Lyndon B. Johnson

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LBJ’s Humor

When most people think of Lyndon Johnson they don’t envision a man with a great sense of humor. He was in power in turbulent times.

When I see his face in my mind I see a man who was troubled, an unsmiling man with furrows in his brow accentuating unrelenting worries. Yet even in those dark moments his humor would surface unexpectedly and lighten his mood. He once said “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.”

He also said, facetiously,  “There are no favorites in my office. I treat everyone with the same general inconsideration.”

Though he didn’t have the public eloquence of Kennedy or King, he was interpersonally charismatic. He was a wonderful storyteller. Last week, I had the pleasure, and the honor I might add, of speaking with Doris Kearns Goodwin for about 30 minutes. As you may know, she worked closely with LBJ for 7 years, and because of her professional relationship with him, out of all the biographies about him, I would argue that hers is the most humanizing. No writer knew him better.

Dr. Goodwin told me that LBJ was a fantastic storyteller and she never tired of listening to him, though eventually she came to realize that his stories were not all completely true. He might have used my tag line.  Some of his stories were apocryphal. Goodwin told me that, like Lincoln, LBJ used stories to animate his points, to skewer his adversaries, or simply to amuse and entertain folks.

He learned his storytelling, she said, from his father and grandfather. He listened at night as they talked politics on the porch with local power brokers. That became LBJ’s unique power, too: interpersonal persuasion. He could read people and package an argument, often in story form, so that it was uniquely positioned for them.

Let me share a couple of LBJ stories that my father, a great admirer of LBJ, shared with me long ago.

LBJ liked to refer to Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller as Barry and Rocky. He said: “I understand that Barry and Rocky, in running for the GOP nomination, are both cutting way back on their visits to California. Reminds me of a case in Texas where a man wanted to run for Sheriff against an unpopular incumbent named Uncle Johnny.  Man asked his friend Dave if he thought he had a chance. Dave said, ‘Well, I guess it depends on who meets the most people.’ ‘Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,’ said the man. Dave explained further, ‘If he meets the most people you’ll win and if you meet the most people he’ll win.’ That’s the situation Barry and Rocky find themselves in.”

One last one is about a “boy in Texas who was very poor and tired of seeing his mama struggling so much to feed her family. So he sent a letter to God asking for 100 dollars for his mama. The letter got forwarded eventually to the postmaster general in Washington D.C. He took pity on the boy and put 20 dollars in an envelope and mailed it to him. Two weeks later, the postmaster got a letter back from the boy that said, “Dear God, thank you for sending the money, but next time don’t send it through Washington cuz they took 80% of it.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin said that it was LBJ’s time teaching in Cotulla that inspired and shaped his vision for the Great Society. She’s happy to see that LBJ is getting long deserved credit now for the progressive laws and policies he passed in his time, like Medicaid and Medicare, and the Voting Rights Act, as well as the institutions he helped to found, like NASA and Public Broadcasting. She just wishes he was still around to see it. He would certainly smile.

Lyndon Johnson’s Gifts To Texas

For me, Lyndon Johnson did more for Texas in his lifetime than any other politician, except for Sam Houston. And Houston’s greatest gift was given to Texas in the form of a resounding victory at San Jacinto, before he began his political years as president. Two of Johnson’s most enduring gifts to Texas are NASA, and the electricity for rural Texas, especially for the inaccessible hinterlands of the Hill Country. LBJ said, in 1959, that “nothing had ever given him as much satisfaction as” bringing electricity to the rural people of his region.  

By the end of his life he had a new achievement he was proudest of and believed would be his greatest legacy. That was the founding of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in tandem with dedicating his Presidential Library at the University of Texas at Austin.   In this academic year the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Library are both celebrating the 50th anniversary of their founding. The school welcomed its first class in 1970 and the library was dedicated in May of ‘71. These separate institutions represent a fitting legacy.. After all, he said when he was president, quote —At the desk where I sit, I have learned one great truth. The answer for all our national problems – the answer for all the problems of the world – come to a single word. That word is ‘education.’”  

Johnson also believed in the education provided by the school of hard knocks. He liked to quote his father who told him that quote — “You should brush yourself up against the grindstone of life and that will give you a polish that Harvard and Yale can’t give you.”  

LBJ did not have the eloquence of King or Kennedy, but he was a master of personal persuasion. When he had a congressman in the corner of a room at a political breakfast, and a lawmaker’s hand firmly enveloped by his, Johnson could sell abstinence to an alcoholic and even civil rights to a segregationist. No President ever pushed more legislation through Congress than he did, not even FDR. And his focus was on equality for all, in education, in economics, in voting, in opportunity, and in life as a whole.     

He was a complicated man. He said some racist things in his life, but he was simultaneously an iconic force in the Civil Rights Movement.

He passed the Civil Rights Act of ‘64 and the Medicare and Medicaid Act of 65 as well as the Voting Rights Act of ‘65.

Consequently, years later,  LBJ saw the founding of his school of Public Affairs as the greatest chance he had at fostering the continuation of good works for mankind through government. Unlike many today, he believed that government could in fact do the big things that the little guy couldn’t do for himself – like deliver electricity to rural farms and make sure the color of your skin didn’t determine where you could eat or sleep. 

When he spoke to a group of students at his School of Public Affairs in Austin about a month before he died.  LBJ told them that a life in public affairs, one of helping your fellow man, is the most rewarding of all paths one could take in life.  He said, “The greatest known satisfaction for human beings is knowing – and if you are the only one that knows it, it’s there and that’s what’s important – that you’ve made life more just, more equal, and more opportune for your fellow man – and that’s what this school is all about.”

A Tribute to Earl G. Graves, Sr. (Ep. 36, 2020)

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Texas Standard: December 25, 2019

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Texas Standard: May 15, 2019

A potential challenge to Rowe vs. Wade by Alabama lawmakers as a federal appeals court hears a Texas case that could sharply curb abortion access, we’ll have the latest. Also thousands of fish, crabs and other sea life wash up dead along Galveston bay. Oystering there is closed until further notice. A clampdown on seafood safety on the Texas gulf after a chemical spill, we’ll have details. And the return of the so-called education degree in Texas. Plus, has Texas removed more Confederate monuments than any other state? A politifact check and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: February 15, 2018

Harris County’s bail system treats the rich differently from the poor. An appeals court affirms that ruling. We’ll have the latest on what’s next and what it could mean for taxpayers. Also, a Texas lawmaker is leading an effort to roll back some requirements aimed at helping the disabled. We’ll explain. Plus, two native Texans are part of a suit that wants the feds to drop marijuana as a schedule 1 drug. What a ruling could mean. And we’ll explore technology as it’s being used in groundbreaking ways at the Olympics. Plus, LBJ did not like his presidential portrait. We’ll tell you why and what he did about it. Those stories and a whole lot more on todays Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: October 21, 2016

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Texas Standard: December 29, 2015

The forecast for the National Weather Service: lots of unfilled positions. We’ll explore what that could mean for safety in our state of extremes. Also a Muslim driver shot and killed at a Houston intersection. No charges brought against the shooter. A case of road rage, said the prosecutor. But a reporter found evidence of something more. Plus: The great society. The Johnson treatment gets a whole lotta credit. One author says far too much…a legacy reconsidered. And breeding deer for bigger antlers—blurring the lines between wildlife and livestock…those stories and much more today on the national news show of Texas: