Lyndon B. Johnson: Life Before the Presidency

Lyndon B. Johnson: Life Before the Presidency

Lyndon Baines Johnson was pure Texan. His family included some of the earliest settlers of the Lone Star State. They had been cattlemen, cotton farmers, and soldiers for the Confederacy. Lyndon was born in 1908 to Sam and Rebekah Baines Johnson, the first of their five children. His mother was reserved and genteel while his father was a talker and a dreamer, a man cut out for more than farming. Sam Johnson won election to the Texas legislature when he was twenty-seven. He served five terms before he switched careers and failed to make a living solely as a farmer on the family land seventy miles west of Austin.

Education and Teaching Career

In 1913, the Johnsons abandoned the farm and moved to nearby Johnson City. The family house, while comfortable by the standards of the rural South at the time, had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. Lyndon, like his father, wanted more for his future. In fact, when he was twelve, he told classmates, "You know, someday I'm going to be president of the United States." Later in life, Johnson would remember: "When I was fourteen years old I decided I was not going to be the victim of a system which would allow the price of a commodity like cotton to drop from forty cents to six cents and destroy the homes of people like my own family." The climb out of the Texas Hill Country, however, would be a steep one. School, at first, was a one-room, one-teacher enterprise. Johnson City High School was a three-mile mule ride away from home. Lyndon graduated in 1924, president of his six-member senior class.

Sam Johnson's financial troubles took a toll on his health and his family. The Johnsons scrimped to send Lyndon to summer courses at Southwest Texas State Teachers College to supplement his meager rural education. But the boy did not do well, and he was not allowed into the college after finishing high school. This led to a "lost" period in Lyndon's life, during which he drifted about. With five friends, he bought a car and drove to California, where he did odd jobs and briefly worked in a cousin's law office. Lyndon then hitchhiked back to Texas and performed manual labor on a road crew. He fell into fights and drinking that eventually led to his arrest. In 1927, he refocused his energies on a teaching career and was accepted to Southwest Texas State Teachers College.

Johnson was an indifferent student, but he eagerly pursued extracurricular activities such as journalism, student government, and debating. He excelled in his student teaching and was assigned to a tiny Hispanic school in a deeply impoverished area. Johnson literally took over the school in Cotulla, pushing the long-neglected students and giving them a shred of hope and pride in their achievements. He earned glowing references. When Johnson graduated in 1930, however, America was just entering the Great Depression. His first teaching job paid $1,530—for the year. Johnson again did an exemplary job, but the unpaid political work he had been doing in his free time had fueled other ambitions. Not surprisingly, his teaching career was brief.

Tirelessly, he helped a political friend of his father in some local campaigns, and by late 1931, he had won a job as an aide to U.S. Congressman Richard Kleberg of Corpus Christi. In Washington, Johnson's work ethic was astounding. He poured over every detail of congressional protocol. No mail from Kleberg's constituents went unanswered. He was, in short, a model assistant. His drive, ambition, and competence made him stand out among the young people in Washington at that time. When he returned to Texas in 1934 to visit family, he met a twenty-one-year-old woman named Claudia Alta Taylor, a recent University of Texas graduate and a member of a wealthy East Texas family. They married three months later.

Marriage and Congressional Career

As a baby, Claudia's nanny had described her as "pretty as a lady bird," and the nickname stuck. Deeply shy but genuine and charming, Lady Bird became a refining balance to her boisterous, hyperactive husband and was a gracious hostess to Johnson's powerful new friends. The new President, Franklin Roosevelt, was fighting the Depression with dozens of social programs. Johnson, with the support of future Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, won appointment as Texas director of the National Youth Administration, a federal youth-employment program. Again, his work was superb, and when James Buchanan, the congressman in his home district, died in 1937, Johnson quickly moved to grab the job. He tapped his new wife's inheritance and her increasing assets as owner of a local radio station, aligned himself with Roosevelt's sweeping social policies, and won election in Texas's Tenth District. He was just twenty-eight years old.

Because of his age and ambition for even higher office, Johnson's early congressional record produced few results. By the late 1930s, however, he was winning federal housing projects and dams for his district. He managed to bring electrical power to the lonely Texas Hill Country of his youth, something he claimed for the rest of his days as his proudest achievement. When one of Texas's two U.S. senators died in 1941, Johnson seemed certain to inherit the job, but a conservative former radio star-turned-governor named W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel entered the race late. It was widely alleged that both candidates used fraudulent votes, but O'Daniel finagled more than Johnson and carried the election.

Still a member of the House, Johnson used his contacts with Roosevelt to obtain an officer's commission in the Naval Reserve. When the U.S. entered World War II, Johnson was appointed congressional inspector of the war's progress in the Pacific, thus maintaining his seat in the House. He went on a single bombing mission, securing the "combat record" and a Silver Star for serving under hostile fire. Observing wartime industrial and technological trends, Johnson invested and became well-to-do for the first time. Lady Bird, meanwhile, gave birth to two daughters, one born in 1944 and another three years later.

By the time the war ended, the world was a very different place—and so was America. Its uneasy ally from the war, the Soviet Union, refused to withdraw its armed forces from Europe. The Cold War had begun. Many of Johnson's countrymen were weary of the New Deal's activist social policies at home and the threat of more war overseas; the new communist expansion abroad frightened them. The Democrats were losing their longtime grip on Congress and the White House. While Johnson easily won a sixth term in 1948, his opponent painted him as an old-style liberal, a career politician who had profited from the war while exposing himself to little risk. The charges lingered into the following year, when Johnson tried once again to enter the U.S. Senate.

