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Senate Leaders


Lyndon B. Johnson
Master of the Senate

Since his death in 1973, Lyndon B. Johnson has remained very much in the public consciousness. His tape-recorded telephone conversations have been the subject of books and television broadcasts. Robert Caro's best-selling, four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. And Johnson's name surfaces frequently in newspaper and magazine articles about Senate leadership.

Born in Texas in 1908, Lyndon Johnson attended public schools in Johnson City, graduated from the Southwest Texas Teachers College at San Marcos (now known as Texas State University—San Marcos) and taught school to Mexican American children before he came to Washington as secretary to Representative Richard M. Kleberg (D-TX). Energetic and ambitious, he rose to attention by winning election as Speaker of the "Little Congress," a congressional staff club. In 1935 Johnson was appointed Texas director of the National Youth Administration—a New Deal agency designed to help young people get educations and jobs.

When his local congressman died in 1937, Johnson jumped into the race and won the special election to succeed him. In the House he aligned himself with the legendary Texas representative Sam Rayburn and with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. When the United States entered World War II, Johnson became the first member of Congress to enlist in the armed services, becoming a lieutenant commander in the navy. His military service abruptly ended, however, when President Roosevelt ordered that members of Congress choose between serving in uniform or in Congress. Johnson resigned his active commission and returned to Capitol Hill. In 1941 he made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for the Senate. In 1948 he won a Senate seat in a hotly contested race by a margin of 87 votes.

As senator, Johnson allied himself with Richard B. Russell, the Georgia Democrat who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and the powerful Southern Caucus. Known as a "senator's senator," Russell could have obtained his party's floor leadership, but he preferred to exert leadership behind the scenes in committee. Russell also strongly dissented from many of President Harry Truman's legislative initiatives, particularly on civil rights. Leadership fell instead to Senators Scott Lucas (D-IL) and Ernest McFarland (D-AZ), who struggled ineffectively to maintain party unity and promote Truman's Fair Deal programs. Lucas lost his race for reelection in 1950 and McFarland in 1952, creating a vacuum in Democratic leadership.

With Russell's support, Lyndon Johnson won election as Democratic whip in 1951 and two years later, while still in his first term in the Senate, he became Democratic minority leader. The Senate in 1953 was almost evenly divided: 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and 1 independent. Oregon senator Wayne Morse had just resigned from the Republican Party, but he agreed to vote to allow Republicans to organize the Senate. Republican vice president Richard Nixon also stood by to break tie votes, permitting Republicans to remain the majority party throughout the 83rd Congress. Yet nine senators died during that Congress, and enough Democrats replaced Republicans that at times the minority party held more seats than the majority.

In 1955 Senator Morse joined the Democrats and gave them a one-vote majority. Lyndon Johnson became majority leader and held that post for the next six years. Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House during those years and often found Johnson more cooperative than the Senate Republican leader, the independent-minded William F. Knowland of California. Particularly on foreign policy, Johnson offered bipartisan support to the president.

In leading a narrow majority, Johnson relied on his power of persuasion to keep the Democratic Conference united and round up additional votes among Republican senators. Reporters Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described the "Johnson Treatment" in their book Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power (1966):

Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He 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 genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.

Johnson suffered a serious heart attack in 1955 and afterwards tried to moderate his pace. During long absences, while he was recuperating at his Texas ranch, he relied heavily on the Democratic secretary, Bobby Baker, who maneuvered to postpone legislation until the majority leader could return to Washington. Then Johnson would call up a series of bills in a rush, passing them by unanimous consent agreement and making it clear who was in charge.

For Johnson, civil rights loomed as the most intractable legislative problem of the decade. The Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, ordering an end to segregated schools, had outraged southern senators. They circulated a Southern Manifesto urging massive resistance to school integration, but Johnson declined to sign it. In 1957 President Eisenhower proposed a tough civil rights bill that southerners adamantly resisted. Johnson recognized the symbolic value of enacting the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, but he feared that a protracted filibuster would split his party. His removal of the key enforcement provisions of the law steered it through to enactment. Not until 1964, when Johnson was president, would a strong civil rights act finally win passage.

The recession of 1958 helped Democrats win a sweeping victory in the congressional elections, increasing their number in the Senate from 49 to 65. Johnson quickly discovered that a large majority would be harder to keep unified than a narrow one. Younger liberal senators were challenging his leadership. Johnson also had higher ambitions, looking toward the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. The nomination went instead to Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, who surprised everyone by inviting Johnson on the ticket as his running mate. The Kennedy-Johnson victory in November promoted the majority leader to vice president. Senator George Smathers (D-FL) recalled in an oral history that "Johnson didn't really want to leave the Senate." The new vice president retained the office that he had used as majority leader (S-211, now called the LBJ Room). His successor as majority leader, Senator Mike Mansfield (D-MT), proposed that the vice president also chair the Democratic Conference. Senators rose in protest over this violation of the separation of executive and legislative branches. Stunned by the reaction, Johnson rarely attended Conference meetings.

John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, thrust Lyndon Johnson into the presidency. From the White House he acted as a "super majority leader," planning legislative strategy, advising his party's leadership on Capitol Hill, twisting arms, and employing "The Treatment" to win support for the ambitious legislative program he called the Great Society. He enjoyed a landslide election as president in 1964, but the war in Vietnam eroded his popularity and he declined to stand for reelection in 1968. Johnson died at his ranch in 1973.