Lyndon B Johnson: The uncivil rights reformer

36th president - 1963-1969

 

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a man of many contradictions. Personally rude, overbearing and at times politically unscrupulous, he was nevertheless capable of immense personal charm, particularly when he was lobbying and brokering backstage in the Washington corridors of power.

A fiercely proud Texan, who in the course of his rise to power openly backed reactionary and retrograde legislation on race, union labour and protectionism, he was eventually responsible for establishing some of the most important cornerstones of liberal American legislation, the most significant of which was groundbreaking anti-poverty and civil rights legislation, whose effects can still be felt in the United States today.

I was a student at Cambridge during the years of Johnson's presidency. Many people probably only remember him for being the second American president of the 20th-century to have been precipitated into office by the assassination of his predecessor (in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt succeeded President William McKinley, who was gunned down by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in New York).

Like almost everyone else of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963. I was cycling down King's Parade on my way to an early evening seminar, when I was flagged down by a fellow student whom I had never really liked. At first I simply refused to believe him. Once I had been convinced that the devastating news was true, my own private version of "shooting the messenger" meant that I could never bear to be in that particular student's company thereafter.

Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in aboard the presidential jet, Air Force One, two hours after Kennedy had been declared dead. In the all-too familiar photograph of him taking the oath (on JFK's own Catholic missal, because no Bible could be found), Jackie Kennedy stands close at his side still wearing the suit stained with her husband's blood, where she had cradled his head in her lap as the motorcade rushed to hospital.

Left-leaning young people all around the globe experienced the death of Kennedy as an almost personal loss, a cruel blow to their idealistic vision of a better, fairer world led by a charismatic, dynamic and progressive US president. As an active member of the Cambridge University Labour Club in those days, I was a sympathetic bystander to the increasingly violent civil rights protests in the US during the mid-Sixties, and deeply involved with fellow Cambridge students in the growing international opposition to the Vietnam War. Over those years, I was involved in numerous anti-war meetings and protests. In 1965, I remember particularly vividly a student march to Downing Street led on our behalf by the distinguished academic and activist Raymond Williams, to hand in to the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson a petition against British involvement in the increased bombing.

I did not attend the much larger demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1968, in which violence erupted, close friends were hurt in the crush and Labour Club acquaintances arrested. But this was the period during which I came to believe that if you felt passionately that there were things that needed putting to rights in the world you lived in, then you had to be prepared to take direct action to effect necessary political change. Lyndon Johnson, or "LBJ" as we always referred to him, loomed large among the things that I was convinced needed changing.

Lyndon B Johnson's presidency, then, was overshadowed by two huge historical events – Kennedy's assassination and the Vietnam War. The first was entirely beyond his control; the second was a foreign policy debacle, responsibility for which can be laid almost entirely at President Johnson's door.

For many of us who grew up in the Sixties, Johnson's decision to escalate the war with North Vietnam was a permanent stain on his own and his administration's judgement. It eventually brought about his political ruin. Those marches and demonstrations against Harold Wilson's British government marked my own political coming of age. At the time, for myself and many thousands of others of the same age in Britain and the United States, Johnson's foreign policy – especially in South-East Asia – represented the blinkered certainties of the old guard against which we felt obliged to struggle for a better, more just and peaceful world.

Today, Lyndon Johnson's record looks very different. It is much more progressive on the domestic side than I was able or inclined to recognise at the time, and it was more lastingly influential in shaping welfare and civil rights legislation. As a result, his disastrous mishandling of the Vietnam War begins to look like a tragic piece of political bungling that, at the time, overshadowed everything else and turned what might otherwise have been seen as one of the great presidencies of the 20th century into a personal humiliation. More than 100 years after Johnson's birth, his civil rights and anti-poverty legislation is still shaping the American political agenda.

