Here’s a question: What would you call a man who spends all day as eagerly brown nosing his superiors as he does bullying those below him? A man who swears like a sailor, gropes his secretaries; and is so obsessed with toilet humor that he considers it the height of hilarity to make his employees watch him urinate. Would you call him crude, boorish, an abuser? Or would you call him a Great Man, a reformist hero? When talking about the 36th President, the answer is: all of those things.
Born in Texas in 1908, Lyndon B Johnson was a strange and complex man. Elevated to the presidency following John F Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson was notorious for treating those around him like trash; mere decoration to his relentless pursuit of power. He bullied staffers, exposed himself to colleagues, and emotionally abused everyone. Yet he was also the president who forced through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, ending segregation and re-enfranchising millions of non-white Americans. Both an ogre and a saint; a monster and a man, this is the fascinating tale of Lyndon Johnson – America’s most-complicated president.
“Someday I’m Gonna be President”
When Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on 27 August, 1908, there was almost no bigger backwater than Texas Hill Country.
The first of five children, Johnson grew up in a house with no electricity, in a world in which “indoor plumbing” was probably slang for genitalia.
But while the family lived in circumstances best described as “humble”, they weren’t nobodies.
Johnson’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., was a one-time member of the State House of Representatives. The family were from old Texas stock. Among his ancestors, Sam could count both Texas revolutionaries and Confederate soldiers. But Sam was also a dreamer with little head for business. By the time Johnson was born, dad had already sent the family into debt with cotton market speculation.
The indignity of being from an educated family on hard times seems to have seeped its way into Johnson’s soul. For his entire life, the 36th President would be alternately morose and prickly about what happened to his “Daddy”. Still, the family’s fortunes recovered enough that, in 1913, Sam was able to move them into a bigger house in Johnson City.
But this was only an improvement in Texas Hill Country terms. Johnson still had to ride a mule three miles to his one-room school each day.
Yet even at this early age, the boy was getting a taste for politics.
In 1918, Sam decided to run for his old seat in the Texas House of Representatives. He brought his boy along on the campaign. Aged only 10, Johnson got his first look at the rough and tumble of electoral politics. When his Daddy won, it made a big impact. A little while after, the boy told his classmates:
“You know, someday I’m going to be president of the United States.”
By the early 1920s, the now-teenage Johnson was sitting in on legislative sessions, watching Sam work. Unfortunately, the early Twenties was also when the US plunged into its sharpest recession yet. Sam, who’d reinvested in cotton, lost everything again.
Johnson would later say he decided then and there that:
“I was not going to be the victim of a system which would allow the price of a commodity like cotton to drop (…) and destroy the homes of people like my own family.”
However, he did very little to actually escape this system.
In 1924, Johnson graduated as president of his six pupil class, and applied to Southwest Texas State Teachers College, only to be rejected and see his life grind to a miserable halt. By now, the boy had grown into a huge man of 6ft 3 inches, who weighed 200lbs.
So when he responded to his college rejection by turning to drinking and fighting, you better believe he caused a ruckus. Arrested after a brawl, Johnson left Texas in bitterness, buying a car with five friends and heading to California.
But he fared little better in the Sunshine State, where he failed to make any friends.
He was just too certain that people were looking down on him – not physically, that would’ve been difficult – but for his rural background, his vulgar ways. For the rest of his life, Johnson would never escape his insecurities about who he was and where he came from.
After three aimless years, Johnson reapplied for college in 1927.
This time, he was accepted, and began studying to be a teacher.
As part of his training, he was assigned to a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas. What he saw there would shake the bitter giant to his core. The school was a dump. The children lived in poverty so grinding it made Johnson’s own upbringing seem positively luxurious.
It wasn’t long after that Johnson made a crucial decision. Forget teaching.
He was going to go into politics.
The Pursuit of Power
In 1931, Sam’s political friend Richard Kleberg announced he would run for Congress. Johnson, already looking for ways out the teaching world, quit to help the campaign.
The move kickstarted his career.
