Lyndon B. Johnson
|God, guns, and freedom|
|Starting arguments over Thanksgiving dinner|
|Persons of interest|
“”Being poor in the Hill Country, humiliated, the son of the town's laughing stock that fire was so hot that it formed him into a shape so hard it would never change. He has a hunger for power. He’s gotta get it. The first two books are really about him getting power. In the book I’m writing now, my third volume, he has power. He’s Majority Leader of the Senate, so you see him start doing wonderful things. Now in the part I just finished writing, 1957, he's passing the first civil rights legislation since the Civil War. It’s an act of sheer genius, but the character of the man does not change.
|—Robert Caro, historian|
"Landslide" Lyndon "Jumbo" B(aines). Johnson, aka LBJ, (1908–1973) from Texas was the 36th President of the United States. Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy as POTUS upon the latter's assassination, and subsequently won the office in his own right in 1964 by demolishing Barry Goldwater, an election that was part of the shift of southern racists to the Republicans (ironic for a Texan whose prior record on the subject of racial was also poor).
There's a reason why there hadn't been any Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction until LBJ showed up: it was an impossible task, and it took a legislative genius to do it. Obama isn't in the same league (but then, neither was JFK). LBJ ran the Senate between 1954–1960. Obama and JFK were fairly unexceptional Senators.[note 1]
Of course, it is worth noting that during his first 20 years of public office prior to his presidency, LBJ refused to pass a single piece of legislation to advance the cause of civil rights, even criticizing attempts to promote the rights of minorities. Indeed, he even voted against various anti-lynching legislation.
Rise and fall
Before running for the Vice Presidency, Johnson had a prominent Congressional career in the House from 1937-1949 and in the Senate from 1949-1960. He was the Democratic Senate leader from 1952-1960 and was able to bring home to his native Texas NASA as its permanent headquarters. It is widely considered by historians that Lyndon Johnson was the most powerful Senate Leader of all time. He masterminded the weakening down of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which happened with the removal of powers authorized to the attorney general as well as the passage of the jury trial amendment.
For the most successful stretch of his presidency, LBJ had two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress.[note 2] He had that at a time when the filibuster, as we currently know it, did not exist (it was a speaking filibuster only). Then as now, the Democrats were a very divided party. One just can't count on a Democratic super-majority for a unified voting block. The Southern Democrats (racists) were more inclined to trust Johnson, as a fellow Southerner. He also enjoyed tremendous goodwill following the death of JFK, who fought for the same goals. His success was contingent both on the conditions at the time and his talents.
Johnson's presidency is perhaps best remembered for his "Great Society" programs to assist poverty and basic needs in America. Johnson also took numerous steps in helping the civil rights movement achieve its goals: He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 — a miraculous achievement, given the southern control of the Senate and the peculiar rules of the institution in which a third of the Senators can block the passage of legislation by filibustering. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was also created. Johnson also signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which upset conservatives who believed that it was a massive conspiracy to take away their only defense from hippies who hid in the bushes and randomly attacked you unless you had a gun 24/7.
He then pissed away all that goodwill by escalating the war in Vietnam, culminating in a group of "Wise Men" with a lot of money in their pockets going to Washington and essentially telling him, "You're through, you're not running for reelection." He didn't. The big question is why a president who did more for civil rights than either FDR or Kennedy is remembered as a warmonger. The quick answer is, Kennedy's energetic charisma elicited better biographers.
Johnson escalated the war with an integrated military, thinking black and white would pull together in a common cause as they did a generation earlier in World War II. Vietnam was, ironically, part of his civil rights program. But that was not really a good reason to start a foreign war, and by the 1960s, attitudes about patriotism changed.
The real tragedy about Johnson, as Nixon mentioned in his 1983 interviews, is that the Vietnam mess could have all been avoided if he just decided to act as he would naturally in the Senate rather than try to fulfill the role of "President Johnson" and appease a bunch of people who were always going to hate him anyway.
Johnson might have gone down as one of our greatest Presidents, but his Texas-sized hubris, which had so long served him well, orchestrated his downfall with his escalation of an unnecessary and unpopular war.
This feud goes back all the way to the FDR era. Johnson saw the Kennedys as a pawn of their father an amoral gangster eager to buy his way into the White House. He was puzzled as to why JFK was so popular when he was pretty useless in the House/Senate (true). The Kennedys saw LBJ as a corrupt southern crook (also true). They both desperately wanted to be president in 1960, so that's a start. In some cases, JFK straight-up marginalized Johnson. They wanted him on the ticket to shore up their numbers in Texas (JFK was even considering dropping him from the ticket); otherwise, the members of the administration were all Kennedy operators.
