U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson Psychohistory Part 1

About the U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, history and a psychological analysis or psychohistory.

36th President



As the eldest of five children, Johnson had a particularly close relationship with his mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson. The daughter of a distinguished Texas politico, Rebekah was the only female college graduate in all of Blanco County, and she felt that she had "married down" in joining herself to the vulgar and limited Sam Ealy Johnson. She lavished all her love and attention on Lyndon, and he reciprocated in kind. At the end of first grade, when he was allowed to choose a poem to read, he picked one called "I'd Rather Be Mama's Boy." Rebekah was determined that her pride and joy would not be a backwoods barbarian like his father. She read Milton and Shakespeare to him and forced him to take ballet and violin lessons. In Johnson City this was an uncomfortable position, even for a mama's boy like Lyndon, and much of LBJ's later contempt for books, liberals, and gentility bears the mark of his ambivalent feelings toward his domineering mother. In many respects, Lyndon's overprotected boyhood forced him into a lifelong struggle to prove his manliness. Sam Johnson continually teased the boy about his unwillingness to shoot animals. Finally LBJ gave in; he shot a rabbit between the eyes, dropped the carcass at his father's feet, then went to the bathroom and threw up. Years later, LBJ turned the psychological tables on such visitors to his ranch as John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, mercilessly badgering them to go hunting. LBJ's he-man rhetoric about the Vietnam War can be fully understood only when we realize that his credentials as a virile frontiersman were surprisingly fragile. As president, he even found it necessary to invent a Johnson ancestor who died at the Alamo--thereby contradicting all historical records and the testimony of all other members of his family.

By turning to politics, Johnson could successfully satisfy the demands of both his parents. He could be a doer and "one of the boys" for his father, while he talked "big ideas" and mastered genteel Washington for his mother. Political scientist James David Barber sees a schizophrenic split in Johnson's public personality--an unhappy conflict between "Johnson the tough" and "Johnson the nice." On the one hand Johnson was the aggressive war leader, the determined Texan who would rather bomb thousands than give up an inch of America's "honor." On the other hand, there was Johnson the saccharine saint, the gentle apostle of peace and prosperity, the kindly helper of the poor and downtrodden, who announced shortly after he became president that "this administration is going to be a compassionate administration. We believe in the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you." It was his refusal to accept the possibility that the two things might be mutually exclusive that led to his downfall. In his own words, "I was determined to be a leader of war and a leader of peace." He had always believed that everyone wanted essentially the same thing, be they Republican or Democrat, American or Vietnamese. Plagued with this single-minded perspective, he convinced himself that the U.S. presence in Vietnam would ultimately benefit that country, and he envisioned a vast rebuilding program "to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley." These public poses were the products of a genuine inner conflict, one which reflected the competing demands of Johnson's mismatched parents.

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