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After the Kennedy years, what lay ahead for America was a presidential 180, replacing the polished New Englander was a Texan named Lyndon B. Johnson. He was the kind of guy who'd steal a piece of bacon off your plate without asking even if you were the prime minister of New Zealand's wife. But past the outer layer of gruff confidence, Lyndon Johnson was quietly haunted by his own insecurities. And that was something not even three packs a day in all the chicken fried steak in the world could fix.
Welcome to very presidential, a podcast original, I'm your host, Ashleigh Flowers, you can find all episodes of very presidential and all other podcasts, originals for free on Spotify. And if you like what you're hearing, reach out on Facebook and Instagram app, podcast and Twitter at podcast network. Today, I'm picking up where John Kennedy left off. America was now in the mighty hands of his vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson took charge under no less than tragic circumstances, but he had big plans to turn things around and create a better, more equal America.
That is, if he didn't lose himself in the black hole of the Vietnam War.
All of that is coming up. Stay with us. Just two hours after JFK was assassinated, LBJ plunked a hand down on a Roman Catholic missile. There was no Bible aboard Air Force One and that was it. He was now the leader of the free world. It was a grim way to start off, to say the least. For one thing, he had to steer the country through its grief. And Kennedy had left a whole pile of messes for his VP to clean up.
The Civil Rights Act was stuck in limbo in Congress. The Vietnam War was heating up. And worst of all, right away. There were conspiracy theories that Johnson himself had ordered JFK's murder. These weren't just weirdo fringe theories either. Even Jackie Kennedy believed it. It was well known that Johnson did not get along with the Kennedys. There were even rumors that JFK was going to replace him on the ticket when re-election came around. So allegedly, Johnson led a conspiracy to kill Jack Kennedy and take his place as president before it was too late.
LBJ wanted to squash that gossip immediately. The implication was that he could never become president on his own. Basically, they were saying he was just riding on JFK's coattails and that did not sit well with his lifelong inferiority complex. As they say, all things go back to the mother and Johnson's mother, Rebecca, was an old pro at freezing out her children as Professor Robert E. Gilbert described, quote, When her children disappointed her, she could be cold and indifferent to them for long periods of time, even pretending at times that they had died, end quote.
Growing up in a family like that, little Lyndon was obsessed with proving himself. He had a serious need, not even to be loved, but just to be liked. When LBJ moved into a D.C. boarding house as a young congressional aide, he was desperate to make friends. So desperate, in fact, that he took four showers. His first night at the Dodge. It seemed like he thought that slapping on gallons of aftershave was the best way to corner some new pals.
And the next morning he popped in and out to brush his teeth every five minutes just in case he'd missed anyone. But for all his odd quirks, no one could say Johnson hadn't made good on his dreams the way he saw it. Twenty nine years on Capitol Hill gave his name considerable weight.
That is to everyone except the American people. It seemed in the days after LBJ was sworn in as president, 67 percent of Americans polled said they knew nothing about him, which was another low blow to the ol inferiority complex. Being a nobody did not sit well with Johnson. But now that he was president, there was no better way to prove he was fit for the job than, well, just doing it. Johnson's White House was business with a capital B.
Or at least he was far more diligent than his predecessor. He was nearly always up before seven a.m. and from his bedside, he'd summon his aides to brief him on anything that he'd missed overnight.
He started his early morning calls with a wry, little chiding of I hope I didn't wake you. And if that sounds a bit blasé for the president, consider the time his staffers witnessed a rather unsavory medical procedure. When they came in to brief him, his aides were confused to find the president in bed, propped up on his side and a nurse lingering nearby. And it took them a moment to realize what was going on. But they finally realized that she was administering an enema.
Johnson acknowledged nothing and just continued firing off dictation to his secretary as if this wasn't happening.
After wrapping up his bedside telethon, Johnson was off to the Oval Office by nine a.m. He worked until 2:00 p.m. Then after a walk, a shower and a quick nap, he reemerged in a fresh suit ready to start the second half of his day.
Unless that is, of course, he wanted to call in a lady friend for a matinee. For all their differences, this is the one habit Johnson and JFK had in common. They both like to destress with a little workplace sexual misconduct, and they didn't care who knew. Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, once came into the Oval Office and found him on the couch with a secretary.
