Lyndon Baines Johnson was President for just a little over five years. However, if you try to read some of the biographies that have written about him, you may feel like you need five years to get through all of them.
Robert Caro has written three volumes of a biography on Johnson, and he hasn’t even gotten Johnson into the White House. That’s 2,555 pages just to get you through the 1950s. I read an excerpt from the third volume once on a flight home from New York to L.A. I don’t even think I had enough time to finish. Or, quite possibly, there was a good in-flight movie.
Randall Bennett Woods opted to go the one volume route. That book is just a little over 1,000 pages long.
Johnson’s own memoirs (ghost written by a young Doris Kearns, who had not yet married former Johnson aide Richard Goodwin) for the time of his Presidency are a piddling 636 pages.
My choice for finding an LBJ (the man loved those initials) biography involved the following criteria:
- Was the book more or less objective?
- Was the book about all of Johnson’s life?
- Would I experience severe and/or potentially disabling back pain while carrying it around?
The book LBJ: A Life by Irwin and Debi Unger passed all three tests, especially the important third test. This book runs for just 586 pages. It covers Johnson from his birth to his death. Although it’s somewhat sympathetic to Johnson, it’s not a hagiography. Still, you get the feeling that there is so much more that can be said about one of the most potent forces in 20th Century American politics.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 in a city his ancestors founded in the Texas Hill Country. As people with great imagination, they called the town “Johnson City.” Lyndon’s father was Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., a member of the Texas State Legislature. His mother was named Rebekah Baines, which provided him with his middle name.
Young Lyndon did well in the Johnson City schools, but didn’t wish to go to college at first. He ran away from home, and found work in places like San Bernardino, California. He hoped that a family friend would be able to get him to pass the bar in Nevada, which had rather low standards in the 1920s. But, Lyndon Johnson ended up back in Johnson City when that plan failed.
Reluctantly, Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now called Texas State University) in San Marcos, Texas. While it wasn’t nearly as prestigious as the nearby University of Texas, it was a school that Johnson’s parents could afford. And, even with its lower admission standards, Johnson still needed a full year of preparatory classes.
In college, Johnson would first demonstrate one of his ways of getting ahead. He would find an older authority figure (in this case, the university president), befriend him, and then use those connections for personal advancement.
Johnson graduated from college in 1930. He had been deeply involved in campus politics. But before he could make politics his career, he needed to get a job first to establish himself in the community. So, he worked as a high school history teacher in Houston. From this position, he parlayed that connection into a job in Washington as a secretary for a Texas House member named Richard Kleberg.
After making himself indispensable to Kleberg (who wasn’t very interested in doing much work), Johnson got himself appointed to be the head of the National Youth Administration work program in Texas. The NYA was a Roosevelt New Deal program that employed thousands of college age men and women in a variety of public works projects. Along the way, he met a woman named Claudia Taylor. Everybody called her “Lady Bird,” a nickname she picked up at birth.
Johnson was attracted to Lady Bird for a variety of reasons. She had access to money. She understood politics. She was intelligent, a University of Texas graduate. She would improve his station in life. The two were married in 1934. She would always be called be Lady Bird Johnson from then on, so she could have the same initials as her husband. They would have two daughters, Lynda Byrd and Luci Baines.
In 1937, Representative James P. Buchanan (no relation to the former childless President) passed away. This left an opening for Johnson to run for a House seat back in his home district in the Hill Country. Johnson won the special election and became the youngest member of Congress at the time, just 27 years old.
Johnson caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was looking for more sympathetic members of Congress from the South. Some New Deal programs were starting to face opposition from conservative Southern Democrats. Roosevelt took Johnson under his wing, helping out with projects back in his district. Johnson, in turn, became one of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters in Congress. Johnson also became friends with Sam Rayburn, who would soon become Speaker of the House. Both Roosevelt and Rayburn took something of a paternal interest in the young Texas representative.
In 1941, Johnson decided to run in a special election to fill a Senate seat left vacant by the death of Morris Shepard. Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel appointed Andrew Houston, an 87-year old descendant of Sam Houston, to hold on to the seat until an election could be held. Johnson assumed O’Daniel himself wouldn’t run for the seat, but that was not the case. Johnson seemed to have won the election when the polls closed. However, O’Daniel had enough connections throughout the state to get enough counties to change their vote totals just enough to push him over the top. Lieutenant Governor Coke Stevenson, who wanted to move up to the Governor’s office, massaged the vote totals. O’Daniel would win by about 1300 votes.
