Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of those few Presidents or political leaders who is instantly identifiable by his initials — “LBJ” — an exclusive club also populated by TR, FDR, and JFK but few others. Richard Nixon spent years and tons of energy working to become a member of that group, going as far as naming his autobiography RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. But LBJ’s initials became a recognizable brand long before he became President; he also had the added advantage of being able to monogram everything in his home with his initials since they were also shared by his wife (Lady Bird Johnson), his two daughters (Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson), and even one of his dogs (“Little Beagle Johnson” — which wasn’t one of the dogs President Johnson was famously photographed picking up by their ears, those beagles were named “Him” and “Her”).
But where did the name “Lyndon” come from? LBJ’s middle name — “Baines” — was his mother’s maiden name, but “Lyndon” wasn’t a family name. In fact, LBJ didn’t have a name for the first three months of his life. The man who would one day become the 36th President of the United States spent the first three months of his life just being called “Baby”. Of course, he couldn’t spend the rest of his life with the name “Baby”, so LBJ’s parents, Sam Ealy Johnson and Rebekah Baines Johnson, finally came to an agreement on what he would be called. Since LBJ was a far better storyteller than I will ever be, I’ll let him explain, courtesy of the LBJ Library’s always-incredible Oral History Project, as well as LBJ Library Director Mark K. Updegrove’s awesome book, Indomitable Will: LBJ In The Presidency (BOOK | KINDLE).
According to LBJ:
"I was three months old when I was named. My father and mother couldn’t agree on a name. The people my father liked were heavy drinkers — pretty rough for a city girl. She didn’t want me named after any of them.
Finally, there was a criminal lawyer — a country lawyer — named W.C. Linden. He would go on a drunk for a week after every case. My father liked him and he wanted to name me after him. My mother didn’t care for the idea but she said finally that it was alright, she would go along with it if she could spell the name the way she wanted to. So that is what happened.
[Later] I was campaigning for Congress. An old man with a white carnation in his lapel came up and said, ‘That was a very good speech. I want to vote for you like I always have. The only thing I don’t like about you is the way you spell your name.’
He then identified himself…as W.C. Linden.”
36th President of the United States (1963-1969)
Full Name: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Born: August 27, 1908, near Stonewall, Texas
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: Texas
Term: November 22, 1963-January 20, 1969 (Assumed the Presidency upon the death of John F. Kennedy)
Age at Inauguration: 55 years, 87 days
Administration: 44th (Completed the term of President Kennedy) and 45th
Congresses: 88th, 89th and 90th
Vice President: None (1963-1965) and Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. (1965-1969)
Died: January 22, 1973, LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
Age at Death: 64 years, 148 days
Buried: LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 5 of 43 [↑1]
In 2012, many of my longtime readers were surprised that I had LBJ ranked #6 instead of #3, or even #1 as some people suspected I might put him due to my unabashed appreciation and frequent praise of his leadership. I noted then — as I am also noting now — that the distance between the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 is almost non-existent. You can basically consider all three of those Presidents as tied for fourth place, but I couldn’t conceivably have a tie in my own personal rankings. There are no specific statistics or metrics or any sort of processes in determining my Presidential Rankings that would lead to a tie, so including one just because the Presidents ranked 4th, 5th, and 6th are basically interchangeable in my opinion would be a cop-out or just plain lazy. (With that said, while the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 are separated by an almost imperceptible distance, the difference between those three Presidents and the President ranked #7 is pretty significant.) LBJ is a great President because of his domestic accomplishments and Civil Rights, even with the turmoil of the last few years of his Presidency and the drag that Vietnam places on his legacy. I am adamant that the passage of true, effective Civil Rights legislation during LBJ’s Presidency — legislation that was shepherded and piloted through Congress by Lyndon Johnson — is one of the great accomplishments in all of American History. I believe that LBJ did more for Civil Rights than anyone in American History — including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership when it came to getting legislation passed through Congress so that he could sign it never receives the full appreciation that I feel it deserves, so I’ll continue fighting my own battle for it. With this year’s 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and next year’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson’s legacy has received an infusion of attention, and that attention has led to a greater appreciation of LBJ’s leadership. The escalation of the Vietnam War undoubtedly casts shadows over Johnson’s accomplishments, but I believe Civil Rights will ultimately dominate discussion of LBJ’s overall legacy. The increase in attention and admiration due to the anniversaries of the Civil Rights legislation is why I have LBJ at #5 this year instead of #6, but again, I think the Presidents that I have ranked #4, #5, and #6 are interchangeable.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 12 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 15 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 14 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 41
2000: Public Opinion Poll: 19 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 18 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 16 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 11 of 40
Yo, hold up there a second…did you just say, “I know you’re a big Johnson fan”? Listen, I was told that those cameras were just security decoys and even if they weren’t, I was just pretending to be a big Johnson fan. I’m just saying that it wasn’t what it looked like. And even if it was, none of it was admissible in court.
