[Abridged] Presidential Histories

36.) Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969

January 01, 2024 Kenny Ryan
36.) Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
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[Abridged] Presidential Histories
36.) Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969
Jan 01, 2024
Kenny Ryan

"There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem." - Lyndon Baines Johnson, March 9, 1965

~~~

Lyndon Baines Johnson was thrust into the presidency at a moment of tragedy - the public assassination of his predecessor. With the nation in panic, Congress in deadlock, and Civil Rights seemingly out of reach, the challenges were long, but Johnson used his mastery of the legislative process to overcome them. He may have gone down as one of the greats if not for the war that consumed his presidency, the war in Vietnam.


Bibliography
1. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream – Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. The Years of Lyndon Johnson and the Passage of Power – Robert Caro
3. Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency – Mark K Updegrove
4. The Vietnam War – Ken Burns (documentary)
5. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 – Robert Dallek
6. Richard Nixon: The Life – John Farrell
7. Eisenhower in War and Peace – Jean Edward Smith
8. Gerald Ford – Douglas Brinkley

Grave Injustice

The makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the cases they are hearing are no...

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Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

"There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem." - Lyndon Baines Johnson, March 9, 1965

~~~

Lyndon Baines Johnson was thrust into the presidency at a moment of tragedy - the public assassination of his predecessor. With the nation in panic, Congress in deadlock, and Civil Rights seemingly out of reach, the challenges were long, but Johnson used his mastery of the legislative process to overcome them. He may have gone down as one of the greats if not for the war that consumed his presidency, the war in Vietnam.


Bibliography
1. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream – Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. The Years of Lyndon Johnson and the Passage of Power – Robert Caro
3. Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency – Mark K Updegrove
4. The Vietnam War – Ken Burns (documentary)
5. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 – Robert Dallek
6. Richard Nixon: The Life – John Farrell
7. Eisenhower in War and Peace – Jean Edward Smith
8. Gerald Ford – Douglas Brinkley

Grave Injustice

The makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the cases they are hearing are no...

Listen on: Apple Podcasts   Spotify

Support the Show.

Welcome to abridged presidential histories with Kenny Ryan, episode 36, Lyndon Baines Johnson, aka, Landslide Johnson


How do you judge someone at the end of their life?

Do you add up everything good they did and boom, that’s it?

Or is it the sum of everything they got wrong? The pain they caused, the hurt they did?

Or do you place both on a scale and let the weights decide?

The answer to that question will go a long way to determining what you think of LBJ. Because when LBJ is at his best, he’s one of the greats - the only president since Ulysses S. Grant to pass meaningful Civil Rights legislation, and in this episode, we will pull back the curtain like never before on the deal-making, cajoling, and arm-twisting that makes Congress work.

But on the other side of LBJ’s ledger. The red side. The blood red side… is Vietnam. A war that started before LBJ entered office and ended after he left, but which he bears responsibility for deepening American involvement in.

There’s a lot to cover in this episode. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. As they say, everything is bigger in Texas.


Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in a rural farmhouse roughly 60 miles west of Austin, Texas - the oldest of five children.

Lyndon’s parents, Sam and Rebekah, were an unhappy match - Sam was an on-again, off-again state Congressman who met Rebekah during his first stint in Austin, where she was a journalist charmed by his folksy ways. But that charm wore off when she moved in and saw how tough the Texas hill country could be, and how drunk Sam could get. Lyndon loved joining his father on the campaign trail or at the state capital, watching Sam debate in Congress. And this may be why, after a rebellious childhood that may have included dynamiting the neighbor’s barn for fun, Lyndon eventually saw politics as a path that could make both his parents proud. 

But first, he needed an education.

Lyndon’s delinquent background and his family’s lack of wealth meant he’d never get into one of the state’s flagship universities, the University of Texas or Texas A&M, but there was a nearby school willing to take on a student of Lyndon’s… caliber.

Southwest Texas State Teacher’s college!

Known today as Texas State. 

Lyndon hitch hiked to campus, enrolled, and before you knew it, he was practically running campus. Through charm and hard work, Lyndon rose from student janitor to the college president’s right-hand man, joining him on trips to the state legislature and offering political advice. He then launched a political coup in student government to dethrone the all-powerful jocks and give power to an alliance of performance nerds, with Lyndon at their helm.

In short, he demonstrated an immediate talent for obtaining power.

But the most impactful experience came when Lyndon ran out of money and took a year off to work as an elementary school principal in a remote town in the Texas Badlands, Cotulla.

Cotulla was very hispanic and very poor. But despite this being an era when white people generally didn’t give a crap about non-white people - 1928 - Lyndon went all in. He introduced a number of competitive activities to inspire his students’ ambition, like spelling challenges, debates, or track and field events. He spent half a paycheck on bats to organize a softball team, and he stayed on campus into the evenings to teach English to the school’s janitor for free.

Decades later, when Johnson was president, he would cite the students of that school as the inspiration behind some of his greatest legislation, saying.

“You never forget what poverty can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance — and I’ll let you in on a secret — I mean to use it.”

Two years after Cotulla, Lyndon, degree in hand, earned a role as a legislative secretary to a congressman in Washington D.C..

And he immediately set about getting to the top of the game. He checked into a hotel where 85 legislative secretaries lived, all sharing one communal bathroom per floor, and then he went to that communal bathroom every 10 minutes, ostensibly to wash his face or brush his teeth, but really to meet and get a measure of the other secretaries. At the end of his first week, Lyndon had identified the 10 staffers he was most impressed by and turned them into his mentors.

