On December 18, as he was about to light the White House Christmas tree, Johnson sought to comfort the nation by describing an American future that he hoped to make a reality:
"These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem," he said. "Today - as never before - man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race, and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise of life on this earth."
It sounded like an overhyped political oratory, but Johnson was uniquely qualified to try to live up to it. The son of Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr, a prominent member of the Texas House of Representatives, he was endowed with exceptional talent, experience, and personality. Affecting a modesty (which he did not feel), Johnson liked to describe himself simply as a "free man, American, Texan, and a Democrat, in that order."
In fact, he was a rare phenomenon - a man utterly dedicated to the art of political persuasion and leadership.
When Johnson got his first job in Washington's Capitol Hill in 1931, he was just another congressional aide: a rail-thin, homely-looking, six-foot four-inch, 33 year-old former youth organizer and elementary school teacher from Cortulla, Texas. But he soon became known as an advocate for the government's responsibility to give a leg up to people who deserved it; he was equally known for his own boundless energy in providing such help.
Those qualities, combined with his sharp mind and Alpha-male personality, propelled Johnson rapidly upwards: in 1937, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; in January, 1949 - after serving during World War II in the U.S. Navy - he was sworn in as a United States senator; and in 1955, at the age of 46, his colleagues elected him as the Senate Majority Leader, the head of what was then deservedly called, the "world's most exclusive deliberative body."
Johnson - by then known as "LBJ" - now held the second most powerful position in the U.S. government. He used his political skills in a fashion so memorable and effective that it deserves a brief description.
Johnson's key advantage was the detailed knowledge he'd assiduously collected over the years about his fellow legislators - their political standing in their home districts, the issues they sought to advance, the committee assignments they wanted, what new road, dam or other infrastructure they'd liked to deliver to their voters, and even what time of the day they were most amenable to making a deal.
All of this intelligence, together with Johnson's dogged refusal to accept a "no" as an answer - a trait one biographer called his "indomitable will" - made up something called "The Johnson Treatment." Two Washington Post columnists described it as "central...to his manner of persuading and manipulating people."
"When (Johnson) applied the Treatment," they wrote, "he towered over people, moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made the Treatment an almost hypnotic experience, and rendered the target stunned and helpless."
Senator Hubert Humphrey, who later became Johnson's vice president, said only half-jokingly that after getting the "Treatment," that he came out covered in several bodily fluids including blood, sweat, tears and spit.
The Treatment, sometimes applied with a generous helping of bourbon whisky, was regarded as irresistible. Not everyone subjected to it had fond memories: one of LBJ's most severe and knowledgeable critics was George Reedy, his long-time press secretary. He described his boss as overly demanding, hard to work for, and brusque. But, Reedy admiringly added that Johnson "was capable of inspiring strong attachments even with people who knew him for what he was."
BUILDING THE GREAT SOCIETYHis front seat in the well of the of the U.S. Senate, and his more than five years in the White House gave Johnson the platform to pursue his legislative goal, which was as oversized as his personality: he wanted to surpass the social progress achieved by the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the New Frontier of President Kennedy.
It was a very ambitious aim, but as the New York Times wrote in 1964 after Johnson entered the White House with a 70% popular approval, the new president was "riding on the greatest economic boom in peacetime history."
The American Gross National Product rose from 1960 to 1964 a spectacular 25%; unemployment plummeted to 4.1% by the end of 1965; inflation hovered around 1% a year; and income inequality was the lowest since the 1930s because of a 70% tax on the highest incomes.
Johnson, who never forgot the poor children he had taught as a young man - and never missed a political trick - knew what to do. He took advantage the atmosphere of affluence and optimism to introduce the "Great Society," his own far-reaching program for improving the lives of African Americans and others in need.
The slew of laws he pushed through Congress included two measures of historic importance: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both statutes put an end to legal racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. Both were passed after Johnson used every ounce of his power and prodigious persuasiveness to crush the stiff opposition of not only Republicans, but also die-hard Southern Democrats.
The Civil Rights law was a showpiece of LBJ's wall-to-wall social betterment agenda: It extended federal minimum wage to millions of unprotected workers and included such measures as an education bill to help disadvantaged students; a provision (later called Medicare) to provide health care for the elderly; a law that increased the funding for the "War on Poverty," a program to increase the employment opportunity for the poor; and even provisions to protect clean air and water, improve the landscaping of highways, and creating the National Foundation of the Arts.
In addition, the act sought to eliminate "every remaining obstacle to the right and opportunity of all citizens to vote," an issue to which Johnson returned the following year with the Voting Rights Act. This law was designed specifically to protect the right of black Americans to register and vote in the South, and it climaxed a dramatic political change that had started with the passage of the Civil Rights Act: Segregationist Southerners and other pro-segregation Democrats left their party and joined the Republicans.
As Johnson told an aide after one of his difficult legislative victories, "We have lost the South for a generation." It was a prediction that began coming true already in the midterm elections in 1966, when the Democrats lost three seats in the Senate, 47 in the House and the majority in eight state legislatures.
But such was Johnson's political and personal clout that even the shift did not block the passage of the vast majority of the "Great Society" laws. By the time he left the White House, Congress had passed and Johnson had signed into laws an astonishing 96% of his 87 legislative proposals - more than double the percentage that had been achieved by the idolized President Kennedy.
Collectively, these statutes took long steps to help erase the disgraceful stain left behind by the slavery: the legal segregation and discrimination in America. But as Johnson soon found out, that progress had little, if any, immediate impact on two major problems that in the mid-1960s kept America from reaching the nirvana of his Christmas speech.
One of them was the country's continued racial divide. It was painfully illustrated in the South by the deep hostility with which white police and politicians fought against the blacks' freedom marches demanding their voting rights. And it was equally starkly shown by the thousands of African Americans who rioted and wreaked destruction in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and in Chicago.
The reaction to these violent events included a sharp drop in the public's support for LBJ's policies. When asked in a 1965 Gallup poll how blacks might improve their situation, 88% of whites suggested self-improvement, education and hard work rather than help from the government.
The second, personally even more terrifying - and eventually decisive - issue for the President was the demands of his generals for sending more American troops into the voracious maw of the war in Vietnam. Johnson, who was far more sensitive than his public persona suggested, agonized over each request, and was profoundly hurt by the young Americans shouting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you killed today?"
By August, 1967, the public opposition to his handling of the war reached 60%; he became reluctant to show up outside the White House; the emotional strain of the war was taking a visible toll on his health. He became easily irritated, depressed and dropped hints that he would not run for another term in the office.
He reached the final decision on March 31 of the following year. As Johnson described it, his daughter Lynda - who was expecting a baby while her husband, a Marine officer, was serving in Vietnam - approached him with "tears in her eyes and voice" and asked, "Daddy, why does Chuck have to go and fight and die for people who don't want to be protected?"
At 9 p.m. that evening, Johnson scrapped a scheduled TV report to the nation about limitations on the bombing in Vietnam. Instead, he announced that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination… for another term as your president."
On January 23, 1973, four years after he had turned over his office to Republican President Richard Nixon, LBJ died - apparently of heart attack - at his ranch in Texas. He was only 64, but he had left behind a priceless legacy: the Great Society laws, and their enormous contribution to the rights, liberty and quality of life of all American citizens