President Johnson and Thurgood Marshall: The Art of Persuasion

The following is the transcribed conversation of President Johnson asking Thurgood Marshall to become the first African-American Solicitor General of the United States.  The Solicitor General is essentially America’s lawyer, representing the Federal Government at the Supreme Court. It’s a remarkable display of persuasion.

President Johnson: I have a rather big problem that I wanted to talk to you about.

Marshall: Right.

President Johnson: I want you to give it some real thought because it’s something that I have thought about for weeks and I think that we can’t think of how it affects us personally. We’ve got to think about the world–

Marshall: Right.

President Johnson: –and our country.

Marshall: Yes, sir.

President Johnson: And our government. And then ourselves way down at the bottom of the list. I want you to be my Solicitor General.

According to Marshall he had no idea the question was going to be posed. When his assistant told him the President was on the phone, his response was, “The President of what?”  I love how President Johnson sets the stage and cuts right to the chase.

President Johnson: Now, you lose a lot. You lose security and you lose the freedom that you like. And you lose the philosophizing that you can do. And I’m familiar with all those things.

Marshall: The number one [unclear].

President Johnson: Well, you won’t lose any. And I want you to do it for two or three reasons. One, I want the top lawyer in the United States representing me before the Supreme Court–

Marshall: [Unclear]–

President Johnson: –to be a negro.

Marshall: Oh.

President Johnson: And be a damn good lawyer that’s done it before. That’s–so, you have those peculiar qualifiations.

Marshall: [Unclear.]

President Johnson: Number two, I think it will do a lot for our image, abroad and at home, too, that this is the man that the whole government has to look to to decide whether it prosecutes a case or whether it goes up with a case, or whether it doesn’t, and so on and so forth.

Look how President Johnson leads with the negative saying, “You lose security and you lose the freedom that you like…” At the time Marshall was a Federal Judge and had a lifetime appointment. Giving that up to become the Solicitor General, who serves at the leisure of the President was a big deal. President Johnson than quickly lays on the praise softening the news.

President Johnson: Number three, I want you to have the experience and be in the picture. I’m not discussing anything else–

Marshall: Yeah.

President Johnson: –and I don’t want to make any other commitments–

Marshall: Yes, sir.

President Johnson: –and I don’t want to imply or bribe or mislead you.

Marshall: Right.

President Johnson: But I want you to have the training and the experience of being there day after day for the next few weeks anyway.

Marshall: Right.

President Johnson: Maybe the next few months if you could do it. Now, I’ve talked to Ramsey Clark, whose father is on the Supreme Court.

This is where it gets into perfection. “I don’t want to imply or bribe or mislead you,” but after I talk about all the reasons you should take this I’m going to allude to the Supreme Court.

In about two years as Solicitor General Marshall won 14/19 cases he brought to the court, and in 1967 he found himself on it.

You can read the whole transcript in the archives.

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