Lyndon soon discovered that congressional aides had traditionally formed a discussion group called “The little congress.” Membership had fallen off, but where others saw a snooze fest, Lyndon saw an opportunity. He convinced his friends to show up in force to elect him “speaker” of the little congress - a role that typically went to the most senior member, not the new guy. He then set about transforming the little congress into a center of actual power in DC - he secured prestigious speakers, sponsored debates, and held informal votes on issues before actual Congress. In doing this, Johnson learned one of the most important skills for any representative - how to count votes. Based on the votes of congressional secretaries, Lyndon could get a feel for how actual congressmen and women were likely to vote on an issue. A source of intelligence that made Lyndon quite influential indeed.

Then, during a trip home to Texas, Lyndon met a charming and intelligent University of Texas graduate named Claudia Taylor, better known as “lady bird.” Lyndon was smitten. Lady Bird would later say Lyndon proposed the day they’d met. If he did, she said no. But her no turned into a yes just days later when Lyndon showed up at her doorstep and said, it’s now or never, we get married or I move on. 11 weeks after their first meeting, they married. Lyndon was 26, Lady bird was 22, and they were together the rest of their lives. The pair would have two daughters - Lynda Bird and Lucy Baines, which meant every member of the family shared the initials “LBJ” - including one of their eventual dogs, Little Beagle Johnson.

This doesn’t mean Lyndon didn’t have affairs during their marriage. He slept around a lot. But, for some reason or another, their marriage endured.

That takes us to 1935 - smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. Lyndon, now 28, found the next rung in his ladder when FDR stood up the national youth administration, or NYA - which paid young men and women to do everything from building maintenance to flood control studies - Roosevelt had to find regional directors to organize the work and disperse the funds and Lyndon said, disperse funds? Shoot, that’s how you build patronage. Lyndon asked to be named NYA director of Texas and all those contacts he’d built in Congress got it for him - making him the youngest regional director in the country. Johnson worked 16-hour days getting the program running. Within 6 months, 18,000 Texas youth were employed - the best performance of any NYA director in the country.

And sure enough, the performance was enough to get Lyndon elected to Congress.

And from there, he immediately started gunning for the Senate. 

Lyndon made his first senate run in 1941, and appeared to have won in the initial vote, only for counties loyal to his opponent to “find” roughly 5,000 votes after election day. Lyndon’s apparent victory turned into a narrow defeat. But he took it in stride, took notes, and learned his lessons.

When Lyndon ran for senate again in 1948, the initial tally showed his opponent with a narrow win - roughly 100 votes. But this time it was a county loyal to Johnson that “found” 200 ballots after election day. It was a coincidence, I’m sure, that all 200 were written in the same ink, in the same handwriting, in alphabetical order, and all for Johnson.

As a result of this obvious fraud, Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected to the senate by a margin of 87 votes. He’d be teased with the nickname “Landslide Lyndon” when he arrived.

When Lyndon entered the senate in 1949, he was 41 years old and - few would have guessed it - about to begin one of the most dominant stretches of his career.

Within 6 years, he rose from freshman senator to Senate Majority Leader - another once-meaningless position he turned into a power center.

His method was as effective as it was simple.

First, just like in that dorm of legislative secretaries 20 years earlier, he sized up the most influential senators and latched onto them like a lovebug. The senate is an institution dominated by tenure. There is no meritocracy in the senate. The top positions go to the senators who have been there the longest, which meant the most powerful senators were often the oldest, and Lyndon noticed something about these old senators - they feared losing their grip, and they were addicted to being respected.

Quote, “They craved attention and when they found it it was like a spring in the desert,” LBJ said.

By giving these elderly senators the attention they craved, he won their support, and they elevated him beyond his peers. It was brownnosing, straight up, but, man, it worked.

After the elders made him majority leader, Johnson instituted changes to secure the loyalty of the freshmen senators. 

Traditionally, rookies got all the worst committees because the best committees were claimed by the elders. Johnson fixed this by increasing the numbers of seats on committees and setting some aside for the freshmen. Every time a new freshman class rolled in, Johnson would put the new arrivals on the committees they most needed to take care of their constituents and advance their careers, and they became grateful and indebted to him for it. His power grew.

Johnson also made effective use of campaign contributions by focusing on small states where races were cheap and his money counted more - 10 thousand dollars doesn’t help much in New York, but it’s everything in Wyoming! And when you help get someone elected, they remember that.

But most importantly, Lyndon all but eliminated the number of meetings where all the democratic senators were in the room at the same time. By doing so, Johnson became the sole spigot of information to his conference. This allowed him to present different aspects of different bills to different senators. Imagine telling your children that you’re taking them to the pool to have fun, while telling your spouse you’re taking the kids to the pool to tire them out so they go to bed early. Win win.

Johnson also developed something his fellow senators called ‘the Johnson Treatment.’

When he needed you on a vote, he’d make sure to bump into you in a hallway, lean in, at 6-4, he’d likely tower over you, and, in the words of Newspaper columnist Mary McGrory, lay on “an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favors and future advantages.” Sometimes he commanded, sometimes he cried and begged, he had a knack for reading people and delivering the performance that would secure their vote, and he was shameless in doing whatever it took to get his way.