Since it was a special election, Johnson held on to his House seat. When World War II began, Johnson temporarily left his office in the hands of Lady Bird while he served in the Navy. (Johnson was a member of the Naval Reserve and had served on the Naval Affairs Committee.) Johnson spent most of his time on the West Coast, but was sent out in 1942 to do some observation in Australia, where he was invited on a bombing run. One of the two planes sent up was shot down and Johnson’s plane was damaged, but landed safely. General Douglas MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his efforts. Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress in the Armed Forces back to Washington soon after.
By 1948, Johnson felt it was time to make another go at the Senate. He knew he couldn’t wait around in the House to move up the ladder. O’Daniel wasn’t going to run for reelection as he turned about to be something of a joke. Johnson would face off against the incumbent governor, Coke Stevenson. (Coke was his given name. Texas politicians had very cool names at this time. There was also a governor named Beaufort Jester around this time. ) This election would be epic. Caro and Dallek both devote hundreds of pages each to the event. I will try to be more brief because you have likely already stopped twice while reading this to go to the bathroom.
The election was a battle between the conservative establishment of Texas in Stevenson and a more progressive style favored by Johnson.
Johnson toured the state by helicopter, a novel method at the time. His face was omnipresent. At the same time, Johnson was suffering from a painful attack of kidney stones. Somehow, Johnson was able to work through the pain for most of the campaign. Eventually, he would go to the Mayo Clinic for the still experimental treatment of having the stones removed with a cytoscope. This was actually the second method tried. The first was to drive Johnson over a lot of bumpy roads with the aim of dislodging the stones. In the end, Johnson missed two weeks of the campaign, although the normal recovery time during that time for kidney stone surgery was six weeks.
In the primary, no candidate got a majority, although Stevenson led. There would be a runoff between Stevenson and Johnson one month later on Saturday, August 28, 1948. The race was extraordinarily close. On August 30, Stevenson led by 119 votes. On September 2, the lead moved up to 351. But, Johnson, remembering his defeat to O’Daniel in 1941, knew what needed to be done. The counties close to the Mexican border reported their votes last. And Johnson controlled (i.e., bought off) those counties. When they reported, Johnson ended up winning by 87 votes. And so was born “Landslide Lyndon.” (By comparison, Al Franken won his Senate seat in Minnesota by 312 votes over Norm Coleman.)
Johnson quickly worked his way up the ladder in the Senate. He befriended Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who had no family (similar to Rayburn), and learned from him. Russell would prove to be far more conservative than Johnson on civil rights issues, but the two men remained friends until the late 1960s.
After just two years in the Senate, Johnson was voted Minority Whip. And in 1952, when Democratic Senate Leader Ernest McFarland was defeated for reelection in Arizona by Barry Goldwater, Johnson was chosen as Senate Minority Leader.
Johnson developed a reputation as a forceful leader who was able to work well with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1955, the Democrats regained control of the Senate and Johnson became Majority Leader at the age of 46.
Many historians consider Johnson to be the most effective Majority Leader in the Senate’s history (the position didn’t exist until the 1930s). The Majority Leader sets the agenda for the Senate and has great control over its actions. Johnson strongly believed that Congress should get things done. He did not wish to obstruct the Eisenhower Administration, although he did always keep an eye out for the interests of the Democratic Party.
Johnson was an adept vote counter and master of persuasion. He developed a way of speaking to people known as “the treatment.” He would get very close to a person and speak directly to their face. He was not afraid to touch other Senators or lean into them. The linked illustration shows Johnson giving “the treatment” to Rhode Island Senator Theodore Green in 1957. Green was 90 years old at the time.
After his first session as Majority Leader, Johnson had worked himself so hard, he ended up suffering a heart attack. He rested for the second half of 1955, but made a triumphant return to the Senate in 1956. In 1957, he was able to push through the first major civil rights bill through Congress since Reconstruction. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was far from revolutionary, it served notice to Northern politicians that Johnson was not a typical Southern segregationist. Southerners looked at Johnson’s actions in the Senate as an act of betrayal.
Johnson was constantly driven to seek higher office in part because he feared dying young, like his grandfather and father. So, in 1960, Johnson made a bid for the Presidency. However, Johnson, the master politician, didn’t understand that Presidential nominees weren’t going to be chosen exclusively in backroom deals as they had before. Johnson’s younger Senate colleague, John Kennedy, ran in primaries and used his success in them to make himself a viable national candidate. It also had the effect of eliminating the competition, in particular Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey.
When the Democratic Convention convened in Los Angeles in 1960, Johnson still thought he had enough delegates that he could win nomination on a second or third ballot. But, Kennedy’s forces were better organized and outmaneuvered Johnson to get the nomination for the young Bostonian on the first ballot.
