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Like so many things (the first Highlander movie, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, mid-career Britney) President Lyndon B. Johnson is a little unfairly underrated as a president.
Yeah, he botched the Vietnam War thing up but good. But he also did some surprisingly awesome things.
Born in the heart of Texas, he made the move from schoolteacher to politician when he campaigned for Texas State Senator Welly Hopkins in his congressional run. From here he made it into the House of Representatives in 1937, where he became a friend and ally of another notable three-initial president: FDR. During WWII, he was appointed as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where, congressional seat still firmly occupied, he was called into active duty.
With the war done and dusted—and Johnson still in one piece after nearly getting shot down over New Guinea—he made the move from representative of Texas to senator. He was known for currying the favor of older senators, whose support and guidance primed him to senate minority leader for the Democratic Party, after Republicans took the majority after the election of 1952.
Six years later, he'd made quite the name for himself as the premier Democrat in the legislature. He had his eyes set on the Presidency, but saw that he'd face some stiff competition: a young upstart by the name of John F. Kennedy.
After a resounding trouncing in the Democratic primary, his "stop Kennedy" coalition ultimately winning him no points, he received an unlikely offer: the Vice Presidency. You see, personal quarrels aside, JFK needed access to the votes of Southern Democrats, and Texan LBJ seemed to have that demographic nice and locked up.
In 1963, however, an assassin's bullet sent him from the Vice Presidential holding tank straight to the highest office. And Johnson, shortly after the death of poor JFK, said:
"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long." (Source)
Bam. That should give you a good idea of some of what Johnson was up to in his first term. Dude passed more civil rights legislation than all presidents before and after him. When he passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he effectively ended segregation in all public spaces—swimming pools, hotels—and squashed legal discrimination in the workplace. (Source)
The Civil Rights act also ended voter registration requirements (but not those pesky literacy tests: that would come later, as you know), segregation in schools, and discrimination by agencies that get federal cash.
The guy was also keen on ending poverty (whoa, dream big there, Johnson) and started the War on Poverty, part of his Great Society plan. He launched Medicaid and Head Start, food stamps, and the Work-Study program. (Source)
Much like the similarly-promoted Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson seized the reins of the office and got to work, earning just enough goodwill to secure his own term against Barry Goldwater after finishing out the rest of JFK's.
Yeah; you'd think he'd go down in history as pretty awesome. But you'd be wrong.
Johnson was infamous for the way he handled other politicians and legislators, pulling a move that was coined as "The Johnson Treatment." He'd personally intimidate anyone who got in the way of advancing his legislation, browbeating them until they came around to his way of thinking.
He presided over yet another four-year chunk of the foreign policy minefield that was the war in Vietnam, and he definitely received his flack for it. A popular chant hurled at the White House lawn by protestors was "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" which is probably a worse thing to start your day with than decaf.
His own culpability, though, was real—he escalated the conflict personally. In '64, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (based on the famous "We might have seen a battleship but it was really dark out" Gulf of Tonkin incident), which gave Johnson the power to escalate military force in the region without getting involved in an actual Declaration of War. This pro-war stance tanked his popularity with anti-war Democrats, which cost him the presidency to Richard Nixon in 1968.
If Vietnam had been off the table, his rep would probably be a lot rosier. After all, LBJ passed an incredible amount of positive legislation during his terms.
No, he wasn't a man devoid of quirks or flaws (give him a quick Google search for some of the too-hot-to-print details), and he had a Texas-sized hunger for power and control. But he was able to harness a political moment of mourning and turn it into a comprehensive sweep of legislation that could have been compared to FDR's New Deal program in size and scope…if he hadn't been dogged by his own personal foibles.