Biography for Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of the most controversial U.S. presidents of modern times, fought more for African-American equality than any president since Abraham Lincoln and sought to use the nation's wealth to eradicate poverty. He also increased the U.S. commitment to one of the worst foreign policy disasters in the nation's history. Raised in Johnson City, Texas, Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 into a financially poor family with a rich political heritage—Johnson's father and grandfather (for whom Johnson City was named) had served in the Texas legislature. Johnson graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1930 and briefly taught school before embarking on his political career by helping Richard M. Kleberg win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Johnson accompanied Kleberg to Washington, D.C., where he served as his secretary for four years. In 1935, Johnson returned to Texas as state director of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal post in which he helped young people secure part-time employment so that they could attend college. In 1937, while campaigning as a fervent supporter of fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Johnson joined the navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 but served for only six months until President Roosevelt ordered all congressmen on active duty to return to Washington. In 1948, Johnson was elected to the Senate and in 1953, he became minority leader. In 1954, when he was reelected along with enough other Democrats for his party to regain control of the Senate, Johnson became majority leader. After recovering from a heart attack in 1955, he continued his policy of working with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in formulating bipartisan policies. Johnson's ability to search for the common ground upon which a compromise could be reached enabled him to become one of the most powerful men in Washington. His decision in 1957 to personally direct the first civil rights bill through the Senate and in 1960 to guide the passage of the second led political commentator James Reston to observe: "Johnson has, on the race problem, been the most effective mediator [in Congress] between the North and South." Johnson's hopes of winning the Democratic nomination for president in 1960 were crushed by John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy defeated his opponents in the primaries, Johnson made an unsuccessful effort to discredit Kennedy as too young and inexperienced for the presidency. After Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot, he offered the vice presidential position to Johnson. It was assumed the proud Johnson would decline the offer, but instead he accepted. Although Johnson participated in Cabinet meetings and chaired several important committees as vice president, he was clearly unhappy in the office. He felt restricted by the limited powers of the vice president, and he hated the personal style of the president and his brother Robert F. Kennedy. They, in turn, despised him. Then, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and Johnson assumed the office of president. Adroitly capitalizing on the somber mood of the nation, Johnson swiftly achieved enactment of civil rights legislation and a tax cut program—legislation Kennedy had sought before his death—as a living memorial to the murdered president. His success with the Congress and promise that the United States would not become involved in another land war in Asia, this time in Vietnam, enabled him to easily win the nomination of his party for president in 1964 and then to go on to overwhelm Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. The election also secured a large Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Claiming that the election was a mandate to create his vision of a "Great Society," Johnson began working to secure passage of a number of important programs and bills in 1965. These included Medicare, a system of health insurance for the elderly under the Social Security program, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed illiteracy tests that had been used to prevent African Americans from voting. He established two new federal agencies, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, and increased federal aid to public education. As part of Johnson's War on Poverty program, Congress increased unemployment benefits, expanded the food-stamp program, created new youth employment opportunities, and provided legal services to the poor (Legal Services) and special preschool classes to underprivileged children (Head Start). These programs amounted to the most ambitious attempt at liberal reform since the New Deal. Johnson's success in domestic affairs was not matched in the foreign policy arena. By 1966, he had committed almost half a million U.S. troops to the defense of South Vietnam, and U.S. planes were bombing North Vietnam. As victory in Vietnam seemed to slip further away and casualties mounted, Johnson's popularity weakened along with his political power. After the surprising primary election success of Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and the entry into the race of Senator Kennedy, a demoralized Johnson stunned the nation with his televised announcement that he would not seek another term as president. Johnson retired to his ranch near Johnson City, Texas to write his memoirs and died four years after leaving office, on January 22, 1973.