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Lyndon Johnson: Complicated

2017-11-06

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  • VOA Learning English presents America’s Presidents.
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  • Today we are talking about Lyndon Johnson.
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  • He was the vice president under John F. Kennedy.
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  • Many Americans recognize Johnson from a photograph of his swearing-in on November 22, 1963.
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  • Kennedy had just been shot during a visit to Dallas, Texas.
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  • Johnson and his wife also were visiting the city.
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  • After doctors announced that Kennedy had died, the Johnsons were taken to the presidential airplane.
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  • There, Johnson took the oath of office as president.
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  • Men wearing suits look on, while three women stand around him.
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  • His wife, Lady Bird Johnson, is at one side.
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  • Former first lady Jackie Kennedy is at the other.
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  • She is still wearing clothing covered with her husband’s blood.
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  • The judge who is administering the oath, Sarah Hughes, stands in front of Lyndon Johnson.
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  • She holds a prayer book on which Johnson places one hand and swears to follow the Constitution.
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  • The photograph showed the American people that the federal government could and would continue in an orderly way.
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  • But Johnson’s position was difficult.
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  • Many people were shocked and in mourning for the assassinated president.
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  • But as the conflict in Vietnam increased, and some Americans rejected Johnson’s reforms, he found his position difficult again.
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  • Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in Texas, where his family had lived for generations.
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  • A town called Johnson was even named after his relatives.
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  • Lyndon was the oldest of five children.
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  • His mother was a teacher and writer, and his father was a farmer and political leader.
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  • In time, the Johnson family experienced financial difficulties.
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  • They had little money to give their children much of an education, but Lyndon was able to attend a teaching college.
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  • Johnson excelled as a teacher.
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  • He also learned from his students.
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  • Many were even poorer than he was.
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  • They also faced discrimination because they came from Mexican families.
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  • Johnson promised to help them.
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  • But he found he could do more to improve people’s lives as a politician than as a teacher.
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  • He volunteered for some political campaigns, became an aide to a member of the United States Congress, and in time became a member of Congress himself.
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  • Along the way, he married a woman named Claudia Taylor.
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  • But everyone called her Lady Bird.
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  • They went on to have two daughters.
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  • Johnson served for 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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  • In 1948, he was narrowly elected to the Senate, becoming one of the two senators from the state of Texas.
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  • From there, Johnson rose quickly.
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  • He took on increasingly important jobs in the Senate.
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  • By 1954, he was the Senate majority leader – the Democratic Party’s top spokesman in the Senate.
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  • The Senate website notes that the person with that job needs to be able to work well with others, especially members of other parties.
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  • Historians also note that Johnson worked very hard, and was always prepared.
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  • A well-known biography of Johnson is called “Master of the Senate.”
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  • The book describes Johnson as extremely ambitious, sometimes cruel, and often willing to praise others to get what he wanted.
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  • At the same time, he could be very concerned about other people’s well-being.
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  • In other words, the picture of Johnson is a complicated one.
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  • In 1960, he competed against John F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
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  • Johnson lost that race – but the party asked him to be their vice presidential candidate instead.
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  • Johnson agreed, not knowing that in a little more than three years, he would enter the White House as president.
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  • After being sworn-in, Johnson used his political experience in the Senate to pass a number of reforms.
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  • They were aimed at carrying on, in his words, a “War on Poverty.”
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  • The new laws created healthcare and education programs.
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  • They also used federal money to make food less costly for some people, and to train workers for jobs.
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  • Johnson also continued the work Kennedy began by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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  • The act made segregation because of race, religion, or national origin illegal.
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  • The Civil Rights Act also made it illegal for employers to discriminate against someone because of race, religion, national origin, or gender.
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  • The reforms had their critics, then and today.
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  • But in the presidential election of 1964, Johnson won “by the widest margin of popular votes in American history.”
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  • Historian Kent Germany says that vote gave the Democrats a rare opening “to pass a comprehensive liberal program.”
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  • Johnson had a name for such a program.
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  • He called it the “Great Society.”
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  • He said the United States should aim not only to be a rich and powerful society, but also to “end poverty and racial injustice.”
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  • Johnson followed his earlier reforms with others.
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  • They sought to prevent crime, reduce pollution, support the arts, make roads safer, and protect American consumers against bad products.
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  • His administration also created an immigration policy that valued family members, skilled workers, and refugees.
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  • Johnson also signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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  • It sought to lift the barriers that had long prevented African-American men and women from exercising their right to vote.
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  • Later, Johnson removed legal discrimination in the process of buying and renting homes.
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  • Together, these actions have linked Johnson to the civil rights movement in the minds of many Americans.
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  • Yet Johnson is also strongly linked to another part of U.S. history, often known simply as “Vietnam.”
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  • Earlier presidents had ordered U.S. military action in the conflict between North and South Vietnam.
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  • Since 1950, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy had slowly increased the American intervention.
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  • Their goal was to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
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  • President Johnson continued Kennedy’s policies.
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  • He also received the support of Congress to do whatever was necessary to protect U.S. forces and “prevent further aggression” by North Vietnam’s communist government.
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  • Yet, when he was a presidential candidate in 1964, Johnson promised not to increase U.S. involvement and send young Americans to fight in Vietnam.
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  • The opposite happened.
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  • Over the next four years, Johnson called on hundreds of thousands of additional U.S. troops to fight on the ground and in the air.
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  • The North Vietnamese fought back, both on the battle field and politically.
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  • In time, the American public withdrew their support of the struggle and their support for the president.
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  • By early 1968, Johnson had become deeply unpopular with voters.
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  • His party lost seats in Congress, and Johnson lost his ability to persuade lawmakers to support the measures he proposed.
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  • In addition, the U.S. economy was showing signs of weakness, partly because of the costs of the conflict in Vietnam and government spending at home.
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  • As the presidential nominating process began in early 1968, Johnson was permitted to seek another four-year term.
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  • But he announced that he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination.
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  • Shortly after, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.
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  • Angered by his murder, people in more than 100 cities rioted.
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  • Then, in June, John Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was also assassinated.
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  • Kennedy had been competing for the Democrats’ nomination for president.
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  • His death, and Johnson’s withdrawal, added to the divisions in the Democratic Party.
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  • Several groups gathered to protest at the party’s nominating convention in Chicago.
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  • The meeting ended in violent clashes between protesters and police.
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  • By the time Johnson left office in January 1969, his party had lost control of the White House, and many Americans believed the country was in disarray.
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  • After he left the presidency, Johnson returned to his home in Texas.
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  • He wrote his memories about his White House years, and made preparations for his presidential library.
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  • But he did not live much longer.
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  • He died in 1973, hours before the U.S. involvement in Vietnam officially came to a close.
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  • Johnson was a complex person, and his image in the mind of many Americans is just as complicated.
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  • His policies opened new paths for many people, but also led to years of death and destruction in Vietnam.
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  • As a president, he acted powerfully and often independently, and succeeded in passing an unusually large number of reforms.
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  • But he also failed to persuade many Americans to accept some of those measures.
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  • Supporters of the free market especially strongly rejected the government controls Johnson enacted.
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  • Even some in his Democratic Party, which Johnson had controlled for years, lost faith in him.
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  • In 1964, anti-war activists changed his campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”
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  • Instead, they said, “Part of the way with LBJ.”
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  • And by 1968, they were saying, “Hey, Hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?”
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  • I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
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