Lyndon Baines Johnson was born near Stonewall, Texas, on 27 August 1908. His father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., had been a member of the Texas House and had recently lost several thousand dollars speculating in cotton. His mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, raised on the outskirts of the little town of Blanco, was the daughter of Joseph Wilson Baines, an attorney. He had previously occupied the seat that Sam Johnson held in the House. Rebekah worked her way through Baylor College at Belton, where she found encouragement for her lively literary and cultural interests.
When Lyndon was five years old, the family moved to Johnson City. Sam Johnson struggled to earn a living while Rebekah Johnson worked diligently to make ends meet. But there was never enough money, and Lyndon would often speak with disdain of the steady diet of grits, greens, cornbread, and fat-back of his early years. Although the family was never as hard up as Johnson later liked to say it had been, he developed what proved to be a lifelong sympathy for ordinary people whose lives were blighted by economic insecurity and deprivation. As a boy, Johnson resented having to wear homemade clothing that once included, to his unspeakable embarrassment, a Buster Brown suit. His mother did private tutoring in elocution in order to pay for dancing and violin instruction for him. He detested the training in both and eventually refused to have any more lessons. He would not be marked a "sissy." Ironically, in the White House his accomplished and tireless social dancing at public functions charmed and sometimes astonished his guests.
Even as a youth, Johnson yearned to have a share in the rising wealth around him, which was based chiefly on the booms in oil and beef. Still he despaired of gaining even a foothold. He put in time working for farmers in and around Johnson City. For a period he was a printer's devil at a local newspaper. He also shined shoes in a barber shop. As he grew up he appeared to be both ambitious and aimless.
Politics had begun to draw the boy's interest when Sam Johnson won back his old seat in the state legislature in 1919. Lyndon became a familiar sight at his father's side on the floor of the Texas House. Soon the youth was bent on becoming a politician as well as a millionaire. After a trip to California with some friends when he finished high school, he yielded to his mother's nagging advice to seek more education. He enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, from which he was graduated in 1930. To support himself, he had interrupted his studies to take a teaching job at a "Mexican" school in Cotulla, Texas. One day, voting analysts would credit Johnson's close ties with the Mexican-American community with helping to put Texas in the Kennedy-Johnson column in the election of 1960. Johnson also taught briefly in Pearsall and Houston, where he won acclaim training students in public speaking and debating.
But the world of politics proved irresistible. Johnson avidly seized an opportunity in 1931 to become private secretary to Richard Kleberg, son of the owner of the fabled King Ranch, who had just been elected to Congress. In Washington, Johnson quickly became as familiar with the labyrinths of the bureaucracy as he was with the landscape of his Texas hill country. Then, in 1934, he was married in San Antonio to Claudia Alta Taylor of Karnack, Texas, known invariably by her nickname, Lady Bird. Not yet twenty-two years old, Lady Bird Johnson brought much-needed stability to Johnson's life; her winsomeness combined with her shrewd judgment of people from the start helped significantly in furthering his career.
Politically, Johnson was a child of the new opportunities that the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt opened for office seekers eager to have a hand in enlarging and redistributing the nation's resources. After a creative stint as director of the National Youth Administration in Texas, Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937 to fill the unexpired term of James P. Buchanan in the Tenth District. Already inured to the ways of Congress, Johnson took worshipful counsel from Speaker Sam Rayburn, also a Texan. In turn, Rayburn, who was unmarried, treated Johnson like a son and turned him rapidly into an "insider" despite his lack of seniority. Johnson served in the House until 1948, having been reelected five times on an ever-growing reputation for his craft in directing to his constituents a goodly share of the bounty that New Deal economic programs provided.
Johnson interrupted his tenure in the House shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor to serve as a lieutenant commander, having been commissioned in the Naval Reserve in 1940. He was the first member of Congress to go on active duty in World War II. General Douglas MacArthur awarded him the Silver Star for "gallantry in action" when the patrol bomber Johnson was flying in was fired upon by Japanese Zeros near Port Moresby, in New Guinea. (Critics would later say that Johnson's political prominence rather than personal valor had won him the decoration. For the rest of his life, however, Johnson proudly wore the insignia of the medal in his lapel.) Almost immediately after receiving the award, Johnson responded to Roosevelt's directive that members of Congress leave military service and resume their legislative duties. After six months in uniform, Johnson was pleased to be back at his desk in Washington.
Johnson won election to the Senate in 1948 (he had failed in a bid in 1941) by a margin of eighty-seven votes, a squeaker that earned him the sobriquet "Landslide Lyndon." He held the seat until he became vice president in 1961. He was minority leader for two years and majority leader from 1956 to 1960, acquiring formidable fame among supporters as a legislative statesman and among detractors as a wheeler-dealer. His selection by Kennedy to be vice president, despite much opposition in the Kennedy camp, was the outcome of a disappointing effort to obtain the nomination for president.
As vice president, Johnson was ignored by many of the administration's prominent figures and was idle much of the time, his vaunted knowledge of Congress largely unused. Although he chaired some significant public committees and was sent on some missions abroad, he was convinced that most of his assignments were little more than busywork. He hid his smoldering resentment even as he made his initial appeal to the people as president an assurance of continuity of policies. Where Kennedy had urged in his inaugural, "Let us begin," Johnson, on 27 November 1963 in his first address to Congress, exhorted, "Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue."