Monday, August 30, 2010
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was among four Vice Presidents in United States history who assumed the office of chief executive upon the assassination of the President. Johnson became President on November 22, 1963, after John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. He was elected to a full term as President in 1964, receiving more than 61 percent of the votes. He chose not to run for reelection in 1968. Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in a farmhouse near the town of Stonewall in central Texas. He shared the same birthday as my mother. He was the eldest of five children, two boys and three girls. His father was a farmer and school teacher who served five terms in the Texas House of Representatives, and his mother was a former teacher. His paternal grandfather made the statement on Johnson's day of birth, "He'll be a United States Senator some day." Johnson was a healthy active child who liked to hear stories from the Bible, history, and mythology. He learned the alphabet by age 2 and to read by age 4. At age 5, his family moved to Johnson City, Texas, a city founded by his grandfather. There he attended public school. He didn't like to study but made good grades because of his mother's insistence. He attended the Johnson City high school where he and a friend won a county-wide debating contest. He was popular to become president of his class of seven students and graduated from high school at age 15 in 1924. His parents encouraged him to attend college, but he was through with studying. After working in California for seven months waiting on tables, washing dishes and doing farm labor, he hitchhiked back to Johnson City and found work on a gang building roads. His parents continued to encourage him to go to college and were told one especially hard day, "I'm sick of working just with my hands. I don't know if I can work with my brain, but I'm ready to try." Johnson entered Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Southwest Texas State University) in San Marcos in February 1927. He borrowed $75 from the bank in Johnson City to start college and worked as a janitor to pay his expenses. He also became a star debater and practiced giving speeches while sweeping the halls. He had a second job as secretary to the president of the college. He became interested in college politics and had his first political success in college when he organized the White Stars, a campus political group who took control of campus politics from a group dominated by athletes called the Black Stars. He became the editor of the school newspaper and a leader in other school activities. He received excellent grades and made many friends. He left college and taught school for a year to earn enough money to continue his education. He graduated from college in 1930 and then taught public speaking and debate at Sam Houston High School in Houston. His debating teams won honors in state contests. Johnson entered politics when he campaigned, gave speeches and talked with voters for Richard M. Kleberg, a Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives. When Kleberg won the special election in November 1931, he took 23-year-old Johnson to Washington as his secretary. Apparently he made a good impression on the other congressional secretaries because one of them recalled: "Within a few months, he knew how to operate in Washington better than some who had been here for 20 years before him." Johnson met his future wife, Claudia Alta Taylor (known as Lady Bird since age 2) on September 12, 1934, at a hearing of the Texas Railroad Commission in Austin. She was the daughter of a wealthy family in Karnack, Texas. He asked her for a date immediately after meeting her but was rejected. He made many long distance telephone calls to her from Washington as well as sending many letters and telegrams; he proposed two months later and she accepted. The were married on November 17, 1934, and went to Mexico for their honeymoon. They had two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. Johnson, at age 26, was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the Texas state administrator of the National Youth Administration (NYA). Although he was the youngest NYA state administrator, he directed 12,000 youths in work projects such as playgrounds, roadside parks, and soil conservation. About 18,000 young people went through high school or college with the assistance of his organization. In 1937 he quit his job as a youth administrator in order to run for Congress in a special election against nine opponents. Even though some of his opponents were better known than he, they gave him valuable publicity when they accused him of favoring the plans of FDR. Johnson was in the hospital recuperating from an emergency appendectomy on April 10, 1937, when he learned that he had won the election with nearly twice as many votes as his nearest competitor. After leaving the hospital, Johnson was invited to join FDR aboard the presidential yacht in Galveston for a fishing cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. He then rode the President's special train through Texas. Roosevelt and Johnson developed a warm and lasting friendship. In 1938 and 1940, he was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives with no opposition but lost a bid to the U.S. Senate in a special election. About an hour after the United States declared war on Japan (for bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941), Johnson requested to be moved from the Naval Reserve to active duty. He was sworn in three days later as a lieutenant commander, the first congressman to go into uniform. Johnson was a special representative of President Roosevelt and traveled to New Zealand and throughout the Pacific area of operations, spending several months with General Douglas MacArthur in Australia. MacArthur personally awarded the Silver Star to Johnson for gallantry after a mission aboard a bomber that was attacked by Japanese fighter planes. While Johnson was overseas, his supporters entered him as a candidate for reelection to the House in the spring of 1942. In July of the same year, President Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress serving in the armed forces to return to Washington. In May 1948 Johnson announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate and ran against ten opponents in the primary election. None of them received a majority of the total votes; this forced a runoff election, which Johnson won by 87 votes. He became a U.S. Senator in January 1949 and was appointed to the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1951, the Democratic senators elected Johnson to be the whip (or assistant leader). In January 1953 he was unanimously elected as minority leader at age 44, the youngest ever chosen to be Senate leader. He was reelected in 1954 by a margin of three to one votes over his closest competitor. The Democrats controlled both house of Congress, and Johnson became the Senate majority leader. Johnson had a heart attack in July 1955, spent five weeks at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, before going to his Johnson City ranch to recuperate, give up smoking, and go on a diet. A recovered Johnson then returned to Washington to resume his post as Senate majority