After Kleberg won Texas’s 14th congressional district, he invited Johnson to accompany him to Washington, DC. Johnson didn’t so much grasp this opportunity as pull it into a gigantic bear hug and wrestle it to the ground.
For the next two years, Johnson spent every waking moment learning the ropes on Capitol Hill.
The scent of power seems to have intoxicated him. He barely slept, instead digging deep into Congressional protocol, and furiously sucking up to anyone and everyone.
This included fellow Texan Sam Rayburn.
While it was their shared origins that drew Johnson and Rayburn together, it was Rayburn’s connections to the establishment that kept the younger man hanging on his every word. In no time at all, this “friendship” would pay Johnson dividends.
But not before he’d made some major changes in his private life.
When Johnson announced in 1934 that he was going to marry Claudia Alta Taylor – better known by her childhood nickname “Lady Bird” – it must’ve caused a few raised eyebrows. Johnson was notorious for having an overactive sex drive. How, his friends must’ve wondered, was Johnson gonna keep his johnson tucked away for marriage?
The simple answer? He wasn’t.
Throughout his married life, Johnson would cheat on Lady Bird with a frequency as regular as it was depressing. Not that Johnson’s bad behavior did any damage to his career. Under Sam Rayburn’s wing, Johnson began to shine.
When FDR’s New Deal set up a National Youth Administration in every state to provide jobs and education to the young, Rayburn ensured his protege became the Texas director. But don’t go thinking Johnson’s only skill was his commitment to licking every butt that crossed his path.
As Texas National Youth Administration director, Johnson did a sterling job.
For two years, he put in heart-attack inducing hours to make sure his program overperformed. Ever since he’d witnessed real poverty in the Cotulla school, Johnson had felt a huge kinship with America’s dispossessed. He may have been a power-hungry horndog, but he was also one that wanted to help.
By February, 1937, Johnson’s work had made him famous in Texas.
So when a special election was held in his home district, Johnson was a shoo-in. He convinced Lady Bird to sink $10,000 of her inheritance into his campaign (about $180,000 in today’s money), and promoted himself as a supporter of the New Deal.
The election was a cakewalk.
That year, aged just 28, Johnson returned to the House no longer an aide, but a Representative. One of his first victories was finally bringing electricity to Texas Hill Country. Until the day he died, Johnson would insist this was his greatest achievement.
But Johnson wasn’t happy to just stop at a seat in the House.
In 1941, Texas Senator Morris Sheppard and his replacement, Andrew Jackson Houston, both obligingly died, leaving a seat wide open. Johnson declared he’d run for it, certain he was gonna win.
But this time, he’d meet his match.
- Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel was Texas’s populist governor, and a stunning weasel.
When Johnson dabbled in voter fraud during the primary, Pappy responded by pulling off fraudulent voting on a breathtaking scale. Unable to compete, Johnson was forced to watch in horror as the Senate seat he felt was his birthright slipped through his fingers.
In the aftermath of his defeat, Johnson pulled some strings and had himself made a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Maybe he wanted to bolster his public image. Maybe he just wanted to shake off the bitter taste of losing.
Unfortunately, that Navy was about to be dragged into the biggest war in history.
Until the day he died, Lyndon Johnson would proudly wear his Silver Star. Awarded in 1942, it showed that he’d served under hostile fire, a distinction that marked him out from most of his fellow Congressmen. What it didn’t show was that he’d only ever flown a single mission.
While hundreds of thousands of others were sent off to die in the waters of the Pacific, Representative Johnson was able to earn his medal and then be all like “whelp, that was fun. Bye!”
Medals aside, the War was good for Johnson in other ways.
He shrewdly invested in new war technologies, turning a substantial profit. By the time he returned to Congress, he was wealthy and decorated.
But he was also precarious.
In the aftermath of the War, Johnson ran for his sixth House term. Although he won, he was shaken up by the way his opponents painted him as a war profiteer who’d got rich while others died. If his career was going to continue, he’d need to escape the House, fast. Luckily, an opportunity was about to present itself.
