Lyndon B. Johnson isn’t traditionally a name that gets bandied about much, as far as U.S. Presidents go. Many people only think of him as the man who stood next to a grief-stricken Jackie Kennedy to be sworn in as President following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We tend to think about him as often as we do President William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia a mere thirty-two days after taking office. And, while I don’t have much to say on the subject of Harrison (other than he really should have worn a raincoat and galoshes during his inauguration), I have plenty to say on the topic of LBJ.
Texas Born and Bred
“Education is not a problem. Education is an opportunity.” ~LBJ
Lyndon Johnson was born in Stonewall, Texas, in 1908. The Johnson family lived a hop, skip and a jump from Johnson City, Texas. The town name was no coincidence. The Johnsons were well respected throughout the area. Young Lyndon’s father was both a rancher and a politician, although he must have been better at politics than he was at raising cattle.
As a youngster, LBJ already demonstrated an independent spirit. He was a chronic runaway! He might not have run far, but he did run away repeatedly …to the schoolhouse. He did that so often that his mother convinced the teacher to enroll him in school, when he was only four-years-old! That might have curbed things for a while, but at the age of fifteen, LBJ ran all the way to California, where he briefly worked as a grape picker and auto mechanic. He always had a larger vision, though. As a child, he often told his friends, “Someday, I’m going to be President of the United States.”
Following a less-than-stellar school career, Johnson went on to Southwest Texas State Teachers College. He was active in debate and campus politics. After graduation, he taught school. His teaching career was brief, but it is safe to say that LBJ’s experience of teaching minority children in South Texas contributed greatly to forming his opinions concerning civil rights.
Long Tall Texan
“I have learned that only two things are necessary to keep one’s wife happy. First, let her think she’s having her own way. And second, let her have it. “ ~ LBJ
When LBJ saw something he wanted, he didn’t waste time in getting it. So, when he met Claudia Alra (aka, Lady Bird), he proposed two days later. Of course she said, “Yes!” It was probably her $2.50 wedding ring he purchased at Sears that sealed the deal! Of course, maybe she just liked tall guys. If the White House had a doorjamb to show the heights of the U.S. Presidents, at 6’3”, LBJ’s pencil marks would be just under those of Abraham Lincoln! Lady Bird stood by her husband’s side throughout his entire political career, and became one of his closest political confidants and strategists.
LBJ narrowly lost his first race for the U.S. Senate, but he did draw large crowds on the campaign trail by becoming the first candidate to travel by helicopter. Folks turned out just to see the helicopter! He joined the military, during WWII, and was awarded the Silver Star after the Japanese attacked his plane. By 1948, he made his second attempt at a seat in the Senate…and finally, success! He won by the nation’s smallest margin ever —87 votes! But after years of hard work, dedication and blustery political maneuvering, he gained the respect of his peers and his constituents, and was named Leader of the Senate.
And, of course, then there was the campaign with John F. Kennedy, which secured his position as Vice President of the United States. That position got him a whole lot more than he ever bargained for.
“There are no favorites in my office. I treat them all with the same general inconsideration.” ~LBJ
While the nation mourned its beloved, 35th president, LBJ had to adjust to a new job title. As charming and charismatic as many people had found JFK, they did not see those same qualities in LBJ. He could be crass and rude, and he used language that could have made a sailor blush. He seemed to prefer making people squirm to putting them at ease. He was known to insist that people accompany him to the bathroom to conduct political conversations while he conducted his own business. He used these unique qualities to his advantage, again and again, to convince people of his ideas and maybe even coerce agreement, and to then push legislation through into law. The man got things done.
LBJ made the Oval Office his own personal territory. He liked to drink Fresca, so a Fresca vending machine was installed in the Oval Office for his convenience, and his enterrtainment.
He liked women, and the way he liked them best was horizontal, so an emergency buzzer was installed that notified him when his wife was about to pay a visit. He really, really liked helicopters, so, instead of a regal, presidential leather desk chair, he used an actual helicopter seat behind his desk in the Oval Office.
He was a man who knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it…and he marked his territory like any dominant male pack leader would.
The Race Race & Social Reform
“Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation, but not a fact.” ~ LBJ
LBJ had a real passion for social reform. In 1964, he declared war on poverty. It was under the LBJ administration that the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare were signed into law. Head Start? That was his. Medicaid? His again.
With the passing of the Civil Rights Act, he accomplished what JFK has been unable to accomplish. Segregation officially ended and, all across the country, “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs came down from businesses, restrooms and drinking fountains. Give the man credit, folks…he changed this country for the better, and not in a small way.
Hey! Hey! LBJ!
“The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure.”~ LBJ
His success in the War on Poverty was overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. It was a war we could not win. In 1968, more than 500,000 American troops were in Vietnam, fighting a war that was vehemently protested on U.S. soil. I must point out that hindsight has skewed the history books a bit. In reality, a 1968 Gallup poll showed that 46% of Americans did approve of Johnson’s handling of the war.
One protest cry haunted LBJ like no other: “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” He agonized over Vietnam. He once said, “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.” But that didn’t mean that he had to stand there indefinitely. LBJ shocked the nation when, in 1968, he announced that he would not seek reelection. Johnson died near Johnson City, Texas, four years after leaving office.
The LBJ Legacy
“If the American people don’t love me, their descendants will.” ~LBJ
It is possible that LBJ may get his wish to be loved by the descendants of those who protested during his presidency. Just last month, Breaking Bad star, Bryan Cranston, began starring on Broadway, in the role of LBJ. The play, All the Way, does not only focus on the horrors of Vietnam . . . it also focuses on LBJ as a champion for race relations and social reform.
If you’re ever in Austin, I recommend that you pay a visit to the LBJ Library. If you want to learn more about William Henry Harrison, you’re on your own!
Take a few minutes to watch this short video about LBJ and his legacy…I think that you’ll enjoy it!
Happy Trails, Y’all!