He was, contemporaries agreed, a consummate politician; although some would describe him as a consummate political operator. 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.
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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. 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 , 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.
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It is a great step forward and a very important and delicate feat. Although he could not have recognised or appreciated it at the time, the turning-point in Johnson's career came in , 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. During the Cuban missile crisis, there was little sign of Johnson playing a part in the knife-edge decision-making taking place. In summer , 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 for Kennedy's second term. Everything changed with Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 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.
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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 , 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 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. In , 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 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".
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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, 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. 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.
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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 , 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 , the number of men deployed there had reached , 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 onwards, there was no excuse for the bellicose, bullying behaviour of this American president, and the aggressive behaviour of an overbearing, imperialist America. 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".
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 , 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. Two months later, so was Robert Kennedy. In August, police clashed with anti-war demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 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 , at the age of 64, he suffered his third heart attack, which this time was fatal.
Had he run for another term in and won; that would have been almost exactly the date at which he would have finally left office. Lyndon B Johnson's reputation today, such as it is, rests upon a number of classic biographies written between and 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 That view is well captured in an assessment of Lyndon Johnson by a Civil Rights Activist from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in a 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.