According to Caro's books, immediately after RFK's assassination, Johnson checked to see if he had any legal right to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Lyndon Johnson conspiracy theories
Liberals have also attacked Johnson for what they see as a conspiracy to start the Vietnam War. However, evidence suggests that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, rather than being a deliberately staged false flag operation, was a CIA/NSA cock up, eagerly snatched up by LBJ as an excuse for its existing wish to ramp up U.S. involvement in Vietnam or alternatively he could not afford to "look weak" in an election year. The actual conspiracy came later when the mistake was realized yet kept under wraps by LBJ and the intelligence services.:276-280
Some on both sides believe that he plotted Kennedy's death. This has no basis whatsoever and is as likely as Jackie Kennedy having been the gunman instead of Oswald or a piece of really whack satire by Paul Krassner. It also may be a sign of watching too much House of Cards.
Wingnuts often cite the Johnson years as the start of the New World Order and contend that the Great Society was a communist plot to destroy "liberty", i.e., segregation. They also believe that the Vietnam War was a plan to enact communism even though the war was designed to contain communism.
Additionally, right-wingers often try to prop up a bullshit story about LBJ claiming that passing civil rights will "have those niggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years." Aside from the quote's highly dubious nature, it's often trotted out to deflect from the current Republican Party's rampant problem with minority issues.[note 3]
The Great Society
While some Republicans regard it as a massive failure and some Democrats as an outstanding success, the results of the Great Society are, unsurprisingly, far more mixed. Being such a huge program, it is probably correct to analyze its many sub-programs and goals than the program as a whole. Doing such, we’ll find out that, despite succeeding in many areas, the Great Society also failed in many others. The social security apparently managed to reduce consumption-based poverty, though other programs had a very small impact, and the reduction of the income-based poverty is mostly a result of the economic growth.
Perhaps the utmost failure of the Great Society was on the healthcare, nominally the Medicare and Medicaid programs, considering how the US has the worst indicators when it comes to health among the OECD countries even though its public spending exceeds by any measure any other country in this specific field. Another important criticism is that a considerable part of the of spending doesn't go for the poor — it goes for the elderly.
Overall, the poor in the United States are probably better off with than without the Great Society, even considering how expensive it was and how the results weren't even that remarkable. One good example of what can be done is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, that cut spending but also managed to reduce poverty.
Critics who say that the Great Society was a failure, notably Ronald Reagan and Paul Ryan, have cherry-picked parts of it that they don't like or that they claim failed, without mentioning the manifold parts of it (including numerous War on Poverty projects), many parts of which are now quite popular (among non-libertarians at least) and part of the American fabric.:226,234
Programs launched by Johnson through his Great Society initiative include:
- Community Action Agencies
- Corporation for Public Broadcasting
- Head Start Program
- Job Corps
- Model Cities Program
- NASA Art Program
- National Endowment for the Arts
- National Endowment for the Humanities
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- Office of Economic Opportunity
- Project Follow Through
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- Teacher Corps
- Upward Bound
- Volunteers in Service to America (later renamed as AmericiCorps)
Laws passed as part of the Great Society include:
- Bilingual Education Act
- Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965
- Civil Rights Act of 1968
- Clean Air Act of 1963
- Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act, substantially increasing Federal aid to public schools
- Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966
- Fair Packaging and Labeling Act
- Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967
- Higher Education Act of 1965
- Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, abolishing national-origin quotas for immigration
- Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965
- National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
- Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965
- National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
- National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966
- National Trails System Act of 1968
- Older Americans Act
- Radiation Safety Act of 1968
- Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965
- Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968
- Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964
- Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Water Quality Act of 1965
- Wholesome Meat Act of 1967
- Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968
- Wilderness Act of 1964
A guaranteed basic family income was one of the ideas that the Johnson administration considered as part of the Great Society, but had rejected. Hillary Clinton also had considered proposing such a program for her 2016 presidential run.:235
The success of the Great Society programs was predicated upon sustained economic growth, which did occur before and during the beginning of Johnson's presidency. Johnson was was his own worst enemy in this regard; by ramping up the Vietnam War, he tanked the economy with high inflation in the years to come.:232
- Johnson earned his nickname, "Landslide Lyndon", when he was first elected to the Senate by stuffing the ballot box and winning by only 87 votes in an election with over 1 million votes cast.
- Every moment of the president's day and schedule is precious to be effective and get things done. Johnson held meetings with aides and reporters while sitting on the crapper.:124
- Johnson was rather fond of his genitalia and bragging about them using his best "Texas Crude"; hence he ordered extra roomy pants from the White House directly from the president of the company ("But, uh when I gain a little weight they cut me under there. So, leave me, you never do have much of margin there. See if you can't leave me an inch from where the zipper [belches] ends, round, under my, back to my bunghole, so I can let it out there if I need to.")
