The Rise of Lyndon Johnson: Texas Educator, Congressman, Senator, and Vice President

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Lyndon Baines Johnson, who would later become the 36th President of the United States, began his career as a teacher in Texas before moving on to politics.

Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) was been born in Stonewall, Texas to a family which had played a prominent role in the state for many years. He attended Johnson City High School (a town which had been named for Johnson’s father’s cousin, James Polk Johnson) and graduated in 1924.

After a brief move to California where he worked in an elevator for a short time, Johnson (who is often remembered by his initials, LBJ) returned to Texas to attend Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College, graduating in 1930, proceeding to turn his attention to teaching, first for Mexican students south of San Antonio, and then at Sam Houston High School in Houston, where he taught public speaking (he had been successful in debate and public speaking while in college).

Congressional Aide and Congressman

In 1930, Johnson entered politics for the first time, helping to campaign for Congressional candidate Welly Hopkins, who in turn helped the young teacher (then just 22) attain a job as an aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg.

Though not necessarily an elected official himself, Johnson soon found great success even as an aide, being named President of the “Little Congress” – a group of congressional aides with ties to many elements of Washington politics. It is here that Johnson first established the many relationships which would certainly benefit him as he continued to move forward in politics.

While in Washington, Johnson attended Georgetown University briefly to achieve some education in law, and it is here that he met Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor, whom he would marry in 1934.

After being appointed to the Texas National Youth Association in 1935 (thanks to his experience as both an educator and politician), Johnson moved to create a political career for himself, running for congress in 1937.

Running under a platform which echoed the New Deal of then-popular President Roosevelt, in the midst of the continuing Great Depression, Johnson won the election and served in Congress for 12 years, until 1949.

Controversial War Record

When the U.S. entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, Johnson, to his credit, joined the Navy Reserves (even as he continued to serve in Congress), and requested a combat assignment, which was not given to him.

Instead, Johnson was commissioned to an inspection assignment, which saw him traveling to the Pacific theater in order to check on the readiness of the military there. While working in this capacity under General MacArthur, Johnson faced one potentially harrowing situation, where he was scheduled to ride along as an observer in a B-2 bomber on an important bombing run.

Johnson escaped death that day, when the bomber he was supposed to be on was shot down with no survivors. Instead, Johnson rode on a different plane, which had to turn back before facing enemy fire. Nevertheless, as a result, Johnson was awarded the prestigious Silver Star – which was controversial because he had not actually been in any real combat, and none of the others involved in the mission received such medals.

Reporting back to President Roosevelt, Johnson decried the conditions of the military in the Pacific, and was then made chairman of the Naval Affairs committee in Congress, which was in charge of helping the Navy get its act together. In this role, Johnson certainly played an important part in turning the tide of the war in the Pacific (just as future-President Truman did in his own Senate committee).

Senate and Vice President

Lyndon Johnson twice tried to be elected to the U.S. Senate. The first time, back in 1941, had seen him losing a controversial and very corrupt (on both sides) election against Texas Governor W. Lee O’Daniel.

The second run for the Senate, in 1948, was more successful, though still very controversial (there are very convincing claims that Johnson, or someone on his side, rigged the election in certain important counties). Johnson won the Democratic primary against Coke Stevenson by only 87 votes, and then went on to win the general election.

As Senator, Johnson quickly, within only three years, was named the Democratic party leader after having served on the Armed Services Committee and Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee (Johnson was often lauded for his investigative skills).

Johnson found so much success as minority leader in the senate over the following decade that when the Presidential election of 1960 came around, with President Eisenhower (with whom Johnson had faithfully worked over the previous 8 years) stepping down, Johnson was one of the top choices to be the Democratic nominee. He lost the nomination, however, to John F. Kennedy, who was pushed forward on the strength of his war record and his important family name.

Kennedy, recognizing the strength of Johnson to the southern vote (Kennedy was from New England), named him his Vice Presidential candidate, which Johnson accepted (despite having run a very negative “Stop Kennedy” campaign).

After Kennedy’s extremely slim victory over future-President Richard Nixon in the fall of 1960, the Democrats claimed victory, and Johnson became the Vice President of the United States.

After this, the relationship between Kennedy and Johnson was tenuous at best. Johnson clearly attempted to play a much more active role in government than Kennedy liked, and he attempted to push the President forward on certain issues, such as in Civil Rights.

Whatever their personal feelings for each other might have been, when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Johnson was forced to take over his role as President. Though he surely would have attempted to achieve this office for himself again one day, he suddenly found himself thrust forcefully into the spotlight in the midst of one of the America’s most tragic moments.