Then, for reasons that are still debated, Kennedy offered Johnson the Vice Presidential slot on the ticket. Did Kennedy offer Johnson the spot figuring that he’d be turned down anyway? Did Kennedy think that Johnson would help him with Southern voters? Nobody seems to know for certain. But, Johnson accepted the spot, and became Vice President on January 20, 1961.
Johnson hated the Vice Presidency. He found out that there was little to do. He wanted to serve as the head of the Democratic Senate Caucus, but was told by his old colleagues that such an arrangement could not work. Even worse, Johnson felt marginalized and belittled by the Easterners in the Kennedy Administration.
John Kennedy was a Harvard-educated Bostonian with a glamorous wife who went to school in France. Johnson felt like Kennedy’s advisers treated him like a country bumpkin. The greatest amount of animus was between Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had angered each other during the Los Angeles Convention. The two men, both with short tempers and huge egos, never saw eye to eye. (And that’s putting it politely.)
Everything changed on November 22, 1963. John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Prior to the trip, Johnson was hoping that Kennedy would take him off the ticket in 1964. Now, he was President.
After the initial mourning period for Kennedy, Johnson set to work to implement some of Kennedy’s policies, most importantly a civil rights bill. Johnson wanted Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill to be adopted in part as a memorial to the slain President.
Johnson used his Senate connections to avoid a Southern filibuster. Most importantly, Johnson got Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen to back the bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in any public facility, in employment, and in government. Although the Act still had many loopholes and would be toughened up throughout the years (including today), it was a landmark bill nonetheless. Johnson’s biggest fear about the Civil Rights Act was that it would be eventually turn Southern whites from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican voters.
However, Johnson knew that to be elected President in his own right in 1964, he would need to have accomplishments of his own. Johnson was both realistic, in that he knew that it was impossible to ride into office on the memory of John Kennedy, and proud, in that he wanted to show the Kennedy people that he could do more than their leader.
Johnson’s bold legislative plan was announced on May 22, 1964 in a commencement address at the University of Michigan. In that speech, Johnson said:
We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society
The Great Society was supposed to be Johnson’s legacy to the United States. There would be hundreds of government programs established in the fields of education, welfare, conservation, agriculture, and, most importantly, health care.
But, the Great Society had a counterpart when it came to government spending: the Vietnam War.
On August 2, 1964, a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox, was fired upon by North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. (A second attack on a different ship supposedly took place, but that has been denied by the Vietnamese.) Johnson knew that in an election year, he could not allow an attack on an American vessel go without retaliation. So, Johnson asked Congress to give him the authority to use force to assist any member of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, i.e. South Vietnam.
Congress passed a joint resolution giving Johnson the authority to send more troops to Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. There were only two dissenting votes.
Johnson ordered the bombing of several North Vietnamese supply sites. This then developed into a larger bombing campaign. And then more soldiers were added on the ground. And so on.
Back at home, Johnson faced conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Goldwater had emerged from an unusually contentious campaign. The 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco would see Goldwater’s supporters boo New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater took a very hawkish position on the war in Vietnam and facing off against the Soviet Union overall. Goldwater’s most controversial position was advocating giving field commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons, albeit low-level ones.
Nevertheless, Johnson jumped on this suggestion to paint Goldwater as a dangerous man hell-bent on sending the world into nuclear annihilation. This led to one of the most infamous political ads in television history, the “Daisy Girl Ad.” The ad ran only once. But it did its job.
Johnson routed Goldwater in the election, winning over 61% of the vote. But, in a foreshadowing of America’s political realignment, Goldwater won five Southern states.
With overwhelming Democratic majorities behind him, Johnson started to enact a dizzying array of proposals. The most durable legacy of this time period was Medicare, the first time the Federal government was providing health insurance to civilians on a wide scale basis. Health insurance had been backed by both Roosevelt and Truman, but it took Johnson to push it through.
Johnson also had the Voting Rights Act passed in August of 1965. This measure removed many barriers to registration for African-Americans throughout the country. It was one of Johnson’s proudest moments. And, a few days after it passed, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded in racial violence.
The racial violence that would mark Johnson’s term in office from 1965 to 1969 deeply disturbed Johnson. But, it wasn’t because Johnson felt that there was more work to be done in the area of civil rights and poverty. Rather, Johnson felt that African American voters were not suitably grateful for all the hard work Johnson had done for him. Johnson seemingly always a politician who saw every issue in terms of trading off favors to different sides so something could be done.