- For all his faults, Lyndon B. Johnson had a prowess for understanding his opponents and converting to his way of thinking via the infamous "Johnson Treatment", a frighteningly effective mixture of badgering, charm and physical intimidation. He boasted nearly familial relationships with opposing figures such as Richard Russell of Georgia, and it was key to his presidency being as legislatively successful as it was.
- As a senator, Kennedy voted with segregationists to weaken the Civil Rights Act of 1957 after being lobbied by Johnson.
- Due to the filibuster, in many ways, Obama had something comparable to a clear majority in the Senate. That period lasted less than half a year due to Ted Kennedy's death and the special election.
- There's a reason the Democrats lost the South.
- The Round Table: Fiction, Biography And The Use Of Power. Robert Caro and Kurt Vonnegut Robert Caro.
- How 'Landslide Lyndon' Earned His Name by David S. Broder (March 4, 1990) The Washinton Post.
- LBJ Was Obsessed With His Dick by Jordan Sargent (03/30/15 03:25PM) Gawker.
- When Lyndon B. Johnson Chose the Middle Ground on Civil Rights—and Disappointed Everyone by Zachary Clary (January 23, 2023) Smithsonian Magazine.
- The Election of a Texas New Dealer: Lyndon Johnson's 1937 Race for Congress. Austin Community College. Retrieved March 18, 2021.
- During Lyndon B. Johnson’s first 20 years in Congress, "he opposed every civil rights measure that came up for a vote." by Barack Obama (April 10, 2014) Politifact. Rated as "true".
- My Search for Coke Stevenson by Robert A. Caro (February 3, 1991) The New York Times.
- For example, Robert Caro, in Master of the Senate and Robert Dallek in Lone Star Rising
- The Civil Rights Act of 1957. United States House of Representatives. Retrieved March 3, 2021.
- HR. 6127. Civil Rights Act Of 1957. Amendment To Delete Authority For Attorney General To Seek Preventive Relief In Civil Rights Cases Under The 14th Amendment (Jul 24, 1957) GovTrack.
- HR. 6127. Civil Rights Act Of 1957. Amendment To Guarantee Jury Trials In All Cases Of Criminal Contempt And Provide Uniform Methods For Selecting Federal Court Juries (Aug 2, 1957) GovTrack.
- "Johnson Meets With the 'Wise Men'" by Andrew Glass (03/25/10 05:39 AM EDT) Politico.
- The Nixon/Gannon Interviews, Day 2, 4.7.83. Nixon: "Johnson's problem was nobody told him, "Let Johnson be Johnson." If Johnson had been Johnson in Vietnam, he would have finished it before I ever got to be president. And maybe if he'd finished it, I would have never been president. So—who knows?"
- A Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (2008) Anchor. ISBN 0307389006.
- Paul Krassner, countercultural ringmaster and leader of the Yippies, dies at 87 by Harrison Smith (July 22, 2019 at 7:29 p.m. EDT) The Washington Post.
- The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book by Paul Krassner (May 1967) The Realist 74:1,18.
- ‘House of Cards’ creator Beau Willimon plays a solid hand by Todd Leopold (11:56 AM EDT, Wed August 28, 2013) CNN. Oh yes, LBJ poisoned a Congressman, pushed a journalist into a subway, and neither forensic evidence nor the media picked up on it.
- Is this a real quote? (c. 2014) /r/askhistorians, Reddit.
- Mandatory Spending Makes Up the Bulk of Spending Growth (May 4, 2018) Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
- Winning The War: Poverty From The Great Society To The Great Recession by Bruce D. Meyer & James X. Sullivan (January 2013) National Bureau Of Economic Research. NBER Working Paper No. 18718.
- Social Expenditure - Aggregated data OECD.
- Are We Stuck with the Great Society? by Bryan Caplan, George Mason University and Mercatus Center.
- Evaluating Welfare Reform In The United States by Rebecca M. Blank (June 2002) National Bureau Of Economic Research. NBER Working Paper No. 8983.
- Remarks at a Fundraising Dinner Honoring Former Representative John M. Ashbrook in Ashland, Ohio by Ronald Reagan (May 9, 1983) Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.
- Ryan: Stop ‘dependency’ culture by Juana Summers (10/24/2012 03:36 PM EDT) Politico.
- "The Great Society" by Joshua Zeitz. In: Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, edited by Kevin M. Kruse & Julian E. Zelizer (2022) Basic Books. ISBN 1541601394. Pages 225-236.
- Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 by Robert Dallek (1998) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195054652.
- Texas Crude: The How-To on Talkin' Texan by Ken Weaver (1984) Plume. ISBN 0525480900.
- The Johnson Treatment: Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore F. Green, 1957 by George Tames, Afterimage Gallery.