Johnson, Lyndon B. (1908–1973)

Author:W. W. Rostow

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Lyndon Baines Johnson was a strong President whose performance was tempered by an affectionate reverence for the constitutional system as a whole. He exploited the cumulative precedents for presidential leadership and authority in domestic, foreign, and military policy; protected presidential power against congressional intrusion while working with vigor to carry Congress with him; and turned the office over to his successor intact. Jointly with Congress, he extended federal power greatly in CIVIL RIGHTS, education, and welfare. He appointed the first black Supreme Court Justice, THURGOOD MARSHALL; but Johnson's attempt to assure liberal leadership beyond his term by the nomination of ABE FORTAS as Chief Justice failed when Fortas withdrew in 1968.

All this tells us little of how the American constitutional process actually operated in the turbulent, creative, and tragic days between November 22, 1963, and January 20, 1969. The agenda Lyndon Johnson confronted was unique. Aside from the urgent need to unify the nation and establish his legitimacy in the wake of JOHN F. KENNEDY'S assassination, he faced simultaneous protracted crises at home and abroad: a crisis in race relations and a disintegrating position in Southeast Asia. WOODROW WILSON and FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT had also confronted both urgent domestic problems and war; but the course of events permitted them to be dealt with in sequence. Johnson faced them together and they stayed with him to the end.

By personality and conviction, Johnson was a man driven to grapple with problems. But he also carried into office a passionate moral vision of an American society of equal opportunity?a vision he proved capable of translating into LEGISLATION, above all in the fields of civil rights, education, and medical care. The CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964, the VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965, and the Fair Housing and Federal Jury Reform Acts of 1968 were major results of his crusade for racial equality. The ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION ACT and HEALTH INSURANCE FOR THE AGED ACT (MEDICARE) of 1965 were outstanding among dozens of acts passed in both fields. In carrying the religious constituencies on the Education Act, Johnson displayed skill bordering on wizardry. As proportions of gross national product, social welfare outlays of the federal government rose dramatically between 1964 and 1968 while national security outlays rose only slightly. This was

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possible because of an average real growth rate of 4.8 percent in the American economy.

Johnson had been a man of the Congress for some thirty years before assuming the presidency. No President ever came to responsibility with a deeper and more subtle working knowledge of the constitutional tensions between Congress and the President, and of the requirement of generating a partnership out of that tension, issue by issue. But Johnson knew from experience that, on domestic issues, a President's time for leading Congress and achieving major legislative results was short. From his first days as President, Johnson expected Congress would, in the end, mobilize to frustrate one of his initiatives and then progressively reduce or end his primacy. He was, therefore, determined to use his initial capital promptly. Although momentum slowed after mid-1965, Johnson proved capable of carrying Congress on significant domestic legislation virtually to the end of his term.

Johnson was opportunistic in the best sense. He exploited the Congress elected with him in November 1964; but he also channeled the powerful waves of popular feeling in the wake of the assassinations of John Kennedy, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. , and ROBERT F. KENNEDY into support for his legislative program.


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