Tuesday, December 09, 2008

American Experience: Lyndon Johnson

I just finished the two part American Experience biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (it took me quite awhile to get through) and was struck by some similarities to other politicans. One of things I noticed (since I recently watched the Nixon biography as well) were the similarities between Johnson and Nixon. Both were hard campaigners who just had to win. I also noticed some similarities with Joe Biden (which is current news) since Johnson was the veteran politician to the more junior one (Kennedy to Obama). While Johnson had only one more term in the Senate than Kennedy, he had spent longer in the House (elected first in 1937) and was the Senator Majority Leader.

Lyndon Johnson was a huge fan of FDR and actually met him early in his career and FDR predicted great things for him:
In the spring of 1937, Johnson was 28 years old, campaigning as an ardent Roosevelt New Dealer, reaching out to the working men and poor dirt farmers of the Texas hill country. He ran for office as if his life depended on it. He spoke in every town in his district, lost 40 pounds in 42 days, made 200 speeches and collapsed with appendicitis just two days before the election.

From his hospital bed, with his wife Lady Bird, he learned that he'd been elected one of the youngest members of Congress. His political ideals would waver, but for the rest of his life, he would display the same nervous intensity, the same obsessive drive to succeed and a talent for attaching himself to power.

One month after Johnson's election, the President paid a holiday visit to Galveston, Texas. Franklin Roosevelt was Lyndon Johnson's political hero. Now, the ambitious new congressman seized the opportunity to meet him.

Lady Bird Johnson: The Governor was going down to pay his respects, so he called Lyndon and said, "I'd like to take you along because you ran so completely on Roosevelt's platforms that I think he ought to meet you." And Lyndon was there with his eyes out on stems, taking in every word and every gesture.

McCullough: [voice-over] They talked about fishing, about the Navy. Then, Johnson asked for an assignment to nothing less than the Appropriations Committee. The President said that would have to wait.

Robert Dallek: Here are the two great politicians in American history in this century, I believe, and they're sizing each other up. And Roosevelt gives him the name of Tommy Corcoran, Tommy "The Cork," the White House aide and the Washington fixer and he tells Johnson, "If you need anything when you get to Washington, you call up Mr. Corcoran." Well Roosevelt himself gets back to Washington and he calls up Corcoran, the story goes, and he says to him, "Tommy, I just met the most extraordinary young man down in Texas."

Eliot Janeway, Economist, Johnson Family Friend: "With any luck, if the chips go right and he hangs onto the friends he makes, this boy Lyndon Johnson one day can wind up being the President of the United States. He's got it." It was quite a call, wasn't it?

With the Great Society, you can see that LBJ really is trying to follow in the New Deal shoes of FDR.
One of his early efforts, while still in Congress, was to get electricity to rural Texas:
Assigned a room in the old House Office Building far from the corridors of power, the freshman congressman didn't hesitate to turn to the President for help. With the support of the White House, Johnson secured loans and millions of dollars in federal grants for farmers, schools, housing for the poor, roads, public libraries; but helping complete the great dam on the lower Colorado River was his greatest achievement and the next step in the education of Lyndon Johnson. In 1938, rural Texans were still living without electricity.

E. Babe Smith, Pedernales Electric Co-op: It was a rather primitive life, you know -- no running water and they had no refrigeration. Every meal had to be started from scratch. They used to say, you know, the man was a gentleman who could provide his wife with a sharp axe, you know, to cut the wood with.

McCullough: [voice-over] "Of all the things I've ever done," Lyndon Johnson later wrote, "nothing has ever given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the hill country of Texas."

E. Babe Smith: And my daughter -- she was about nine years old -- she just couldn't believe how the house was lit up. She said, "Momma, the house is on fire."

Lyndon Johnson’s presidency is marred by Vietnam, but as this biography shows, LBJ accomplished a lot of legislation during his tenure. His “Great Society” pushed through a landslide of legislation that we are still using today, such as Medicaid and Headstart. He also pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since LBJ himself was a Southerner, I think that added weight to this important bill.

As usual, PBS offers a teacher’s guide and one of the sections is a really neat part on LBJ quotes.


Anonymous said...

Just one minor error - JFK was in his second term when he was nominated for President- but then again, so was Johnson. LBJ went to the Senate in 1948, JFK just four years later. In contrast, Biden went to the Senate when Obama was still a child.

One similarity between Biden and LBJ: they both ran simultaneously for the Senate and VP - and won both races.

Jennie W said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I corrected my post to more accurately reflect the situation. As our anonymous contributor pointed out, Biden was first elected in 1972 when Obama was about 11. When LBJ was elected to the House in 1937, JFK was about 20.