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LBJ


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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA
Vgvalent@utmb.edu



Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 in Stonewall, Texas. After attending high school in nearby Johnson City and graduating from Texas State University in 1930, Johnson attended law school at Georgetown University in 1934. Always mindful of his own impoverished childhood, he devoted himself in bringing dignity and justice to the poor. Johnson married Claudia Taylor "Lady Bird" who became his closest adviser, loving companion and source of stability, however he would not prove to be a faithful husband. He was elected to a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1937 and was re-elected five times. It was here where he seized every opportunity to advance his programs and political future. He became the first member of Congress to obtain a leave of absence to serve in WW II as a Navy officer. Johnson won election to the US Senate in 1948 and quickly moved up the Democratic hierarchy in the Senate and became the majority leader after the 1954 elections. Smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day, he suffered a heart attack in 1955. For his recovery, he quit smoking, controlled his weight and resumed his 12-hour a day work schedule. Johnson, known by his "LBJ" initials became the most effective Senate leader in U.S. history. As majority leader, he perfected his famous up-close "treatment" as a means of steering senators in his direction.

"The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came…at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson's offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself…It ran the gamut of human emotions….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 the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless."

This master legislator armed with the Johnson Treatment and nearly a quarter century experience in politics became Vice-President in 1961 under President Kennedy whom he regarded as a much inferior leader to himself. He assumed the Presidency on November 22, 1963 as a result of the Kennedy's assassination. LBJ took the oath of office aboard Air Force One to become the 36th President of the United States at the Dallas, Texas airport aboard the plane carrying Kennedy's body back to Washington.

He became president in his own right in 1964 by defeating Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in one of the greatest landslide victories in American history. As the masterful politician, he pushed through Congress some of the most significant social reforms in the nation's history. He continued many of Kennedy's initiatives, the triumphant legislative landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the end of the dual society that had persisted for a century. This Act included a provision of Fair Employment Practices with Title Seven prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin. This Act also barred discrimination in public, hastened desegregation in schools and promoted fair voting practices. By executive order, affirmative action for women and minorities began. Johnson was determined to build a "Great Society" to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. His grand vision included a declaration of "War on Poverty;" creation of Medicare, funded through Social Security, and Medicaid, to provide hospital and medical benefits for the poor, regardless of age; engineering of the Food Stamp Program to feed millions of poor Americans; and passage of a model cities program to fund projects for inner-city residents. Among his other accomplishments was the nomination of the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which imposed penalties for civil rights violations and discrimination in housing. However, these movements contributed to the defection of white southerners from the Democratic Party. LBJ also tended to the environment by combating water and air pollution with the Water Quality Act, the Clear Water Restoration Act, the Clean Air Act and the Air Quality Act. He helped consumers by pushing through the Wholesome Meat Act and Fair Packaging and Labeling Act as well as the national Traffic Safety and Highway Safety Act. He completed Kennedy's focus on the arts and humanities with the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. Johnson, originally believed to be a conservative by his opponents, actually completed the development of twentieth-century American liberalism started by Teddy Roosevelt and perpetuated by FDR's New Deal. Johnson believed that all interests in American society would benefit: whites and minorities, northerners and southerners, and laborers and capitalists.

However, his vision was blinded and shattered by the bloody Vietnam War and gaps between expectations and reality among African Americans. Racial riots and the escalation of troops in Vietnam contributed to civil unrest and protests. In his final three years as President, his quest to be remembered as the President who educated young children, fed the hungry, helped the poor, protected the right to vote, ended hatred among his fellow men and ended war among brothers of this earth - foundered. It may have been his own undoing. He was determined to not let South Vietnam fall to the communists. Despite his bold focus on domestic programs he chose to continue the containment policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and not take political and national security risks with Vietnam. There were grave doubts about success in Vietnam, nevertheless Johnson's major blunder began right from the start of his time in office with a pattern of deception by concealing the 1963 reports that the combined American-South Vietnamese efforts were failing. During his second term, Johnson and his advisers hoped to achieve NOT an outright victory. However, their doubts about this goal were not disclosed and the U.S troop strength escalated from 70,000 to over 550,000 during his last year in office. His presidency was now overwhelmed and shaped by the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War that divided the nation. Antiwar protests intensified, racial unrest intensified, "counterculture" revolts intensified and other marginalized groups including gays and lesbians, Native Americans, Latinos and feminists joined the fight against discrimination and inequality. History added more salt into LBJ's wounds with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy only a couple months apart in his final year in office. He chose not to seek re-election, left office embittered and discouraged, retired to his ranch in Texas, agonized over his legacy and died of a heart attack on January 22, 1973 on his Texas ranch the day after he had learned that peace was at hand in Vietnam. He had the most mixed legacy of all Presidents. Despite his tragic decisions with Vietnam, his domestic accomplishments may be second only to FDR. Take note of the Landmark Laws of his Administration. Finally, among the highlights of his time in office was the growth of the manned space program, principally the development of the Apollo program designed to land men on the moon thus setting the stage for Kennedy's "Final Frontier."

LBJ left us with these inspirational words, "We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


References:

  1. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
  2. Dallek, Robert. John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life
  3. Dallek Robert. Lyndon Johnson and His Times: Volume I and II



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