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Lyndon Johnson Dethroned

January 3, 1961


The 1960 presidential elections made Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson president—of the Senate. As vice president-elect, Johnson experienced decidedly mixed feelings about giving up a post in which he had thrived during the mid-1950s. Having fallen short in his quest for the White House, he set out to refashion the vice presidency into his own image. "Power is," he said, "where power goes." LBJ believed that the power he had enjoyed for eight years as Senate Democratic leader belonged to him by virtue of his personality, rather than through the job he held.

On January 3, 1961, the Senate Democratic Caucus convened in the newly opened Dirksen Office Building. As its first order of business, the caucus elected eight-year Senate veteran Mike Mansfield as majority leader. Senator Mansfield truly did not want the job and had yielded only when President-elect John F. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "Mike, I need you."

Lyndon Johnson approached the new majority leader with three requests. Mansfield readily agreed to support them in the caucus. Johnson wished to keep S-211, his office as majority leader, as his Capitol office (along with seven rooms in the West Front terrace). He wanted his long-time lieutenant and gifted vote-counter Bobby Baker retained as party secretary. LBJ’s third request, however, ignited a firestorm. In his capacity as Senate president, Johnson wished to be named permanent presiding officer of the Democratic caucus. He claimed—wrongly—that Vice President Alben Barkley, a former Democratic majority leader, had presided over the caucus a decade earlier.

The caucus greeted this proposal with stunned silence. Then, Albert Gore, Sr., a Senate moderate, rose to recite a catalog of shared grievances against the former leader’s arm-twisting style. A party staffer described the scene. "[Gore’s] face was flushed with indignation beneath the neat and orderly waves of gray hair, and his speech was slow and deliberate as he released his words in a prolonged drawl, intensifying the agony that they seemed intended to inflict on Lyndon Johnson." A senator who was present later told a reporter, "Johnson sat there, his face ashen." At that point, Mansfield threatened to resign as leader if the caucus rejected the motion.

Senators voted to approve Mansfield’s proposal, but the tally among the 63 Democrats was a humiliating 46 to 17. Johnson stormed out of the room muttering, "Those [expletive deleted] sandbagged me." With that, he gave up any pretense of serving as the Senate’s "super-leader."

The next time he returned to a caucus meeting, it was as a guest of Mike Mansfield.