 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated LBJ, among others, in the Democratic Party primaries and was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president. Kennedy’s subsequent extension of the vice-presidential candidacy to Johnson apparently bewildered Kennedy’s supporters. Among other things, Johnson was regarded as a conservative politician, and an obstructer of the relatively liberal Kennedy agenda. While Kennedy’s staff opposed the choice of Johnson as a running mate, historians maintain that JFK felt that having Johnson on the ticket would not only help him secure the support of conservative southern voters, but that removing Johnson from the senate would also remove a potential impediment to the Kennedy agenda. As such, once Kennedy was in office Johnson was relegated to more or less marginal duties. As it turned out, among these was a principal role in the development of the space program. While many people expressed surprise at the amount of enthusiasm and energy Johnson dedicated to the somewhat subsidiary assignment, it is not at all inconsistent with his fidelity to the phallus and power. For if Johnson had been eager to penetrate much of the world with the American Johnson, it is not at all surprising that he should be just as eager to extend this phallus, by way of rockets, not only into space but into the moon – a heavenly body associated, among other things, with menstrual cycles and femininity in general.

Upon Kennedy’s assassination, many thought that LBJ would not continue to pursue the Kennedy Administration’s policies. That he did, however, again should not come as a surprise. Even the largest whales (phalle) can do little against the ocean currents. Moreover, because his fidelity was to power, more than to any particular political goal, what he was pursuing mattered less than the fact that he was pursuing something at all. Indeed, one can even reconcile the apparent contradictions between Johnson’s Great Society programs and his phallic penetrations into the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam pretty easily. The function of the phallus, after all, is to exert power, and to control the world. Johnson’s foreign policy – extending the phallus into the big, red V, as well as into the Dominican Republic – in addition to his general support of right-wing dictators in opposition to popular political movements internationally, are just such attempts at controlling the people of the world. In this respect his Great Society program was similar. That he would control his own people by giving them a welfare state is not inconsistent with control and what Foucault termed pastoral power. While he may have provided material resources to people – ruling over the people as a beneficent ruler – it is significant that he did not let people have any serious amount of power themselves. To be sure, if he had been interested in empowering people he could have made efforts to undo the Taft-Hartley legislation that enfeebled – and continues to restrict – organized labor. Instead of supporting people’s ability to meaningfully govern their own lives, the American Johnson merely granted people an attenuated form of political participation via electoral politics and voting reform. In the light of this, rather than anything significantly beneficent, the Great Society may be viewed as an attempt to construct a lasting monument – something akin to the great pyramids.

Lyndon Johnson’s final political act, his resignation from office, is often regarded as an act of political protest, a rejection of an intrinsically unjust system. The prevalence of this view, however, does not make it true. Rather, Johnson decided to not seek a second term as president because, in addition to being ill, he had come to the conclusion that he would not be able to prevail in such a contest. Like his other political acts, this one can be understood as something that resulted predominantly from his interest in power.

Beyond the above instances of the relationship between Johnson and the figurative phallus, it is noteworthy that LBJ had a penchant for literally exposing his penis to not only his colleagues, but to journalists as well. As outrageous as it may sound, it is well documented that Johnson repeatedly engaged in such practices. In addition to referring to his penis as “Jumbo,” his biography is replete with instances of his urinating in the presence of others, as well as – at least once – on the leg of one of his secret service agents. Accounts abound of his urinating over the edge of his boat on fishing trips, flourishing his member for all present to see. Additionally, he was apparently given to micturating during meetings with the door to his bathroom open. Having completed urinating, he would regularly turn around to address his interlocutors with his penis still withdrawn from his pants. And on one much discussed occasion, in the course of an interview with a journalist, Johnson was asked why he was in Vietnam. By way of a reply, he removed his penis, proffered it, and rejoined, “This is why.”

But this phallic, coercive, or dominating form of power – of which the American Johnson provides such a rich example – does not occupy the full spectrum of political power. As Pierre Clastres points out in his Society against the State, in addition to what he terms coercive political power, there is also something called non-coercive power. Among other things, non-coercive power manifests in non-coercive persuasion, as well as in the power one has to simply move about – to determine oneself. As Thomas Hobbes, and Etienne de la Boetie, among others inform us, political power in general does not become concentrated into coercive, dominating forms merely as a result of its appropriation and concentration. Rather, coercive power can only accrue and dominate others, as well as the material world, when non-coercive power is given away, or abandoned. As such, if we are to ever remove the American Johnson, or any other Johnson, from the “body politic,” we will have to stop abandoning this non-coercive power in the first place.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at

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