Born in 1908, Lyndon Baines Johnson grew up in poverty on a farm in a small town in Texas. This early experience of physical and economic hardship would colour his political career. "When I was young, poverty was so common we didn't know it had a name," he later recalled. In his teens he watched as the bottom fell out of the cotton market, his family went broke and were forced to sell the family farm. His father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, went on to serve six terms in the state House of Representatives as an "agrarian liberal" and populist, fighting for the rights of farmers and labourers. His son succeeded in leap-frogging local politics and winning a seat in the Washington House of Representatives in 1937, through a mixture of luck, determination and by assiduously courting those in local positions of power, which was to characterise Johnson's political life from then on.

A passionate admirer of Franklin D Roosevelt, Johnson contrived early on in his career to meet the President and leave a lasting impression, closely identifying himself with Roosevelt's "New Deal" programmes for national recovery and regeneration after the Great Depression. To his fellow congressmen, he was a "100 per cent FDR man". With the support of the White House, Johnson threw himself into securing loans and millions of dollars in federal grants for farmers, schools, housing for the poor, roads and public libraries for his Texan constituents. He played a prominent part in the lobbying and dealing that resulted in legislation to build the great dam on the lower Colorado River, bringing cheap power to large areas of the community and transforming the lives of the rural poor. By 1939, Lyndon Johnson was being called "the best New Dealer from Texas" by some on Capitol Hill.

By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1948, however, he had moved strategically to the right, in order to secure the support necessary for a ballot-box win in an increasingly conservative Texas. Running against a popular conservative, temporarily abandoning his support for civil rights and the fight against poverty was a price Johnson was prepared to pay in his determination to reach high office. Ronnie Dugger, the founding editor of the Texas Observer newspaper, put his short-term embracing of conservative policies on race and policy entirely down to political opportunism: "Now, what kind of sense does that make to you in terms of who Lyndon really was? None. There's no sense to it except, of course, the absolutely unqualified opportunism of a successful politician of this particular mould. He out-righted the most conservative figure in Texas politics at that time."

Notoriously, in fact, Johnson's success in gaining a Senate seat at this comparatively early stage in his career involved questionable raising and use of campaign funds, and probably last-minute ballot-stuffing to secure a narrow win over his equally unscrupulous rival. As an ironic comment on the outcome of the election and the way it had been won, Johnson was known as "Landslide Lyndon" throughout his first term.

Johnson quickly became known on Capitol Hill for his apparently limitless energy and determination, as an endlessly resourceful networker and lobbyist, and as an indefatigable workaholic. His work habits became legendary. Countless contemporary reports attest to his working 18 to 20 hour days without a significant break, and to the absence of any significant leisure activities in his life. He allegedly never in his entire career read a book all the way through for pleasure, and colleagues invited by him to sporting events testified to the fact that he barely watched the game, instead concentrating on haranguing his guest on the political topic of the moment. He rapidly rose through the Senate, becoming minority leader, and then, after the mid-term elections in 1953, the youngest ever majority leader of the Senate. He was, contemporaries agreed, a consummate politician; although some would describe him as a consummate political operator.

"There was no more powerful majority leader in American history," his biographer Robert Dallek writes. "He understood the way the Senate worked. He understood what senators needed and what they wanted. He had biographies on each of them so that he knew what their tastes and intentions and aims and desires and wishes and hopes were." He manipulated this knowledge to ensure that individual senators were promised precisely what they most desired in return for a vote. Or, if he could not be sure of that vote, he would arrange for a strategically timed trip to Europe or an assignment away from Washington. Political commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin, another Johnson biographer, puts it even more strongly. Johnson had the temperament and the personality to master and dominate the Senate: "I think, for Lyndon Johnson's temperament, the Senate could not have been more perfectly suited. He could get up every day and learn what their fears, their desires, their wishes, their wants were and he could then manipulate, dominate, persuade and cajole them. And what really made things work in the Senate were personal relationships and Johnson was just strictly the best at that."

