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Useful Notes / Lyndon Johnson

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"Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There's nothing to do but to stand there and take it."

"If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: 'President Can't Swim.'"
Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson (August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973), often referred to by his initials of LBJ, was the 36th President of the United States (1963–69). The thirteenth President from the Democratic Party, and the first president to be born in the 20th century by birth order, he inherited the office following the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy, and was followed by Richard Nixon. He managed to be both incredibly good for his domestic reforms (legislation upholding civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, the arts, urban and rural development and public services) and horrendously bad for what he did abroad (escalating American involvement in The Vietnam War). Ultimately his foreign policy mistakes came to threaten or even negate his domestic achievements, to the chagrin of liberals throughout the USA who continue to fight for much of what Johnson fought for.

Johnson grew up the oldest of five children in the desperately poor Hill Country of central Texas. His father, Samuel, came from a long line of farmers. Sam Johnson had big dreams of being a lawyer but never finished high school because of an illness and lack of money. He was able to get certified as a teacher and even served in the Texas state legislature at two different points note  but was held back from climbing further out of lack of a formal education. His mother, Rebekah, was from a family of Baptist ministers and had a college degree, a rarity at the time for a woman. She was a teacher as well. Both of his parents instilled a love of learning and politics into him from a young age that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

By the time he graduated high school at 16, he applied to college but was rejected. He moved to California for a couple of years to work for an uncle to save money to go to college, reapplied, and was accepted. He taught for a few years after graduating but, after getting assigned to a desperately poor school for the children of Mexican migrant workers, decided his talents lay elsewhere and got a job working for his Congressman. It was also during this time that Johnson encountered Huey Long, who he would later on describe as being a major influence in his political career. He then served in state government, and when the seat in Congress opened up, he ran and won in 1937. He was the first member of Congress to volunteer to fight in World War II and was stationed in the South Pacific. He was released from active duty in 1942 but stayed on as a member of the reserves until he was president.

He became the youngest Senate Majority Leader at 48, after only eight years there, and has been called perhaps the most effective Senate Majority Leader in history.

Johnson was a colorful figure whose rough-edged Texan demeanor contrasted strongly with Kennedy's elegant image. One incident had him exposing his appendicitis scar to the public; in another he picked up his pet beagle by the ears, assuring the onlookers, "He lahks it!" He had odd eating habits, eating quickly and, if someone near him hasn't finished eating yet, taking their food to eat, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. From his time in the Senate, he had a rather bullying and forceful personality when he wanted to make somebody come to his point of view. Perhaps his oddest habit was conducting meetings on the toilet (one of the best nonsexual examples of Coitus Uninterruptus). Or maybe his oddest habit was pulling his penis — named "Jumbo" — out in front of the White House Press Corps and waving it around. Still, he sometimes had moments of sympathy that shocked those close to him: After he was sworn in on Air Force One, he called Kennedy's mother to try and comfort her. Satirical portrayals in media usually focused on playing up his Texan-ness to a comical degree. Oh, he was also a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

He spent quite a bit of time on working vacations to his home state of Texas, to the point where his ranch house in Fredericksburg became known as the "Western White House" and featured, among other things, an office suite for his staff, a commercial kitchen capable of supporting his family, staffers, and security detail, a telephone setup that put phones within reach of any given chair he might be in no matter what room of the house he was in, an airstrip, and a hangar for the small Lockheed VC-140 JetStar, called "Air Force One Half" which he'd use to travel to and from San Antonio (Air Force One, a Boeing 707, was far too large to land at Fredericksburg). This was on top of the three TVs in every room so that he could watch every news channel simultaneously (an arrangement copied by Elvis Presley at Graceland). Much to his wife's ongoing chagrin, he was prone to holding cabinet meetings in their bedroom at all hours of the night whenever a situation would arise, often with her not knowing about it until she would wake up in the middle of a meeting. The Western White House now serves as an LBJ museum, with many artifacts from his time there on display (including Air Force One Half and his Amphicar).

Johnson's health history was complicated: he was very aware of a strong legacy of male heart disease and early death in his family, and it played a large part in his relentless ambitions and drive to get things done. He even commissioned an actuarial study while he was still in the White House to see how much time he had left; the results (along with guilt and stress from Vietnam) led him to resume smoking almost as soon as he left office, having originally quit many years before, after being hospitalized for a heart attack. He therefore knowingly contributed to his relatively young death in January 1973, when he suffered his third one. The famously gregarious Johnson was also terrified of ever being left alone, due to his fear of Dying Alone. However, when he finally suffered the fatal heart attack, he was in his bedroom – alone.

Appears in the following works:

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  • Unsurprisingly, Oliver Stone's JFK paints him as a supervillain who rubber-stamps the Vietnam War in order to get elected. The plot relies on the so-called "Wise Men", fourteen unofficial 'advisors' from the World Bank and other organizations who oversaw the war from start to finish, as the real leaders; Johnson is just a Puppet King in the movie.
  • Played by Liev Schreiber in Lee Daniels' The Butler, which depicts him holding a conversation while taking a crap.
  • Archival footage of LBJ appears in Nixon, a 1995 biopic directed by Oliver Stone, released after Richard Nixon's death.
  • In Forrest Gump, the title character moons President Johnson. In the book, Gump and Johnson were sharing the stories of their respective surgical scars—Johnson from gallbladder surgery, Gump from being "wounded in the buttocks." A photographer just happened to walk by at the inopportune moment and spun the story.
  • A lot of other works set in the Vietnam era, such as Across the Universe (2007), usually mention him in a big protest scene.
  • An unnamed Johnson is seen from behind, petting his beagle, in Batman: The Movie, as he announces the fate of the representatives of the United World Organization.
  • In The Right Stuff, Donald Moffat gives a compelling portrayal of LBJ. "You know what the Russians want?"
  • In the film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Ponty is seen leaning in to the White House windows to say, "Good morning, Mr. President!" to an LBJ lookalike.
  • Never seen or heard in The President's Analyst, but it's him. A self-described 'typical American' proclaims that he's a liberal in the same tradition as the President: "You know — we're for civil rights!" In a location shot outside the White House gate we see his beagles being walked.
  • We Were Soldiers references Johnson's administration obliquely; Johnson comes off as something of an Obstructive Bureaucrat. This appears to be more or less what Joe Galloway, the co-author of the original book, really thought of Johnson.
  • In HBO's Path to War he is portrayed by Michael Gambon as a tragic hero whose noble and compassionate domestic goals end up being destroyed by the Vietnam War.
  • Is portrayed by James Cromwell in RFK, which shows some of the animosity between him and Robert F. Kennedy.
  • Portrayed by Tom Wilkinson in Selma, though there's been significant controversy about whether the film exaggerates Johnson's tensions with Martin Luther King, Jr. and incremental approach to Civil Rights. In fairness, it does show Johnson siding with King at film's end, repudiating George Wallace, and moving forward with the Voting Rights Act.
  • Portrayed by John Caroll Lynch in Jackie.
  • Woody Harrelson played him in LBJ, a biopic directed by Rob Reiner.
  • Randy Quaid portrayed him in the TV movie LBJ The Early Years, which details LBJ's early political career leading up to his presidency. Quaid would win the Golden Globe Award for his performance.


    Live-Action TV 
  • Legends of Tomorrow shows LBJ visiting Vietnam in 1969. As a reward for rescuing him from the minefield, LBJ gave the Legends the secret recipe of his wife's famous pecan pie.
  • In Seinfeld, when asked if an (apparently very ugly) infant more resembles the mother or the father, Kramer replies "Lyndon Johnson."
    • In "The Outing", the characters argue who was the ugliest world leader of all time. George suggests Johnson.
    • Also, in one episode, George misses his boss' instructions because George failed to follow him into the restroom where he continued to talk, unaware that George hadn't followed him. Jerry says: "He pulled a Lyndon Johnson on you," adding that apparently an entire Vietnamese bombing campaign was planned as Johnson recovered from some bad Chinese food.
  • He gets a shout-out in The West Wing:
    Josh: LBJ never would have taken this kind of crap from Democrats in Congress! He'd have said "You're voting my way, in exchange for which it is possible that I might remember your name."
  • In Adam Ruins Everything he is portrayed as the ultimate example of a Bunny-Ears Lawyer in the White House and given the - rather disturbing - nickname "el beejay".
  • The "Daisy Girl" campaign commercial, aired only once on September 7, 1964, helped tip the scales of the 1964 Johnson vs. Goldwater presidential election in LBJ's favor.
  • Referenced in the Batman (1966) episode "Dizzoner the Penguin". Both major parties ask Batman to run for President under their banner; Batman responds to the second call with "Don't you already have a candidate?", obviously referring to incumbent President Johnson. Became Harsher in Hindsight and/or Hilarious in Hindsight a few years later when Johnson gave up on trying to win the Democratic nomination in 1968.
  • He appears in the third season of The Crown, portrayed by Clancy Brown. He takes briefings while using a urinal, almost exposing himself to his chief of staff.
  • Godfather of Harlem: Johnson shows up several times in Seasons 2 and 3, working with Congressman Adam Powell to try and move Civil Rights legislation through Congress.

