Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States (1963–69), was born in a farmhouse on the Pedernales River near Johnson City, Texas[i]. Johnson grew up amidst poverty. On both sides of his family he had a political heritage mingled with a Baptist background of preachers and teachers. He graduated (1930) from Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Southwest Texas State Univ.), in San Marcos. He taught in a Houston high school before becoming (1932) secretary to a Texas Congressman. In 1934 he married Claudia Alta Taylor and they had two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.
A staunch New Dealer, Johnson gained the friendship of the influential Sam Rayburn, at whose behest President Franklin D. Roosevelt made him (1935) director in Texas of the National Youth Administration. In 1937, Johnson won election to a vacant congressional seat, and he was consistently re-elected through 1946. Despite Roosevelt’s support, however, he was defeated in a special election to the Senate in 1941. He served (1941–42) in the navy. In 1948, Johnson was elected U.S. Senator from Texas after winning the Democratic primary by a mere 87 votes.
A strong advocate of military preparedness, he persuaded the Armed Services Committee to set up (1950) the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee. Rising rapidly in the Senate hierarchy, Johnson became (1951) Democratic whip and then (1953) floor leader. As majority leader after the 1954 elections he wielded great power, exhibiting unusual skill in marshalling support for President Eisenhower’s programs. He suffered a serious heart attack in 1955 but recovered to continue his senatorial command.
Johnson lost the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to John F. Kennedy, but accepted Kennedy’s offer of the vice-presidential position. Elected with Kennedy, he energetically supported the President’s programs, serving as an American emissary to nations throughout the world and as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council and of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities. After Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Johnson was sworn in as president and announced that he would strive to carry through Kennedy’s programs.
Congress responded to Johnson’s skilful prodding by enacting an $11 billion tax cut (Jan., 1964) and a sweeping Civil Rights Act (July, 1964). With Johnson’s insistent backing, Congress finally adopted a far-reaching civil-rights bill, a voting-rights bill, a Medicare program for the aged, and measures to improve education and conservation. Elected (Nov., 1964) for a full term in a landslide over Senator Barry Goldwater, he pushed hard for his domestic program.
The 89th Congress (1965–66) produced more major legislative action than any since the New Deal. During the Johnson Presidency, Medicare and Medicaid were established to provide medical insurance for those over 65 and those too poor to pay. During the Johnson Administration, the first environmental legislation was passed. A bill providing free medical care (Medicare) to the aged under Social Security was enacted, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided new safeguards for African-American voters, and more money went to antipoverty programs.
The departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development were added to the Cabinet. Johnson’s domestic achievements were soon obscured by foreign affairs. Johnson’s actions (Feb., 1965) of bombing on North Vietnam aroused widespread opposition in Congress and among the public and developed vigorous antiwar movement. As the cost of the war shot up, Congress scuttled many of Johnson’s domestic programs. After Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy began campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Johnson announced (Mar., 1968) that he would not run for reelection. When Johnson retired from office (Jan., 1969), he left the nation bitterly divided by the war. He retired to Texas, where he died [ii].
In 1964 the American people seemed to give overwhelming endorsement to his achievements. His reelection was followed by the notable series of legislative victories establishing the Great Society–the most visionary domestic program in American history. Conventional wisdom suggests that President Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed each Congress to the limit to obtain a maximum number of controversial legislative victories. Consequently, slim margins were often expected and indeed planned for.
A key Johnson legislative aide, Henry Hall Wilson, made this point explicitly, “When we have a fat Congress as we did in the Eighty-ninth, then we can hike up our demands to fit the situation. When votes are not razor thin in either case, then we are not doing a good job[iii]. Johnson used just about everything in his extensive repertory to get Congress moving and excelled.
According to Hugh Sidey, “During 1965, Johnson would zero in on a congress- man or a senator and get what he wanted, a good deal. He would lie, beg, cheat, steal a little, threaten, intimidate. But he never lost sight of that ultimate goal, his idea of the Great Society[iv]. Substantial preparation was required to identify that the linchpin of the whole system was “the treatment,” Johnson’s personal techniques of political persuasion and political skill[v].
“A Great Society” for the American people and their fellow men elsewhere was the vision of Lyndon B. Johnson. In his first years of office he obtained passage of one of the most extensive legislative programs in the Nation’s history. During World War II he served briefly in the Navy as a lieutenant commander, winning a Silver Star in the South Pacific. After six terms in the House, Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1948. In 1953, he became the youngest Minority Leader in Senate history, and the following year, when the Democrats won control, Majority Leader. With rare skill he obtained passage of a number of key Eisenhower measures.