It helped that Johnson was an imposing man at 6ft 4in tall. His way of buttonholing fellow senators and businessmen and persuading them by sheer determination to support a particular measure became known as "the Johnson treatment". As a contemporary recalled it: "It was an incredible blend of badgering, cajolery, reminders of past favours, promises of future favours, predictions of gloom if something doesn't happen. When that man started to work on you, all of a sudden, you just felt that you were standing under a waterfall and the stuff was pouring on you."

He also created for himself and took on as a second skin the persona and trappings of that legendary American figure, the Texas cattle rancher. In his third year in the Senate, he bought a piece of land along the Pedernales river in central Texas, which became the LBJ Ranch. There he was regularly photographed on horseback, lasso in hand, rounding up steers while outfitted in a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. In fact the LBJ ranch was more than a place of relaxation for Johnson – as his wife Lady Bird Johnson explained in many interviews, he almost never actually relaxed. The ranch became part of the figure Johnson created to reinforce his increasingly powerful political position.

Johnson's consummate mastery of the Senate and its complex rules and internal organisation let him drive bills through the legislature in record time it was a reputation he was proud of, and he kept his own running tally of legislative successes. Robert Dallek summarises the approach: "Consent agreements set a time limit on debate; drawn-out quorum calls that replaced traditional brief recesses and were suspended when Johnson was ready to have the Senate resume gave him time to cut deals in the cloakroom; night sessions and stop and go legislation exhausted senators, discouraged prolonged debate, and promoted back-room agreements as the principal device for passing laws."

In 1957, Johnson steered the first ever civil rights legislation through Congress. It is a typical example of the way he liked to work – ruthlessly brokering compromise with supporters and opponents until he had something both sides would support. Once again, contemporaries were sceptical about Johnson's motivation in driving this milestone legislation through against bitter opposition by representatives of the southern states: "One doesn't know whether he was a liberal or a reactionary. Probably he was neither. He probably was just an extraordinarily skilful parliamentarian who was an opportunist and who sensed the wind and then went in that direction."

Announcing the successful passing of the legislation, Johnson emphasised the careful political balancing act it represented: "A compromise has been negotiated. I am pleased that the Bill was passed. It is a great step forward and a very important and delicate feat." But even if the 1957 law was more symbol than substance, it ensured that effective civil rights legislation was no longer out of reach, and paved the way for Kennedy's reforms in the early Sixties.

Although he could not have recognised or appreciated it at the time, the turning-point in Johnson's career came in 1960, when he agreed to join the Democratic Party ticket for the presidential election as Kennedy's running-mate. Circumstances seemed far from propitious, and Johnson was not at all sure he had made the right political move. He had stood for and lost the presidential nomination, and had been astonished when the youthful newcomer Kennedy took the nomination on the first ballot ("That kid needs a little grey in his hair," he remarked just before the vote). Having lost the presidential nomination, Johnson was reluctant to accept the vice-presidential one, and Kennedy's brother Robert was even more opposed to his having it (there was never any love lost between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy). In the end, it is not entirely clear what tipped the balance. When Kennedy was asked later what the true story of the selection was he replied: "Well, you know, I don't think anybody will ever know."

However it came about, after Kennedy's victory at the polls, Johnson became Vice-President with extreme reluctance, openly describing it as a dead-end job. The charisma of the Kennedy family, with their wealth, clan-allegiance and elite background and education further conspired to push Johnson uncharacteristically into the shadows – where previously the young Kennedy needed to court Johnson as Senate leader, it was now Johnson who had to wait on Kennedy and his "new guard" aides. For their part, the Kennedy administration mistrusted him and made repeated attempts to sideline him. They appreciated the need to avoid alienating him, however. "I can't afford to have my Vice-President, who knows every reporter in Washington, going around saying we're all screwed up, so we're going to keep him happy," Kennedy confided early on to one of his aides. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, there was little sign of Johnson playing a part in the knife-edge decision-making taking place. In summer 1963, when the civil rights march on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech had polarised the nation and convinced Kennedy that new legislation was urgently needed, his Vice-President was hardly in the picture. There was even talk of replacing Johnson on the Democrat ticket in 1964 for Kennedy's second term.

