Lyndon B. Johnson
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“”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.
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.
Of course, it is worth noting that Johnson, during his first 20 years of public office, refused to pass a single piece of legislation to advance the cause of civil rights, and actually criticized attempts at promoting the rights of minorities.
Rise and fall
“”When Roosevelt’s experiments began to go sour, the Second World War disguised their inadequacy. I’ve often wondered if Johnson instinctively hoped to repeat the Roosevelt career: domestic reform, followed by the triumphant prosecution of a war.
|—Gore Vidal, Playboy interview (1969)|
Before running for the Vice Presidency, Johnson had a prominent Congressional career in the House from 1937-49 and in the Senate from 1949-60. He was the Democratic Senate leader from 1952-60 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.
For the most successful stretch of his presidency, LBJ had two-thirds majorities in both chambers of congress.[note 1] 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. You just can't count on a Democratic supermajority 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 had 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 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. Lyndon saw the Kennedys as a pawn of their father, an amoral gangster eager to buy his way into the Oval Office. 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 '60, 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 (Jack 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.
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.
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. 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 2]
The Great Society
Programs launched by Johnson through his Great Society initiative include:
- Bilingual Education Act
- Community Action Agencies
- Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
- Elementary and Secondary Education
- Head Start Program
- Higher Education Act of 1965
- Job Corps
- Model Cities Program
- NASA Art Program
- National Endowment for the Arts
- National Endowment for the Humanities
- Office of Economic Opportunity
- Older Americans Act
- Project Follow Through
- Samuel Jefferson Mason
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- Teacher Corps
- Upward Bound
For years conservatives have attacked Johnson for this "failed" initiative, but poverty dropped from 20% when he took office to 12% when he left. It clearly worked among the black community, falling from 55% in 1960 to 27% in 1968. It was also the last time the Gini coefficient was less than .400 (still high today for the West) in the United States. Not precisely a "failure"; if anything, a staunch success by a reasonable estimate, but conservatives will never see fact with these estimates.
- Johnson told a story as a young Texas Democrat he was collecting signatures in a graveyard for the voter rolls and came across an old tombstone too difficult to read, so he passed it up. The precinct captain came over and told him, "This is America. One man, one vote. Get the name".
- Johnson earned his nickname, "Landslide Lyndon", when he was first elected to the Senate by stuffing the ballot box and winning by only 44 votes in an election with over 1 million votes cast.
- Critics often said, "Johnson thinks he's God." One evening while Rev. Bill Moyers was praying over dinner, Johnson asked him to speak up. Moyers said, "I wasn't talking to you."
- 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.
- Johnson was rather fond of his genitalia and bragging about them; hence he ordered roomy pants (that's an actual recording, by the way)
- 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.
- Sargent, Jordan, [Gawker.com: archive.is, web.archive.org "LBJ Was Obsessed With His Dick"], Gawker (3.30.15. at 4:25pm).
- For example, Robert Caro, in Master of the Senate and Robert Dallek in Lone Star Rising
- Glass, Andrew, "Johnson Meets With the 'Wise Men'", Politico (03/25/10 05:39 AM EDT).
- 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?"
- Tim Weiner, A Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, 2008,pp. 276-280
- 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?" on /r/askhistorians
- How about that, Friedman?