Lyndon B. Johnson
|Lyndon B. Johnson|
November 22, 1963 — January 20, 1969
|Preceded by||John F. Kennedy|
|Succeeded by||Richard Nixon|
|Birthdate||August 27, 1908|
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was the 36th President of the United States (1963-1969). A Democrat from Texas, Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy after Kennedy's assasination in late 1963, and was elected to a term in his own right in 1964. Facing high unfavorability rating from the unpopular Vietnam War, Johnson chose not to run for re-election in 1968. Johnson once remarked that his worst mistake was to get so deeply involved in Vietnam, since his first love had always been the progressive social programs of the Great Society.
Johnson was born in Gillespie County, Texas to a poor farming family. Johnson attended a teacher's college (today Texas State University at San Marcos) and became a high school teacher. It was in this capacity, teaching poor hispanic children, that he began to formulate his populist political stances.
Johnson, never at a loss for words or ideas, soon began making the rounds in the Texas Democratic party. He soon won the attention of future Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, becoming a congressional aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg, and in short order becoming unofficial spokesman for the Democratic legislative assistants. It wa shere that Johnson developed his political style: he made sure to meet and shake hands with everyone, and used his imposing figure (he was 6'3") to intimidate opponents.
Johnson was elected to Congress in his own right in a special election in 1937, running on a pro-New Deal platform and easily capturing the seat containing Austin. Getting perhaps a bit ahead of himself, Johnson made a run for Senate in 1941, again in a special election, but this time was defeated. Johnson ran again for the Senate in 1948, and in a controversial election in which he was accused of enlisting the help of the Parr Machine, Johnson defeated a more conservative Democrat by 87 votes, earning him the joking sobriquet "Landslide Lyndon." In the Senate, Johnson was known for his aggressive "courting" of older Senators to get the assignments and bills he wanted to be considered. Richard Russell of Georgia was among those Johnson flattered and wooed in his effort to get on the committees he desired.
Johnson was elected Senate Democratic Leader in 1953, after sitting leader Ernest McFarland of Arizona was defeated by LBJ's future opponent, Barry Goldwater. When Democrats regained control of the chamber, Johnson became the youngest Senate Majority Leader in history. Johnson had a somewhat conservative image during those years, as did most southern Democrats, although he was one of only three southern Senators to refuse to sign the Southern Manifesto protesting the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (the other two were Tennessee Senators Albert Gore, Sr. and Estes Kefauver).
Johnson made a bid for President in 1960, but his campaign was curtailed by reports of poor health. Seeking to mend rifts caused by the primaries, Johnson agreed to be Kennedy's running mate, hoping to prevent southern defections to Richard Nixon. With Kennedy's narrow win, Johnson became Vice-President in 1961.
After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Johnson, now President, moved quickly to enact many civil rights and social program proposals that had stalled under his predecessor. the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public facilities, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to remove barriers to black voting present in southern states. Johnson also launched the Great Society, many products of which, including Medicaid, Medicare, and the National Endowment for the Arts are still in effect today. Johnson also oversaw a massive increase in funding for NASA, as the race to land a man on the moon intensified.
But even as Johnson oversaw one domestic success after another, dark clouds were gathering in foreign affairs. Determined not to be portrayed as "soft on communism," and fearing that the fall of South Vietnam would weaken American interests in Asia, Johnson authorized a massive escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. The resulting war would ultimately claim the lives of 20,000 Americans, and the war grew increasingly unpopular as it was discovered that the pretext for it, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, was largely fabricated, and as it became increasingly clear that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara didn't have a coherent plan for defending South Vietnam. As protests over the war and the controversial civil rights laws mounted, Johnson found himself increasingly unpopular, disliked even by the progressives who had backed him so strongly in the past. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 Presidential race on March 31.
The overall legacy of Johnson is often seen as mixed. On one hand, he pushed through landmark civil rights legislation and other social programs that might not have come to pass had he not been president. On the other hand, his obsession with victory in Vietnam ultimately clouded his legacy. Johnson himself seemed aware of this, and once bemoaned that he'd ever gotten so involved in Vietnam, since all it did was overshadow his domestic programs. After leaving office, Johnson retired to his ranch in Texas, where he died in 1973, just before the Watergate scandal began the unmaking of his successor.
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