Everything changed with Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963. Five days later, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time as President of the United States. An exceptionally experienced Washington politician, he was acutely aware of the expectations riding on any early moves he made. Not usually a particularly inspiring speaker, he managed on this occasion to strike exactly the right note: "My fellow Americans – all I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today. The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time. Today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy lives on in the immortal words and works that he left behind."

In this speech, and in his carefully judged pronouncements in the days that followed, Johnson set an authoritative stamp on his first period as President.

He would see that Kennedy's legislative promises entered the statute book. Continuity was vital to the national interest. "I had to convince everyone everywhere that the country would go forward," Johnson later recalled. "The times cried out for leadership." His biographer Dallek's account sees Johnson's identification with Kennedy's unfinished liberal agenda as a synergy between his most deeply held beliefs, which he could now finally afford to allow to surface, and what the new President saw as a political programme necessary for the stability of the whole nation. Certainly, in pressing forward with Kennedy's domestic reforms, from an $11bn tax cut to kick-start a sluggish economy, to his "War on Poverty", Johnson was comfortably on ground he had occupied when representing the poor and dispossessed as the senator for Texas.

Kennedy's death undoubtedly gave Johnson the opportunity to outdo his predecessor in getting landmark legislation through Congress that otherwise would have failed under the pressure of political partisanship – particularly the North-South split on racial issues. At the time of Kennedy's assassination, his civil rights legislation outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places and employment had stalled in its passage through the House of Representatives, blocked by the chairman of the rules committee, a Democrat from Virginia, who had vowed to impede its progress indefinitely.

In spring 1964, however, taking advantage of the fact that the new Civil Rights Act was specifically seen as a key plank in Kennedy's legislative legacy, Johnson made it his mission to force it through, putting Hubert Humphrey, the man who was to be his running-mate for the 1964 presidential election, in charge of doing so without significant compromise. Success was achieved by a combination of aggressive lobbying, ruthless out-manoeuvring of the considerable remaining opposition, and astute political manipulation of Congressional rules. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson on 2 July 1964. In 1965, he passed a second civil rights bill – the Voting Rights Act — which allowed millions of black citizens to vote for the first time.

In private, Johnson confided to members of his close team that he feared his advocacy for civil rights would permanently alienate the South from the Democrats, and lose him the 1964 presidential election. In fact this turned out to be far from being the case. Helped in part by the Republicans' nomination of the firebrand right-winger Barry Goldwater as their candidate, Johnson swept to victory, finally making good his early, ironic soubriquet of "Landslide Lyndon". He took a larger percentage of the popular vote than any president before him.

But while Johnson was concentrating on the presidential campaign with his attention focused on the domestic agenda, he was failing to factor into his plans the worsening situation in Vietnam. The United States had been sending military advisors to South Vietnam since the early Fifties, as part of their policy of "containment", to stop the spread of communism, in the form of encroachment on South Vietnam from communist-backed North Vietnam. There were already 16,000 advisors there at the time of Kennedy's death. If the Vietnam War was not of Johnson's making, though, its escalation into outright war most certainly was.

Almost at the very moment when the Civil Right Act was passing into law, news arrived that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox responded by firing on the Vietnamese, supported by planes from a neighbouring aircraft carrier, sinking one of their vessels and damaging another. Notified by Robert McNamara that two destroyers were under attack by torpedo boats, Johnson told him that he would give North Vietnam "a real dose". He would, in other words, subject the Vietnamese to the kind of retaliatory bullying that had helped him achieve many political objectives over his years in Congress.

In fact the story of an unprovoked attack on an American ship by the North Vietnamese, exaggerated in order to get authorisation for retaliatory air strikes inside North Vietnam, was probably untrue. It marked the beginning of a "credibility gap" between the Johnson administration's public pronouncements about what was going on in South-east Asia, and the military measures for which he sought Congressional support as a consequence, and the reality of the situation. The beginning of full-scale war against North Vietnam was based, like the invasion of Iraq 40 years later, on exaggerated reports of Vietnamese aggression, and the blurring of the boundaries of permission granted for hostilities against another sovereign state. In the end, Johnson probably took the United States to war without proper authorisation from Congress.