After that, he made sure it would never happen again. And I don't mean he stopped cheating. He just had an alarm installed to tell him if his wife was approaching the office with or without an afternoon delight, be it women or wisky, Johnson would usually keep working until midnight or 2:00 in the morning, depending on how ambitious he was feeling. Sure, he'd pause for dinner, but it was usually a tight 20, meaning he wolf down his meal in under a half hour, often with a staffer at his side simultaneously feeding him press clips, then more work even if the late hour warranted a drink.
LBJ asked for his own scotch and sodas to be more watered down than his guests. It was his way to keep a clear head and the upper hand as the drinks flowed.
So you might ask, like, why so rigourous? Well, Johnson had only a year in office before the next election in 1964. That's a very short time to convince the nation to re-elect you. So LBJ came in guns blazing. No better way to make his mark than by accomplishing what JFK couldn't passing the Civil Rights Act. This was no easy task. Kennedy hadn't been able to convince his own party to push the bill through the House. But Johnson had cut his teeth on the Hill and he knew how to wrangle his former colleagues.
He railed against Congress for sitting on the bill for so long. Their slain hero, John F. Kennedy, would be ashamed.
They owed him that much, and Johnson's pressure worked. The Civil Rights Act passed in the House in February of 1964, and by June it was approved by the Senate. Now, most of his cabinet expected the work hard, play hard president to be pounding his favorite Cutty Sark whiskey after finally signing the bill. But Johnson's first real achievement was wrapped in gloom. Apparently that night, LBJ Bill Moyers found him sitting alone in bed. Johnson flipped through the newspapers, pointing out, quote, I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come and quote.
Now, Johnson wasn't moping or fishing for compliments. The truth was even he knew that they'd split the region by passing civil rights. From that moment on, parts of the racist south would never support him or potentially the Democratic Party again. And honestly, Moyers probably caught Johnson entering one of his notorious moments of burnout. He'd marathon four weeks chain smoking and working sixteen, sometimes eighteen hours a day to get the bill passed. When the dust finally settled, Johnson's hectic energy bottomed out.
This took a toll on his physical health as well as psychological. When things were good, he felt good. But when things got bad, which in Washington could be often he felt it deeply. Coming up, LBJ gears up for reelection and refuses to admit he's in poor health. Stay with us. Now back to the story.
As President Lyndon Johnson spent little time admiring his handiwork, it was always on to the next goal. So after signing the Civil Rights Act in the summer of 1964, he ran full steam ahead at the next obstacle re-election.
Getting elected by the American public would satisfy Johnson even more than a crisp Fresca on a hot summer day.
And that's saying something. Since this guy had even had a button installed in the office to summon constant refills, there was nothing LBJ wanted more than to prove. He wasn't just a one trick pony. There was just one thing standing in his way, Vietnam.
The situation in Vietnam had kind of been simmering on the back burner for years. No one wanted to get into a full scale combat war that would be long and expensive. But by the time Johnson took over, we were in it. It seemed too late to back out and it was only a matter of time until things escalated, which means if LBJ won a second term, he'd be leading the country through a war he wanted to kick that can down the field as far as he could.
He was so rattled by the idea he even considered dropping out of the election before the Democratic Convention, he allegedly wrote out a withdrawal statement in his loopy cursive. He waxed that he was neither the voice nor the leader to steer America through its troubled waters.
But Lady Bird Johnson put the kibosh on that logic. She reminded LBJ that his life and everything in it revolved around politics without a presidential run. She saw nothing but a lonely wasteland in his future. LBJ's advisers wouldn't entertain his moping, either. Georgia Senator Richard Russell told him, frankly, to drop the childish musings, take a tranquilizer and get a couple hours of sleep. This was not the codling encouragement that Johnson liked. He wanted to be surrounded by people he joked would kiss his ass on a hot summer's day and say it smelled like roses.
But despite all the loyalty, there was another big reason for LBJ not to run. When it came to stress, Johnson's 56 year old body had already lived lifetimes. On his first campaign for the House of Representatives, LBJ dropped nearly 40 pounds in a few months, which was soon followed by an emergency appendix removal. And his time in the Senate was no different. As majority leader, he was plagued by kidney stones. The pain took second place only to the heart attack that nearly killed him in 1955.
But regardless of his questionable health, Johnson couldn't stand the thought of coming so far only to become obsolete. He would not drop out of the race and luckily his hard work paid off. In November 1964, he won the election by a landslide. He got 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest portion in American history. So literally being called landslide. Johnson gave the man some wind in his sails with another four years on the horizon. He had his sights set on a master plan that he called the Great Society.
