10 Facts About Lyndon B. Johnson

Born in a farmhouse and destined for the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

His presidency was marked by successes in the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, environmental and consumer protection laws, gun control, and the creation of Medicaid and Medicare. But it was also marred by an inherited Vietnam War, which he expanded. Its profound unpopularity, transposed onto Johnson himself, led him to refuse standing for reelection in 1968, ending an extensive and monumental political career.

1. HE STARTED OUT AS A TEACHER.

To pay for his time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (which is now Texas State University), Johnson taught for nine months at a segregated school for Mexican-American children south of San Antonio. The experience, as well as his time teaching in Pearsall, Texas, and in Houston, shaped his vision of how the government should help educate the country's youth. After signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, which used federal funds to help colleges extend financial aid to poor students, he remarked on his time teaching at the Welhausen Mexican School, saying, “It was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”

2. HE WAS ALSO A JANITOR.

Johnson not only shared in the unfortunate tradition among teachers of using his own paycheck to pay for classroom supplies, he also wore multiple hats during his tenure as an educator. He taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, managed a team of five teachers, supervised the playground, coached a boys’ baseball team and the debate team, and mopped floors as the school’s janitor.

3. HE HAD A HEAD START IN POLITICS.

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first thanksgiving day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House
Keystone/Getty Images

Johnson’s father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., was a member of the Texas State House of Representatives for nine non-consecutive years. His guidance and connections helped Johnson enter politics, and at the age of 23, just one year out of college, Johnson was appointed by U.S. Representative Richard M. Kleberg as his legislative secretary on the advice of Johnson’s father and another state senator whom Johnson had campaigned for.

Johnson became a leader of the congressional aides, a dedicated supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who became president a year after Johnson began work in the House), and the head of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration—a New Deal agency meant to help young Americans find work and education.

4. HE WAS AWARDED A SILVER STAR DURING WWII.

Johnson won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1937, representing a district that encompassed Austin and the surrounding hill country. He would serve there for 12 years, but he would also serve as a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve in the middle of his tenure as a representative. He was called to active duty three days after Pearl Harbor, eventually reported to General Douglas MacArthur in Australia, and on June 9, 1942, volunteered as an onboard observer for an air strike mission on the south shore of New Guinea that had fatal consequences.

Possibly because of heavy fire or a mechanical failure, the B-26 bomber Johnson was on returned to base while another (which carried Johnson’s roommate at the time) was shot down with no survivors. MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his involvement, although some view it as a political trade for Johnson lobbying President Roosevelt for more resources in the Pacific.

5. HIS ENTRY INTO THE SENATE WAS A “LANDSLIDE.”

Johnson toured Texas in a helicopter for a 1948 Senate primary race that pitted him against former Governor Coke Stevenson and state representative George Peddy. Stevenson led the first round of voting, but, without a majority, a runoff was called. Johnson won it (and the nomination) by only 87 votes out of 988,295 (.008 percent) amid accusations of voter fraud. Biographer Robert Caro noted that Johnson’s campaign manager (and future governor) John B. Connally was connected with over 200 suspicious ballots from voters who claimed they hadn’t voted, with election judge Luis Salas claiming almost 30 years later that he’d certified 202 phony ballots for Johnson. Stevenson challenged Johnson’s win in court but lost, and Johnson went on to beat Republican Jack Porter in the general election. The accusations of fraud and the tight margin of his primary victory earned him the ironic nickname [PDF] “Landslide Lyndon.”

6. HE ALMOST DIED WHILE SERVING IN THE SENATE.

Emperor Haile Selassie saluting and US President Lyndon B Johnson holding his hand to his heart as the National Anthems are played, at the White House in Washington DC, February 18th 1967
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A demanding boss, workaholic, and chain smoker, Johnson had a heart attack in the summer of 1955 during his time as Senate Majority Leader. Within a few days of the health scare, he had telephones and mimeograph machines brought to his hospital room so he could resume an intensely long work day. He stopped smoking, but he would later describe his heart attack as “the worst a man could have and still live.”

7. HE WAS ONE OF FOUR PEOPLE TO HOLD FOUR DISTINGUISHED OFFICES.

Among the most trivial of trivia (be sure to memorize it for your pub quiz night) is Johnson’s rare, strange distinction of the combination of offices held. Following John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, and followed by Richard Nixon, Johnson is one of only four people to have been a United States representative, the Senate Majority Leader, the vice president, and the president of the United States. At age 44, Johnson also became the youngest person ever to serve as Senate Minority Leader. Don’t ever say we haven’t helped you win bar trivia.

