Who Was Lyndon B. Johnson?
Lyndon Baines Johnson (often referred to as “LBJ”) was elected vice president of the United States in 1960 and was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As president, Johnson initiated the "Great Society" social service programs; signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law; and bore the brunt of national opposition to his vast expansion of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Family, Early Life and Education
Born in Stonewall, Texas, on August 27, 1908, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the oldest child of Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr. and Rebekah Baines Johnson's five children. The Johnson family, known for farming and ranching, had settled in Texas before the Civil War, founding the nearby town of Johnson City in its aftermath. Johnson's father, a Texas congressman, proved better at politics than ranching, encountering financial difficulties before losing the family farm when Johnson was in his early teens.
Johnson struggled in school but managed to graduate from Johnson City High School in 1924. He enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University) and participated in debates and campus politics. After graduating in 1930, he briefly taught, but his political ambitions had already taken shape. In 1931, Johnson won an appointment as legislative secretary to Texas Democratic Congressman Richard M. Kleberg and relocated to Washington, D.C. He quickly built a network of congressmen, newspapermen, lobbyists and friends, including aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1934, Johnson met Claudia Alta Taylor, known to her friends as "Lady Bird." Taylor soon became Johnson's top aide. She used a modest inheritance to bankroll his 1937 run for Congress and ran his office for several years. She later bought a radio station and then a television station, which made the Johnsons wealthy. The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson Turpin.
Rise to Senate Leadership
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Roosevelt helped Johnson win a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a lieutenant commander. Johnson served on a tour of the South Pacific and flew one combat mission. Not long into the mission, Johnson's plane was forced to turn back due to mechanical difficulty, but he still received a Silver Star for his participation. Soon after, he returned to his legislative duties in Washington, D.C.
In a close and controversial election, Johnson was elected a Texas senator in 1948. He advanced quickly and, with his connections, became the youngest minority leader in Senate history in 1953. Democrats won control of the Senate the following year, and Johnson was elected majority leader.
Johnson had an uncanny ability to gather information on his fellow legislators and knew where each of his colleagues stood on political issues. With incredible persuasive skills and an imposing presence, he was able to "buttonhole" political allies and opponents alike to convince them of his way of thinking. Subsequently, he was able to obtain passage on a number of measures during President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration.
From Vice President to President
Johnson had set his sights on the White House in 1960. However, he was overwhelmed by the young and energetic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who was nominated for president on the first ballot at the Democratic Convention. Kennedy realized that he could not be elected without the support of traditional Southern Democrats, most of whom had backed Johnson, so he offered the Texas senator the role of vice president. Johnson delivered the South, and the JFK/LBJ ticket won the election against Republican candidate Richard Nixon by a narrow margin.
As vice president, Johnson headed the space program, oversaw negotiations on the nuclear test ban treaty and worked to push through equal opportunity legislation for minorities. He also strongly supported Kennedy's decision to send American military advisors to South Vietnam to help fight off a communist insurgency. However, Johnson was never in Kennedy's inner circle and was frustrated by his lack of influence, particularly on legislative issues.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, while traveling in a motorcade. Johnson was only two cars behind Kennedy when the shots rang out. Just a few hours later, Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president aboard Air Force One on its return to Washington, D.C. Over the next year, he endorsed the late president's programs and pushed a few of his own through Congress.
In 1964, Johnson ran for the presidency against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. With the public seemingly having little appetite for Goldwater's staunch conservatism, Johnson won in a landslide; he received 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest margin of victory in U.S. election history. Johnson used his election mandate to wage war on poverty in the United States and communism in Southeast Asia.
The Civil Rights Act
On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first effective civil rights law since Reconstruction. As the civil rights movement gained momentum following the landmark decision in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, President Kennedy made passage of a Civil Rights bill part of his platform during the election. Johnson served as the chairman of Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities as vice president, and following Kennedy's death, took up the torch to see the bill through.
The legislation prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public places and laid the groundwork for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act passed the House and the Senate after a lengthy debate in July 1964 and was soon after signed by Johnson in a televised ceremony with hundreds of guests.
Johnson’s Great Society
In 1965, Johnson pushed an ambitious, sweeping legislative agenda coined the term "Great Society." With strong bipartisan support, scores of bills were passed that championed urban renewal, education, the arts and environmental conservation. Great Society legislation included:
- The Medicare act, a health insurance program for elderly Americans, in July 1965
- The Medicaid act, a health care program for low-income people as an amendment to the Social Security Act, in July 1965
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that significantly widened the right of African Americans to exercise their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in August 1965
- Establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in November 1967
The Vietnam War
The escalating Vietnam War soon consumed Johnson's presidency. Critics in the media blasted his administration's handling of the conflict, and anti-war protests were springing up on college campuses and in major cities. By 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam, and there seemed to be no end in sight. As the next election campaign geared up, Democrats were split into four factions, underscoring Johnson's diminished control over the party. His approval rating plummeted to 36 percent.
On March 31, 1968, Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not seek re-election. Shortly afterward, he scored one more major legislative victory with the passing of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex.
When Johnson left office in January 1969, peace talks in Vietnam were underway, but it would take another four years before the United States was completely out of the war-torn country.
LBJ Presidential Library and Ranch
On May 22, 1971, the 36th president dedicated the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, also known as the LBJ Presidential Library, in Austin, Texas. According to Johnson, the mission of the LBJ Presidential Library is "to preserve and protect the historical materials in the collections of the library and make them readily accessible; to increase public awareness of the American experience through relevant exhibitions and educational programs; to advance the LBJ Library's standing as a center for intellectual activity and community leadership while meeting the challenges of a changing world.” The museum features personal objects owned and used by the president and first lady, 45 million pages of historical documents, 650,000 photos and 5,000 hours of recordings from President Johnson's political career, as well as objects ranging from Middle Eastern coins to Oval Office furniture.
The LBJ Ranch is a National Historic Park in Johnson City, Texas, which Johnson’s family donated to the National Park Service following the death of his wife in 2007. The site includes Johnson’s home from age five until he married at age 26 as well as the 36th president’s grave in the family plot.
Death and Legacy
Johnson died on January 22, 1973, after suffering a heart attack at his Texas ranch. The day before his death, he had learned that peace was at hand in Vietnam.
Johnson is remembered for both his groundbreaking legislative successes and his oversight of a polarizing war. His birthday became a Texas state holiday shortly after his death. In 1980, he was posthumously honored by Jimmy Carter with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Portrayal in Pop Culture
Johnson's life has been explored in a number of books, theater and films. All the Way, which premiered on Broadway in 2014, earned Bryan Cranston a Tony Award for his portrayal of LJohnson. Cranston later reprised the role for the 2016 HBO film adaptation of the production.
On November 3, 2017, the biopic movie LBJ, with Woody Harrelson starring as the Civil Rights-era president, hit theaters. Directed by Rob Reiner, the film focuses on Johnson’s presidency after Kennedy’s assassination and his ensuing passage of Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act.
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