Biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States

Lyndon B. Johnson at Press Conference
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Lyndon Baines Johnson (Aug. 27, 1908–Jan. 22, 1973) was a fourth-generation Texas rancher, who became the 36th President of the United States on the death of his predecessor John F. Kennedy. He inherited a painfully divided country and is known both for his failures in Vietnam and his successes with civil rights.

Fast Facts: Lyndon B. Johnson

Known For: 36th President of the United States

Born: August 27, 1908, Stonewall, Texas. 

Parents: Rebekah Baines (1881–1958) and Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr. (1877–1937).

Died: January 22, 1973, Stonewall, Texas.

Education: Southwest Texas State Teachers College (BS, 1930), studied law at Georgetown University from 1934–35.

Spouse: Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor (1912–2007).

Children: Lynda Bird Johnson (b. 1944), Luci Baines Johnson (b. 1947).

Early Life

Lyndon Johnson was born on Aug. 27, 1908, on his father's ranch in rural southwestern Texas, the first of four children born to Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr. and Rebekah Baines. His father was a politician, farmer, and broker, and Rebekah was a journalist who graduated from Baylor University in 1907—a very rare circumstance. When Lyndon was born, his politician father was concluding his second term on the Texas legislature: His parents would go on to have four more children, three girls, and a boy.

Johnson was a fourth-generation Texan: at the age of forty, Johnson's great-grandfather Robert Holmes Bunton came to what was then the Republic of Texas in 1838 to be a cattleman. 

Lyndon worked throughout his youth to earn money for the family. His mother taught him to read at an early age. He went to local public schools, graduating from high school in 1924. He spent three years traveling around and working at odd jobs before going to the Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos.

Introduction to Politics

While Johnson was in college, he worked as a gofer for the president of Southwest Texas State, and he was the summer editor of the student paper. He used his credentials to attend his first Democratic convention in 1928,in Houston, with his then-current girlfriend, who ended the relationship shortly afterward. 

Johnson dropped out of school to take a teaching job in a Mexican school in the Cotulla School District, where he was determined to build a sense of hope in the beaten-down children. He developed extracurricular activities, arranged a parent-teacher group, held spelling bees and organized a band, a debate club and baseball and softball games. After a year he left and returned to San Marcos and finished his degree in August of 1930. 

During the depression, his family was hit hard. Johnson was a volunteer for Welly Hopkins, who was running for the state senate, and he obtained a job teaching public speaking and business arithmetic in Houston. But a position as what would today be called a staff director for a newly elected Texas congressman Richard Kleberg opened up, and Johnson was tapped to fill it. He arrived in Washington DC on Dec. 7, 1931, which is where he made his home for most of the next 37 years.

Marriage and Family

As Kleberg's secretary, Johnson made several trips to and from Texas, and it was on one of those trips that he met Claudia Alta Taylor (1912–2007), known as "Lady Bird," the daughter of a well-to-do Texas rancher, and holding degrees in journalism and history from Baylor University. They married on Nov. 17, 1934.

Together they had two daughters: Lynda Bird Johnson (born 1944) and Luci Baines Johnson (b. 1947).

Political Career and Presidency

While in Washington, Johnson lobbied hard for more power, making a few enemies and not finding much success. He was offered a partnership in an Austin Law firm if he obtained a law degree, and so he enrolled in evening classes at Georgetown University. But it didn't suit him and after a year he dropped out. 

When he was named the Director of National Youth Administration in Texas (1935–37), he left Kleberg's office. Building on that, Johnson was elected as a U.S. Representative where he served from 1937–49. While a congressman, he joined the navy to fight in World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star. In 1949, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the Democratic Majority Leader in 1955. He served until 1961 when he became Vice-President under John F. Kennedy.

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson took over as president. The next year he was nominated to run for the Democratic Party for the presidency with Hubert Humphrey as his vice-president. He was opposed by Barry Goldwater. Johnson refused to debate Goldwater. and easily won with 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 of the electoral votes.

Events and Accomplishments

Johnson created the Great Society programs, which included antipoverty programs, civil rights legislation, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the passage of some environmental protection acts, and the creation of laws to help protect consumers.

Three important pieces of Civil Rights legislation signed into law by Johnson were as follows: 1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which did not allow discrimination in employment or in the use of public facilities. 2. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory practices that kept blacks from voting. 3. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which outlawed discrimination for housing. Also during Johnson's administration, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

For her part, Lady Bird was a huge proponent of the beautification program to try and improve the way America looked. She was also quite a savvy businesswoman. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford and the Congressional Gold Medal by President Ronald Reagan.

The Vietnam War escalated during Johnson's administration. Troop levels which started with 3,500 in 1965 reached 550,000 by 1968. America was divided in support of the war. America, in the end, did not have a chance of winning. In 1968, Johnson announced he would not run for reelection in order to spend time to get peace in Vietnam. However, peace would not be achieved until President Nixon's administration.

Death and Legacy

Johnson retired on January 20, 1969, to his ranch in Texas. He did not return to politics. He died on January 22, 1973, of a heart attack.

Johnson's legacy includes his costly error in escalating the war in Vietnam in a vain attempt to win it and the fact that he eventually had to turn to peace when the U.S. was unable to achieve victory. He is also remembered for his Great Society policies where Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed among other programs.

Sources

  • Caro, Robert A. "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson." New York: Random House, 2012.  
  • ---. "The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson." New York: Random House, 1990.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. "Lyndon Johnson and the America Dream." New York: Open Road Media, 2015
  • Peters, Charles. "Lyndon B. Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 36th President, 1963–1969." New York: Henry Holt, 2010.