On Speaker Mike Johnson’s first full day in office, half the journalism world was looking into the surprise Speaker’s past. In his meteoric one day rise from four term representative to Speaker there was no time for anyone to vet him. But one part of that past came out of left field. Video surfaced of an interview Johnson did with Walter Isaacson just after the death of George Floyd in June 2020 in which he revealed that he had an adopted black son, Michael. Johnson went on to explain that there was no question that his black 14-year-old son Michael faced challenges that his white fourteen year old Will never would. Many on the leftward side of the political spectrum were struck by Johnson’s empathy and frank recognition of discrimination in contemporary America while right wingers denounced him for his wokeness.
I had only heard this story in passing until this evening when TPM Reader RS flagged something odd about the story. No African-American son shows up in any of the family photographs on Johnson’s House website or on his personal Facebook page. Nor does Michael figure anywhere in any of Johnson’s campaign biographies.
As I went further down this rabbit hole tonight I was a bit dumbfounded. Is Michael made up? Is he excluded from family pictures? I was so baffled that I went pretty far down that rabbit hole trying to figure out what was going on.
Johnson family photo posted to Facebook on December 31st, 2022
A bit more poking around revealed that Michael also came up a year earlier in a House hearing on reparations in June 2019. Johnson opposed reparations and noted that his black son Michael did too.
In response to jeering from spectators at the hearing Johnson departed from his prepared remarks to invoke Michael. “Let me finish … Listen, wait a minute … Many of my colleagues in this committee may not be aware, in addition to our four children at home, my wife and I have a much older son who happens to be African American. We took custody of Michael and made him part of our family 22 years ago when we were just newlyweds and Michael just 14 and out on the streets and on a dangerous path.”
A bit later in his remarks Johnson said, “I asked Michael this weekend what he thinks about the idea of reparations. In a very thoughtful way, he explained his opposition.”
Screen capture of photo from 2020 PBS interview with Walter Isaacson.
I was able to piece the story together from the introduction to the full video of the 2020 interview and a write up in The Advocate centered on the 2019 reparations hearing. In Johnson’s interview with Walter Isaacson it sounds like he’s talking about two 14 year olds, boys of the same age. But if you listen closely he refers to Michael at that age in the past tense. Michael was 36 in June 2019 and presumably 40 today. Johnson is 51.
This isn’t clear in the clip that’s been circulating. Or at least it wasn’t to me. But Johnson wasn’t being misleading. Because the chronology is explained earlier in the interview.
Johnson said at the hearing that he and his wife “took custody of Michael” around 1997. So the exact relationship with Michael is uncertain and it’s unclear whether the Johnsons ever adopted Michael. It sounds like the relationship may have been more of a fostering relationship and that the Johnsons consider him a son in an informal sense. But again it’s simply not clear.
When The Advocate asked Johnson’s spokeswoman Ainsley Holyfield to elaborate on the relationship between Michael and Johnson’s family back in 2019 she told the paper: “The congressman will not be commenting further than what was said today in committee out of respect for Michael, his privacy and their relationship.”