Born in a farmhouse and destined for the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
His presidency was marked by successes in the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, environmental and consumer protection laws, gun control, and the creation of Medicaid and Medicare. But it was also marred by an inherited Vietnam War, which he expanded. Its profound unpopularity, transposed onto Johnson himself, led him to refuse standing for reelection in 1968, ending an extensive and monumental political career.
1. HE STARTED OUT AS A TEACHER.
To pay for his time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (which is now Texas State University), Johnson taught for nine months at a segregated school for Mexican-American children south of San Antonio. The experience, as well as his time teaching in Pearsall, Texas, and in Houston, shaped his vision of how the government should help educate the country's youth. After signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, which used federal funds to help colleges extend financial aid to poor students, he remarked on his time teaching at the Welhausen Mexican School, saying, “It was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”
2. HE WAS ALSO A JANITOR.
Johnson not only shared in the unfortunate tradition among teachers of using his own paycheck to pay for classroom supplies, he also wore multiple hats during his tenure as an educator. He taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, managed a team of five teachers, supervised the playground, coached a boys’ baseball team and the debate team, and mopped floors as the school’s janitor.
3. HE HAD A HEAD START IN POLITICS.
Johnson’s father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., was a member of the Texas State House of Representatives for nine non-consecutive years. His guidance and connections helped Johnson enter politics, and at the age of 23, just one year out of college, Johnson was appointed by U.S. Representative Richard M. Kleberg as his legislative secretary on the advice of Johnson’s father and another state senator whom Johnson had campaigned for.
Johnson became a leader of the congressional aides, a dedicated supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who became president a year after Johnson began work in the House), and the head of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration—a New Deal agency meant to help young Americans find work and education.
4. HE WAS AWARDED A SILVER STAR DURING WWII.
Johnson won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1937, representing a district that encompassed Austin and the surrounding hill country. He would serve there for 12 years, but he would also serve as a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve in the middle of his tenure as a representative. He was called to active duty three days after Pearl Harbor, eventually reported to General Douglas MacArthur in Australia, and on June 9, 1942, volunteered as an onboard observer for an air strike mission on the south shore of New Guinea that had fatal consequences.
Possibly because of heavy fire or a mechanical failure, the B-26 bomber Johnson was on returned to base while another (which carried Johnson’s roommate at the time) was shot down with no survivors. MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his involvement, although some view it as a political trade for Johnson lobbying President Roosevelt for more resources in the Pacific.
5. HIS ENTRY INTO THE SENATE WAS A “LANDSLIDE.”
Johnson toured Texas in a helicopter for a 1948 Senate primary race that pitted him against former Governor Coke Stevenson and state representative George Peddy. Stevenson led the first round of voting, but, without a majority, a runoff was called. Johnson won it (and the nomination) by only 87 votes out of 988,295 (.008 percent) amid accusations of voter fraud. Biographer Robert Caro noted that Johnson’s campaign manager (and future governor) John B. Connally was connected with over 200 suspicious ballots from voters who claimed they hadn’t voted, with election judge Luis Salas claiming almost 30 years later that he’d certified 202 phony ballots for Johnson. Stevenson challenged Johnson’s win in court but lost, and Johnson went on to beat Republican Jack Porter in the general election. The accusations of fraud and the tight margin of his primary victory earned him the ironic nickname [PDF] “Landslide Lyndon.”
6. HE ALMOST DIED WHILE SERVING IN THE SENATE.
A demanding boss, workaholic, and chain smoker, Johnson had a heart attack in the summer of 1955 during his time as Senate Majority Leader. Within a few days of the health scare, he had telephones and mimeograph machines brought to his hospital room so he could resume an intensely long work day. He stopped smoking, but he would later describe his heart attack as “the worst a man could have and still live.”
7. HE WAS ONE OF FOUR PEOPLE TO HOLD FOUR DISTINGUISHED OFFICES.
Among the most trivial of trivia (be sure to memorize it for your pub quiz night) is Johnson’s rare, strange distinction of the combination of offices held. Following John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, and followed by Richard Nixon, Johnson is one of only four people to have been a United States representative, the Senate Majority Leader, the vice president, and the president of the United States. At age 44, Johnson also became the youngest person ever to serve as Senate Minority Leader. Don’t ever say we haven’t helped you win bar trivia.
8. HE VOTED AGAINST EVERY CIVIL RIGHTS BILL IN HIS FIRST 20 YEARS AS A LEGISLATOR.
Johnson’s legacy is tied directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he was an imperfect vessel for change. As a representative and senator, he’d voted down every civil rights proposal set before him, aligning with the post-Reconstruction south, calling President Truman’s civil rights program “a farce and a sham—an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.” Johnson changed his tune as a senator in 1957 and stridently coerced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights expansion since Reconstruction, as president.
9. JOHNSON’S STYLE OF COERCION WAS CALLED “THE TREATMENT.”
At 6 feet, 4 inches, Johnson towered over most colleagues, and he used that physicality to his benefit. When he needed to extract a favor from someone, he'd simply stand over them with his face inches from their own and tell them just what he needed, in a move dubbed "The Johnson Treatment." Beyond bodying his opponents and friends, Johnson would also promise to help them, remind them of times he’d helped them, coax, flatter, goad, and predict doom and gloom for those who weren’t on his side.
10. HIS REELECTION WAS A TRUE LANDSLIDE.
After the 87-vote debacle that launched him into the Senate, Johnson experienced a genuine electoral phenomenon befitting someone nicknamed “Landslide.” In the 1964 campaign, Johnson faced not only Republican Barry Goldwater, but also questionable popularity. He’d never been elected president in his own right, and his leadership on the Civil Rights Act had southern supporters questioning their loyalty. To counteract the latter development, Johnson deployed his greatest political ally, his wife Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, to tour the south in a train, passing out her pecan pie recipe alongside campaign buttons. After the final tally, Johnson kept Texas and half the south, winning 44 states and 61.05 percent of votes cast—the largest-ever share of the popular vote.