LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD:
Author Robert A. Caro has been at work for years writing his definitive biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. In Volume 3, “Master of the Senate,” Caro explores the twelve years that LBJ spent in the Senate and truly became the Master of that body, the youngest majority leader in history. But as the title of this installment notes, he held several other powerful positions in his long political career that Caro continues to chronicle.
Early Life and Career
LBJ was born on August 27, 1908 in Texas, to Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr. and Rebekah Baines. He graduated from Johnson City High School, then in 1924 enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College but left shortly after to move to Southern California. After working for a few years, he returned to Southwest (later became Texas State University) and obtained his degree while working, including teaching at a segregated school teaching Mexican-American children. He then began his career teaching public speaking.
LBJ began his long career in politics in 1931, after Richard Kleberg won election as a United States Representative from Texas, naming LBJ his legislative secretary. It was the perfect job for the politically aspiring LBJ because Kleberg handed most of the day-to-day duties to LBJ. LBJ was a strong supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and FDR’s “New Deal.”
LBJ married “Lady Bird” in 1934. In 1935, he was named the head of the Texas National Youth Administration but resigned to run for Congress. From 1937 until 1949, LBJ served in the House of Representatives. In 1949, he began his tenure as a United States Senator, where he would serve until 1961, when he became President John F. Kennedy’s Vice President. LBJ served as the Majority Whip from 1951 until 1953, Minority Leader from 1953 to 1955, and then Senate Majority Leader from 1955 until he left the Senate.
While in the House, he was appointed a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve and served active duty starting in December 1941, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. LBJ earned the Silver Star, the American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. He was released from active duty on July 17, 1942.
The 1948 Senator race has in retrospect alleged to have been rigged by LBJ, and he received an assist in his efforts to be declared the winner by Abe Fortas, a friend who he would later reward with a Supreme Court seat.
As soon as LBJ arrived, he began his efforts to gain the respect and trust of senior Senators and gained favor early. He was appointed to the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and soon created the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee. When he became the Minority Leader in 1953, he was the youngest person to hold that position. He eliminated seniority as the criteria for committee appointments, giving him added power. LBJ as Majority Leader worked closely with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to pass his agenda.
According to Caro, LBJ was the most effective Senate Majority Leader that we have ever had in our history, understanding who each Senator was and what it would take for a vote on a piece of legislation. He would use his mastery demonstrated in the Senate to great advantage when he became President.
Vice President and President
The Kennedys knew they needed the votes of Southern Democrats if JFK was to be successful and LBJ became his Vice President. Due to a change in Texas law LBJ requested, he became not only Vice President but also was re-elected to the Senate. He withdrew from the Senate as required on inauguration.
LBJ sought to maintain the powers he held as Majority Leader, but the Democratic Caucus rejected his efforts. JFK kept him busy with various task forces and committees. On November 22, 1963, on Air Force One, he was sworn in as President after JFK was assassinated. President Johnson strongly pressed for passage of the Civil Rights Bill to honor JFK and his legacy. LBJ created the Warren Commission to investigate JFK’s assassination.
LBJ knew how to get things through Congress and used various techniques and his ability to convince members of the Senate to vote to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. LBJ pushed for his “Great Society” legislation and began a “War on Poverty” as well.
The LBJ presidential years were productive on the legislative front, with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Head Start legislation, and many other pieces of legislation.
LBJ’s presidency also saw steep escalations of our presence in Vietnam. On March 31, 1968, he surprised the nation when he announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” A variety of reasons are given for LBJ’s decision, including Vietnam, his failing health, and his nomination of Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States.
LBJ died of a massive heart attack on January 22, 1973. LBJ is remembered for his significant legislative achievements both as a member of Congress over a long period of time and in his Vice President and President roles. That legacy is offset by his Vietnam War strategy and results. Few if any senators in the last fifty years have demonstrated the mastery that LBJ possessed.
Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is in the process of writing a book on the seventeen Chief Justices. He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.
Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day at 12:30 pm Eastern!
Click Here for the previous essay.
Click Here for the next essay.
Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.