With all these tricks and more, Johnson became the most powerful senate majority leader ever.

And what did he do with that power?

He passed the first civil rights bill in 78 years.

In 1957, President Eisenhower called on Congress to pass a Civil Rights Bill. And nobody really expected anything to come of it. Plenty of presidents had called for civil Rights Bills over the past 80 years, and their calls had gone unheeded. Why would that change now? 

Well, it changed because of LBJ.

You see, during his rise, LBJ had been part of southern efforts to block Civil Rights, because that’s what it took to get ahead. So he knew the southern strategy front and back. And that strategy went like this.

The moment anyone introduced a bill to advance civil rights, every congressional committee chaired by a southerner would grind to a crawl, and every bill before those committees would effectively become hostages, held in stasis until Civil Rights was withdrawn. 

Imagine you’re a congressman from Nebraska, and you need to pass some farm aid for your constituents. How this would normally work is you’d introduce your bill in congress. It would be sent to the appropriate committee - in this case, agriculture. The committee chair would maybe schedule some hearings, then a vote of just the committee. If the bill passed that committee vote, then a house vote would be scheduled. If the bill passed the house, it would go to the senate, where nearly the same process would be repeated. It would land in a senate committee, they might schedule some hearings, then a vote. If it passed the committee, it would advance to the senate, which would schedule a debate. And the debate is important, because this is where filibusters happen. A filibuster is technically a senate debate where someone stands up to make their argument and then just never sits down and shuts up. The rules of senatorial debate were such that you couldn't make someone shut up unless 2 third of the senate voted to end the debate. Without that two third vote, a filibusterer and their co-conspirators can go on forever so long as they are standing and talking. They don’t even have to talk about the bill in question - they can read children’s books for 78 straight days if they like. It’s a mockery of the rules. Technically, a filibuster is a debate where a senator is running out the clock on a bill..

Because the clock can run out on a bill. You know how congressmen serve 2-year terms? Every bill proposed during a term must pass by the end of that term or all progress is lost and you have to start over from scratch during the next bill - back to that first congressional committee.

Ok, so how’s the southern strategy play into this?

Let’s say you’re that nebraska congressman and you propose your farm bill and it’s a routine bill and you expect it to sail through all these committees and votes in a matter of months. But instead, the chair of that first congressional committee - Agriculture - let’s say he’s from Alabama, and instead of scheduling a quick committee vote, he schedules 20 hearings over the course of 3 months with all sorts of people you’ve never heard of to discuss the merits of your bill. You might confront the chair, these hearings aren’t necessary. What the hell? And the chair would just say, oh, you know, congress moves slow sometimes. But then you’d start to hear whispers. You’d hear whispers that Kenny has proposed a civil rights bill. And if Kenny’s civil rights bill went away, your farm bill could get a vote tomorrow. But if Kenny’s civil rights bill doesn’t go away, your farm bill will never get a vote, and your constituents will kick you out of office for not getting them the aid they need. Once you figure that out, you might feel a lot of pressure to lean on me to withdraw my civil rights bill. It’s not like my civil rights bill will pass anyway. Even if it makes it to the senate, theyll just filibuster it. I’m just wasting everyone’s time! You’d beg me, “Kenny, please withdraw civil rights so I can take care of my farmers and we can all move on.”

That’s the southern strategy. And it worked.

Until Lyndon Johnson.

In 1957, when Ike called for that Civil Rights bill and Lyndon took it upon himself to pass it, he started looking for ways around that southern blockade, and he quickly landed on a few.

First, he told the southerners that everyone outside the south was getting mighty tired of them abusing the filibuster, and if they filibustered this bill, why, the rest of the county might just get rid of the filibuster - which the senate can do at any time, the filibuster is not in the constitution and wasn’t even invented until 1837. And this threat did give southern senators pause, because if they lost the filibuster, they wouldn’t be able to stop jack.

Then Lyndon told them, don’t worry, because I’m going to water this bill down. As originally drawn up, the Civil Rights bill of 1957 would have outlawed discrimination and established a civil rights division in the justice department with jurisdiction over housing, education, voting, and law enforcement. Lyndon stripped that down to just protections for voting, and then he made enforcement difficult by saying trials would be by jury. This was big because in the south, only whites served on juries, and no white man was ever going to be found guilty for violating the rights of a black man.

So one of Lyndon’s liberal peers said, can we at least desegregate the juries? And Lyndon said ‘yeah, but it will take some smoke and mirrors.’ The day of the debate in the senate, a Senator rose up and said “why don’t we desegregate the juries?” Then another stood and said “I don’t think we should, and here’s why,” after he finished, a third senator rose and rebutted “Here’s why that shouldn’t stop us.” And those 3 senators kicked off a productive debate that resulted in the adoption of the desegregated juries amendment - a pretty nice little win for Civil Rights. The thing is, it had all been set up by Johnson. Each of the three senators knew what the others would say and this debate was basically a manufactured show of straw man arguments designed to convince the senate to go along, and it worked.

That’s the magic of Lyndon Johnson.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was only allowed to pass because it didn’t do much, but it was the first crack in the dam. When Johnson later had the chance, he was going to blow that dam to smithereens. 