It was a collection of programs for education, infrastructure and affordable health care. Essentially, he wanted it to be his legacy, but he would have to get it through. Before Vietnam erupted that spring, a poll found that a quarter of Americans hadn't even heard about the conflict, and Johnson wanted to keep it that way. He did his best to stuff the one eyed mother in law of Vietnam out of sight. His reasoning was that you don't keep your hideous in-laws in the living room for guests to see.
And even without a war going on, getting the Great Society through Congress wouldn't be easy. Johnson was facing three big challenges race, religion and Republicans. Race was priority number one in March. Just a couple of months into Johnson's second term, Alabama police attacked civil rights protesters with tear gas and Horsman LBJ knew he had to respond, which he planned to do by getting a voting rights bill onto the Senate floor. But what he didn't do was send in federal support for the protesters, which signaled that maybe he wasn't as committed to equal rights as he said and people took notice.
Soon, picket signs appeared outside the White House that said, LBJ just you wait, see what happens in 68. The criticism and the threat of not winning a second term weighed heavily on the president even during the spring of 1965. According to the biographer Betty Boyd Karoly, the president's doctors were quietly talking to Lady Bird. They worried about the psychological weight on her husband's shoulders. They kept whispering about a fog of depression over Johnson. Depressed or not, Johnson didn't like being threatened.
He decided that he would deal with Governor George Wallace directly to address the brutality in Alabama. Yes, we're talking about that. George Wallace, who tried to keep Alabama schools segregated and who Martin Luther King Jr. called the most dangerous racist in America. So what do you do if you're LBJ and you've got a riled up, prejudiced governor that you still need something from?
Well, you invite him up to the White House and give him the Johnson treatment. When Governor Wallace arrived at the White House, it was a showdown of epic proportions. Johnson sat the governor down in a low seated sofa in a submissive position. Then he got straight to the point, asking for Alabama to protect voting rights for black citizens. When Wallace tried to dodge the request, LBJ leaned in, cursing him out nose to nose. He told the governor to get moving on voting rights.
Otherwise the train was leaving. Without him, he extended a less severe version of the Johnson treatment to the nation to via the television screens. During his next presidential address, LBJ told those at home it is wrong, deadly wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. It is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August of 1965, a major victory that he saw as made by his own merit as the holidays crept towards Pennsylvania Avenue.
The year seemed like a high watermark for his presidency. The country had warmed to him that year.
He'd been voted most admired man in the world in the annual Gallup poll ahead of both Ike, Eisenhower and the late JFK, which, of course, Johnson would delight in hard working as he was. LBJ knew how to take a break or two. And while he appreciated his wife, Lady Bird, her love wasn't always quite enough.
According to Betty Boyd Karoly, Johnson was, quote, cruel, crude and very insecure. He had an insatiable sexual appetite and flaunted his infidelities in his wife's face, end quote. Crowley went so far as to deem him a sexual gorilla, which wasn't totally inaccurate. I mean, at six, four and around 200 pounds, he took up space and he wasn't afraid to say so, no matter how lewd. Johnson notoriously requested that the Hagger clothing company be sure to leave his pants nice and loose in the crotch.
Otherwise, LBJ lamented, they're just like riding a wire fence. When it came to women to Johnson made no effort to hide his desires. Once, at a 1960 dinner in Paris, the wife of a State Department official plunked down in Johnson's lap, and the two proceeded to grope each other while the entrees were being cleared. And he was just as bold when he was president.
He dabbled with everyone from White House secretaries to a California congresswoman. And of course, the first lady knew all about it. If another woman arrived unannounced for dinner, Lady Bird graciously welcomed them in and complimented their outfits. Even when she found lingerie on the floor of LBJ's hotel room, Bird said nothing. She was unflappable.
Now, you'd think in exchange for showing such decency with the situation, Johnson would be gentle with his wife. But not so. LBJ rolled out the Johnson treatment even in their own marriage. If Lady Bird appeared under made up, his backhanded compliment was, put your lipstick on. You don't sell for what you're worth. Almost like an addict. LBJ both used and abused the unwavering attention he got from Lady Bird. He greedily relied on it and was completely crippled without her in his darkest moments.
And there were plenty of those on the horizon in 1966.
Coming up, the Great Society unravels in the face of the Vietnam War and now back to the story. By 1966, LBJ was in trouble in a matter of months, the war in Vietnam had gone from being a quiet little problem on the back burner to being all anyone could talk about. And it was clear Johnson had no idea what he was doing over there. There was no clear strategy in Vietnam and no plan for how to get out. Naturally, Americans were angry.
