Lyndon Baines Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson, a hardscrabble son of the Hill Country who became the most powerful politician Texas has ever produced, was the 36th president of the United States. He was born to politics: his father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., served several terms in the Texas House of Representatives. After teaching public school and serving as the director of the National Youth Administration in Texas, LBJ won a seat in Congress in 1937, at the age of 28. He went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, making his mark as one of the most powerful majority leaders in history before becoming John F. Kennedy’s running mate in the 1960 presidential election. LBJ ascended to the presidency on November 22, 1963, after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Johnson’s administration represented the high-water mark of liberalism on the national stage, and his vision of a Great Society featured landmark advances in civil rights and the creation of social programs such as the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Head Start. His ambitious domestic agenda, however, ran headlong into the foreign policy nightmare of the war in Vietnam, which eroded his credibility and led to a painful backlash over his policies. In the 1964 election against Barry Goldwater, LBJ had won the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in the 20th century, but he chose not to run for reelection in 1968, stating in a famous televised address, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Johnson returned to his ranch in Stonewall after the election of Richard Nixon and worked on the construction of his presidential library and museum, in Austin. He died of a heart attack on January 22, 1973, two days after his second full term would have ended. He is buried in a family cemetery along the banks of the Pedernales River, along with his wife, Lady Bird, another Texas icon, who died in 2007.
Johnson remains famous for his outsized personality—Texas Monthly described him in 1976 as “a great original, a man whose energy and personality knew few bounds”—and he continues to fascinate historians long after his death. Pulitzer prize–winning author Robert Caro, for example, has spent nearly four decades chronicling the life and times of LBJ in a widely-acclaimed four-volume biography (the fifth and final book is expected in the next few years). And though he left office with low approval ratings, Johnson’s historical and cultural reputation has risen over the years, boosted by the release of hundreds of hours of secret telephone recordings he made in office revealing the complexities of his political skill. As a result, in the most recent C-SPAN survey of presidential leadership, LBJ ranked eleventh.
In this excerpt from Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, letters, interviews, and historic documents offer a revealing glimpse into the stormy relationship between Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys.
Working on his memoir one day in 1969, LBJ spoke more frankly into a tape recorder about the Kennedys, Vietnam, and other subjects than he ever had before. The transcript of that tape has never been published—until now. Michael Beschloss explains its historical significance.
Who deserves credit for Lyndon Johnson’s newly burnished reputation? Harry Middleton, the director of the LBJ presidential library, who made hours and hours of White House audiotapes public—and in doing so, remade history.
Today, many younger Texans may be inclined to think of Lady Bird Johnson as belonging entirely to the past. But if her demeanor and style seemed faintly anachronistic, the virtues instilled by her parents back in East Texas—practicality, thriftiness, good manners, and an open mind—made her remarkably effective as a first lady, more so than some of her “modern” successors.
No one denies that there was love at the center of Lady Bird Johnson’s marriage to LBJ. But like Hillary Clinton, she endured quite a bit, spousally speaking, as her husband’s star was on the rise.
For twenty years, the story behind President Johnson’s withdrawal has remained a mystery. Now, on the anniversary of his decision, his former secretary reveals the drama of LBJ’s biggest surprise.
“Johnson continues to tower over Texas politics not just because he was the first Texas-bred president but because, 26 years in his grave, he continues to extend the very idea of Texas into American political history.”