It is an indelible image: aboard Air Force One, just hours after President John F. Kennedy's tragic assassination, Lyndon Baines Johnson is sworn in as president, flanked by his wife Lady Bird, and Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline. "She wanted, as did Lyndon Johnson, the country and the world to see that there was a continuity in government," said historian Mark Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation.
According to Updegrove, what started out as an accidental presidency would become one of the most consequential, yet unappreciated, in American history. "His legacy was undervalued," he said.
Perhaps no one knows more about Lyndon Johnson than historian Robert Caro, currently working on the final volume of his series on the man born in 1908 in Texas Hill Country. Caro said, "He believed that he could make America a better place for its underprivileged people."
Though Johnson's father had been successful, he then lost everything, and Johnson pretty much grew up as a poor boy. "He grew up in poverty, in a land without electricity, where the soil was so rocky that it was hard to earn a living from it," Caro said.
When asked Johnson's defining characteristics, Caro replied, "He has the ability, the genius – there's no other word for it – to turn compassion into legislative achievement."
In fact, while pushing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Johnson recalled the prejudice he saw directed against Mexican-American children he taught during college. On March 5, 1965, he told Congress, "It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students. But now I do have that chance, and I'll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it."
Luci Baines Johnson says that whether it was at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas (now a national park), or back in Washington, she and her sister, Lynda, saw the bond between their father and their mother, Claudia Taylor Johnson, known as Lady Bird. "He felt that she was the one person that would tell him that there was spinach in his teeth, and tell him the truth in a way that he could hear it," Luci said.
- ("Sunday Morning")
There was no end to Johnson's ambition. Elected to the House at age 28, he won a Senate seat a decade later, quickly amassing power, to become (as Caro dubbed him) "Master of the Senate." "Lyndon Johnson becomes majority leader on January 1, 1955," he said. "For six years the Senate is the center of government creativity, energy, and getting things done."
Still, when Johnson decided to run for president in 1960, he lost the Democratic nomination to John F. Kennedy, the charismatic young senator from Massachusetts. JFK then put Johnson on the ticket.
But once Johnson helped JFK win the election, he was, Updegrove said, "miserable in the vice presidency. It certainly didn't suit Lyndon Johnson, who always wanted to be in charge."
When Johnson did suddenly find himself in the Oval Office, Updegrove says the new president was quickly able to win passage of JFK's stalled civil rights bill, barring discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and more.
And after a landslide victory in 1964, the 6'4" LBJ would perfect what is known as "the Johnson Treatment." "He would put his arm around you if he was trying to persuade you of something," Caro said, "and he'd lean into your face and talk to you, nose-to-nose."
President Johnson would push through scores of significant bills, including his signature "War on Poverty" and "Great Society" legislation.
In 1965 alone, Johnson signed landmark bills creating Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, federal aid to education, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Voting Rights Act. "And that is one year of the Lyndon Johnson presidency," Updegrove said.
And then, there's the war in Viet Nam. "Lyndon Johnson believes heartily in the domino theory, that if you let a nation fall to communism, other nations will fall in turn," said Updegrove.
Under Johnson, the number of U.S. troops in Viet Nam increased from 20,000 to 548,000, provoking mass demonstrations across the country:
"It was breaking his heart," Luci Baines Johnson said. "He thought, after all the years of service that he had had, he ought to be able to find a way to resolve it."
At the same time, despite Johnson's efforts on civil rights, there were anti-discrimination riots in many urban areas. And so, with his popularity plummeting, on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination for my party for another term as your president."
Johnson, who'd been dealing with numerous health issues, retired to his Texas ranch. Fifty years ago today, he suffered a heart attack at age 64 and died, his legacy still debated.
Updegrove said, "Lyndon Johnson, to young Americans, may be the commander-in-chief who escalated the war in Viet Nam. But I don't think they understand the magnitude of the Lyndon Johnson presidency and what Lyndon Johnson does to harness the power of government to make a better America."
- ("Sunday Morning")
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Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Steven Tyler.
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