In his conduct of the Vietnam War, Johnson employed all the tactics which continued to serve him so well in the domestic arena, to disastrous effect. After the Gulf of Tonkin offensive, he rallied Congress and the country behind him with a promise not to abandon South Vietnam – a promise on which he could not deliver. In 1965, he agreed to increased air strikes against North Vietnam (the air strikes for which he tried unsuccessfully to get support from the British government), escalating into a sustained bombing campaign designed to gain public support by bombarding the enemy into submission. When it failed to do so, Johnson became increasingly economical with the truth in his public statements, while further increasing America's military involvement and troop commitment. By March 1966, the number of men deployed there had reached 325,000 and, with no sign of an end in sight, let alone a conclusive victory against the alleged communist threat, domestic opposition was steadily rising.

As far as many in my generation were concerned, from spring 1965 onwards, there was no excuse for the bellicose, bullying behaviour of this American president, and the aggressive behaviour of an overbearing, imperialist America. In a mood swing that resonates with the 9/11 attacks in 2001, international sympathy towards the US following the Kennedy Assassination turned, over a shockingly short period, to sustained anger. From the moment the most powerful nation on Earth declared war on a small developing world state in South-east Asia, youthful activists turned their backs on Johnson's reforming domestic agenda, ignoring its human rights milestones, to concentrate their campaigning energies on trying to stop the American juggernaut destroying an entire population in the name of "containment". For us, Johnson's failure in Vietnam became America's failure, just as George W Bush's failure in Iraq has done.

Johnson had politically defined himself as someone who could make a difference to the lives of those unable to speak up for themselves – the poor, the discriminated against, the old. The mounting tide of anger against him, the increasingly large and disorderly demonstrations, wrecked his confidence, leaving him a broken man. On 31 March 1968, he unexpectedly withdrew from the nomination process for the presidency, leaving the contest to Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Three days later, Ho Chi Minh announced that North Vietnam was ready to enter into peace talks (although the war would in fact go on for a further seven years).

Johnson remained in office for 10 more months, a lame-duck President, watching helplessly as social unrest increased right across the United States. On 4 April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Two months later, so was Robert Kennedy. In August, police clashed with anti-war demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In November, the Republican Richard Nixon was elected President.

The tirelessly active Lyndon B Johnson retired to his ranch and a life of idleness, self-pity and isolation. He let himself go – taking up smoking and drinking again, although he knew his heart-condition made both inadvisable. On 22 January 1973, at the age of 64, he suffered his third heart attack, which this time was fatal. Had he run for another term in 1968 and won; that would have been almost exactly the date at which he would have finally left office. Five days later, the Vietnam War ended in a peace treaty, signed in Paris, between America and North Vietnam.

Lyndon B Johnson's reputation today, such as it is, rests upon a number of classic biographies written between 1976 and 1998. Their final assessments of the 36th President of the United States, arrived at as the 20th century was drawing to a close, fall somewhere between apology and regret: apology for Johnson's disastrous involvement of America in a war in South-east Asia that it could not win, with the accompanying enormous loss of life; and regret that the fine ambitions and domestic legislative triumphs of the early years of his presidency gave way to the disillusion and disappointment that led up to his decision not to run again in 1968. That view is well captured in an assessment of Lyndon Johnson by a Civil Rights Activist from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in a 1991 PBS TV documentary: "There was something about this man – I mean, he had a pretty shoddy career and he'd done some pretty ruthless and awful things, but he knew poverty and he knew racism. And I really think that he decided that this was the way to assure his place in history. This was the way to really save the nation. And he knew it was not politically expedient, but I think he really knew it was right."

