Lyndon Baines Johnson is known for many things: signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964; escalating the war in Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin resolution; pursuing the “Great Society” initiatives; and making the rare decision not to seek his party’s nomination for reelection to the presidency in 1968. One thing for which he’s less well-known: his longtime habit of doodling profoundly—perhaps even disturbingly!—weird images on presidential and Senate letterhead.
Many presidents doodle. Andrew Jackson drew faces and animals (he favored alligators and tortoises); Herbert Hoover sketched elaborate geometric designs on White House stationery. There is something oddly satisfying about learning that FDR enjoyed sketching ships, while Ronald Reagan drew cowboys, football players, and horses. In the 2006 book Presidential Doodles, published by Cabinet magazine, historian David Greenberg captures what makes such images compelling. “Presidential doodles are intriguing, above all, because they provide us with a glimpse of the unscripted president,” Greenberg writes in the introduction. “They’re the antithesis of the packaged persona . . . a doodle is the ultimate private act. Its meaning may remain opaque even to the doodler himself.” And what an unscripted inner life the thirty-sixth president of the United States possessed! All the ships, cowboys, and shapes sketched by his fellow Oval Office occupants hold nary a candle to the bizarre images that lived inside LBJ’s imagination.
Take, for instance, his drawing of Bobby Kennedy, sketched on letterhead from the U.S. Senate, the institution in which Johnson served from 1949 until his ascent to the vice presidency in 1961. He likely doodled this during the 1960 presidential campaign. The image is clearly a drawing of Kennedy—that hair is unmistakable—but Johnson has also given him a mouthful of shark’s teeth, sad eyes, a jack-o’-lantern’s nose, and skinny legs. It befits the relationship between the two men, which was a fierce rivalry that bordered on downright enmity (Kennedy once described LBJ as “mean, bitter, vicious—an animal,” while Johnson referred to RFK as “that little runt”). When the piece went to auction in 2010, autograph and ephemera broker Dan Rowe noted that it “shows the contemptuous relationship they had.” (The image was listed with a starting bid of $4,000, and did not sell.)
According to Rowe, the RFK caricature was captured for posterity by longtime Ohio congressman Michael J. Kirwan, who served in the lower chamber alongside Johnson at the start of his career, and continued in the House until his death in 1970. It wasn’t the only drawing Kirwan collected from the stretch of Johnson’s career that predates his presidency (and thus before the time during which his papers were archived as part of the Presidential Libraries Act), and it may not even be the weirdest. That distinction just might go to the octopus sketch that LBJ made on Senate letterhead, unsigned and undated, which went to auction at the same time as his vicious depiction of Kennedy. (It went unsold as well, despite a significantly lower starting bid of only $600.)
The octopus is drawn with a certain outsider art sensibility, with attention to realistic detail replaced by fantastical imagery. The beast has only seven legs; it also, clearly, sees the world through three eyes, and wears a mischievous grin on its face. In its rightmost leg, positioned as an arm, it holds a book, while on the left, it nonchalantly carries a lit cigarette, its smoke wafting upward into a bubble that contains the cryptic numbers 61219. This is not unlike the sort of image that a more acclaimed outsider artist—maybe even fellow Texan Daniel Johnston—might have sketched in an idle moment, with Johnson’s wild imagination substituting for the technical proficiency that a finer artist would display. (In Johnson’s defense, he signed the Voting Rights Act—he probably didn’t have time to focus on his line work.)
Johnson maintained his penchant for bizarre doodles even as he rose to the highest office in the land. In a sketch made during his presidency (and thus part of the collection in the White House Handwriting File at the LBJ Library in Austin), Johnson drew a baffling creature on White House letterhead. This one is notable mostly for its confirmation that the horrors that lurked behind LBJ’s eyes were not limited to his time in the Senate. The drawing is of a four-legged beast with a human face, its eyes wide like a character from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (which was published while Johnson was vice president), tears streaking down its cheeks, its mouth a swirling nexus and its chin covered in a swoosh of a goatee. Did the image mean anything to Johnson, or was he just haunted? Either way, it’s certainly a striking drawing.
Few of Johnson’s Senate-era sketches may have fetched what the seller sought at auction, but at least one, listed in 2020 by presidential historian John Burke Jovich, did indeed sell, albeit for a mere $350, significantly less than the $500–$1,000 expected by the auctioneer. That image is a pastoral nod, perhaps, to Johnson’s upbringing in the Texas Hill Country, with a wooden ranch fence along a sweep of prairie grass—but even there, dude is weird. Atop the fence posts are humanoid, pointy-eared alien heads, miniature versions of the one that he drew directly above the Senate letterhead at the top of the page. What was the subject of the briefing Johnson was sitting in on while he made the undated sketch? The world may never know, but one thing is clear: there was far more to Lyndon Baines Johnson than the image of the shrewd, besuited patriarch of the mid-century Democratic Party for which he’s best known.
All of this is a bit of a lark, obviously, but it’s also notable that even someone like LBJ—a complicated man famous for his political ambition—had a deeply weird artist lurking inside of him, even if it only came out as his mind wandered during briefings and meetings. We’ll never know what the world would be like had LBJ pursued art instead of politics, but through these archives, we can get a glimpse of his stark and deeply idiosyncratic visions.