Lyndon B. Johnson: Character Traits & Qualities

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If the personalities of U.S. presidents and the character traits that make them unique are of interest to you, this lesson has what you are looking for. In this lesson, we will discuss the character qualities and personal attributes of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson grew up extremely poor in central Texas to cotton farming parents who lost their farm when he was very young. Growing up the way he did gave Johnson a chip on his shoulder that hard work and marrying well couldn't knock off. He had been determined as a youth to change his station in life and worked hard to see that dream realized.

Lyndon B. Johnson
Johnson

He attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College and began teaching Latino children in West Texas. Living around his students enabled him to make connections to their situations and his life regardless of color. This was also something that shaped his character and the way he tried to govern as president.

Congressman Johnson

When Johnson arrived in Congress in 1937 at age 29, he immediately came under the tutelage of Senator Sam Rayburn of Texas and President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation aimed at curbing the economic stagnation of the era worked well for Johnson's personal ideology. Johnson became a believer in Roosevelt's New Deal and fashioned himself in Roosevelt's political image. Rayburn and Roosevelt's influence on Johnson would also shape his character.

In 1948, Johnson won his election to the Senate and at age 40 became the youngest minority leader in U.S. history. The early political success that Johnson had at a relatively young age also influenced his character. By the 1950s, Johnson was majority leader of the Senate. Johnson had eyes on the White House, and his ambition knew no bounds.

In the election of 1960, John Kennedy ran for president. Although the men harbored extreme contempt for each other, Kennedy needed Johnson to shore up votes in the South. Johnson had no intentions of becoming vice president, especially to Kennedy. He wanted to become president.

Together, Johnson and Kennedy won in 1960 in large measure because of Johnson's hold on the South. Johnson made sure to rub that in Kennedy's face. Johnson worked to support Kennedy from the Senate but hated his position as No. 2. This would also shape Johnson's character and actions when his time in the Oval Office came in November 1963.

President Johnson

The chip on Johnson's shoulder growing up poor caused him to feel deeply for those who lived in poverty. Johnson believed that to end racism, poverty needed to be eradicated. When Johnson announced his Great Society legislation in 1965, it included programs to improve education (Higher Education Act of 1965), healthcare (Social Security Act of 1965), and even had measures on the environment (Clean Air Act of 1963). Johnson was dedicated to the Great Society, but unfortunately, Vietnam got in the way.

The speed with which Johnson made it through Congress and into the leadership of the Senate made Johnson confident he could get things done just by the force of his personality. He learned from Rayburn how to make deals with other legislators to earn support for measures down the road. He learned from Roosevelt how to use the power of his office to intimidate and influence legislators.

When it came to Vietnam, Johnson said publicly that he wanted to find a way out. Privately, he looked for ways to increase hostilities. Johnson thought he could have things both ways because he had always been able to have things both ways. He honestly believed he could have his war to appear strong on communism and have his Great Society to satisfy the liberals in his party. His arrogance ensured that he got neither.

With each additional soldier he stubbornly sent to Vietnam and with each bomb he dropped, he lost his presidency. Protests outweighed his Great Society programs, and eventually he decided not to run for president in 1968.

In truth, he had learned nothing from Roosevelt. When Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to pack the Supreme Court with more justices, for example, Roosevelt backed off and continued working with Congress. Johnson went deeper and deeper into the Vietnam debacle until it swallowed his presidency whole. Johnson didn't know how to back off.

The Johnson Treatment

Part of Johnson's charm was his colorful sense of humor. He was known for telling some of the foulest jokes ever uttered on Capitol Hill. These jokes told in the backrooms of Congress helped him make it to the top of the Democratic leadership. They also put some congressmen off, whose sensibilities were too delicate for his cursing and off-color jokes.

Adviser to the President Louis Martin and Johnson
Johnson

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