Wait…what were we talking about again…oh yeah, your question! Lady Bird played a huge role in LBJ’s Administration in public and behind-the-scenes. I wrote an entire essay about her connection to LBJ and her importance to his life and career. Here’s part of what I wrote about Lady Bird in my essay, Brújula:
Exceedingly capable, Lady Bird expanded the role of First Lady and marshaled all of her intelligence, ability, and beliefs in order to become a transformational activist in American life. Every First Lady since Lady Bird has played an influential role in the lives of Americans, and that’s not solely because of Lady Bird but mostly so. Whether it was her campaigns for environmental protection and conservation, beautification, her support for civil rights, or her advocacy for those suffering from poverty or social injustice, Lady Bird was a force for positive change.
It is her most important role, however, which is often overlooked. Lyndon Johnson was not easy to live with. His larger-than-life personality and overflowing ego was constantly engaged in a see-saw battle with insecurity, a lack of confidence, and an overpowering fear of failure. In every election that Johnson ever contested, there came a point where he was dominated by the thought that he would lose and all but decide to quit the race before Election Day. In almost every one of those elections (and he only lost one election in his long political career), LBJ fell seriously ill shortly before Election Day. Whether it was due to Johnson’s tendency to work himself to exhaustion or partly due to a psychosomatic condition is not completely clear, but Doris Kearns Goodwin would later write that “Personal rejection was so unbearable to Johnson, so mortally threatening, that withdrawal was necessary…Episodes of rejection, actual or apprehended, seem[ed] to cripple Johnson’s faculties and even, at times, interrupt his normal state of physical health and vitality.”
It was Lady Bird who could calm him in troubled times. While Lyndon Johnson is remembered as a political maestro, particularly in legislative politics, Lady Bird had great political intuition and knew how to handle Lyndon himself. LBJ could be cruel and coarse — not just to his colleagues and staff, but to Lady Bird. In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, Lady Bird admitted as much. “Our was a compelling love,” she said. “Lyndon bullied me, coaxed me, at times even ridiculed me, but he made me more than I would have been. I offered him some peace and quiet, maybe a little judgment.”
That humility was not false humility; it was Lady Bird’s characteristically earnest belief. Yet, she arguably offered him more than he offered her. When he was sick, she helped care for him. When he was depressed, she helped make his life as easy as possible. She motivated him in a way that nothing else could — not even his intense drive to prove himself or ceaseless ambition for the power to help change things. If Lyndon Johnson was a hurricane — a force to be reckoned with, Lady Bird Johnson was the quiet breeze and warm sunshine which helped settle everything in the storm’s wake. I’m not sure Lyndon Johnson made Lady Bird more than she could have been, but I’m positive that Lady Bird helped LBJ become who he was.
In many of the books and interviews that I’ve read about the lives and times, accomplishments and failures of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, I have frequently come across the word “anchor” to describe her influence on the 36th President of the United States. The intent of that description is to demonstrate how she helped LBJ remain grounded. It’s a positive label, but it’s not the word that comes to my mind when I think about their unique relationship.
Instead, the word that comes to my mind is a word that Lyndon Johnson probably heard many times when he was just out of college and teaching at a small school for impoverished Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas. The word is “brújula" and it is the Spanish word for "compass". Lady Bird wasn’t Lyndon’s anchor. She was his "brújula" — the compass which helped him find his way.
