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October 6th, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: Lyndon Johnson

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Lyndon Johnson, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. Lyndon Johnson summarized his presidency by using a metaphor about the "two women" in his life. He said "I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe." That pretty much sums up the two things that Johnson is remembered most for: the Great Society, and the Vietnam War.

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Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in a farmhouse in Stonewall, Texas, the son of Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr., a Democratic Congressman. Lyndon Johnson would later make much of the fact that, unlike the Harvard graduates that populated the Kennedy administration, he was a product of Southwest Texas State Teachers College. Johnson became a high school teacher. He switched careers and began working as a congressional aide before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1937. He served in the House for a dozen years before winning election to the Senate in 1948. Johnson was appointed to the position of Senate Majority Whip in 1951. He became the Senate Minority Leader in 1953 and the Senate Majority Leader in 1955. Johnson became known as "Master of the Senate". He became known for his domineering personality and his manner known as the "Johnson treatment", using flattery or bullying tactics, depending on the situation, to coerce his fellow legislators into advancing his political agenda.

Johnson had been a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker, and he paid the price for it when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack on July 2, 1955. It did not end his political career however, and soon Johnson was once again wheeling and dealing in the halls of power. He ran for the Democratic nomination in the 1960 presidential election. He didn't have either the money or the sex appeal that Kennedy did, but he was still a powerful Democrat and Kennedy knew it. Over the objections of his younger brother Robert, John Kennedy offered Johnson the number two spot on the Presidential ticket and Johnson accepted. The Kennedy-Johnson team went on to win a close election over the Republican ticket of Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Then on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson succeeded him as president. The following year, Johnson won election to the presidency in a landslide, defeating Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Johnson received 61.1 percent of the popular vote, the largest share of the popular vote of any candidate since the largely uncontested 1820 election. His victory was attributed in part to a television ad that implied that Goldwater couldn't be trusted with his finger on the nuclear button.

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In domestic policy, Johnson envisioned the "Great Society", a collection of legislation designed to expand civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, the arts, urban and rural development, public services and a "War on Poverty". With the help of a growing economy, Johnson's programs helped millions of Americans rise above the poverty level during his administration. he was able to orchestrate passage of civil rights bills that he signed into which law banned racial discrimination in public facilities, interstate commerce, the workplace and housing. The Voting Rights Act prohibited certain requirements in southern states used to disenfranchise African Americans. These were things that only a "Master of the Senate" could accomplish. With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the country's immigration system was reformed. Johnson's presidency was a high water mark for modern liberalism after the New Deal era. As President, Johnson vetoed 30 bills; no other President in history vetoed so many bills and never had a single one overridden by Congress

But then there was the war. Johnson escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted Johnson the power to use military force in Southeast Asia without having to ask for an official declaration of war. The number of American military personnel in Vietnam increased dramatically, from 16,000 advisors in non-combat roles in 1963 to 525,000 in 1967, most in combat roles. American casualties soared and the peace process stagnated. To make matters worse for Johnson, news of the war was being brought into the living rooms of Americans at home through nightly news reports. Growing unease with the war led to a large, angry anti-war movement, especially among draft-age students on university campuses.

Johnson faced further problems as summer riots began in major cities in 1965 and crime rates soared. His opponents called for "law and order" policies. Suddenly the future did not look so bright for Americans. Johnson began his presidency with widespread approval, but support for him declined as the public became frustrated with both the war and with growing violence at home.

By 1968, the war had caused serious divisions within the Democratic Party. Anti-war elements in the party denounced Johnson. After a disappointing finish in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson could read the writing on the wall. He knew that he would not win re-election to the presidency and at the end of a speech on March 31, 1968, he shocked the nation when he announced he would not run for re-election, ending the speech by telling his audience: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." Vice-President Hubert Humphrey mounted a valiant effort to recover from the damage that Johnson had caused, but it was too little, too late. Richard Nixon was elected to succeed him. After he left office in January 1969, Johnson returned to his Texas ranch, where he died of a heart attack at age 64, on January 22, 1973.

Johnson is ranked favorably by many historians because of his domestic policies and because of his success in bringing about the passage of many major laws that affected civil rights. But he has also attracted substantial criticism for his escalation of the Vietnam War. Johnson is considered by many historians to have been an ambitious, tireless, and imposing figure who was ruthlessly effective at getting legislation passed. It is said that Johnson worked 18 to 20 hour days and had no leisure activities. In the words of his biographer Robert Dallek, "There was no more powerful majority leader in American history." According to Dallek Johnson kept a record on all of the Senators, and knew what their wishes and desires and used that information to his advantage in securing votes. Johnson was 6 feet 3.5 inches tall and he used his height as a component of his own method of persuasion that others referred to as the "Johnson Treatment".

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History has viewed Johnson both through the lens of his historic legislative achievements, as well as his lack of success in the Vietnam War. His overall rating in rankings of the Presidents ranges in the teens, anywhere from 10th to 18th, with an average of 12th. A 2017 C-Span ranking put him in the number 10 spot, while a 2018 Sienna rating had him at number 16.

Part of Johnson's legacy is the role he played in the space race. As Vice-President he was responsible for NASA and as President he watched the nation ready itself to put a man on the moon, something that would occur the same year that he left the presidency in 1969. The Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in his honor in 1973.

Johnson is also part of the answer to a trivia question: Who are the only two persons to be elected to both Houses of Congress, to the Vice-Presidency and as President? (Can you name who the other one was?) If you change the question to ask for the names of those who served in those positions, there are four, and two are named Johnson.

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