But first, it was time to run for president, a job he’d been wanting for years. Back when Lyndon had been in Congress, he’d told an aide to start referring to him as LBJ to emulate the 3-letter nickname of his idol, FDR. Quote “FDR - LBJ, FDR - LBJ. Do you get it? What I want for them is to start thinking of me in terms of initials”

The initials stuck, but his campaign didn’t. He skipped the primaries in 1960, thinking he could win through backroom deals at the Convention. But while he stayed in Washington, a do-nothing senator with a rich papa and another 3-letter nickname traveled the country winning votes - JFK. By the time LBJ threw himself at the race, it was too late. John F. Kennedy had won the nomination.

And then, Kennedy asked Lyndon to be his vice president.

The calculus for Kennedy was obvious - the race would be close and he needed Texas to win. LBJ could deliver Texas.

As for LBJ, he knew the vice presidency was a joke, but he feared that if he turned it down and JFK lost, Democratic progressives would blame him for that loss and he’d never win the nomination in the future.

LBJ was also a confident man. Sure, Vice presidents had traditionally been powerless, but so had senate majority leaders, and look what Johnson had done to that position? He thought he could work his magic again. 

And there was another reason to say yes.

LBJ had asked an aide to run some numbers before the convention… Of the 33 men elected president prior to 1960, 7 had died in office. As LBJ explained to a Congresswoman, “Claire, I looked it up: one out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

Which is a helluva thing to say. 

That November, Kennedy won the white house. On January 20, 1961, Johnson was sworn in as vice president.

And then… he kind of disappeared. LBJ might have been able to make the college aide, the little congress, and the senate majority leader into powerful positions, but even he could not make the vice presidency worth a damn. When he wrote Kennedy a letter asking for sweeping powers and responsibilities after the election, Kennedy simply ignored it, and that was that. Johnson’s impotence became a joke in Washington as folks asked, “What ever happened to LBJ?” Kennedy was always courteous to Lyndon’s face, but never trusted him far, never asked for his help with legislative strategy, and may have even been thinking of dropping him from the ticket in 1963 when a trip to Dallas changed everything.

On November 22, 1963, LBJ joined JFK for a visit to Texas. In a sign of how much Johnson’s Star had fallen, Kennedy drove in an open car with the state’s governor, and Johnson rode 2 cars back. As he looked out the windows, Johnson watched the adoring crowd waving toward JFK, oblivious to the fact that LBJ was even there. In 20 years, would they remember he’d existed at all?

The motorcade turned out of downtown and into dealey plaza - an open grassy area just before the highway. And that’s when a loud crack rang out, then a second and a third. Two cars ahead, John F Kennedy slumped forward in his car. The crowd began to scream. A secret service leapt on LBJ and forced him to the ground as they sped away. He wasn’t let up until they reached Parkland hospital, where JFK was rushed to the operating room and LBJ and Lady Bird were hurried to a secure room. Secret Service agents stood at the door, refusing to let anyone in they didn’t know - nobody knew if the country was under attack. Nobody knew if Kennedy was alive or dead. Nobody knew who was in charge of the country. And then one of Kennedy’s aides entered the room, and his look of pure despair said everything - John F. Kennedy was dead.

LBJ, who had stood silent and expressionless, sprang into action. He ordered the secret service to take himself and lady bird to Air Force 1, but he wanted Jackie Kennedy there too, and Jackie refused to leave without JFK’s body, so LBJ ordered the secret service to steal Jack’s body from the hospital - they literally had to win a shoving match with Dallas police to abscond with the corpse, and then Jackie and JFK’s body in a coffin were taken to Air Force 1. A judge was summoned, and there, on Air Force 1, with Lady bird to his right, a blood-stained Jackie to his left, and a judge before him, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States.


—-

And so, on Nov. 22, 1963, 55-year-old Lyndon Baines Johnson, the once powerful senate majority leader who had been reduced to a shadow by the vice presidency, emerged from that shadow to seize the reins of power once again. At nearly 6-foot-4, he was a half inch away from tying Abraham Lincoln as the tallest president in American history. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Johnson became president? Let’s look around.

Domestically, the nation was freaking out. President Kennedy had just been assassinated, and, in light of the recent Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, Americans smelled a communist plot. LBJ was all too aware that panic could turn a cold war hot in a moment if not managed. 

Beyond the immediate panic, LBJ inherited JFK’s stalled presidential agenda in Congress. Civil Rights, tax cuts, and even basic funding of the government had been stuck in the mud for months. Nothing was moving.

Internationally, the world waited to see what Johnson would do, and in a small country in SouthEast Asia, the war that would be Johnson’s undoing began to froth and boil - the war in Vietnam.

LBJ’s first night as president, he couldn’t sleep. Can you blame him? But not because he was twisting and turning in panic. Because he was planning. It was November, 1963. A presidential election was 12 months away. If he wanted to win it, he had to address the panic the country was feeling and pass JFK’s stalled agenda. And LBJ wanted to win. There wasn’t a minute to lose.

First, LBJ addressed the nation’s panic - he had to clamp down on conspiracy theories around JFK’s death before they caused World War 3. He suspected the country would never trust an investigation by the Dallas PD or the FBI, so he created a commission of his own. He recruited respected leaders from across government, including his old mentor from the senate, Dick Russell, the most trusted conservative in D.C., and the chief justice of the supreme court, Earl Warren, the most trusted progressive in D.C. There was one hitch, though, neither Russell nor Warren wanted to do it.

That’s when both got the Johnson Treatment.