In the summer of 1948, one of Texas’s two Senate seats again fell empty.
The frontrunner for it was Coke Stevenson, a man so beloved in Texas he was literally known as “Mr. Texas.” But Johnson had learned his lesson from his earlier, failed Senate bid. This time, he would get that seat, no matter what.
To say Johnson played dirty would be an insult to dirt.
He engaged in voter fraud so massive, it could probably be seen from space. There’s even a rumor that he tried to paint Stevenson as someone a little too “friendly” with his pet pigs. But it was the voter fraud that carried the day. Three extremely suspicious tallies at the last minute swung the race. Johnson won by 87 votes, out of nearly a million cast. He also won himself the ironic nickname “Landslide Lyndon”.
But what did Johnson care?
He’d set his sights on a Senate seat, and he’d won it. Nor was he content to stop there. In no time at all, Lyndon Johnson was gonna rise so fast, even Lyndon Johnson would be surprised.
Things got rolling in 1950.
That year, the Republicans toppled many of the Democrat old guard in the Senate. With his seniors gone, Johnson was able to get promoted to Democratic whip. This meant he was perfectly poised when the 1952 election felled even more senior Democrats. In the aftermath, the Democrats made Johnson Minority Leader.
The upshot? When the Democrats retook the Senate in 1954, Johnson, aged only 46, automatically became Majority Leader – the youngest person to hold the role in history.
But almost as soon as he’d reached the top of the Senate, Johnson almost lost everything.
In mid-1955, the chronic smoker suffered a heart attack so massive it was described as “the worst a man could have and still live”. In the aftermath, Johnson was confined to his house for months, where he fell into a deep depression.
Those who knew him say he spent those black months wondering what would’ve happened if he’d died. What his obituary would’ve said. And he came to a terrifying conclusion. It would say: Here is a man who wanted power for power’s sake, and got what he wanted. He did nothing for anyone else, and soon no-one will remember him.
When Johnson finally returned to work, he was a changed man.
He quit smoking, started trying to lose weight. But the changes were more than superficial. From now on, Johnson would no longer pursue power merely for power’s sake. He would use it to change the way people saw him, to change the way they would remember him.
In doing so, he would also change history.
A Heartbeat from Power
The rest of Johnson’s Senate career reads like a cross between an inspirational Lifetime TV movie, and the arrest record of Harvey Weinstein. If Johnson had already had a reputation as a bully, as Senate Majority Leader he was a thousand times worse. He liked to force his secretaries to take notes while he urinated, occasionally showing them his organ and declaring “have you ever seen anything as big as this?”
He scratched his private parts while speaking on the Senate floor. Threatened those who stood in his way.
Speaking of threats, Senate Democrats soon learned to fear “the Johnson Treatment”.
Anyone who might break ranks was taken to one side. There, this giant of a man would trap them in a corner and repeatedly jab them in the chest with his finger, threatening them with worse and worse fates until they finally cracked.
It was unpleasant. It was unacceptable. Yet it was also effective. Under Johnson, the Senate Democrats became a united army. And Johnson used this military discipline to do undeniably great things. With his old mentor Sam Rayburn now Speaker of the House, Johnson pushed through bills most Democrats would have previously never dreamed of voting for.
In 1957, he forced through Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act – the first civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction.
While Eisenhower was the driving force, passing the bill would’ve been impossible without Johnson. He was able to soothe the fears of his fellow Southerners. When that didn’t work, he simply browbeat them into submission. By 1960, Johnson’s reputation in the Senate had grown so vast he felt confident enough to take part in the Democratic primaries.
His only serious opponent was some Catholic greenhorn from Massachusetts.
You can almost imagine Johnson giving a snort of laughter. A Catholic? Leading the Democrats? This was gonna be easy.
But, of course, Johnson had miscalculated.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy may have been both Catholic and young, but he was anything but green. JFK absolutely crushed the primary. Johnson – whose plan had involved not actively campaigning but simply hoovering up delegates thanks to his Senate reputation – was left eating the young man’s dust.
