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Senator Johnson

In 1948, his second run for the Senate was successful. He soon became known as the “Master of the Senate,” and by 1953 was the youngest minority leader in history. When the Democrats took control of Congress the following year, he became majority leader. He and Republican President Eisenhower worked together to secure passage of a number of important bills, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, the first such legislation in over 80 years.

As his political career flourished, Johnson spent much of his time in Washington, DC, but returned to Texas as often as he could. In 1951, he bought a 1,500-acre ranch, 15 miles west of Johnson City, near Stonewall, Texas, from his widowed aunt. The ranch and its comfortable house were his home until his death 22 years later. Everyone in the country soon came to know the “LBJ Ranch.” Johnson and his wife remodeled and added onto the existing house, which faces south towards the Pedernales River. The two-story frame house, painted white with green shutters, eventually grew to 28 rooms. The Johnsons also added swimming pools and carports for their Lincoln Continentals.

As senator, Johnson allied himself with Richard B. Russell, the Georgia Democrat who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and the powerful Southern Caucus. Known as a "senator's senator," Russell could have obtained his party's floor leadership, but he preferred to exert leadership behind the scenes in committee. Russell also strongly dissented from many of President Harry Truman's legislative initiatives, particularly on civil rights. Leadership fell instead to Senators Scott Lucas (D-Illinois) and Ernest McFarland (D-Arizona), who struggled ineffectively to maintain party unity and promote Truman's Fair Deal programs. Lucas lost his race for reelection in 1950 and McFarland in 1952, creating a vacuum in Democratic leadership.

With Russell's support, Lyndon Johnson won election as Democratic whip in 1951 and two years later, while still in his first term in the Senate, became Democratic minority leader. The Senate in 1953 was almost evenly divided: 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and 1 independent. Senator Wayne Morse had just resigned from the Republican Party, but he agreed to vote to allow Republicans to organize the Senate. Republican Vice President Richard Nixon also stood by to break tie votes, permitting Republicans to remain the majority party throughout the 83rd Congress. Yet nine senators died during that Congress, and enough Democrats replaced Republicans that at times the minority party held more seats than the majority.

In 1955, Senator Morse joined the Democrats and gave them a one-vote majority. Lyndon Johnson became majority leader and held that post for the next six years. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House during those years and often found Johnson more cooperative than the Senate Republican leader, the independent-minded William F. Knowland of California. Particularly on foreign policy, Johnson offered bipartisan support to the president.

In leading a narrow majority, Johnson relied on his power of persuasion to keep the Democratic Conference united and round up additional votes among Republican senators. Reporters Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described the "Johnson Treatment" in their book Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power (1966):

"Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless."

Johnson suffered a serious heart attack in 1955, and afterwards tried to moderate his pace. During long absences, while he was recuperating at his Texas ranch, he relied heavily on the Democratic Secretary, Bobby Baker, who maneuvered to postpone legislation until the majority leader could return to Washington. Then Johnson would call up a series of bills in a rush, passing them by unanimous consent agreement, and making it clear who was in charge.

For Johnson, civil rights loomed as the most intractable legislative problem of the decade. The Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, ordering an end to segregated schools, had outraged Southern senators. They circulated a Southern Manifesto urging massive resistance to school integration, but Johnson declined to sign it. In 1957 President Eisenhower proposed a tough civil rights bill that Southerners adamantly resisted. Johnson recognized the symbolic value of enacting the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, but he feared that a protracted filibuster would split his party. His removal of the key enforcement provisions of the law steered it through to enactment. Not until 1964, when Johnson was president, would a strong civil rights act finally win passage.

The recession of 1958 helped Democrats win a sweeping victory in the congressional elections, increasing their number in the Senate from 49 to 65. Johnson quickly discovered that a large majority would be harder to keep unified than a narrow one. Younger liberal senators were challenging his leadership. Johnson also had higher ambitions, looking toward the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.

The nomination went instead to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, who surprised everyone by inviting Johnson on the ticket as his running mate. The Kennedy-Johnson victory in November promoted the majority leader to Vice President. Senator George Smathers (D-Florida) recalled in an oral history that "Johnson didn't really want to leave the Senate." The new vice president retained the office that he had used as majority leader (S-211, now called the LBJ Room).

His successor as majority leader, Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), proposed that the vice president also chair the Democratic Conference. Senators rose in protest over this violation of the separation of executive and legislative branches. Stunned by the reaction, Johnson rarely attended Conference meetings.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:29:14 ZULU