Looking back on his childhood, Lyndon Johnson would recall that "poverty was so common, we didn't know it had a name." The Johnson home on the banks of the Pedernales River in Stonewall, Texas lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. But the Johnson family chose not to define themselves in terms of what they lacked.
Lyndon Johnson was an early witness to his mother's idealism and his father's commitment to rural populism. Young Lyndon would eagerly accompany his father, Sam, who held a seat formerly occupied by his father, to meetings of the Texas legislature. On the campaign trail, Lyndon learned to mimic the gestures of the glad-handing politician. The political arena was the place where his father seemed to come alive, much to the delight of his constituents, and to the consternation of Lyndon's mother.
Rebekah Baines Johnson was ambitious, yet genteel, and life in the rural Texas backwaters left her feeling isolated, physically and intellectually. "My mother soon discovered that my daddy was not a man to discuss higher things. His idea of pleasure was to sit up half the night with his friends, drinking beer, telling stories, and playing dominoes," Lyndon Johnson recalled. As Lyndon grew, he became the object of his mother's attention, someone who could live out her unrealized expectations. In this environment, LBJ developed the skill of bringing conflicting parties together and acquired his lifelong taste for the spotlight.
Johnson attended Southwest Texas State Teachers' College, in San Marcos, Texas. A reluctant student, he studiously worked to curry favor with Cecil Evans, the college president. His aggressive, self-promoting tactics earned him the nickname "Bull Johnson." But his work paid off. Through his connection to Evans, he was able to secure campus jobs for himself and his friends. He later admitted, "I sure didn't learn a whole lot in classes...but I made a lot of contacts and sure learned to get ahead."
In 1931, Johnson took a leave of absence from his teaching job at Sam Houston High School to work in Washington, D.C. as the secretary of newly elected Democratic congressman Richard Kleberg. Almost immediately, Johnson was running Kleberg's office. He quickly learned to master Capitol hill's intricacies and arcane operations. While his work was satisfying and served to fuel his growing ambition, Johnson began to tire of life as a Washington bachelor.
Claudia Taylor, nicknamed "Lady Bird" by a childhood nanny, was Johnson's opposite in demeanor and background. While no less ambitious and disciplined than her suitor, Lady Bird possessed a refinement and interest in culture that LBJ lacked. He was smitten immediately, asking for her hand in marriage on the day they met. The wedding took place in November 1934. Under Lady Bird's skillful cultivation, Sam Rayburn, longtime Texas Congressman, soon became one of LBJ's "political daddies."
In 1937, when Congressman James "Ol Buck" Buchanan of the Tenth Congressional District died, Johnson threw his hat in the ring. Running on a pro-Roosevelt platform, he beat out eight more experienced candidates. As he boarded the train for Washington, his father instructed him to "...get up there, support FDR all the way, never shimmy and give 'em hell."
An enthusiastic New Dealer, Johnson won reelection to the House in 1938 and 1940, but was narrowly defeated in his 1941 bid for a Senate seat when his opponent stuffed the ballot box. The loss was instructive for the 33 year-old LBJ -- the next time around it was Johnson who manipulated the votes. In 1948, Johnson won his race for the Senate by a mere 87 votes against Coke Stevenson, a popular Texas governor. Although never proved, most people were convinced the vote was rigged. From then on, he was derisively referred to as "Landslide Lyndon."
Johnson quickly mastered the complex rules of procedure and debate in the Senate. His ascension was swift -- he was named Democratic Whip in 1951, Minority Leader in 1953, and Majority Leader in 1955. As Majority Leader he was an acknowledged master of the legislative process, employing a barrage of flattery, coercion, compromise, and a keen knowledge of Senate rules to attain his legislative objectives. The most remarkable achievement of his Senate career was winning passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, while fending off deep sectional rivalries within the Democratic party. The bill, the first concerning civil rights since Reconstruction, lacked authority to compel significant change, but Johnson saw it as a crucial first step.
But times were changing. In 1960, members of the Senate began to complain that too much business was being conducted behind closed doors, that Johnson's hands lay too heavily on the voting process. Johnson nearly admitted as much, saying, "The process itself requires a certain amount of deception. There's no getting around it. If the full implications of any bill were known before its enactment, it would never get passed." Johnson sensed his best days in the Senate were behind him. Besides, he had by now set his sights on the top rung of the ladder -- the presidency.
Through much of 1960, Lyndon Johnson toyed with the notion of running for president. He wanted badly to win the nomination, but feared losing to the more glamorous John Kennedy, whom Johnson resentfully referred to as "sonny boy." Johnson delayed announcing his candidacy and failed to secure the necessary delegates. Whatever remote chance he had of gaining the nomination of his party lay in a fractured Democratic Convention. But it was not to be -- Kennedy secured the nomination on the first ballot. Johnson's disappointment was matched only by his dismay when Kennedy asked him to be his running mate.
To Lyndon Johnson, the vice-presidency seemed the surest route to political oblivion. But as with every office he ever held, Johnson hoped to expand its powers. He campaigned vigorously for the ticket, helping to win the election by a razor-thin margin, and ushering in a new decade and a New Frontier. Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man who yearned his entire life to occupy center stage, was now relegated to the wings.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?