Johnson’s Great Society program was designed to fight poverty in the United States. It consisted of a series of legislation, which included the Job Corps, to provide vocational training for disadvantaged youth; Volunteers in Service of America (VISTA) – a domestic Peace Corps; Head Start, to instruct disadvantaged preschoolers, among other programs. The other part of the Great Society program was the passage of civil rights legislation proposed by the Kennedy Administration.
In the 1960 campaign, Johnson, as John F. Kennedy’s running mate, was elected Vice President. First he obtained enactment of the measures President Kennedy had been urging at the time of his death–a new civil rights bill and a tax cut. Next he urged the Nation “to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor.” In 1964, Johnson won the Presidency with 61 percent of the vote and had the widest popular margin in American history–more than 15,000,000 votes.
The Great Society program became Johnson’s agenda for Congress in January 1965, an aid to education, attack on disease, Medicare, urban renewal, beautification, conservation, development of depressed regions, a wide-scale fight against poverty, control and prevention of crime and delinquency, removal of obstacles to the right to vote.
Lyndon Johnson faced the toughest transition after Kennedy’s death[vi]. Johnson had to confront the grief and despair many people felt over the loss of a beloved leader and their antagonism toward someone who, however much he identified with JFK, seemed like a usurper, an unelected, untested replacement for the man the country now more than ever saw as more suitable for the job. Johnson understood the essential need for continuity, for reassuring people at home and abroad that the new President would be faithful to the previous administration.
The death of a President was trauma enough, but Kennedy’s assassination made his passing a national crisis in self-confidence, a time of doubt about the durability of the country’s democratic system and its tradition of non-violent political change. Despite his private fears, Johnson was an inspiration to the country. His public appearances, his use of language, his management of the press promoted feelings of continuity and unity[vii].
The hallmark of his Great Society social reform program, the War on Poverty strove to achieve what LBJ’s mentor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not, an end to the nation’s most distressing social ills and recognition that racism still divided the nation into distinct economic and social groups. For American Jews, LBJ’s reformulation of New Deal liberalism into a group-based, race-sensitive political philosophy challenged long-held assumptions about the role of the state and pressed the community’s organized leadership into the forefront of national public policy debate. Millions of Democratic voters registered their disapproval of LBJ by abandoning their long-time political home and bolting to the Republican Party[viii].
Johnson’s cynical idealism and the unmanageable mysteries of the times converged into the early-American, frontier-style presidency that finally forced us to begin to redefine our nationhood. Lyndon Johnson was rude, intelligent, shrewd, charming, compassionate, vindictive, maudlin, selfish, passionate, volcanic and cold, vicious and generous. He played every part, he left out no emotion; in him one saw one’s self and all the others. He was not an idealist, but he served ideals when it suited and pleased him. He was not a reactionary, but he fanned reaction when it helped him advance himself.
He was tireless and diligent, but he was also narrowly political, and he was suspicious of new ideas. He berated intellectuals because he envied them. He was as personally responsible for American history since 1950 as any other man of his time. Throughout his career he was consolidating his private wealth by a calculating use of public power, and there is an affinity between this squalid side of his success and the corruptive commercialism in the national ethos[ix].
President Johnson’s Presidency will be remembered for the “Great Society” programs for which he wanted to be remembered, and for the Vietnam War, which eventually forced his resignation.
[i] On both sides of his family he had a political heritage mingled with a Baptist background of preachers and teachers
[ii] Encyclopedia Article Title: Johnson, Lyndon Baines. Encyclopedia Title: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Publisher: Columbia University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2004.
[iii] Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream ( New York: New American Library, 1976.
[iv] Merle Miller, Lyndon New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980.
[v] Bernard J. Firestone.1988.Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Uses of Power. Editor, Robert C. Vogt Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: New York;Page Number: 7.
[vi] At the height of his power as Senate leader, Johnson sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1960. When he lost to John F. Kennedy, he surprised even some of his closest associates by accepting second place on the ticket.
[vii] Robert Dallek .2004.Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York; Page Number: 227.
[viii] ) Marc Dollinger .2001.The Other War: American Jews, Lyndon Johnson, and the Great Society. Contributors: – author. Journal Title: American Jewish History. Volume: 89. Issue: 4. Publication Year: 2001. Page Number: 437+
[ix] Ronnie Dugger .1982.The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson the Drive for Power, from the Frontier to Master of the Senate. Publisher: W. W. Norton. Place of Publication: New York; Page Number: 13.