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LBJ- Consummate or Conniving Politican?

Updated on May 19, 2014


Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the most interesting and ultimately tragic figures of American History in the 20th century. Yet it is hard to feel much sympathy for the man because his downfall resulted from the tangled web of deceit and deception he had spun since childhood. He wielded influence in the Senate, and to a certain extent, the presidency, with a skill seldom matched in our annals. Unfortunately, LBJ used power for power’s sake, and his personal benefit, mastering procedure which often contained no substance behind it. This obsessive desire for deference and dominance reached obnoxious heights during his presidential years when he tested staffers’ loyalty by making them stand in the White House bathroom for long periods while he sat on the bowl. This was the same man, however, who marshaled historic Civil Rights legislation through Congress and then signed into law as president. One might argue he happened to be in the right place at the right time, but he did not have to act on that monumental issue, but did. Lyndon Johnston, in his deep insecurity behind all the bluster, also grew bitter when his “fellow Americans” (as only he could say in his distinctive Texas drawl) turned on him when his Great Society programs failed to meet expectations and the nation sank deeper into the abyss of Vietnam. After all that he had done for them, how could this happen? LBJ did not understand the people were not rejecting him, but his policies.

Lyndon Johnson grew up in the hill country of west Texas, scarred in his teens after watching his father, a respected state legislator, go bankrupt, and fall into disrepute among their neighbors. It left LBJ with a permanent fear of failure, and a fanatical drive not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Unfortunately, he also lost any sense of right and wrong along the way. While in college, he cheated to win the post of class president, almost most destroying a young lady’s reputation in the process. Devious means were employed as well to secure the post of leader of the Little Congress when Johnson served as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Little Congress, made up of pages, possessed no authority, but was just used as a gauge on how the House might vote on a certain issue. When one of LBJ’s colleagues heard of his shenanigans, he asked incredulously, “Why would anyone cheat to become leader of the Little Congress?” The answer provides an insight into Johnson’s character.

LBJ won a seat as a Democrat in the House of Representatives in 1937 at the age of 28, with an assist from President Franklin Roosevelt, who visited Texas just before the election. He quickly won a reputation as an eager and hard-working legislator, as well as a protégé of FDR. In 1941, Johnson made his first bid for the Senate, losing an election he seemingly had won, only to be defeated by supposedly uncounted votes from remote districts in the immense LoneStarState. It was a bitter lesson in down and dirty Texas politics he would not forget. In fact, he employed the same tactics against his opponent in the 1948 Senate race, winning by the miniscule margin of 87 votes, out of hundreds of thousands cast, which magically materialized from the infamous Ballot Box 13. His “victory” earned him the derisive nickname “Landslide Lyndon”, along with a cloud concerning his integrity which never dissipated.

Johnson was a natural in the Senate, quickly mastering the intricate procedures that governed proceedings there. He learned form his fellow Southerner Senators who manipulated the sometimes arcane rules of that august body to block any civil rights legislation. LBJ also used this knowledge to maneuver legislation in a fast and efficient manner, unusual for the normally slow-paced deliberations of the upper house. The problem, however, was that the number of bills passed seemed to be more important than their substance. The haste with which they were prepared often left much too be desired. These shortcomings did not prevent Johnson from rising to the most powerful position in the Senate- Majority Leader- by 1955. During the six years he held this post, LBJ was perhaps the most influential Majority Leader in the history of the Senate. He ran the floor in the manner of a crisp operating machine, pulling strings like a puppet master as bills wove their way through committee. Johnson expected deference from his colleagues, preferring to be called “Leader”. The power, unfortunately, went to his head, as Senators who did not tow the Team Johnson line were given public snubs and denied seats on choice committees. Those who wanted help from the Leader could expect to make a donation to the Texas radio station owned by Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, though they must have wondered how ad time broadcast in the Lone Star would be beneficial in their own states. LBJ had wed himself to Big Business while still a Congressman, another dark cloud over his reputation, but one which made him a wealthy man.

While loving his role as Majority Leader, Johnson had his sights set on a higher spot- President of the United States. To lay the ground work, he got the Senate to pass two basically toothless civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. Not changing conditions for the South’s African-American population, they did allow LBJ to discard his label as just another segregationist. The 1960 Democratic nomination, however, went to the young and charismatic Massachusetts Senator, John F. Kennedy. In a fatal blunder, Johnson refused to campaign actively, believing he deserved the nomination, and the Democrat Party would undoubtedly give it to him. One bitter pill following another, LBJ next learned Kennedy wanted him to be his vice-president. Refusing to let his presidential dream die, Johnson accepted the powerless and purposeless position, enduring three years of being in the political wilderness, after residing near the top while in the Senate. Adding to the indignity, LBJ was subjected to continual insults by the president’s brother, RFK, who detested Johnson with a passion. The man from Texas thought his political career was over, telling everyone, “My future is in the past.” November 22, 1963, of course, changed everything.

Johnson’s transition to the presidency was almost flawless, though his insensitivity did poke through- asking a numb Jackie Kennedy to stand there in her blood-spattered dress while he was administered the oath of office on Air Force One. He calmed the nation after the horrible event of JFK’s assassination, and pushed forward the martyred president’s agenda, most importantly, a comprehensive civil rights bill. LBJ’s legislative skill ensured its passage. Despite the monumental accomplishment, one is left to wonder whether he did it mainly for African-Americans or to secure his own place in history. There is no doubt Johnson cared for their plight, but yet still used the “n”-word freely, even in front of black staffers. Sometimes a flawed tool must be employed to complete an important task. LBJ wished to follow his civil rights success with the ambitious Great Society programs. Although Medicare and Head Start would come out of this perhaps overly ambitious effort, disillusionment arose in the country as Johnson’s promises of ending poverty obviously fell woefully short. Again, the trouble was poorly crafted legislation in the rush to get as many bills passed as possible. LBJ could not understand when violence erupted each summer in urban ghetto areas from 1965 to 1968. “How can they do this to me? Look at all the laws I passed for them.” Here Johnson was blind to the fact that besides providing the poor with a somewhat larger Welfare check, the Great Society did not really changes things much, if at all. The roof would cave in for the blustery, but nonetheless insecure, chief executive over a little country in Southeast Asia.

LBJ did not get the U.S. into Vietnam, but not possessing the courage to get us out, plunged the country into a costly and seemingly endless quagmire. His motives for staying and then expanding the conflict are very suspect. This tiny nation posed no threat to the United States, and our allies would not have considered us weak if we decided not to intervene militarily, prudent and smart maybe. Johnson’s statements of not wanting to be the first president to lose a war and if he could only talk to North Vietnamese head, Ho Chi Minh, alone for an hour, show a selfish and unrealistic leader. Ho had no reason to talk with Johnson. The lies and deception which LBJ had sown throughout his life finally caught up to him over Vietnam. He needed to sell the nation a false bill of goods on how we were so close to winning the war, if only a few more troops were sent. North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive early in 1968 convinced many Americans their president had been dishonest all along. A defeated Johnson announced he would not seek re-nomination as the Democratic candidate for the 1968 presidential race. He left office a crushed man, with the chants of “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” ringing in his ears. He would be dead within 5 years, basically drinking and smoking himself to death.

It might be tempting to characterize Lyndon Baines Johnson’s career as a classic example of be careful what you wish for. In this case, however, I believe it is more a matter of a foundation built upon slippery, slimy, and false pretenses will eventually crumble. The tragedy here is not for LBJ, but the 58,000 Americans who paid the ultimate price in Vietnam for his failings.


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