Come summer, the telegenic senator from Massachusetts was his party’s candidate. Almost as an afterthought, JFK offered Johnson the VP place on his ticket.
To everyone’s amazement, Johnson said yes.
It turned out to be a shrewd move on both their parts. Despite his disappointment at not being top of the ticket, Johnson campaigned like hell. In the South, his presence calmed Democrats skittish about Kennedy’s northern roots. It made all the difference.
That November, JFK won the presidency by the closest margin since 1916, just edging out Nixon in the popular vote. But a win is a win and, in January of 1961, Johnson became Vice President of the United States.
It was an exercise in bitter disappointment.
Although Kennedy gave Johnson important roles in the space program and military policy, he kept the loudmouthed Texan firmly out his inner circle. All of Johnson’s insecurities soon came bubbling back up.
He envied Kennedy’s slick charm; raged that his own Southern background meant he was looked down on.
He wasn’t wrong. Bobby Kennedy openly regarded him as an uncouth hick. But Johnson was also frustrated that his decades of Congressional experience weren’t being put to use.
When JFK introduced a sweeping Civil Rights bill in 1963, it stagnated precisely because Kennedy was unwilling to engage in the kind of horse-trading Johnson was so adept at. By that November, Lyndon Johnson was frustrated, disillusioned, and likely unsure what future he had left. As he traveled to his home state with the President, he might have even wondered if he would ever fulfil his dream of being a Great Man of history. Of being remembered.
Well, he needn’t have worried.
Fate was about to throw him a helping hand in the bloodiest, most-tragic way possible.
“I will do my best – that’s all I can do”
Lyndon Johnson’s life changed forever at 12:30pm on November 22, 1963.
The Vice President was riding just two cars behind as Kennedy was shot. By the time Johnson reached the hospital, the president had been pronounced dead. Barely two hours later, at 2:38pm, Johnson took the Oath of Office onboard Air Force One.
Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy were at his side. Below, in the cargo hold, the remains of John Fitzgerald Kennedy waited to be flown back to Washington. That same afternoon, Johnson gave his first speech as president:
“I will do my best,” he told the shocked nation, “that is all I can do.”
The days that followed were a maelstrom of confusion. On November 24, Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. That same day, Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to investigate. Behind the scenes too, things were in turmoil.
Johnson chose not replace any of JFK’s cabinet, giving the grieving nation a sense of continuity. But there was still the weird, uncomfortable drama of moving Jackie and the family out the White House, and Johnson and Lady Bird in.
One advisor later said the sight of JFK’s rocking chair being taken out just as Johnson’s cowboy saddle was brought in made him comprehend the enormity of what had happened.
Yet even in the midst of this crisis, Johnson’s political cunning didn’t desert him.
Southern Democrats had stalled Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill to the point of killing it. But Johnson realized that, were he to pin the Act to the memory of the slain president, no-one would dare oppose it. In a heated debate during the early hours of November 27, Johnson’s advisors begged him not to do it, not to squander his goodwill as JFK’s successor on rights for negroes.
“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Johnson replied.
And that was that. That same winter, Johnson reframed the Civil Rights Act as Kennedy’s legacy. He began pushing it forward, daring Congress to stand against him. That spring, 1964, the House passed a version of the Act even stronger than what JFK had envisaged.
Southern Democrats were horrified. So were Johnson’s staff.
It was election year. Civil Rights were a vote-loser. Why not wait until after November?
But Johnson knew it was now or never.
Over the next few months, Johnson hammered away at the Senate.
Rather than play it safe, he chased down every damn bastard and made sure he got his vote. As a Southern senator later said: “We could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”
Or, more accurately, not a Lyndon Johnson who was cynically, brilliantly, using Kennedy’s memory to get what he wanted. At last, following a near-record 83 day filibuster by Southerners, the bill cleared the Senate.
