Politician of the Century—Lyndon Johnson

The ranch. The drawl. The wheeling and dealing. He so dominated the political arena that he still defines what a Texas pol ought to be.

WHEN LYNDON JOHNSON WAS BORN ON AUGUST 27, 1908, A neighbor named Otto Lindig arrived on horseback four hours later, took one look at the baby, and predicted that he would be governor of Texas some day. It was the underprediction of the century. How could Lindig, a simple Hill Country farmer and horse trader, have known how thoroughly the firstborn child of Rebekah and Sam Johnson would dominate the Texas political arena in his lifetime and beyond? Johnson continues to tower over Texas politics not just because he was the first Texas-bred president (Eisenhower was the first to be born here), not just because of all he did to reshape America in the area of civil rights and confound America in Vietnam, but because, 26 years in his grave, Johnson continues to extend the very idea of Texas into American political history, with all our flair and faults. More than any president since the early Virginians, Johnson took his roots with him into the White House.

No one would be more delighted with this turn of events than Johnson. He wanted to set records, to do more, to be the best, to surpass all predecessors, to answer all critics. “Get those coonskins up on the wall,” he would tell his staff—meaning, pass more legislation, win more elections, make more history.

Johnson’s vision of America was steeped in the mythology of Texas. His great-great-uncle John Wheeler Bunton was a delegate to the convention that wrote Texas’ declaration of independence in 1836 and fought in the Battle of San Jacinto. Johnson saw his ancestor and the colonists in New England who declared themselves free of a foreign power as part of the same tradition—a view of history not accepted by the Northeasterners he was always uneasy around. The most celebrated aspect of the Texas struggle for independence—the vow at the Alamo to fight to the death, to never retreat—took a darker turn in Johnson’s decision to pursue the war in Vietnam. “Hell, Vietnam is just like the Alamo,” Johnson told the National Security Council. “Hell, it’s just like if you were down at that gate and you were surrounded and you damn well needed somebody. Well, I’m going to go—and I thank the Lord that I’ve got men who want to go with me.”

Long before Johnson reached the White House, he had established himself as the prototype of the modern Texas politician. He was tall, rich, rough-hewn; he owned a ranch and dressed and spoke like a Texan. An early and important influence was World War I—era governor Jim Ferguson, a populist Democrat who was impeached in 1917 for financial misdeeds but refused to leave politics, successfully running his wife for governor instead. LBJ’s father, elected to the Legislature in 1918, continued to support Ferguson as one who did what was right for the “peepul,” and Johnson’s boyhood impression of the flawed hero stayed etched in his memory even as he evolved into a larger version of the same thing. As president, LBJ once turned to one of his top aides from Texas in a Cabinet meeting and said by way of self-explanation, “I’m a Ferguson man, through and through.” Later, several Cabinet members asked the aide from Texas, Who was this guy Ferguson?

After Ferguson, the next major political influence on Johnson was John Nance Garner, a former congressman from Uvalde who was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president when LBJ was elected to Congress in 1937. Cactus Jack was the first Texan to hold national office, and Johnson patterned his career after “the wise old man of Congress,” as Garner was also known, in two ways. Like Garner (and Sam Rayburn), he became a master of the legislative process, and also like Garner, he believed in getting every Yankee dollar out of the federal government that he could lay his hands on.

Johnson added another Texas stereotype to his image in his 1948 Senate race against Governor Coke Stevenson. Johnson won the election by 87 votes, thanks to belated votes from the infamous Box 13 in South Texas. The narrow margin


More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...