Remember how I said it’s unique to every person? To get Russell on the commission, Johnson simply put out a press release announcing Russell was on the commission and then called him up and told him ‘you’re my man on the commission and, quote, “You’re goddam sure going to serve, I’ll tell you that!” Fait accompli.

With Warren, LBJ used a softer touch. He called Warren to the white house and told him that conspiracies about communist involvement in JFK’s death could lead to nuclear war. He said his secretary of defense, Bob Macnamara, claimed 60 million Americans would die in such a war. And then Lyndon hit Warren with the closer, quote “I think this thing is of such importance that the world is entitled to have the thing presided over by the highest judicial officer in the United States. You’ve worn a uniform. You were in the army in WW1. This job is more important than anything you ever did in the uniform.” And Warren said ok. 

Public reaction to the announcement of the commission, 7 days after the assassination, was universally positive. Nerves were calmed. And the report, 10 months later, was accepted by the public, for a time, at least. Lyndon could put the assassination behind him.

Ok. So we weren’t going to have some foolish nuclear war. But LBJ still had to undo the logjam in Congress, where everything from a tax cut to government funding to civil rights was stuck in place. But where Kennedy’s team just saw Congress moving slow, Johnson saw something familiar. He saw the southern strategy at work.

Remember, the southern strategy was a plan where, the moment someone introduces a civil rights bill, every committee with a southern chairman froze the bills before their committee in place and held them hostage until Civil Rights was withdrawn. Every frozen bill became a piece of leverage.

Johnson inherited a congress that had been frozen since a civil rights bill had been introduced the previous summer at the request of President Kennedy. Nothing had moved since. The civil rights bill was still trapped in its congressional committee, and all those other important bills were being held hostage in committees across capitol hill.

LBJ’s advisors urged him to cut bait on civil rights to save the rest of his agenda. They told him, quote, “The presidency only has a certain amount of coinage to expend, you oughtn’t expend it on this.” But LBJ refused, saying, “Well, what the hell’s a presidency for.”

He wanted Civil Rights.

But how to do it? The old trick, pass a watered down bill and convince the south not to filibuster it wasn’t going to work. This time, Johnson was going to have to play Congress like a giant rubik's cube. All those other bills caught in committee, he had to pry them loose and pass them before Civil Rights reached the senate and a filibuster began. If there were no bills held hostage, there’d be no pressure to withdraw Civil Rights, and the filibuster could be broken.

I’m going to single out one of these hostage bills as an example of how LBJ managed that - The tax bill. It may sound crazy, but back in 1963, it was the Democrats who wanted to cut taxes and Republicans who wanted to keep them high. The highest marginal tax bracket in 1963 was 91%. Democrats believed that if they cut taxes, the economy would take off like a rocket, and that economic growth would result in more tax revenue. And if you feel like you’re taking crazy pills, I did, too, when I read this, because this has been the GOP’s tax argument since 1980. But in 1964, the GOP opposed tax cuts, because it feared they would increase tax revenue, and the government would become bigger - in other words, the GOP was against economic growth because economic growth would fund government growth.

Ok, so where was the tax bill stuck? It was in the senate, stuck in committee. A committee chaired by Virginia senator Harry Byrd - southern strategy.

But LBJ thought he could get Byrd to crack.

Back when Johnson had been in the senate, he had worked for years to develop a relationship with Byrd, with no success, until 1952, when Byrd’s daughter died, and Johnson was one of only 2 senators to attend the funeral. Byrd noticed, and after that, Johnson was welcome to see him anytime.

Once Johnson had a foot in the door, he widened it by giving Byrd that attention and respect all elder senators craved. And he discovered a magic word - Byrd and the other senior senators loved it when he called to ask for their “wisdom.” 

Now president, LBJ invited Byrd to the White House because LBJ needed some of that wisdom once again. Once LBJ had Byrd alone, they got talking, and LBJ unearthed the one thing more important to Byrd than blocking Civil Rights. And that one thing was spending cuts. If LBJ would cut his proposed budget from $102b to less than $100b, he could have his tax bill and civil rights.

For the next week, LBJ worked over his budget, cutting, cutting, cutting, until he could call Byrd back and say “You can tell your grandchildren you were the Senator who finally got a president to cut his budget,” and that resonated. But Byrd could only have his budget if LBJ got his tax bill before Civil Rights reached the senate. So you know what happened? Byrd abandoned the southern strategy and the tax cut started to move!

To make sure Byrd stayed committed, LBJ announced a 97.9 billion dollar budget at his first state of the union - beating Byrd’s demands by 2 billion dollars - and a victorious Byrd rushed the tax bill out of committee and through the senate in 3 weeks - passing it February 7, 1964 - three days before the Civil Rights bill arrived from the house.

This is the kind of thing LBJ had to do for a number of bills, and in a matter of weeks, the rusted gears of government began to turn once again.

But the grand prize was always going to be Civil Rights.

The Civil Rights bill stuck in Congress aimed to prohibit discrimination in public places and make employment discrimination illegal. It was trapped in a committee chaired by a southerner who refused to give it a vote.

But… there is one other way to get a bill out of a committee. The entire Congress can pass what’s called a ‘discharge petition’ to pull any bill out of committee - chairman be damned - for a hearing and vote on the house floor. 

This was going to be LBJ’s ticket.

Technically, there were enough democrats in the house to win a discharge petition, but many of them were from the south and opposed, so he needed to woo republicans.

LBJ leveraged every source of influence he had and marshaled it behind the bill. He called the owner of the Washington Post and urged the paper to profile every congressman who didn’t support the petition, frame it as ‘why don’t you think civil rights should get a vote?’ he courted union, religious, and civil rights leaders, flooding the halls of Congress with them; and he gave them a potent line against Republicans: ‘is the party of lincoln really going to stand in the way of Civil Rights?’

And then he delivered the coup de gras.

The republican leader of the house was a guy named Charles Halleck of Indiana. One day, LBJ called up Halleck and said, how would you like a multi-million dollar NASA research program in your district at Purdue University. That’s a lot of money and jobs for your district, chuck. Well, Charles Halleck did like the sound of that, so LBJ told him, as long as you work with me on civil rights, you can have that NASA money. And a few phone calls later, the judiciary committee chairman caved to pressure and let it out of committee to avoid the humiliation of being beat by a discharge petition from unified Democrats and Republicans. The house then passed it onto the senate, where LBJ had successfully cleared the deck by passing all of the potential hostage bills. This meant the southern democrats could filibuster, but they’d only be blocking civil rights. There’d be no pressure from sponsors of other bills to withdraw civil rights so their stuff could get through.

As the senate girded itself for filibuster and debate, LBJ met with his former mentor, Georgia Senator Dick Russell, who now stood in Lyndon’s way as leader of southern resistance to Civil Rights.

LBJ looked at his old friend and said, “I aim to pass this bill, dick. Only this time there will be no compromising, no holding back. This bill will pass and no one will stand in my way.” Russell was unmoved, replying “you may do just that, but it will cost you the election and cost you the south.” LBJ was silent for a moment, then said very very quietly, “Dick, if that’s the price for this bill, I will gladly pay it.”

As promised, Dick Russell led a multi-speaker, 60-day filibuster - 2 months - of the Civil Rights bill. The longest filibuster in U.S. history. But while Dick and his allies killed time on the senate floor, LBJ outflanked him in the wings. LBJ knew he needed 67 votes to break the filibuster, and he had 67 Democrats in the senate, but remember, 24 of those were from the south. They were the blockade. This meant LBJ needed 24 Republicans to vote across the aisle in support of Civil rights. There were 13 liberal republicans he knew he could count on, but he still needed 11 more from the traditionally conservative midwest. So the democrats talked those senators up. Made them out to be the heroes of the hour. Drank with them, courted them, walked with them, and LBJ leaned in personally, making clear that if any of those senators opposed him on this, they could forget any pet projects they hoped to win for their states.

Finally, on June 10, 1964, 44 Democrats and 27 republicans voted together to defeat the filibuster 71-29. Discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin was now illegal.

Many in the senate agreed, nobody but Johnson could have passed Civil Rights, but he did pass it, and on July 2, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law - by far the greatest victory for American equality since the Civil war.

And yet, the night it passed, LBJ was downcast. When an aide asked him why, he said, “I think we’ve just delivered the south to the Republican Party for the rest of my life and yours.”

He was right, but in the presidential election of 1964, it wouldn’t matter. On the coattails of these legislative victories, LBJ surged to one of the most lopsided election victories in american history. Defeating republican senator Barry Goldwater in the popular vote, 43 million to 27 million, and routing him in the electoral college, 486 to 52. The only states Goldwater won were his native Arizona and five states from the old Confederate South.

The Civil Rights act of 1964 is an epic story and a great showcase of the wheeling and dealing behind how Congress works, but it’s just one example of the legislative mastery LBJ brought to Washington throughout his administration. He would go on to pass Medicare, Medicaid, he’d quadruple government spending on education, he’d increase spending on the arts, and beautify highways. He’d upgrade a draconian immigration system and put childproof caps on medicine bottles. LBJ gave us NPR and PBS - you wouldn’t have Sesame Street without LBJ. His economic policies cut poverty from 19.5% to 12.1% - the greatest 1-time reduction in poverty in US history. Poverty might be twice what it is today if we hadn’t had LBJ.

He did it by turning his administration into a legislative machine. Each fall, he’d pick his priorities for the coming year, then form task forces led by hand-picked legislators. Each task force would prepare a report on what their legislation would do and a gameplan for getting it across the finish line. He’d know which committee would introduce it, how that committee would likely vote, and how they’d answer challenges to the bill. 

And then, when all this legwork was done, he’d wait for the perfect moment to send each bill to Congress to guarantee a swift victory.

When Martin Luther King marched on Selma in the summer of 1965, capturing the nation’s attention around the cruelty of Jim Crow and the need for a voting rights act, LBJ had that voting rights act ready in his back pocket and launched it with a speech that moved the nation.

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

Five months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. 

But even as LBJ’s legislative victories mounted and his Great Society began to rise, the rot that would destroy his presidency was taking hold and pulling him down - Vietnam.

LBJ inherited a Vietnam in crisis. One of the last acts of the JFK administration had been to support a military coup against South Vietnam’s tyrant of a dictator, and the result had been a turnstile of corrupt, ineffective leaders, and a faltering south vietnamese war effort.

LBJ was concerned that if south vietnam fell, that could be the end of his administration. You may remember Truman’s presidency suffered a major blow when China fell to the communists - he hardly accomplished a thing after that. LBJ was determined not to lose Vietnam like Truman had lost China

But he also didn’t want a larger war, because, well, he’d seen what Korea had done to Truman, too! 