On July 2, 1964, Lyndon B Johnson sat down in front of an audience including luminaries like Martin Luther King, and signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
The most-significant piece of legislation passed in postwar America, the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow segregation, and the right of employers to discriminate on grounds of race. While racism would still infect many parts of US society, it was a massive step in the right direction.
Later that day, Johnson remarked to an aide:
“It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Yet he still signed the bill. Despite knowing it would hobble his party. Despite knowing it could cost him re-election. That right there? That is why – despite all the bullying, all the nastiness – there are still people who respect the 36th President.
In the end, the Civil Rights Act didn’t hurt Johnson’s re-election chances at all.
The Republicans made the mistake of nominating Barry Goldwater, a guy so rightwing the Democrats easily painted him as a trigger-happy extremist. That November, Johnson won the presidency with 61% of the popular vote – still the highest margin in history.
Johnson took his landslide as a mandate to transform the country.
He declared a War on Poverty; increased welfare; established Medicaid and Medicare; began the Head Start program in schools; appointed the first African Americans to both the US cabinet and the Supreme Court; built new homes; and granted huge tracts of wilderness Federal protection.
As far as Johnson was concerned, he was picking up where the New Deal left off, creating what he called the Great Society. Some of it – like Head Start – is still widely used today.
Yet while it would be social programs that built his legacy, in his era Johnson would be known for two things: war, and race relations.
Let’s start with race relations.
Despite the Civil Rights Act, a whole bunch of Southern states were still doing what they could to keep non-white people from participating in democracy. On a state level, this often played out with ridiculous voter registration laws, which used the fig leaf of literacy tests to disenfranchise millions of Black Americans.
So Johnson did what Johnson did best.
Using his gigantic frame and uncouth personality as a weapon, he bullied, pressured, and browbeat Congress into passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
As one slightly hyperbolic source put it:
“Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans. It was Johnson who led them into the voting booths.”
Of course, this telling ignores all the Black activists on the ground doing the hardest work of all – and getting the bruises to show for it. Bruises, because Johnson’s presidency was plagued by race riots. Over four long, hot summers from 1965 to 1968, race riots exploded everywhere from LA, to Ohio, to Washington, D.C.
When Johnson set up the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, they returned with a stark warning.
Thanks to decades of inequality, America was in danger of dividing into two societies: one white, one black.
For the pro-Civil Rights Johnson, this was appalling news. But if racial tensions were running high in the cities, things were even worse abroad. After swearing on the campaign trail not to increase the US presence in Vietnam, Johnson opened his first full term with a massive influx of soldiers and bombing raids.
By 1968, over half a million US servicemen would be in Vietnam; in a conflict that would eventually claim over 58,000 American lives, and millions of Vietnamese.
As the war grew, Johnson’s popularity dropped, eventually plummeting to 40%.
Everywhere he went, the President would encounter protestors chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
But while by 1968 the honeymoon period was definitely over, Johnson still wasn’t done. Constitutionally, he had the right to run for another full term. And why not? He was unpopular, but no more so than Harry Truman had been when he’d pulled off his surprise 1948 win.
But Johnson wasn’t going to have a chance to put his legendary campaign skills to the test.
As 1968 dawned, something was about to happen that would make his chances of another term sink from “unlikely”, to “utterly impossible”.
In terms of losing the battle but winning the propaganda war, it’s hard to think of a more-successful campaign than the Tet Offensive. Starting in January, 1968, the Viet Cong engaged in a whirlwind of kamikaze attacks, bringing carnage in their wake.
Militarily, it was useless. One estimate puts the North Vietnamese casualties as high as 100,000.
But in terms of optics? Oh boy, was it ever a winner. Caught on the backfoot, the Johnson White House was left unable to explain the sudden increase in Americans coming home in body bags. In its failure to win a war it had said was almost over.
Less than a month later, the Democratic primaries got underway in New Hampshire. Outsider challenger Eugene McCarthy managed to net 41% of the vote – a huge blow to any sitting president. By now, Johnson could barely leave the White House without getting booed or heckled. Then Bobby Kennedy announced he would be entering the race and Johnson realized the game was over.
