Study Guide

Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 RNC Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech

By Barry Goldwater

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Lyndon B. Johnson

There are two sides to every coin.

On one side of the coin that was Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, was the statesman who was eager to help America be the best it could be by ushering in his sweeping Great Society reforms.

Because of LBJ, things like Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wilderness Protection Act happened. He passed historic Civil Rights legislation, reformed immigration quotas, and helped increase safety standards for products sold in the United States. He had the unenviable job of helping the nation recover from the assassination of his predecessor.

What a guy, right? Lots of people were big, big fans of LBJ. They thought he was taking the country in the right direction.

But on the other side of the LBJ coin was the shady politician who stuffed ballot boxes in 1948 and was known around Washington as a big bully who coerced, berated, and belittled people into going along with his plans.

People even had a name for this undesirable behavior; it was called receiving the Johnson Treatment. Sometimes this "treatment" involved having to take meetings in the bathroom while LBJ did his business.

It's pretty bad when your cranky side is known as a proper noun.

In some ways, LBJ's style was exactly like Goldwater's. Neither of them had much patience for soft-pedaling ideas or what would now be called political correctness. They told it like they saw it.

Boy Wonder

Johnson was elected as a U.S. representative from Texas in 1937 at the tender age of 29, and ran successfully for a Senate seat in 1948. A genius at political wheeling and dealing, he was the youngest person ever to serve as Senate minority leader—a position that became Senate majority leader when the Dems captured the Senate in 1955.

As a southern politician, LBJ had a deep understanding of racial politics. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, he wasn't much of a supporter of civil rights—ironic for a man whose legacy would eventually include the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a senator, Johnson managed to water down Eisenhower's 1957 civil rights legislation. He knew his constituency wouldn't stand for it, and he thought he understood why. In 1960, Johnson had commented to journalist Bill Moyers after they both saw racist graffiti scrawled on a fence:

I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you. (Source)

Like we said, this guy wasn't politically correct.

Johnson would get his chance to atone for his neglect of civil rights. Big time.

Path to President

JFK tapped Johnson as his running mate in 1960 because the aristocratic East Coast Kennedy needed someone who could pull in support from the southern states. It worked. The Dems squeaked out a victory against Richard Nixon, thanks in part to the magic medium of television, which definitely favored the young, handsome, camera-ready Kennedy.

JFK and LBJ were the odd couple: the genteel, charming Massachusetts patrician and the down-home, crude, good ol' boy from Texas. The Kennedys didn't like LBJ all that much, especially Robert Kennedy, who didn't even try to hide his contempt for the guy.

JFK gave Johnson some important responsibilities in formulating military policy and made him the chairman of the President's Committee for Equal Employment Opportunity, but LBJ chafed at the limited powers of the Veep-ship. He was constantly trying to increase his authority, but JFK shut that down over and over again.

That all tragically changed on November 22, 1963.

Suddenly elevated to the Presidency, JFK's assassination gave Johnson the political capital to push through Kennedy's civil rights program despite Republican opposition and filibustering. He knew this landmark legislation would turn the south against the Democratic party for generations and would hurt him when he ran for election in 1964.

So the controversial Goldwater's nomination as the Republican candidate was an epic gift to Johnson. He crushed the Arizona senator in the general election. His vision of a Great Society won hearts and minds, and his claims about Goldwater's racism and nuke-happy trigger finger only added to the Texan's appeal.

No Thanks

Once in office, however, despite the popularity of his Great Society programs with liberals and Democrats around the country, civil unrest and his handling of the conflict in Vietnam caused him to lose that support faster than Simone Manuel swam her way to Olympic awesomeness in 2016.

Did LBJ cause the racial tension and upsurge in violent crime that seemed to be sweeping the nation? No, of course not. But he also didn't end it, which was the problem.

Did LBJ get the United States into Vietnam? No, he didn't. But he also didn't get us out, which was the problem, according to conservatives and liberals alike.

After winning huge in 1964, Johnson made the surprising announcement in March, 1968, that he would not seek another term. He left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in POTUS history.

Sounds like the American public gave President Johnson a hefty dose of the Johnson Treatment.

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