So, LBJ wanted vietnam to just stay as it was, a little hot spot far away with 16,000 american military advisors in-country.

But events forced LBJ’s hand.

On August 2, 1964, three north vietnamese torpedo boats fired their torpedoes at an American vessel off the coast of North Vietnam. They missed, but LBJ warned that if it happened again, there would be consequences.

Two days later, it happened again - or at least LBJ thought it did. American spy services mistranslated a vietnamese message and thought another attack was imminent. And then anxious American radar operators convinced themselves they’d seen torpedoes inbound on their radar - they hadn’t! - but they reported to Washington that they’d “probably been attacked.” LBJ, told that American forces had been attacked despite his warning, ordered the first American bombing raid of North Vietnam and an overwhelmingly supportive Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution 414-0 in the house and 88-2 in the senate. The resolution gave Lyndon authority to take any measure he believed necessary to preserve peace and security in southeast Asia. Or, as LBJ put it, “Like grandma’s shirt, it covers everything.”

But still, LBJ didn’t immediately take advantage or send any troops.

Six months later, February, 1965, Vietcong attacked a south vietnamese airbase and killed 8 american advisors. A memo was presented to LBJ - Vietnam, wracked by coups and protected by an ineffective military, was on the brink of collapse. LBJ was told he had two choices - escalation or defeat. His generals promised him, it looks bad now, but if we launch a sustained bombing campaign, we can force north vietnam to the negotiation table and end the war. LBJ chose escalation. A bombing campaign called “Rolling Thunder” began.

One of the reasons LBJ liked the bombing campaign was he thought it gave him more control. Every Tuesday, his defense secretary, Bob Macnamara, would come in during lunch with a list of targets in north vietnam. LBJ would ask, what is the strategic importance? How many planes will we lose? How many civilians will die? And then he’d go down the list and say yes or no. His goal was to defeat North Vietnam without drawing China into the war.

But the control was a mirage. Rolling thunder didn’t win the war. It expanded it.

The thing is, to launch Rolling Thunder, aircraft carriers wouldn’t be enough. American air bases were needed in south vietnam.

But once you have air bases, well, who is going to defend them? LBJ was told he had to send soldiers to guard the basis.

But guarding the bases wasn’t enough. The vietcong could shell an air field from 20 miles away. So you needed even more men to go patrol the jungle and prevent that shelling.

And this is how the war in Vietnam began to grow.

No matter how many men LBJ sent to Vietnam, his generals always promised him, ‘we’ve almost got this won. Just a few more men, a little more time. We’ve almost got this won.’

And based on those promises, LBJ tried to hide the war from the American public. He lied about how much it cost. He lied about what U.S. troops were doing. He thought If the American people find out we’re in a war, it’ll be harder to get money for my great society programs, for my war on poverty, so I’ll just hide it - It’ll be over soon anyway. But the war wasn’t ending. It just kept getting worse. And it just kept getting harder to hide.

At first, public opinion fully backed LBJ in Vietnam. Remember, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had passed Congress 414-0. A year later, as US troops began flooding the country, 65% of Americans still supported U.S. involvement.

And why not? The US wasn’t just sending men. It was also sending aid and money. Americans dug wells, built schools, trained doctors, and electrified the country. Who doesn’t support that?

But then, as more journalists began to report from vietnam, and as video started showing up in the nightly news, the story, and the support, began to turn.

In August, 1965, CBS went on patrol with marines near De Nang to report on their search for rice and arms meant for the Vietcong. The results were broadcast on the evening news. 150 houses were burned, 3 women were wounded, 1 baby killed, one marine wounded, and 4 prisoners were captured. 

This did not look like a ‘good war’ to American viewers back home. LBJ called the head of CBS the next day and asked “Hello, Frank, this is your president. Are you trying to fuck me?”

An anti war movement began to grow.

When congress held hearings to question the war a year later, 1966, LBJ responded by putting the chair under FBI surveillance. 

And still, the generals asked for more men, 50,000, 200,000, 400,000.

And they asked for a larger scope - defending air bases wasn’t enough. Seek and destroy missions into the jungles were approved.

And they kept promising victory. A little more, we’re almost there, victory. We can smell it.

But there was no victory. Just more and more americans drafted for vietnam, and more and more casualties reported on the evening news.

LBJ’s allies became disenchanted and his enemies saw opportunity. Martin Luther King, an ally, and Bobby Kennedy, a rival, became heavy hitters in the anti-war movement.

By 1968, there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops in south vietnam. The south vietnamese government was still a mess of corruption, abuse, coups and attempted coups, and LBJ was still echoing the promise of his generals - there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are so close.

And then the Tet offensive blew that all away.

On January 21, 1968, North vietnamese forces attacked a remote american base at Khe San in what the American generals thought would be the decisive fight of the war. Most of their troops were sent to the area, and Johnson had a model of the battlefield built in the White House so he could follow progress hour-by-hour. But Khe San was a diversion. 10 days later, January 31, 1968, the first day of Vietnam’s lunar new year festival, TET, North vietnamese and viet cong forces launched a shocking wave of attacks across South vietnam. 5 of South Vietnam’s 6 largest cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, and the U.S. embassy in Saigon were all attacked on the same day. Militarily, the offensive was a failure - 33 to 58,000 Vietcong were killed compared to just 1,110 U.S. and 5,000 south vietnamese soldiers, but to Americans watching at home, there was no hiding the carnage of Tet. Vietnam was not getting better. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. And there was no hiding that now.

