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Lyndon Johnson Dethroned

January 3, 1961


The 1960 presidential election made Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson president—of the Senate. Johnson was not excited about trading the powerful role of Majority Leader for the decidedly less influential position of vice president, and he set out to refashion the vice presidency into his own image. “Power is,” he said, “where power goes.” Johnson believed that the power he had enjoyed for eight years as Senate Democratic party leader belonged to him by virtue of his personality, rather than through the position he held, and he devised a strategy to continue to serve as party leader in his new role as vice president.

Days after Senator John F. Kennedy won the presidential election in November 1960, he called eight-year Senate veteran and Democratic whip Mike Mansfield, with whom he had a good working relationship, and urged him to step into the position of majority leader. Mansfield told Kennedy that he didn’t want the job but promised to think it over. Shortly after, Johnson phoned Mansfield to urge him to take the position. He assured Mansfield of his ongoing support, telling him, “I am going to sit in on the Policy Committee and Steering Committee and I will do everything for you at any time. . . . I will be there every week.” Mansfield bowed to the pressure and agreed to take the job if elected.

Johnson intended to do more than support Mansfield, however. In December Johnson explained to several senators, including Hubert Humphrey and Richard Russell, that he wanted to be elected chairman of the Democratic Conference, a position usually reserved for the party leader. Johnson then spoke to Mansfield, who agreed to the plan, believing it to be an honorary appointment. (Mansfield was under the impression that Alben Barkley had presided over Conference meetings as vice president, though it is not clear he ever did so.) Johnson also persuaded Mansfield to let him retain his office in S-211, the space just off the Senate Chamber from where he had exercised his control over the Senate as majority leader. Party secretary Bobby Baker, who was a close aide of Johnson and who had agreed to stay on under Mansfield, later recalled that Johnson assured him that “it’s going to be just the way it was!”

On January 3, 1961, the Senate Democratic Conference convened in the New Senate Office Building (later named the Dirksen Senate Office Building). In his role as Democratic party leader, Senator Johnson presided over the meeting. He thanked his colleagues, informed them of his intention to resign from the Senate that day, and assured them that he looked forward “to maintaining the most important friendships that I have made in my entire life” as vice president. As its first order of business, the Conference chose its leadership team, electing Mansfield as leader and Humphrey as whip by acclimation, and filling other leadership posts.

Next, Mansfield presented a motion for Johnson to preside over future meetings of the Conference, “in the tradition of [Vice President Alben] Barkley and others.” His colleagues 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 who attended the meeting 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.” Mansfield assured his colleagues that with his proposal he was not suggesting that he surrender responsibility or authority as leader. Mansfield claimed—disingenuously—that the proposal was his alone, not Johnson’s, and he regretted any embarrassment it may have caused the vice president-elect.

Senator Spessard Holland proposed a compromise, a substitute resolution authorizing the majority leader to invite the vice president to attend party meetings and “to request the Vice President … the President Pro-Tempore, or any other Democratic Senator to preside” at Conference meetings. The Democratic senators voted to approve Holland’s proposal, but 17 of Johnson’s colleagues voted against it. Johnson stormed out of the room muttering, “Those [expletive deleted] sandbagged me.”

Although Johnson kept his S-211 office, his plan to redefine the role of vice president by maintaining power over his party in the Senate had been dashed by his colleagues. Over the next two years Johnson presided over Conference meetings on a few occasions. He would have to wait until taking the oath of office as president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, however, to once again place him in a position of power in the Democratic party.