8. HE VOTED AGAINST EVERY CIVIL RIGHTS BILL IN HIS FIRST 20 YEARS AS A LEGISLATOR.

Johnson’s legacy is tied directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he was an imperfect vessel for change. As a representative and senator, he’d voted down every civil rights proposal set before him, aligning with the post-Reconstruction south, calling President Truman’s civil rights program “a farce and a sham—an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.” Johnson changed his tune as a senator in 1957 and stridently coerced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights expansion since Reconstruction, as president.

9. JOHNSON’S STYLE OF COERCION WAS CALLED “THE TREATMENT.”

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first thanksgiving day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House
Keystone/Getty Images

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Johnson towered over most colleagues, and he used that physicality to his benefit. When he needed to extract a favor from someone, he'd simply stand over them with his face inches from their own and tell them just what he needed, in a move dubbed "The Johnson Treatment." Beyond bodying his opponents and friends, Johnson would also promise to help them, remind them of times he’d helped them, coax, flatter, goad, and predict doom and gloom for those who weren’t on his side.

10. HIS REELECTION WAS A TRUE LANDSLIDE.

After the 87-vote debacle that launched him into the Senate, Johnson experienced a genuine electoral phenomenon befitting someone nicknamed “Landslide.” In the 1964 campaign, Johnson faced not only Republican Barry Goldwater, but also questionable popularity. He’d never been elected president in his own right, and his leadership on the Civil Rights Act had southern supporters questioning their loyalty. To counteract the latter development, Johnson deployed his greatest political ally, his wife Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, to tour the south in a train, passing out her pecan pie recipe alongside campaign buttons. After the final tally, Johnson kept Texas and half the south, winning 44 states and 61.05 percent of votes cast—the largest-ever share of the popular vote.

This Is the Brain of the Man Who Shot James A. Garfield

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was about to board a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. when Charles Guiteau stepped behind him. The failed lawyer, newspaperman, and evangelist—enraged that the president’s advisors had refused him an ambassadorship he believed he deserved, and, as he had written the night before, to “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic”—had been stalking Garfield for months, intent on killing him. Now, here, finally, was his chance.

Guiteau raised his pistol, a British Bulldog he’d bought for $10, took aim, and pulled the trigger—not once, but twice. One bullet grazed the president’s arm; the other came to rest behind his pancreas. Guiteau was apprehended, and Garfield was whisked away to an upstairs room. “Doctor,” he told the city health official who was the first doctor on the scene, “I am a dead man.”

He was moved to suffer first in the sweltering White House, where 12 doctors probed his wounds with their unsterilized fingers, and then to Long Beach, New Jersey, where he died on September 19, 1881. Shortly after, Guiteau was charged with murder.

At his trial, which began in November, Guiteau appointed himself co-counsel; among his other lawyers was his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who normally handled land deeds. Scoville claimed that his brother was legally insane, and Guiteau said that yes, while he was legally insane—because God had removed his free will at the time of the assassination—he was not medically insane. Still, for someone who claimed he wasn't actually insane, his behavior during the trial was strange: He frequently interrupted his attorney, sang songs, insulted the jurors, and declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

(Guiteau may have had a point. Garfield ultimately died of an infection that may have been caused by doctors using their unwashed hands to look for the bullet. According to PBS, "In late 19th century America, such a grimy search was a common medical practice for treating gunshot wounds. A key principle behind the probing was to remove the bullet, because it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from 'morbid poisoning' to nerve and organ damage.")

Though the defense called experts to attest to Guiteau’s insanity, psychiatrists called by the prosecution noted that the defendant knew right from wrong and was not definitely insane. In the early days of January 1882, the jury sentenced him to die by hanging.

On June 30, 1882, Guiteau read a poem he'd penned himself (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) and fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold. An hour and a half after that, his autopsy began, and his brain was removed and examined to get to the bottom of the insanity question once and for all. According to Sam Kean in his book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, “Most scientists at the time believed that insanity, true insanity, always betrayed itself by clear brain damage—lesions, hemorrhages, putrid tissue, or something.” Guiteau’s brain weighed 50 ounces and looked, for the most part, normal—at least to the naked eye. But under a microscope was a different story:

"Guiteau’s brain looked awful. The outer rind on the surface, the 'gray matter' that controls higher thinking, had thinned to almost nothing in spots. Neurons had perished in droves, leaving tiny holes, as if someone had carbonated the tissue. Yellow-brown gunk, a remnant of dying blood vessels, was smeared everywhere as well. Overall the pathologists found 'decided chronic disease … pervad[ing] all portions of the brain' … Guiteau was surely insane."

Today, portions of Guiteau’s brain can be found at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

[h/t Biomedical Ephemera]

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

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