The protesters were at the White House gates now. Every day, LBJ could hear them chanting - “Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” His great society was beginning to shrivel on the vine - Vietnam was expensive, and his opponents in congress would only pay for it if he made cuts to the anti-poverty programs he’d worked so hard to pass into law.

As he listened to the chants, and watched his cherished Great Society suffer, he realized his ability to lead the nation had come to an end.

On March 31, 1968, LBJ made a shocking announcement.

With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.

National and international reaction to LBJ’s announcement was immediate and positive. Ho Chi Minh agreed to peace talks in Paris the following day. Domestic opponents sang LBJ’s praise. It seemed he’d found the way to turn the corner.

Then, less than a week later, everything went to hell once again.

On April 4, 1968 - 4 days after LBJ’s announcement - Martin Luther King jr. was assassinated on a Memphis hotel balcony. Riots broke out across the nation. Two months after that, Bobby Kennedy, the younger brother of JFK, and the odds-on favorite to win the democratic nomination for president, was shot and killed the night of the California primary.

There would be no domestic peace in the United States in 1968.

But there was nearly peace in Vietnam.

If not for Richard Nixon.

Those peace talks that had begun earlier that year in Paris? It hadn’t been easy, but they were making progress. Peace and American withdrawal appeared to be on the table as summer turned to fall. But then Richard Nixon, the republican presidential nominee, caught wind of it. And he ordered a friend to backchannel to the south vietnamese leaders and promise them, if you refuse peace right now, Nixon will get you a better deal.

Nixon feared that if peace was reached in October, he’d lose the election in November, and so he sabotaged the peace talks. For his hubris, the war would last another 5 years. 27,184 more Americans and 100s of thousands more Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians would die.

Johnson had his suspicions, but Nixon denied them, Humphrey refused to act on them, and Johnson feared going public with them. He’d confirmed the rumored plot by tapping Nixon’s campaign and feared the public might be more angry at him than Nixon if the facts came out.

And so Johnson watched as his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, went down in defeat. Johnson left the white house on January 20, 1969, and died of a heart attack four years later - January 22, 1973. He was 64 years old.

The great tragedy of Johnson’s life is that, because of Vietnam, he died a villain to the young Americans and minority communities he’d tried so hard to serve.

Ok. Whew. That was a lot. How else had the world and the country changed during the 5 years of the Johnson administration? 

Well, domestically, the Great Society was obviously huge. But LBJ’s contributions didn’t end there. In 1967, he nominated the first african american to the Supreme Court - Thurgood Marshall. Marshall is totally worth reading up on - the guy’s an inspiration.

There were also a number of major supreme court cases during LBJ’s term - In Griswold v Connecticut, 1965, the court ruled states cannot outlaw the use of contraceptives by married couples; and Miranda v Arizona in 1966 is where we got the Miranda rights from - you know, the ‘you have the right to remain silent’ language you’ve heard on Law and Order.

On the culture front, Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique launched the second wave of feminism in 1963, and the Stonewall riots awakened the LGBT Rights movement in 1969. Theatrically, The Good the Bad and the ugly came out in 1966, the Graduate came out in 1967, 2001 Space odyssey released in 1968, and the first Super Bowl was played in 1967. Beatlemania swept the country for much of the 60’s. And Blue Ribbon Sports, the company that would become Nike, was founded in Eugene, Oregon, in 1964.

Internationally, China was rocked by the Cultural revolution from 1966 to 69. This was basically Mao Zedong’s last great hoorah. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million died as Chinese youth were encouraged to betray and murder their teachers and elders for not being communist enough. It was… terrible.

1967 brought war to the middle east. Israel’s arab neighbors ordered UN peace keeping troops out of the way so they could invade, which the U.N. obliged in 24 hours, only for Israel to strike first. The 6-day war saw Israel capture the golan heights from syria, the west bank from Jordan, and the Gaza strip and Sinai from Egypt. Israel has struggled with what to do with the west bank and Gaza ever since.

If you’re going to remember 3 things from LBJ, I’d suggest

  1. He became president when JFK died
  2. He was a legislative wizard who passed the only meaningful civil rights legislation since the civil war
  3. Trusting his generals and fearing defeat, he widened the war in vietnam.

So, what can we learn from LBJ?

Well, it’s amazing what you can accomplish with preparation, good timing, and by listening. LBJ had a sign in his office that said ‘if you’re talking, you ain’t listening.’ The key to his persuasion wasn’t what he said, it was what he heard. He’d get you one on one, he’d find out what it was that was really driving you, and then he’d offer you what you wanted, and he’d communicate it in the way you’d be most receptive - laughing, ordering, crying, begging - if you gave him what he wanted in return.

That was the LBJ way. So remember, if you’re talking, you ain’t listening. And with that, I’ll stop talking.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and leave a 5-star review on your podcast-listening platform of choice.

If you’d like to support the show, you can look it up on Patreon, or go directly to www.patreon.com/abridgedpresidentialhistories. It helps me buy books and pay to host the show.

The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. 

The primary biography for today’s episode was Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, by Mark J. Updegrove

In our next episode, I’ll talk to Mark LAwrence, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, about LBJ and Vietnam. As the country turned against the war, why couldn’t LBJ? And how justified is the criticism he received?

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.


(Cont.) 36.) Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969