Yet again a popular Texas governor was in the way. His name was Coke Stevenson, and his presence and character were so impressive that he was widely known as "Mr. Texas." Johnson and Stevenson battled endlessly for the Democratic nomination and forced a runoff. The young congressman then waged an all-out, rough-and-tumble Lone Star State campaign and showed that he had learned lessons since his earlier Senate defeat. Three counties in the southern portion of the state provided highly suspicious vote tallies that gave Johnson the victory in the Democratic primary—crucial in those days to a general election, since Republicans were few and far between and could never win the subsequent election—by 87 votes out of a 250,000 cast. He easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election and won the Senate seat, but the cost to his credibility was steep. Everyone knew the election had been rife with fraud, and his slim, questionable margin of victory was certainly no popular mandate. Critics began calling him "Landslide Lyndon," and the new senator found their disdain hard to shake for a long time.

Senator par Excellence

As a senator, Johnson found his true calling. The Senate, with only a quarter of the membership of the House, gave him a higher national profile. Johnson's ascent to power was startling; by the end of his first term, he was one of the most powerful senators in America. He used strategies that had enabled his fast climb in the House: wooing powerful members, angling for spots on important committees, and outworking everyone. Because both Senate Democratic leaders had been defeated by the resurgent Republicans in the recent election, it was a time of rapid advancement for newcomers. Just two years into his Senate term, Johnson was named the whip, or assistant to his party's leader, in charge of rounding up votes. Two years after that, Republicans won a majority in the Senate on the coattails of the new President, Dwight Eisenhower. Once again, Johnson's Democratic superiors were election casualties, so he became minority leader. In the fall 1954 elections, the Democrats had regained control of the Senate, and when the Senate convened in 1955, Johnson became majority leader. It was a dizzyingly fast climb.

Early in LBJ's Senate career, he had championed military preparedness, but as he rose to power, he increasingly turned his attention to domestic issues. Already contemplating a White House run of his own, he strategically sought to work with, not against, the popular Eisenhower. Laboring almost around the clock, begging and berating to get his way, Johnson was the Senate's master, perhaps its most powerful leader ever. Working with fellow Texan and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Johnson was able to compile an impressive record of legislative achievement. LBJ did his homework and had an uncanny ability to know how to approach other senators. He became known for the "Johnson Treatment," in which he leaned close in on a senator, towering over his prey, speaking softly and cajoling, flattering, even bribing, until he won the senator's vote.

Unfortunately, his drive and ambition almost killed him. In mid-1955, he suffered a massive heart attack in the bucolic Virginia countryside. Not yet fifty, he reassessed his life; he quit smoking, lost weight, and tried to delegate more of his work. He was instrumental in winning passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, working closely with Eisenhower while soothing southern colleagues who were suspicious of such social change. When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite that year, he led the way to get America into the race for space. By 1958, Johnson sensed that he had gone as far in the Senate as he ever would. He turned his sights on the prize of prizes: the presidency.

A Heartbeat from the Presidency

Being from the South was still a handicap to a presidential candidate in 1960; the region had not yet assumed the kind of power that would put Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the White House in later years. In 1952 and 1956, Johnson had tried but failed to be named vice president on the Democratic ticket, referring to himself as a "western" candidate. In 1960, his primary foe for the nomination was his Senate colleague, John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts. For the only time in his life, Johnson was out-campaigned. Kennedy announced his candidacy early, spent lavishly, worked local political machines with corporate efficiency, and piled up one primary win after another. Johnson held back, waiting for Kennedy's youth and Catholicism to take its toll. It never did. The young man from Boston won the party's nomination on the first ballot.

However, Kennedy was a decided underdog to win the White House. The Republicans had nominated a skilled and compelling candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon. The Democrats needed a running mate who would appeal to those that JFK made uneasy. Lyndon Johnson—southern, Protestant, mature, and the ultimate congressional insider—would be a perfect contrast to the northeastern, Catholic, youthful Democratic nominee. Kennedy was both amused and awed by the larger-than-life Texan and was mildly surprised when Johnson not only accepted the offer but campaigned hard for the ticket. It paid off because 1960 was the closest presidential race of the century. Several southern states that had defected to the Republicans during the Eisenhower years returned to the Democratic fold and helped Kennedy win. (See Kennedy biography, Campaigns and Elections section, for details.)Kennedy relegated Johnson to the outer circles of the New Frontier but did give him some significant responsibilities. Johnson headed the space program, played a key role in military policy, and chaired the President's Committee for Equal Employment Opportunity. In foreign policy, Johnson had much less influence, though he did encourage acceptance of a diplomatic "trade" of Russian missiles in Cuba for American ones in Turkey. Kennedy typically did not rely on LBJ for advice in these matters, however. Overall, Johnson was frustrated as vice president, particularly when the New Frontiersmen around Kennedy ignored him and refused to take advantage of his expertise.

In late November 1963, Kennedy decided to travel to Texas to shore up support for his upcoming reelection bid. Johnson was riding two cars behind Kennedy's in the motorcade when the bullets struck the young President. By the time Johnson reached the hospital, Kennedy was dead. Aboard Air Force One, before its return to Washington, Johnson was sworn in as President; Lady Bird and Kennedy's widow were at his side. When the plane landed, he gave a brief speech to his dazed nation, promising, "I will do my best—that is all I can do." Two weeks later, Johnson moved into the White House. One adviser never forgot the image of a mover packing Kennedy's trademark rocking chair—while another carried in Johnson's cowboy saddle."All that I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today," Johnson told a joint session of Congress when he outlined his plans for governing. He kept Kennedy's cabinet and top aides, telling them that he and the nation needed them to provide continuity. Within days, Johnson firmly grasped the reins of government. His grief at Kennedy's tragedy was balanced by the demands and responsibilities of the Oval Office.