President Lyndon B. Johnson passed away on January 22, 1973, just four years after leaving the Oval Office and one of the most tumultuous presidencies in U.S. history.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Johnson—who was almost universally known as LBJ—Mark Lawrence, historian and director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, spoke to Newsweek about his legacy and how he compares to President Joe Biden.
Like Biden, Johnson served for many years in the U.S. Senate, was vice president to a younger, more charismatic man, and his ascent to the presidency was not widely expected.
Johnson’s time in office was largely dominated by the war in Vietnam, but he also pushed major social policy in the form of the Great Society and oversaw the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.
“There are so many interesting parallels that it was really hard to resist this theme, especially back in 2021 when people were trying to sort of understand how Joe Biden stacked up against other presidents,” Lawrence told Newsweek.
“I think on the most basic level, here are two guys who rise to the presidency after very long service in Congress—related to that is, I think, their reputations as leaders with a taste for bipartisanship and pragmatism,” he said.
“I think both of them were seen as essentially problem-solvers who weren’t strongly ideological in their orientation,” Lawrence said.
Overshadowed by Charismatic Men
Johnson was elected vice president as President John F. Kennedy’s running mate in 1960, becoming president following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Biden served for eight years under former President Barack Obama.
Obama and Kennedy are both seen as charismatic figures, and both were younger than their VPs.
Lawrence said that “one of the most interesting parallels is the fact that both of them came into the vice presidency with very arguably far more experience than the man at the top of the ticket.”
“In both cases, I think you can make a very strong argument they were overshadowed by the charisma of that person at the top of the ticket,” he added.
“And I think both of them were brought onto the ticket for political reasons but also the appeal of having someone who had this long career, or this kind of gravitas that would potentially help to cushion the presidential candidate against any concerns about a lack of experience or lack of political savvy on the Hill—and an ability to get things done, because these guys had such track records getting things done for such a long time,” Lawrence said.
A Challenging Political Landscape
Lawrence noted that the last three years of Johnson’s administration were “much less productive” as he faced political headwinds, but he pointed to the fact that Congress remained “very much in Democratic hands.”
“LBJ was still able to get significant legislation [passed], if not on the scale of what he was able to accomplish early in his term,” he said.
Lawrence said that Biden has “obviously faced a very challenging political landscape since he came into office with far fewer possibilities for enacting transformative legislation than LBJ had.”
“And I suppose you could say a difficult situation has simply gotten worse,” he said. “In LBJs case, to put it bluntly, I suppose a very promising case—a very promising situation— got somewhat worse. For Biden, a very bad situation has gotten worse.”
“So they’re both trending in the less promising direction. But I think the starting point was quite different for the two presidents,” he said.
A Different Democratic Party
Though both Johnson and Biden may have bipartisan instincts, the nature of coalition-building in Washington has changed since the 1960s.
Lawrence pointed to the New Deal Coalition that “rested fundamentally on white Southerners and northern urban industrial workers, which is a winning combination for Franklin Roosevelt” and continued to be successful for Democrats in the ’40s, ’50’s and ’60s.
“I think LBJ is the last president of that political era in American history,” he said.
Lawrence said that “the political realities of Joe Biden’s era of democratic politics are so different from the realities that propelled LBJ’s career, that I think these two men really embody very different versions of the Democratic Party.”
“I think you can see the Democrats, and very much including Biden, struggling to extend their influence into the South,” he went on. “Their struggles to win northern industrial states that were real hotbeds of the Reagan Democrats.
“The kind of folks who had been rock solid voters for Lyndon Johnson have been much more problematic for the Democratic Party in later years,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said he thought of Biden and Johnson as “sort of fixtures in the Democratic party, and the party meant different things in their in their different eras.”
On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president that year, despite the fact he was eligible to serve another full term.
He was the last eligible president not to seek re-nomination. For President Biden, a decision not to stand again would be historic as speculation swirls about his future.
Biden has said he intends to run again but he has not yet formally declared a campaign. He’s now the oldest serving president in U.S. history.
Lawrence told Newsweek that Johnson’s decision was met with approval and if Biden chose to step aside, there could be a similar reaction today.
He said that a decision by Biden not to seek another term could be seen as a failure or defeat.
“But I think there’s an argument to be made that the American public might actually see this as a very heroic act,” he went on.
“It’s a little hard to tell with LBJ because unfortunately for him, four days after March 31 came the Martin Luther King assassination, and suddenly this brief moment where we contest that proposition that LBJ’s reputation was going to improve—the whole thing came crashing down, and there was a whole new set of urban violence and national mourning and political chaos,” Lawrence said.
“So 1968 sort of turned in very bad directions for LBJ,” he said. “But you know, there’s some evidence there that the American public might see a magnanimous acceptance that circumstances had changed and that the right thing to do was to cede the presidency to someone else.”
Lyndon B. Johnson died on January 22, 1973, following a heart attack. He was 64. His body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol rotunda and he was buried in his native Texas.