Today our assessment is likely to be somewhat different – less hesitant and more admiring. Johnson was a consummate politician, perfectly attuned to the ways of Capitol Hill, who understood the complex systems underpinning the United States Congress, and how to exploit its rules to achieve clear political goals. His finest work was done behind the scenes and out of sight, in the halls and corridors of the Senate, cajoling and threatening by turns to sway opinions and win crucial votes. The realisation that those tactics were of no conceivable use in foreign policy, especially in South-east Asia, ultimately utterly undermined Johnson's confidence in his own leadership.

Yet his record of getting domestic legislation into statute to help the socially disadvantaged remains impressive. In 1965, building on Roosevelt's social security legislation of the Thirties, Johnson added Medicare – health insurance for those aged 65 and over. His "Great Society" programme produced large amounts of federal funding for public schools, as well as money for urban renewal, crime prevention, and widespread measures to fight poverty. All of which laid the groundwork for socially responsible legislation whose impact can still be felt in the United States today. They were enormously popular at the time they were put in place, and continue to deserve general recognition today as effective and forward-looking measures.

The message we end up taking away from the Johnson presidency is that, while we may rest our hopes on the idealistic presidents, in the end it is the deft political operators, the people who can really deal with Washington in all its complexity, who make policy of lasting importance. In the legislation Johnson undertook to introduce, he based the tactics for achieving his goal on a shrewd assessment of the opposition, key arguments to be countered and won, carefully calculated sums concerning voting numbers and previous voting patterns. When necessary he did not hesitate to amend draft legislation to appease one or more groups of opponents, nor to make promises concerning future legislation, which could be seen as compromising his intended outcomes. Those strategies have earned him the admiration of many political scientists, but send a shudder through the ranks of those who like their heroes to be more idealistic and single-minded.

As we stand on the brink of a new era, in which the first black president of the United States is offering the dream of a brighter, more promising future to millions of Americans, the example of Lyndon B Johnson's presidency should give us all pause for thought. Both Johnson's supporters and detractors acknowledge that it was his formidable political abilities and the way in which he was able to harness the nuances of the political system that meant he could affect significant social change in the United States – even in the face of strong conservative opposition. Yet nobody could truly call Johnson a visionary. Nor was he a man who could fill millions of young Americans with hope as Barack Obama has done. Time alone will allow us to tell how Obama's achievements as President will eventually measure up against those of someone who history must surely judge to have been one of America's greatest political operators.

In his own words

"I want to be the president... who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties."

"The battle against Communism must be joined in South-east Asia with strength and determination to achieve success there – or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defences on our own shores."

"I never trust a man unless I've got his pecker in my pocket."

In others' words

"He hasn't got the depth of mind nor the breadth of vision to carry great responsibility... Johnson is superficial and opportunistic." Dwight Eisenhower

"He tells so many lies that he convinces himself after a while he's telling the truth. He just doesn't recognise truth or falsehood." Robert F Kennedy

"His brilliant leadership on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has earned him a place in the history of civil rights alongside Abraham Lincoln." Edward Kennedy

"People said my language was bad, but Jesus, you should have heard LBJ." Richard M Nixon

Minutiae

His parents didn't give him a name until he was three months old.

It is sometimes pointed out that every member of his immediate family had the same initials: his wife, Lady Bird Johnson; and his two daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson. In fact, Lady Bird's real names were Claudia Alta.

He owned two beagles, called Him and Her. In 1964 he caused an outcry when he was photographed picking up Him by his ears.

He was notorious for treating his subordinates badly. According to one (possibly apocryphal) story, a Secret Service agent standing next to him at a urinal once realised, to his horror, that the President was urinating on his leg. "That's all right, son," Johnson allegedly said, "it's my prerogative."

He was an enthusiastically reckless driver, who enjoyed driving guests at 90mph around his Texas ranch in his Lincoln Continental while drinking whiskey from a paper cup. He also had an amphibious car, and liked to frighten passengers by pretending to drive into a lake by accident.

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