My history hero: Lyndon Johnson (1908–73)

"He really understood politics. He was constantly trying to cobble together compromises that would deliver votes to push through legislation. He was the most amazing modern politician": Jeremy Vine tells York Membery why Lyndon Johnson is his history hero...

Lyndon B Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Lyndon Johnson, also known as LBJ, was the 36th president of the United States, in office from 1963–69. The Texan assumed the presidency on John F Kennedy’s assassination, and went on to win a landslide victory over the Republicans in the 1964 election. Johnson’s presidency saw the introduction of his ‘Great Society’ legislation, aimed at attacking poverty and outlawing racial discrimination. But his popularity nose-dived after he escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War, and he decided not to seek the Democratic US presidential nomination in 1968. He died of a heart attack aged 64.

When did you first hear about Lyndon Johnson?

The world I was born into in 1965 was Johnson’s world. I’ve also just read a fascinating biography about him by Randall Woods, which points out that the central event in his life was being there on the day that Kennedy was shot. At that point, LBJ was politically washed up, but overnight he became the most powerful man in the world. What I find so interesting about him is that he became president through several dramatic rolls of the dice.

What kind of person was Johnson?

He was incredibly driven – driven to escape the poverty of his childhood, to be somebody, to railroad all his political opponents, to change America. So he had an agenda. He really understood politics and the way it works. It’s all about building consensus, even if you have to bash people’s heads together.

So there were shades of Frank Underwood (the Machiavellian fictional politician played by Kevin Spacey in the American version of House of Cards) about him?

Absolutely. As Senate majority leader before becoming president, he was constantly trying to cobble together compromises that would deliver the votes to push through legislation, and trading in rumour and gossip. He was the most amazing modern politician.

What made him a hero?

Firstly, his sheer stamina. He never really stopped trying to get to the top, and stay at the top. Despite having a near-fatal heart attack which could have taken him out of the game for good, he kept fighting. Secondly, the way he took America three steps forward in terms of its civil rights legislation.

What was his finest hour?

The day that Kennedy was shot, when he immediately rose to the occasion. As he boarded Air Force One, someone told him the plane would take off in 30 minutes and he replied: “Hang on, I’m the president – I decide when it takes off!” Also, the civil rights legislation he pushed through. When he became president there were still separate schools for black and white people in the South, separate washbasins, you name it. He realised all that had to change.

What would he make of today’s US political scene?

He was a liberal, but a rightwing one. I think he’d recognise the power of Donald Trump, and be alarmed that the Democrats had failed to tap into the anger that has fuelled Trump’s rise.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Well, he was promiscuous and unfaithful to his wife. His constant search for compromise could also lead one to the conclusion that all of his principles were tradeable. Lastly, he could be very unpleasant to colleagues: he once told an aide to get out of his office, even though they were on Air Force One at the time.

Are there any parallels between his life and your own?

Like him, I’m fascinated by politics – but unlike him, I’ve never been interested in supporting any political party.

If you could meet Johnson, what would you ask him?

Can you take me shooting on your ranch? He hated Bobby Kennedy and when he took him shooting there, he gave him the biggest gun he had. After firing it, the recoil knocked Bobby to the ground. I’d like to put on a cowboy hat and see if I was man enough to withstand the same gun’s recoil.

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The Jeremy Vine Show is on BBC Radio 2, weekdays at 12 noon. Jeremy also presents the BBC Two quiz Eggheads.