By May, the rallying cry of protesters could be heard from the South Lawn gates. Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?
Even clergymen joined in, which is a pretty sure sign that you're losing the faith when the faithful are out on the picket.
Three years of being criticized for the Vietnam War didn't make it any easier for Johnson to handle. Reading reports from The New York Times calling the U.S. military's official body count wags wild ass guesses made his blood boil. Johnson was so distraught about the bad press, he asked his aides if they should consider censoring U.S. reporters in Saigon. The question was met with a resounding no. They would, however, muzzle and mislead the press wherever possible, which would end up being pretty useless.
Johnson never stopped thinking he could muscle through Vietnam, and he refused to find a contingency plan to get out, and it would cost him the 1968 presidential election. This time, Johnson couldn't avoid talking about Vietnam like he had done the last election. By 1968, the war had crept out of its hiding place and started a grease fire in every kitchen in America. One poll indicated that nearly half of Americans thought troops should have never been sent to Vietnam in the first place.
Still, Johnson's deep insecurity wouldn't let him consider withdraw, never admit defeat, never surrender. Point blank, LBJ told journalist David Brinkley. I'm not going to be the first American president to lose a war. The circumstances that created Vietnam weren't Johnson's mistake, but staying in the war clearly was, even if he wouldn't admit it. That made much of the country pretty sure that they didn't want another four years of Johnson.
Oddly, what convinced Johnson to consider throwing in the reelection towel wasn't actually a failure in Vietnam. It was the possibility that he might not live long enough to ride it out. You see, he was living on borrowed time. There were quiet rumors that he might have had pancreatic cancer, which, on top of his heart condition, kidney stones and other health issues was not a good sign. Gone were the days of the president's lite and wildly inappropriate humor.
His machismo had been swallowed by fears of mortality. LBJ confided in Lady Ladybird that he feared a stroke, another heart attack or something equally debilitating would come for him. And he wasn't spit balling on that one either. He was so worried that he actually had hired an actuary to estimate when he might die. The report came back with a bleak guess. Johnson might be dead by age 64.
That was just four years away.
At this point, having a vague idea of when the Grim Reaper might come knocking certainly didn't help Johnson's composure. On top of being depressed, his behavior grew increasingly erratic. Johnson still chain smoked three packs each day. He later told Walter Cronkite that it was better for his heart for him to smoke than for him to be nervous. Johnson's fear of losing control even crept into his nightmares. He had a recurring dream where he was sleeping in bed next to his mother, and his father would angrily stormed through the door.
Or sometimes, instead of his father, it was Bobby Kennedy. Eventually, Johnson's gloomy moods were so severe that two of his aides reached out independently to a psychiatrist for advice. He was spiraling, and it's not hard to see why nearly 12000 American lives have been lost in Vietnam. His approval rating was hovering at an all time low of about 36 percent, so his chance of re-election was basically zero.
Johnson finally stepped out before the public in late March of 1968 with great seriousness. He told the nation, quote, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president, unquote. If he couldn't solve the problem, he would remove himself from it. After the announcement, Lady Bird recalled her husband's attitude was like he'd been set free with one last burst of energy, the old whirling dervish LBJ reemerged to finish his term.
Johnson signed a dizzying package of bills for public housing and family planning before he left office. It was like he wanted to end on a high note, especially knowing that he wasn't long for the world.
Ultimately, the actuaries estimate proved to have scary accuracy. Johnson died about four years after he left office at the age of sixty four.
So perhaps the flurry of signings was his way of saying goodbye. He couldn't undo the disaster of Vietnam. That much was clear. But maybe Johnson thought that creating a few enduring programs was a way, however small, to apologize to the country and to preserve a little bit of his legacy. He wasn't asking for America to trust him again, but he hoped he might do a little good so that the door didn't hit him on the way out.
In the next episode, I'll be looking back at a president who is definitely not remembered, Grover Cleveland.
He was the only president in history to serve two non-consecutive terms, the only one to get married in the White House. And as far as we know, the only one to kidnap a baby. Thanks for listening.
If you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find them all for free. On Spotify, very presidential was created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers and his Sparkasse Studios' Original starring Ashley Flowers. It's executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Ron Shapiro with production assistance by Carly Madden. This episode, a very presidential, was written by Mackenzie Moore with writing assistants by Kate Gallagher and Drew Cole.
To hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio originals.