Despite all of Johnson’s social programs, his term in office is remembered primarily for the Vietnam War. Johnson was fearful of being the first U.S. President to lose a war. (James Madison seemingly gets credit for a tie.) Johnson kept seeing parallels in Vietnam to World War II. The “Domino Theory” was an accepted way of thinking in the Johnson Administration. If Vietnam fell to Communist forces, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a holdover from Kennedy’s Cabinet, tried to figure out some way for the U.S. to “win” while fighting a “limited” war. But, a solution was nowhere to be found.
According to the Ungers, the situation in Vietnam sent Johnson into deep depressions after dealing with it. As much joy that Johnson received from his Great Society programs, Johnson felt a corresponding amount of pain over Vietnam. The Ungers even go as far to assert (without much documentation) that Johnson suffered from a very mild form of bipolar disorder. Johnson was also reported to have made aides stand beside open bathroom doors while he defecated as he gave dictation. He also was reported to deliberately stand up at seemingly random times in meetings to force political opponents to stand up and sit down repeatedly in an effort to annoy them.
Whatever was troubling Johnson, many of his aides sensed that Johnson was mentally unstable. Richard Goodwin and George Ball were advisers who left the Administration feeling that Johnson’s mood swings were too difficult to deal with. Johnson would describe people like Goodwin and Ball as disloyal.
Protests over the Vietnam War became larger and more widespread after 1965. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas held public hearings to examine the conduct of the war. The American effort in Vietnam appeared to accomplish little.
Early in 1968, there was a cease fire in the war to observe the lunar new year in Vietnam, a period called Tet. During the cease fire, the North Vietnamese unleashed a major offensive, catching much of the South Vietnamese forces unprepared. However, American forces managed to repel most of the North Vietnamese forces.
Although the Tet Offensive may not have been a military success for the North, it proved to be an enormous psychological victory. The war in Vietnam appeared to be headed toward a long and bloody stalemate. Walter Cronkite, in an editorial on his CBS newscast, declared the war to be “unwinnable.”
Johnson was going to run for reelection in 1968, but antiwar Democrats had already found a candidate to run against Johnson. Their first choice would have been Robert Kennedy, now a New York Senator after leaving his post as Attorney General in 1965, but he declined, feeling that Johnson was unbeatable. Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy decided to take on Johnson.
In the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, Johnson was a write-in candidate (which was not unusual at the time) against McCarthy. Johnson won by a 49-42 margin, a surprisingly small margin for an incumbent President. The results were interpreted as a condemnation of Johnson’s Vietnam policies, although some historians think that much of the anti-Johnson vote came from people who felt that Johnson was too weak in his approach to Vietnam.
On March 16, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy. Johnson knew that it was time to get out. Also, he had thought of not running anyway because of a fear of dying in office.
In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam in the hopes of starting peace negotiations. At the end of the speech, Johnson said, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
The rest of Johnson’s administration would be marked by tragedy. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4. Robert Kennedy would be killed on June 6. The Democratic Convention, which nominated Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, would be marked by violence.
Johnson didn’t think that Humphrey would make a good President. He hoped that Nelson Rockefeller would get the GOP nomination. But, Richard Nixon would be the Republican candidate.
Reluctantly, Johnson backed Humphrey, although he felt betrayed when Humphrey announced a peace plan in a speech on September 30, 1968. (Johnson felt betrayed a lot.) Johnson sincerely believed that his efforts in Vietnam were in the country’s best interests.
Nixon would narrowly defeat Humphrey in the 1968 election. Johnson would retire to his ranch in Texas, where he worked on his memoirs and tried to repair his legacy.
His retirement was not long. He suffered a second heart attack in 1972 that left his heart beyond repair. He passed away on January 22, 1973. He was 64 years old. It was the same age that a team of actuaries told him his life expectancy would be when he was weighing a run for a second term in 1968.
And with all of my ramblings here, I think I only covered the tiniest fraction of the life of Lyndon Johnson. And with all that has been written about him, there are so many places to turn to find information on this most complex man. Lyndon Johnson’s life was full of contradictions. It seemed that for every step forward, he took a step or two backward. He definitely got things done, but the question is: did he do the right things?
Other stuff: The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library and Museum is part of the University of Texas in Austin. It’s open every day but Christmas. Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Johnson City, Texas is now the Lyndon Johnson National Historical Park. There is also a Lyndon Johnson Memorial Grove on an island in the Potomac River.
Lyndon Johnson was 6′ 3.5″ tall, the second tallest of any U.S. President, behind only Abraham Lincoln. Johnson would bring his own oversized bed (seven feet long) on all foreign trips with him.