It would kill Lyndon Johnson to know that he’s been a forgotten hero in American History. Distrusted by liberals and vilified by conservatives, his contributions to American Life have been diminished by almost everyone. It’s kind of sad really.
The story of Lyndon Johnson is a distinctly American story. In no other country in the world could someone raised in the kind of obscure poverty that Johnson was trapped into, rise to Highest Office in the Land. It’s a story of raw ambition, determination and above all persistence.
Life in the Hill Country of West Texas was a hard one. Johnson’s family at one time had had money but through a series of bad decisions lost it by the time Lyndon was born in a log cabin in 1908.
He was, from an early age, convinced that he was destined for greatness. One of my favorite stories about him is that when he went to school in the one-room building, all of the children had to write their names on the chalkboard before using the outhouse. Most of the children, embarrassed, would write their names very small at the bottom. Not Lyndon. He would scrawl the words L Y N D ON B A I N E S J O H N S O N across the entire board.
Before he was 20, he was considered the Wonder Kid of Texas Politics from his work in a State Senate Race. After graduating from the tiniest of colleges and short stint teaching school, he became what was essentially the Chief of Staff to a US Congressman and was running an entire Congressional office at the age of 23.
When LBJ was 26, he was appointed Director of the Texas Branch of the National Youth Administration, making him the youngest State Level Director of any New Deal Program.
At 27 he was elected to Congress himself running on the theme of “Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt”
His passion for FDR and vocal support of the President’s Court Packing plan earned him a meeting with the Roosevelt before he was even sworn in. Riding on train with FDR, he impressed the old man so much that the President remarked to an aide:
He’s the kind of uninhibited young pro I might have been as a young man—if I hadn’t gone to Harvard.
A pattern in the life of Lyndon Johnson was a skill at befriending older men that could help advance his ambition but he had never had patron as powerful as Roosevelt. He used his power to climb quickly in the house and especially through the Texas Delegation as virtually all Texas patronage passed through his office.
And then Franklin Roosevelt died.
The bright young man with close ties to the White House lost his influence and at the age of 37 was no longer the young, up and coming sensation.
The young man that so desperately had to stand out, the boy that wrote L Y N D ON B A I N E S J O H N S O N across the chalkboard couldn’t stand being just one in the crowd and almost faded into obscurity. The years between 1944 and 1948 were the most difficult of his life and he almost retired from politics to return to Texas.
But then he climbed again. In a nasty election for a United States Senate seat that was eventually decided in court, Lyndon Johnson began to rise once again and found himself in the United States Senate.
Following his pattern of finding older men to help him, he began a rise that had never been seen before and likely will not be seen again. Becoming first Minority Leader and then Majority Leader of the World’s Finest Deliberative Body, Lyndon Johnson made the Senate work again and he did it with raw ambition, determination and persistence.
The culmination of his power was the passage in 1957 of the first Civil Rights Act to be passed by the Federal Government since reconstruction. The story of the passage of this bill which was written in Robert Caro’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Years Of Lyndon Johnson: Master Of The Senate, shows that he is in fact a forgotten hero. His methods weren’t always honorable, but the results surely were.
After waiting too long to enter the 1960 Presidential Race, Johnson had to settle for the second spot on the Democratic Ticket but his dreams of being the Most Powerful Vice President In History were foiled. It looked like he would once again fade into obscurity until the events of Dallas 1963 placed him in the Highest Office in the Land.
President Johnson has a mixed legacy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and The Great Society are darkened by his failures in Viet Nam and the beginning of the trust gap and he knew it.
I left the woman I love, The Great Society, to get in bed with the bitch of a woman, Viet Nam.
Despite his legacy and the forgotten achievements of a poor kid from Hill Country Texas, Lyndon Johnson deserves to be listed as a Profile In Persistence. His early rise, his deep fall and his meteoric rise again show that there are second acts in American Life. He proves that the only limit we get on second chances is the number we are willing to take.