Peggy Keener: The curious case of the abominable shower

Published 5:56 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

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Rivaling the Secret Service, the FBI and Military Intelligence, our country’s most discreet institution is the sagacious housekeeping staff at the White House. They, above all, know how serious is their vigilant watch over our president and his family. What goes on in the White House stays behind their sealed lips, always and forever.

That said, some long subdued feelings are occasionally revealed. One such sentiment is the collective resentment the staff harbored for Lyndon Johnson, otherwise known as Lyndon “The Bully” Johnson.

LBJ’s arrival at the White House followed one of the darkest days in our country’s history: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The household staff was in profound mourning over the loss of this most beloved of presidents, many of whom JFK considered not staff, but true friends. Such was the dark, overwhelming mood in the White House when Johnson blustered his way into their somber midst.

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One of the people in intense mourning was a doorman who first ran afoul of the new president on the day Johnson moved into the White House. In all of the chaos, Johnson had invited more than two hundred people to a reception in the family’s private quarters. Working alone, the doorman was struggling to keep up with the loads of guests riding on his elevator. Suddenly he saw the elevator light blink on and off. That could only mean one thing: President Johnson was urgently calling for him—and he wasn’t happy.

When the elevator finally emptied so the doorman could heed the president’s call, Johnson was fuming. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting and waiting for this elevator!” he roared, puffing out his chest while looming over the shocked man. (This stance was soon to be labeled by the staff as, “The Treatment.”) But it didn’t stop there. Johnson continued his tirade in front of several congressmen, unfortunately, setting from the start, an inauspicious stage for his stay in the White House.

Johnson loved scatological humor and no one’s laughter roared louder than his once he got going. One day all hell broke lose when he cracked a toilet seat. Immediately an extra large replacement was ordered. Johnson bragged to his friends about needing an XL seat, as well as styling himself as quite the expert on the subject. He knew the good and bad points of all manner of toilet seats, and reminded his friends, in his less than subtle way, by adding, “Now don’t anyone dare say it’s to fit the #1 ass in the nation.” (He had such a way with words!)

One of Johnson’s mean spirited quirks was to roam the halls of the White House where he would burst into the various basement workshops. Shocking the staff as they worked, he would stick his head inside the doors and yell out a grade—A to F—at each worker, “F” being his favorite. Regrettably, this grading system applied, as well, to his family. In fairness however, on rare occasions Johnson was also known to begrudgingly give a compliment when he felt it was earned.

Upon moving in, the president immediately let it be known how unhappy he was with the water pressure and temperature of his shower. Johnson summoned a solicitous workman to meet him “right now” as he had a pressing problem to discuss. “If you can’t get that shower fixed,” he sternly warned, “I’m going to move back to the Elms,” (Johnson’s Washington DC mansion). Then he walked away.

(The life of this capable workman was made especially miserable when the eccentric president continued his bathroom demands. One evening the fellow was out dining with his family when the president interrupted their dinner with a phone call. LBJ wanted something done about his commode.

Now! Of course the man left the restaurant (and his unhappy family) post haste.)

It turned out that the Elms had a shower faucet like nothing the staff had ever seen. Water from multiple nozzles sprayed out in every direction with needle-like intensity and astonishing force. One nozzle was directed at Johnson’s most private part. He called it “Jumbo.” Another, to his delight, shot straight at his back side. This, he demanded, is what he wanted in his White House bathroom … a shower head with the intensity of a fire hose. Additionally he wanted a temperature gauge that would immediately change the water from hot to cold. Never just warm.

Of course the workman went right to work, but it seemed that no matter how hard the water sprayed or how hot it was, the adjustments always received an “F”.

Teams of plumbers then went to not only the Elms, but also to the Johnson Texas ranch to study the showers. There they found the hot water was nearly scalding.

Back at the White House, Johnson would howl through the halls, “If I can move ten thousand troops in a day, the plumbers can certainly fix the bathroom the way I want it!” Disregarding the price tag, his demands were made in spite of the fact that the expenditure for installing new plumbing would cost tens of thousands of dollars. The changes would also be paid from classified funds earmarked not for plumbing, but for security.

Eventually, four new pumps were installed that increased the size and pressure of the water lines to the president’s bathroom while in other parts of the house the pipes were sucked dry.

Perfecting the shower lasted more than five years and fell mainly upon the shoulders of the poor beleaguered foreman. At one point the strife caused him to be hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. In the meantime, Johnson’s demands continued. He was so obsessed with showering, that even when he traveled, LBJ brought with him his own special shower nozzle (along with dozens of cases of Cutty Sark whiskey which, I guess, helped him forget his flawed shower back home.)

But, there was more. Johnson wanted his bathroom to be extremely bright. Thus, he asked for mirrors to be affixed to the ceiling. Obediently, the workmen installed them, as well as so many lights that they had to add fans to keep the heat down. In the end, the bizarre temperature of the water plus the hot lights regularly set off the fire alarm!

Still the problem lingered. More and more teams of people were brought in. One worker even jumped in the shower in his bathing suit only to be thrown against the wall by the force of the water. He came out as crimson as a boiled lobster.

Five replacement showers were installed to no avail. Even a special water tank was added with its own pump meant to boost the pressure, along with six nozzles located at different heights so that the spray hit every part of the president’s body. The pumps gushed hundreds of gallons of water per minute—more than a fire hose. It still wasn’t good enough.

One of the staff, a veteran of forty-one years, was ordered by the president to watch him test out the shower. “Are you ready for a real man’s test?” the naked president boasted. When the shower handle was turned on, Johnson yelped in pain because the pressure was so intense. But a minute later he was screaming in ecstasy as he was blasted against the wall, turning him beet red.

And yet all the effort still wasn’t to LBJ’s liking. Finally in the end, nothing more was done. To make amends, a sympathetic Mrs. Johnson lamented to the staff, “Anything that’s done here, or needs to be done, remember this, my husband comes first, the girls second, and I will be satisfied with what’s left. Your main role is to make the president happy.”

Daughter Luci then added: “A shower with volume and force was one of my father’s life’s comforts. It’s not much to ask, after all, when you are the leader of the free world; to get that small little bit of solace and creature comfort.”

On the day that Richard Nixon moved into the White House, he took one look at the elaborate shower and declared, “Get rid of this stuff!”

Your tax dollars at work.