The Presidency: The Multimillionaire

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Lyndon Johnson was born hard-scrabbling poor in a ramshackle Texas farmhouse, but he soon learned the value of hard work, good luck, quick wits and bold maneuver. After 27 years of service in modestly paid public offices, he has managed to become one of the richest Presidents in U.S. history.

He himself would estimate the family fortune at about $4,000,000, but others put it a good deal higher. This week, LIFE puts the Johnson fortune at about $14 million, and tells a detailed story of how it grew.

The KTBC Story. The cornerstone of Johnson holdings is KTBC, an Austin radio-TV operation that was bought in 1943 with a $17,500 certified check from Lady Bird Johnson. At that time, KTBC was an unsuccessful 250-watt radio station that had been in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission over regulatory violations. As Johnson family lore has it, it is the President's wife who has parlayed an inheritance of $67,000 and some Alabama land into the present family fortune by masterminding both purchase and management of KTBC. But other people recall it differently.

A syndicate of Texas businessmen had been trying to buy KTBC long before the Johnsons entered the scene, but the FCC refused to approve the sale. In December 1942, a member of the syndicate, Austin Businessman E. G. Kingsbery, met with Lyndon Johnson, then a 34-year-old Congressman. As Kingsbery remembered that meeting, Lyndon first reminded him that Kingsbery's son had obtained an appointment to the Naval Academy through Johnson's office. Said Lyndon: "Now, E.G., I'm not a lawyer or a newspaperman. I have no means of making a living. At one time I had a second-class teaching license, but it has long since expired. I understand you've bought the radio station. I'd like to go in with you or have the station myself."

Kingsbery suggested to Johnson that he "make his peace" with heirs of the late Austin Publisher J. M. West, who had originally headed the syndicate. Recalled Kingsbery: "Lyndon told me he was going up to the West ranch to talk business, and he did, and he came away with KTBC."

The Monopoly. By 1952, when Lyndon Johnson was a U.S. Senator, television arrived, and the FCC gave KTBC the only very high frequency (VHF) channel in Austin. The station quickly picked up highly profitable contracts to carry programs from all three major networks—CBS, NBC and ABC. Unlike most single-channel cities, there is no "overlap" from stations in nearby cities—which means that the Johnsons own a television advertising monopoly in the whole Austin area.

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