Johnson Trumps the Media

Elizabeth Noe and Jack Cline, Sentry Staff Reporters

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was not only a shock to the American people, but also a crushing blow to the confidence of the Federal Government. Kennedy, while being a young and confident figure, was killed before he could complete his vision for his presidency.  Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had served as Senate Majority Leader prior to his selection by Kennedy, took on his role and carried on his legacy. While Johnson disagreed with Kennedy on multiple occasions, he realized that any drastic policy changes could potentially lead to more instability. After Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became president, he made it a personal goal to accomplish Kennedy’s most sought after reform, a national tax cut. Johnson also attempted to eliminate the influence of the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia, which would be followed by the Vietnam War and an avalanche of criticism.

Johnson’s legacy is centered around his Great Society legislation, which includes the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation significantly impacted the country, advancing civil rights and installing Medicare and Medicaid, which are programs that are still used today. Johnson was successful in passing legislation with the support of Congress, thus allowing such programs to be realized.

As president, Johnson made important headway for civil rights, and started out his presidency with a good relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young and James Farmer. He asked for King’s help from his supporters, and was therefore able to make a connection with the African American community. Johnson also appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, the first African American justice. Marshall upheld Affirmative Action, and was famous for his earlier career as a lawyer in Brown v. Board of Education, in which it was segregated schools were declared unconstitutional, and was a prominent member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Johnson also passed the Gun Control Law of 1968 in response to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and King.

Johnson was known as a workaholic by his colleagues in the government, as he was always consumed in his work with no time spent on leisure. His unstoppable work effort is probably the reason for his success in passing so much legislation. His determination translated to giving others “the Johnson treatment” – a combination of badgering, persuasion and guilt – until they were practically forced to do as he wished.

However, Johnson’s presidency was also wrought with controversies. Johnson had promised tax cuts, but he later passed the Revenue Act of 1964 which called for a significant tax increase in order to keep his government programs in operation. He also failed to prevent Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, supporting Israel during the Six-Day war against Egypt, but defending Jordan from Israeli retaliation against the Palestinian raids launched from that region. He turned against King, wiretapping him and calling him a “hypocritical preacher.”

He received the most criticism for his support of United States involvement in the Vietnam War.  With all of the bumps in his presidency, Johnson’s approval rating dropped to 36% near the end of his presidency. He shocked everyone when he decided not to run for a second term.

As Vice President to Kennedy, he saw the more positive relationship that Kennedy had with the press. He was avidly critical of it, branding Kennedy a kiss up.

“One of the things he [Johnson] said was that the media was so charmed by Kennedy, like a rattlesnake charming a rabbit,” historian Mark Updegrove said.

During his presidency, Johnson had a toxic relationship with the press. He was extremely suspicious and critical of the press. He called reporters every name in the book, even saying of one particular reporter that he knew when he was nearby because he could smell him.

“The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character,” Johnson said.

All of Johnson’s controversial moves as President attracted a flow of critical reporting, which did not help with this relationship. The Vietnam War was the greatest sore spot for Johnson’s presidency. Reporters and citizens alike criticized Johnson for continued U.S. involvement in the war.

Though Johnson had an aggressive relationship with the press and a rather uncharismatic character, his Great Society legislation left a lasting impact.