On this day in 1908, future President Lyndon Baines Johnson is born on a farm near Stonewall, Texas. The brash, outspoken Johnson grew up in an impoverished rural area and worked his way through a teachers’ training college before entering politics.
In 1937, Johnson won a seat in the House of Representatives. His government service was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Navy and won the Silver Star for bravery in combat in the South Pacific. After the war, he served additional terms in the House of Representatives until he was elected to the Senate in 1948. He became the Senate’s minority leader in 1953. A year later, with the Democrats in control of Congress, Johnson became the Senate’s majority leader and, in 1960, John F. Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate. In 1963, Johnson was unexpectedly thrust into the role of president when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. “LBJ,” as he was known, was sworn in on Air Force One, while a stricken Jacqueline Kennedy looked on, on November 22, 1963.
As he finished out Kennedy’s term, Johnson strove to pass legislation that he felt would make America a “Great Society.” In 1964, Americans officially elected Johnson to the presidency by the largest popular vote in the nation’s history. Johnson used this mandate to push for improvements he believed would better the American way of life.
Under Johnson, Congress enacted sweeping legislation in the areas of civil rights, health care, education and the environment. During his State of the Union speech on January 4, 1965, Johnson laid out his agenda to fight urban decay, poverty and racism. He pushed through the creation of Medicare/Medicaid, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the White House Conference on Natural Beauty. He also signed the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act, out of which emerged the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Through the Economic Opportunity Act, Johnson fought a “War on Poverty” by implementing improvements in early childhood education and fair-employment policies. Johnson was also a strong advocate for conservation and proposed the creation of a “green legacy” through the preservation of natural parks, open spaces and shorelines and the construction of new urban parks. In addition, Johnson stepped up research and legislation regarding air- and water-pollution control measures.
Johnson achieved many of his goals, while also cutting taxes, and some of his programs remain in place today. In many ways, though, Johnson’s legacy of a “Great Society” has been overshadowed by his choice to involve greater numbers of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. In 1968, he announced he would not run again for the presidency and Republican Richard Nixon was swept into office, thanks largely to his promise to withdraw American soldiers from Vietnam.