leader. Johnson was a strong support of the exploration of outer space, helped establish the Senate Aeronautical and Space Committee, and made himself its first chairman. He also sponsored the law to establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Johnson pushed through the Senate in 1957 the first civil rights bill in more than 80 years, and three years later he beat down a Southern filibuster to pass another civil rights measure through the Senate. I remember reading or hearing a news article quoting Johnson as saying that these civil rights measures would insure that blacks were supporters of the Democratic program forever. When Democrats nominated Senator John F. Kennedy, a liberal Catholic from Boston, Massachusetts, for President, he invited Johnson, a more conservative Southerner and member of the Disciples of Christ, to be his running mate. The Kennedy/Johnson team narrowly defeated the Nixon/Lodge team. Johnson was also reelected to a third term in the Senate in the same election but resigned from the Senate and was sworn in as Vice President in January 1961. He was sworn in as President of the United States on November 22, 1963, aboard Air Force One, after Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson won reelection by a landslide in the election of 1964. During Johnson's full term, the economy boomed. In May 1964, he said, "… We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society." The term Great Society describes many of Johnson's domestic programs. In 1965 and 1966 there were large Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House, and President Johnson was very successful in getting his proposals passed. Johnson's programs included: 1) The War on Poverty was fought with the Appalachia bill - a law that was passed by Congress to improve living standards in the Appalachian Mountain region containing 11 states. Congress passed a housing law in 1968 to provide $5 million in tax payer money to help needy people buy houses and rent apartments. 2) Additional civil rights legislation was passed in 1965 to ensure voting rights for blacks by outlawing literacy tests as a voting requirement, etc. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed in an effort to end racial discrimination in the sale or rental of houses and apartments. 3) Congress passed laws increasing federal funds for education, a cut in excise taxes, stronger safety measures for automobiles. 4) Two new executive departments - the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the insurance for the elderly. In addition to domestic issues, Johnson also had to deal with the Vietnam War. There were about 16,300 military advisers in Vietnam when Johnson became President. In an effort to protect U.S. bases in Vietnam and to keep the Communists out of the country, Johnson ordered the first U.S. combat troops into South Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1965. There were more than 500,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam by 1968. The Vietnam War greatly divided our nation between Americans who wanted to use stronger military action and end the war (hawks) and Americans who wanted to cut back on the fighting to eventually bring all U.S. troops home (doves). The critics of the war included Democratic Senators Eugene McCarthy (Minnesota) and Robert F. Kennedy (New York). Johnson also had to deal with problems in the Dominican Republic in mid-1965 when rebels tried to take over the government. Johnson sent U.S. troops to end the rebellion because he feared Communists gaining control of the rebels. By mid-1966, order was restored, elections were held, and all U.S. troops came home. In 1966 Robert C. Weaver was named secretary of housing and urban development and became the first black to hold a Cabinet position. In 1967 Thurgood Marshall became the first black to be appointed to be a Supreme Court justice. Opposition to Johnson's Great Society programs grew in 1967 when more Republicans were elected to Congress and slashed appropriations for many of the programs. People were divided about whether to spend money for the war or for domestic programs. In 1968 additional taxes in the form of a surtax was instituted to help pay for the Vietnam War and to check inflation. Racial tension increased along with opposition to the Vietnam War, and demonstrations were common throughout the nation. Riots broke out in the ghetto slums of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles and Newark with federal troops being sent to Detroit. A special commission warned about the nation dividing into two societies, "one black, one white - separate but unequal. Many Americans began to question federal policies in both foreign and domestic areas, and many grew doubtful about whether the Administration was being honest about the Vietnam War. Johnson's popularity dropped as the credibility gap grew. When Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy both announced that they would challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, Johnson made the shocking announcement "… I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President" (March 31, 1968). He did not want to cause a "division in the American house" and so withdrew in the name of national unity. Johnson's announcement also included a reduction of bombing missions in North Vietnam and led to talks between U.S. and North Vietnamese representatives, beginning on May 13, 1968. All bombing and other attacks on North Vietnamese territory was stopped on November 1, 1968, leading to peace talks. When Johnson left the White House on January 20, 1969, he retired to his Texas ranch. Later that same year Johnson's birthplace and boyhood home became part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Site (now Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Part). Johnson avoided active participation in the political process and published his memoirs, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969 in 1971. The Lyndon B. Johnson Library opened at the University of Texas in Austin that same year to hold many of Johnson's papers and souvenirs. In April 1972 Johnson suffered a heart attack and rarely left his ranch after he recovered. He had another heart attack on January 22, 1973, and died. He is buried on his ranch in the family cemetery, which is now part of the national historic park. The Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center after President Johnson died. August 27, Johnson's birthday, was made a Texas legal holiday by the state legislature. Other events in the world of President Johnson include: 1) The Beatles, a rock music group from Great Britain, toured the United States in 1964 and created a sensation wherever they went. 2) The Women's Liberation Movement gained strength. Groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) (founded in 1966) fought to end discrimination against women.. 3) The Six-Day War between Israel and three Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan and Syria) was fought June 5-10, 1967, and Israel gained control of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. 4) Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (New York) were assassinated in 1968. Facts for this post came from an article by Philip Reed Rulon in World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, pp 144-152.