Lyndon B. Johnson
Since his death in 1973, Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, has remained very much in the public consciousness. His tape-recorded telephone conversations have been the subject of books and television broadcasts. Robert Caro's best-selling, 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Johnson actively sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, but ultimately agreed to accept the position of vice president. His campaigning in the South played an important role in Kennedy’s election, and he was an unusually active vice president. Lyndon Baines Johnson term as president was one of the most complex and poignant in the 20th century. Sworn into office with the nation still reeling from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Johnson successfully pushed many of Kennedy’s and his own legislative proposals through Congress.
Johnson moved quickly to break the logjam in Congress that was blocking many Kennedy initiatives. He also began to develop his own “Great Society” reform program. During his first two years in office, he signed a record number of important pieces of legislation including increases in foreign aid, reductions in taxes, and laws supporting wildlife preservation and mass transit systems. When he ran for president in his own right in 1964, he overwhelmed Republican Barry Goldwater.
Personally committed to liberal social policies and civil rights, he used all of his considerable skill at political negotiation to get an unprecedented number of important pieces of legislation passed. President Johnson worked closely with black leaders to gain passage of two pieces of landmark civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited segregation in public accommodations and strengthened fair employment regulations in industry. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the restrictions that blocked African Americans in the South from exercising the rights granted them almost a century before with the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
He began the food stamp system, established the Job Corps to train unemployed youth, and created community action agencies to improve health services such as Medicare and Medicaid. He formed the Office of Economic Opportunity to coordinate the new programs and initiated the War on Poverty. He also is also responsible for a number of important environmental laws and initiatives, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, which he signed in 1966. President Johnson has more education legislation to his credit than any other president, before his time or since.
Despite his many accomplishments, Johnson faced mounting difficulties at home and abroad. Fiercely committed to fighting communist expansion in Southeast Asia, he steadily expanded the American presence in Vietnam that the Eisenhower administration initiated.
His administration ultimately foundered on two crises, the Vietnam War and the explosive urban riots of the mid-to-late 1960s. In March 1968, he announced he would not seek re-election. He retired to his Texas ranch at the end of his term of office and died there four years later.
In the late 1960s, the cities of America exploded, as African Americans vented their frustration in a series of violent and destructive riots. Unrelated to the Vietnam War but even more destructive were riots that took place in the black sections of the Nation's largest cities. In the hot July of 1964 major riots broke out in Harlem and Brooklyn and then spread to Rochester, Jersey City, Paterson, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. In August 1965 the predominantly black Watts section of Los Angeles erupted into six days of rioting and arson. In July 1967 riots in Detroit killed forty-three people; a situation so serious that President Johnson was forced to call out the 18th Airborne Corps.
The triple stridencies of war protest, rebellion against racial discrimination, and student unrest—all catalyzed and heightened if not caused by aversion to the war — sounded a shrill note in the second half of the decade.
During these difficult years, President Johnson often sought refuge in the serenity of the “Texas White House,” far from the shouts of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and the smoke of burning buildings in Washington, DC’s segregated black neighborhoods.
Altogether, he spent a total of 490 days at the ranch, about a quarter of his presidential term. Use of the house as the “Texas White House” required many changes to the complex. Communications facilities kept Johnson abreast of developments in Washington and the world. Secret Service guard stations and barracks protected him from the threat of assassination that was in everyone’s mind after Kennedy’s death. An airstrip made it easy for the president to move between the “Texas White House” and the White House in Washington, DC.
The vigorously anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the presidential race and in the primary garnered 42 percent of the vote. This was an amazing achievement against a sitting president, particularly one as politically skilled as Johnson. The president won the majority of the votes, but McCarthy won the headlines. Sensing Johnson's weakness, Robert F. Kennedy entered the race. The thing LBJ had feared most was Bobby Kennedy back in the fray, embodying the Kennedy heritage.
On March 31, 1968, President Johnson took to the airwaves to announce a unilateral halt to naval and air bombardment above the 20th parallel and to call for peace talks. Then, as his listeners stared speechless at their television screens, the President said at the end of his talk, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
Retiring in 1969, Johnson returned to the LBJ Ranch in Texas, where he concentrated on running his registered Hereford cattle operations and wrote his memoirs. He died there in 1973 and lies buried in the family graveyard on the ranch along with his parents, grandparents, and great-grandmother. Lady Bird Johnson, who died in 2007, rests beside her husband.
One observer noted "He was corrupt, cruel, callous, crude, a vicious user of women, a bully of men and a shameless thief of elections. He sucked up to his superiors and kicked down on his inferiors. A favoured device to embarrass subordinates was obliging them to take his orders while he defecated. He liked to pee in the washbasin in his office in front of female secretaries and then wave his member about. Inordinately proud of his sexual apparatus, Johnson was given to bragging: 'Jumbo had a real workout tonight.'"
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