  • Frank Zappa attacked what he regarded as Johnson's empty rhetoric about a Great Society on his album Freak Out, added an imitation of him during Plastic People on Absolutely Free and Johnson is also featured twice as a cut-out on the album cover of We're Only in It for the Money. In a 1990 interview Zappa did say that his opinions about Johnson had changed over time. Whereas he felt in the 1960s that the man blew it, he came to see him in a more favorable light after all the far worse US presidents that followed (especially Reagan, who Zappa particularly loathed.)

  • The Tony-Award winning play All the Way is based on his first year in office, with a focus placed on his reelection and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Bryan Cranston (he of Breaking Bad fame) won a Tony for the portrayal. A follow-up play, The Great Society, covers the rest of his Presidency, but hasn't made it to Broadway as of yet.
    • HBO made a TV movie based on the first play, with Cranston reprising his role and Jay Roach directing. The movie came out in 2016.

    Video Games 
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater opens with a tense conversation between Johnson and Premier Khrushchev. The latter is preparing to be overthrown by Brezhnev and is in no mood to cut deals. Johnson bestows the code name "Big Boss" unto the hero in the ending sequence.
  • Archive footage of Johnson appears in Call of Duty: Black Ops, which takes place during the Vietnam War. Members of his cabinet appear in a in-game cutscene, though the scene takes place back when Kennedy was still in office.

    Western Animation 
  • In King of the Hill, Buck Strickland is physically based on Johnson, and shares many of his more unflattering traits.
    • Hank hero-worships both of them; among the presidents, only his appreciation for Ronald Reagan rivals that of LBJ. In addition, Hank's prize bloodhound Ladybird is named after Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson, the President's wife.
  • Depicted in Escalation, a 1968 animated short subject produced by Ward Kimball, but not connected with Walt Disney Studios. Johnson is depicted with dollar signs in his ears, a dove flies upside down, the word "truth" is cuckoo-bleeped out when "Battle Hymn of the Republic" plays, his nose grows longer and more erect, and then his nose explodes with images of the Playboy bunny logo, brief shots of women's bare breasts, various food products, cameo shots of Billy Graham, John Wayne, Doris Day, Lassie, Superman, Little Orphan Annie, S&H green stamps, explosions, cigarettes, various military decorations, concluding with the Purple Heart. A single Big-Ben style chime is heard, and Johnson's bust statue crumbles to pieces.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Dog of Death", Santa's Little Helper is forced to watch violent images to make him become a more aggressive watch dog. One of the images he sees is Johnson yanking his dog's ears.
    • In "Homer Bad Man", one of the mistakes corrected by the sensationalist news show Rock Bottom is "Lyndon Johnson did not provide the voice of Yosemite Sam".
    • In "Bart The Fink", Marge says to Bart that going through a period of remorse after someone you love has passed away is normal: "I had the same experience after Lyndon B. Johnson passed away."
    • According to Grampa Simpson, "LBJ" was one of the words TV stars couldn't say on the air back in his day.
  • Dino Spumoni "caught his ear" in an episode of Hey Arnold!, a possible reference to a controversial incident in which Johnson was photographed picking up his dog, Little Beagle Johnson, by his ears.
  • Appears in the Mary Shelley's Frankenhole episode "LBJFK", asking the good doctor to put his brain in JFK's more appealing body.

  • During the Kennedy administration, Vaughn Meader recorded a comedy album entitled The First Family. Johnson appears in only one sketch:
    Johnson: Ah'd like to say somethin', if Ah might!
    JFK: Must you, Lyndon?
  • In 1970, Orson Welles released "The Begatting of the President", an oral narrative parodying Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epic style, as a massive Take That! directed at the Johnson administration and The Vietnam War, leading up to Richard Nixon's election as president in November 1968.