Lyndon Baines Johnson could never stay in one place, so an anchor wasn’t what he needed. LBJ was always on the move, always going somewhere. Perhaps that’s why he knew he needed Lady Bird before she realized how she felt about him. He recognized what she could be for him, and he couldn’t let her get away. For Lyndon, in a life full of historic accomplishments, it might have been his best decision. Until the day Lyndon Johnson died in January 1973, whenever he was lost, whenever he was disoriented, whenever he found himself wondering where he was, where he was going, and if he could go on, there was Lady Bird — his brújula — to guide him on his way.
No two Presidents did more for Civil Rights in the United States than Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Lincoln and Johnson also both gave classic speeches at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s speech in November 1863 dedicating the cemetery near the battlefield where thousands had fought and died months earlier is unforgettable. LBJ’s Gettysburg Address is overlooked and largely unknown to many Americans, but it is a speech just as important and worthy of attention as Lincoln’s.
At the time, Johnson was stuck in the Vice Presidency — a job that he hated and which had little power or visibility — and there’s never been a rich history of Vice Presidential oratory. But LBJ’s speech at Gettysburg brilliantly linked the sacrifices made by the soldiers who died in 1863 during the Civil War’s most famous battle with the Americans fighting in 1963 for equality and human rights. When he spoke at Gettysburg on Memorial Day 1963, LBJ was six months away from assuming the Presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, as President, Lyndon Johnson helped turn the words that he spoke that day into actions, reinforce the ideals that Lincoln set forth in his 1863 speech, and give deeper meaning to the sacrifices so many Americans had made throughout our country’s history to truly achieve freedom and equality for everyone.
Here is the Memorial Day address by then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on May 30, 1963:
On this hallowed ground, heroic deeds were performed and eloquent words were spoken a century ago.
We, the living, have not forgotten — and the world will never forget — the deeds or the words of Gettysburg. We honor them now as we join on this Memorial Day of 1963 in a prayer for permanent peace of the world and fulfillment of our hopes for universal freedom and justice.
We are called to honor our own words of reverent prayer with resolution in the deeds we must perform to preserve peace and the hope of freedom.
We keep a vigil of peace around the world.
Until the world knows no aggressors, until the arms of tyranny have been laid down, until freedom has risen up in every land, we shall maintain our vigil to make sure our sons who died on foreign fields shall not have died in vain.
As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too — a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people — so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain.
One hundred years ago, the slave was freed.
One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.
The Negro today asks justice.
We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.”
It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans — white and Negro together — must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.
Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.
To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough. But to fail to ask of him — and of all Americans — perseverance within the processes of a free and responsible society would be to fail to ask what the national interest requires of all its citizens.
The law cannot save those who deny it but neither can the law serve any who do not use it. The history of injustice and inequality is a history of disuse of the law. Law has not failed — and is not failing. We as a nation have failed ourselves by not trusting the law and by not using the law to gain sooner the ends of justice which law alone serves.
If the white overestimates what he has done for the Negro without the law, the Negro may underestimate what he is doing and can do for himself with the law.
It it is empty to ask Negro or white for patience, it is not empty — it is merely honest — to ask perseverance. Men may build barricades — and others may hurl themselves against those barricades — but what would happen at the barricades would yield no answers. The answers will only be wrought by our perseverance together. It is deceit to promise more as it would be cowardice to demand less.
In this hour, it is not our respective races which are at stake — it is our nation. Let those who care for their country come forward, North and South, white and Negro, to lead the way through this moment of challenge and decision.
The Negro says, “Now.” Others say, “Never.” The voice of responsible Americans — the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here — their voices say, “Together.” There is no other way.
Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware to race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.
As 1967 edged towards Christmas and the arrival of a New Year, the Vietnam War continued to rage on while President Lyndon Baines Johnson and a full contingent of staffers and press climbed aboard Air Force One to attend the funeral of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had drowned off the coast of Victoria, Australia. Following the funeral (and despite the rapidly approaching holidays), LBJ decided to extend his journey — several times. From Australia, the President touched down in Thailand and Vietnam to visit U.S. troops, followed by a short visit with Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan.
LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who remained back home at the White House, called the whirlwind world tour, “the fastest, longest, hardest trip any President of the United States had ever taken.” The exhausted press contingent which had accompanied LBJ agreed. They had circled the globe, covered a state funeral, tagged along during a Presidential visit to an active war zone, stopped off in six different countries, and topped everything off with an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican.
The real goal for the trip’s ever-evolving extension from a quick appearance in Australia to honor the President’s friend, Prime Minister Holt, to a 28,294-mile circumnavigation of the Earth became apparent on December 23, 1967. After a short visit with Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and Prime Minister Aldo Moro, President Johnson was received in Vatican City by Pope Paul. With nothing else working, Johnson hoped that the Pope might be able to help broker peace in Vietnam. Despite the President’s efforts, however, Pope Paul VI only promised to study the matter.
Thousands of anti-war demonstrators had greeted LBJ as his plane touched down in Rome, but the President was able to rise above it — literally — as he flew to the Vatican via helicopter. The Presidential helicopter landed in the Vatican Gardens — a first — a technological achievement that traditionalists, including the Pope, grumbled about when they witnessed it. How dare this American land a helicopter in the Vatican Gardens rather than fight his way through Roman traffic like everyone else? After the President’s visit, however, that grumbling gave way to acceptance and the advantages of modernity as the Pope himself began to use a helicopter for short flights out of the Vatican, particularly to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat perched on the hills of Lake Albano, approximately 15 miles outside of Rome.
Up to that point in American history, the relationship between LBJ and Pope Paul was probably the closest between any President and Supreme Pontiff (but still a far cry from the relationships between more recent Presidents and Popes) . With the war in Vietnam stagnant and increasingly bloody, President Johnson had been hoping to find a way for Pope Paul VI to act as a peacemaker, bring the belligerent parties together, and broker a deal to end the conflict. While that never happened under Pope Paul’s guidance or mediation, LBJ had tremendous respect for the Pope and believed that a face-to-face meeting with Paul VI — something which might give LBJ an opportunity to use his famously effective Johnson Treatment — would make a difference in enlisting the Pontiff’s assistance. What happened in the private meeting between Johnson and Paul VI remained known only by those two leaders. According to LBJ’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President told him, “The Pope is a very great man,” and suggested that Paul VI was sympathetic to American struggles in Vietnam. However, other sources reported that the President and Pope had a tense meeting about the worsening state of the war in Southeast Asia and escalation of the conflict due to American policies. LBJ didn’t go into details about what did or did not happen in his meeting with Pope Paul, but in describing his private audience to his brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President claimed, “Incidentally, the Pope said I was one of the great leaders of our time. What do you think of that, Sam Houston?”
What does stand out about the meeting between President Johnson and Pope Paul VI was the gifts that they gave one another. Although Christmas was just a couple of days away, the gifts were not Christmas presents but part of the diplomatic niceties observed by world leaders who frequently exchange gifts during their meetings. Technically, any gifts given to the President by other leaders during his term actually belong to the American people rather than the President himself, but in many cases, the gifts a President receives can be found on display in their Presidential libraries.
Since LBJ arrived at the Vatican on the day before Christmas Eve, Pope Paul’s gift to President Johnson did, in fact, reflect the holiday season. The Pope gave the President a stunning oil painting from the 15th Century — a Nativity scene featuring the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus being watched over by angels.
President Johnson, of course, had a gift for the Pope. To the amusement of the Pontiff and many others within the Vatican, LBJ gave Paul VI a bronze bust of an American President. Was it a likeness of George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? No. Was it a sculpture of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first-and-only Catholic President, who had been assassinated just months in Paul VI’s pontificate?
No. Lyndon Johnson gave Pope Paul VI a bronze bust of…Lyndon Johnson. In a photograph capturing the exchange of gifts between the two leaders, the bemused expression on the Pope’s face pretty much says all that one needs to know about the gift bestowed upon him by LBJ.
According to the State Department’s Chief of Protocol, James Symington, this wasn’t a unique gift:
"You can’t fault a man for wanting to give mementos and gestures of his friendship. But what [LBJ] wanted to take with him was, I don’t remember the exact figure, something like two hundred busts of himself. Some of them were white marblish in appearance and others were bronze-looking. It is, I think, unusual for a man to give a bust of himself in his lifetime, although it’s difficult to give it any other time. But to make a mass-production gesture really boggles the mind…
Today, there are heads of state all over Asia who are trying to decide what to do with the President’s bust. But not just heads of state, because that would have been only a dozen or less [of the busts]. As I say, we had hundreds of them, so many, many people — cabinet ministers and all kinds of functionaries — received one. The President would say, “I want a white one.” “I want a bronze one.” And you never had the one he wanted and you had to go back to get it. [LBJ would exclaim] “Damn it! Can’t anyone do anything right?”
It’s not known what Pope Paul VI did with his bust of Lyndon Johnson, but one thing is certain — the gift definitely wasn’t some sort of limited edition, one-of-a-kind, priceless national heirloom. In fact, over 40 years after LBJ’s death, the gift shop located in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin remains stocked with the same type of busts that the 36th President of the United States once presented to Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Queens, and, on the night before the night before Christmas in 1967, an altogether bewildered Pope.
Our enemies have always made the same mistake. In my lifetime — in depression and in war — they have awaited our defeat. Each time, from the secret places of the American heart, came forth the faith they could not see or that they could not even imagine. It brought us victory. And it will again. For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965
I now know the difference between a cactus and a caucus — in a cactus, all the pricks are on the outside.
Lyndon B. Johnson, to reporters, after meeting with the Senate’s Democratic Caucus following LBJ’s election as Vice President, January 1961
As a Southerner, I am happy to know that a fellow Southerner is in the White House who is concerned about civil rights…LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that LBJ seemed far more willing to fight for civil rights than JFK ever had, following a one-on-one meeting with President Johnson less than two weeks after the Kennedy Assassination
I can’t really give you any articles off the top of my head, but there’s a really great book that was recently released by the University Press of Florida which is an academic study of LBJ’s work for Civil Rights — Freedom’s Pragmatist: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights by Sylvia Ellis.
The definitive study of Lyndon Johnson is Robert Caro’s magnificent series — The Years of Lyndon Johnson — which is up to four volumes so far: The Path To Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power. I don’t know if there has ever been a more detailed series of books ever written about one person, but it is a must-read. It’s takes a commitment to dive into the series since Caro’s almost spent as much time writing the books as it took LBJ to actually live the story told by them and it’s not until the most recent volume (The Passage of Power) that Caro begins delving into LBJ as President. I’m hoping we get the fifth (and final?) volume sometime this decade, but reading the entire series will make it feel like you know Lyndon Johnson.
For those who, unlike me, actually have a personal life, you may not want to devote every waking hour to reading about LBJ via Mr. Caro’s masterpiece. In that case, I’d highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Goodwin has proven her ability over the past couple of decades as one of our great historians, and I think Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is her best work. When LBJ left office, he prepared to write his autobiography, The Vantage Point. LBJ hired Goodwin to help him research and write the book, but he wanted it to sound Presidential or statesmanlike — basically, the opposite of the candid, off-the-cuff LBJ that was always the most fascinating. The result was that The Vantage Point is stiff and unnecessarily formal — like when LBJ would give a speech on television via prepared remarks rather than the barn-burning, passionate campaign speeches that he would give extemporaneously while on the campaign trail.
After LBJ died, Goodwin culled together the raw notes and anecdotes from hours of working alongside of and talking to Johnson for his autobiography, and she put together Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream — perhaps one of the most personal biographies ever written about a President. Johnson’s candor, his brilliance, his incredible political intuition, his deep insecurities, and everything that made him so remarkable and/or frustrating to those who came face-to-face with him, worked for him, and battle against him shine brightly through in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Goodwin basically wrote the book that LBJ should have written because his voice is clear on each and every page. It’s certainly one of the best books ever written about a President, and it’s enhanced not only by Goodwin’s skill as an historian, but because of the unique access she had to LBJ from the time he left the White House.