He could’ve maybe bounced back, Truman-style, from an unpopular war in 1967. But after the Tet Offensive?
He was toast.
On March 31, 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson made a surprise announcement on TV. As well as instructing the military to begin peace talks with North Vietnam, he declared he would not seek a second term as president.
Any elation Democrats felt at Johnson’s exit was quickly countered by a series of disasters.
Just days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking a fresh wave of rioting. Two months after that, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead in California. When the Democratic convention finally met in August, massive riots and battles with police all contributed to the feeling of a country slipping out of control.
Come November, the electorate voted for the man who promised law and order: Richard Nixon. Lyondon Johnson left office under a cloud of abysmal approval ratings and a recent Republican landslide.
He retired back to his ranch in Texas. But it wasn’t a long life, post-presidency.
On January 22, 1973, Lyndon Johnson died of a heart attack. He was 64. Today, the Johnson legacy is a complicated one. While the similarly-unpopular Truman would be reassessed as one of America’s greatest presidents, opinion on Johnson still goes up and down like a demented yoyo.
On the one hand, he was a prize-winning asshole, a guy who would slip his hand up a secretary’s skirt; who would reduce his staffers to tears; and wasn’t afraid of using physical violence.
On the other hand, he genuinely did care about America’s racial minorities.
In the alternative universe where JFK survives Dallas, you have a weaker Civil Rights Act, and no Voting Rights Act at all. The legacy of Johnson, then, is a mixed one. Both truly great, and truly awful, depending on which part you’re looking at.
But then, you couldn’t have had one without the other.
It was Johnson’s bad side – his terrible ego – that drove him to the top, that made him desperate to be remembered. Yet it was only thanks to that dark drive that he was eventually able to end Jim Crow. For all his myriad faults, Lyndon Johnson wound up being that rare beast: a demonstrably bad man who devoted his life to doing good.
His legacy may be a complex one, but without him, America would undoubtedly be a worse place than it is today.
Excellent, in-depth overviews from the Millicenter: https://millercenter.org/president/lbjohnson
Some notes on Johnson’s childhood: https://www.nps.gov/lyjo/planyourvisit/boyhoodhome.htm
Lady Bird Johnson bio: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Bird-Johnson
Civil Rights Act: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act
Johnson as a bully: https://www.ft.com/content/df505662-6140-37d4-9944-453e02f4556d
Johnson as a groper: https://slate.com/culture/2019/04/lyndon-johnson-robert-caro-affairs-misogyny.html
How Johnson saved the Civil Rights Act: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/what-the-hells-the-presidency-for/358630/
Johnson’s complicated legacy: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/the-complicated-legacy-of-lyndon-johnson/569068/
Johnson presidency timeline: https://millercenter.org/president/lyndon-b-johnson/key-events
Long interview with Johnson’s biographer: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/10/lyndon-b-johnson-robert-caro-biography
Atlantic obituary from 1973: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1973/07/the-last-days-of-the-president/376281/
Presidential library biography: http://www.lbjlibrary.org/lyndon-baines-johnson/timeline
White House biography: https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/lyndon-b-johnson/
Naked press conferences? https://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/29/politics/most-historic-air-force-one-sam-26000/index.html
Johnson family and Texas history: https://books.google.cz/books?id=OU6gDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT10&lpg=PT10&dq=lyndon+johnson+family+texas+revolution&source=bl&ots=9KpnidId2z&sig=ACfU3U3ZDSS_QRzYhL3cFnFT-lEHi5ZcyQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi-xLqT-oPqAhV-REEAHY1fB7sQ6AEwEHoECAwQAQ#v=onepage&q=lyndon%20johnson%20family%20texas%20revolution&f=false
Presidential rankings (Johnson at #10): https://www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2017/?page=overall
Comparing each president by popular vote: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1034688/share-electoral-popular-votes-each-president-since-1789/