That Time the President Gave the Pope a Strange Christmas Present

It is hard enough coming up with just the right Christmas gift when you have a year to plan for it. What do you do when you need to choose an appropriate gift with just a couple of days’ notice?

Let’s make this even more complicated. What if the gift is for a powerful head of state, whose home is filled with priceless artistic and historic artifacts? Just to add icing to the cake, let’s also assume the gift exchange will be covered by the media and reported around the world.

This is the dilemma that faced two powerful men in the days leading up to Christmas 1967.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was on an impromptu world tour, prompted by the accidental drowning of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt. He left the USA on December 20, 1967, for the funeral. When the services were over, the President decided that since he was already halfway around the world, he might as well keep going.

From Australia, he visited U.S. troops in South Vietnam and Thailand. He flew to Pakistan to visit with President Ayub Khan. Before wrapping up his travels and returning home, LBJ decided to drop in at the Vatican to chat with Pope Paul VI.

An official meeting between two heads of state is typically marked with the exchange of gifts. Since the men would meet just two days before Christmas, the gifts would surely receive additional attention from the ever-watching media.

Vatican officials scrambled to find something appropriate to give to the leader of the Free World. With only a few hours’ notice that the President would be arriving, they had to work fast. For the President of the United States, one cannot simply pop down to the nearest department store for a sweater or recycle Aunt Edna’s famous 30-pound fruitcake. The gift must be appropriate to the occasion and the recipient.

One can only assume the President’s aides were likewise scrambling to locate a suitable gift for the pontiff. Air Force One is replete with souvenirs for guests, but no one would presume to give the Pope something as tacky as a box of cigarettes or towel emblazoned with the Presidential Seal. Fortunately, the advance team on the ground in Rome was not confined to the items available on the airplane.

By the time the presidential motorcade arrived at the Holy See, all arrangements had been finalized. As the two men met and shook hands, everyone’s attention turned to the highly-anticipated gift exchange.

The Pope presented the President with his gift. Despite the short notice, the pontiff had really outdone himself. Johnson received a priceless 15th-century oil painting of the Nativity. It featured Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, watched over by angels.

For his part, Johnson had also chosen a work of art — a sculpture, rather than a painting, however. The item didn’t exactly convey a Christmas theme. It also wasn’t quite as old as the one he received, but then again, his country wasn’t nearly as old as the Vatican.

What was the President’s choice as a gift for the head of the Roman Catholic Church? A Remington sculpture? A bust of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy?

No. Instead, LBJ found it appropriate to bless the pontiff with a bronze-like bust of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Pope Paul VI receives a bust of LBJ from Lyndon B. Johnson, December 23, 1967.
Paul VI receives his Christmas gift from Lyndon B. Johnson.

Onlookers struggled to suppress snickers of surprise and amusement when they saw the unusual present. The bemused expression on the Pope’s face suggests he was fighting the same internal struggle.

As odd as this gift exchange may seem, it was by no means unique. Johnson had about 200 of the busts made and gave them away as gifts to congressmen, White House aides, and world leaders, alike. He traveled with a box of them so he would never be at a loss when a need to give a gift presented itself.

The State Department’s Chief of Protocol, James Symington, said, “You can’t fault a man for wanting to give mementos and gestures of his friendship. But what [LBJ] wanted to take with him was, I don’t remember the exact figure, something like two hundred busts of himself. Some of them were white marblish in appearance and others were bronze-looking. It is, I think, unusual for a man to give a bust of himself in his lifetime, although it’s difficult to give it any other time. But to make a mass-production gesture really boggles the mind…”

Contemporary newspaper account of the LBJ/Paul VI gift exchange. Click image to expand.

The Vatican did not disclose what Paul VI did with his bust of LBJ, but he wasn’t the only world leader left with that dilemma. Symington said, “Today, there are heads of state all over Asia who are trying to decide what to do with the President’s bust. But not just heads of state, because that would have been only a dozen or less [of the busts]. As I say, we had hundreds of them, so many, many people – cabinet ministers and all kinds of functionaries – received one.”

With Christmas just around the corner, you may have someone on your list who is famously hard to shop for. If so, you can be very presidential and give that person a gift identical to the one LBJ gave to the Pope. The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library still has some in stock from the 1966 production run. You can purchase them here for $150 each.

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