The Legacy of Lyndon Johnson

I have been reading (by listening to audio book versions) Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. It is called “The Years of Lyndon Johnson, as a four book set. I am presently listening to the second volume which is titled, “Means of Ascent.” It is pretty clear that the author does not like Lyndon Johnson but respects his ability to use power. His means of attaining it is what he does not like.

The first volume goes into considerable detail on Lyndon’s father Sam Johnson.
Sam Johnson was a Texas state legislator who was scrupulously honest and refused to accept any “favors” from the lobbyists even though the Texas legislature was famously corrupt. Sam Johnson was idolized by his son, Lyndon, but Sam was an idealist and a poor businessman and went broke. Lyndon was humiliated by their poverty and was determined to acquire money and power, regardless of the ethics.

The only college he could get into was a small teachers’ college called Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College

Initially called Southwest Texas State Normal School, the final word in the name was changed to “College” in 1918. Then, “Normal” became “Teachers” in 1923.

When Johnson attended, it was small and the students mostly impoverished. His machinations to get favors from the president and to get political power to reward friends and punish enemies are described in the volume I of the biography and are an indicator of his future tactics.

The second volume spends a great amount of time on the 1948 Senate election when he opposed a former and well loved Governor named Coke Stevenson, who had a reputation as incorruptible and tough. The story of that election, and how Johnson stole it, is a major part of the book. Part of Johnson’s technique was to try to implicate Stevenson in the kind of corruption that he himself had committed. After the book came out in 1990, the author was attacked by Johnson supports as being biased in favor of Stevenson. In response, he wrote a rebuttal to the attacks on Stevenson’s character.

After Lyndon Johnson got to Washington, according to Caro, he began to boast about how he stole the election from Stevenson. Being clever and powerful was more important to Johnson’s self image than a reputation for honesty.

What has Johnson’s legacy been for this country ? I think it has been disastrous.

When Eisenhower was President, it was in Johnson’s interest to cooperate with him and some of Johnson’s liberal sympathies, which he concealed from his Texas supporters, were beneficial in the era when Civil Rights legislation was being held hostage by the southern Senators and Congressmen.

In 1955 he had a major heart attack and gave up smoking. By 1958, he was interested in the presidency and he ultimately lost out to Kennedy. He was invited onto the Democratic ticket by Kennedy and they won a very close election in 1960, which may have been, once again, stolen by Johnson in Texas and Richard J Daley in Chicago. Eisenhower Attorney General Rogers told Nixon he had enough evidence of election fraud to potentially reverse the result but Nixon declined to pursue the challenge, asserting it would not be safe to do so in a time of international challenge. This account is in Teddy White’s book, “The Making of the President 1960”

Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Johnson succeeded. In 1964, he defeated Barry Goldwater after a vicious campaign that saw Goldwater accused of wanting to expand the special forces war in Vietnam. Of course, after the election, Johnson greatly expanded the war and probably guaranteed its loss by micromanaging the details, like he micromanaged his political campaigns. HR McMaster’s book, “Dereliction of Duty” describes in considerable detail just what was done by Johnson and McNamara without objection by the Joint Chiefs.

Johnson’s domestic agenda is often called The War on Poverty, and many cynics contend that it was lost years ago.

As a part of the Great Society, Johnson believed in expanding the federal government’s roles in education and health care as poverty reduction strategies.[1] These policies can also be seen as a continuation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ran from 1933 to 1937, and the Four Freedoms of 1941. Johnson stated “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”[2]

The legacy of the War on Poverty policy initiative remains in the continued existence of such federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), TRiO, and Job Corps.

The War on Poverty included many programs that encouraged single motherhood and is widely considered to have destroyed the black family.

The rise of the welfare state in the 1960s contributed greatly to the demise of the black family as a stable institution. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among African Americans today is 73%, three times higher than it was prior to the War on Poverty. Children raised in fatherless homes are far more likely to grow up poor and to eventually engage in criminal behavior, than their peers who are raised in two-parent homes.

Some of this has been a result of the legalization of abortion and the appearance of the birth control pill.

Still, great improvements had been the trend before Johnson took office.

Thus began an unprecedented commitment of federal funds to a wide range of measures aimed at redistributing wealth in the United States.[1] From 1965 to 2008, nearly $16 trillion of taxpayer money (in constant 2008 dollars) was spent on means-tested welfare programs for the poor.

The economic milieu in which the War on Poverty arose is noteworthy. As of 1965, the number of Americans living below the official poverty line had been declining continuously since the beginning of the decade and was only about half of what it had been fifteen years earlier. Between 1950 and 1965, the proportion of people whose earnings put them below the poverty level, had decreased by more than 30%. The black poverty rate had been cut nearly in half between 1940 and 1960.

After Johnson, things changed. One would not know it from reading the Wikipedia article which is very pro-Johnson.

Between the mid-Sixties and the mid-Seventies, the dollar value of public housing quintupled and the amount spent on food stamps rose more than tenfold. From 1965 to 1969, government-provided benefits increased by a factor of 8; by 1974 such benefits were an astounding 20 times higher than they had been in 1965. Also as of 1974, federal spending on social-welfare programs amounted to 16% of America’s Gross National Product, a far cry from the 8% figure of 1960. By 1977 the number of people receiving public assistance had more than doubled since 1960.

The Vietnam War radicalized the Baby Boomer generation, which became the decade of “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” A generation of anti-war students stayed in graduate school and became the radical faculty which has created the atmosphere that drives out faculty members who offend hypersensitive students.

The complaint at the time was that Johnson was determined to have both “Guns and Butter” to fight a war while expanding civilian spending.
The 1965 passage of Medicare and Medicaid began the trip to unrepayable national debt.

The trend is clear.


Just since 1974, the debt has steadily climbed and will never be repaid as the World War II debt was.

This is the legacy of Lyndon Johnson. Had he never been elected to the Senate in 1948, there would have been a president Nixon in 1960.

There would have been no Vietnam War.

Probably no destruction of the black family and the desperate inner city crime problems.

No “Days of Rage with the radical Underground” and domestic terrorism in the 1960s and 70s.

Kennedy would probably have served out his career in the Senate as a far more conservative Senator than his brother Teddy.

This would be a very different world.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply