Bringing Up Lyndon
As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined.
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His early life never was quite so hardscrabble as he later would advertise it. His father was less heroic than the son would publicly choose to remember, and his mother was something less than the gentle angel he often recalled from the podium. Evidence indicates that Lyndon B. Johnson, himself, was not always the can-do whiz of popular mythology—that, rather, he was an insecure, often troubled, rebellious youngster who sometimes avoided challenges or pressures by excessive sleeping, running away, or offering stubbornly indifferent performances.
Though a pragmatist who throughout his life dismissed fiction because “it isn’t true,” LBJ revealed a novelist’s imagination in reporting his own early life. It was as if his considerable and remarkable achievements were not good enough to satisfy some primal urge, some deep need to become the be-all-and-know-all. Mere excellence was not good enough in the mind of the former small-town Texan, and though he had risen higher and accomplished more than most men dare to dream, he felt a compulsion to establish his own cherry-tree legends. He continued to refurbish them, to revise them, almost to the last.
History’s secrets come from their hiding places slowly. The more personal the secrets, and the prouder or more complex the man or woman to whom they apply, the more reluctantly the secrets seek the sunshine. One wishing to understand the shaping forces of Lyndon Baines Johnson must be alert to the profits of reading between the lines. Much that his doting mother wrote was romantic bilge (her enthusiastic exercises as an amateur genealogist led to claims of kinship with sources improbably close to Scottish nobility in the twelfth century), and his early biographers too willingly accepted those fumigated and refurbished memories LBJ himself permitted to escape. Yet they, and others, have left clues and tracks inviting closer examination.
One clue to a man’s values is in noting what he claims to be that he is not. Lyndon Johnson, the consummate actor, the self-cast man for all seasons, so often exaggerated or improvised new roles or contradicted himself, that his claims are not easily sorted or ranked. His most persistent false claims, however, had to do with being a war hero, a poor boy born in a log cabin, a member of a perfectly harmonious family, and a descendant of Alamo heroes. One may logically assume, therefore, that he thirsted to be viewed as one braver than he privately considered himself, one who had overcome more adversities than he felt he actually had, one sometimes uncertain even of his cherished roots or of their worth.
Only in his last years, in retirement, did Johnson talk of the dark side of his youth—of early fears and resentments and of a family life often as stormy as that of the Archie Bunkers without the leavening humor. Much of what he revealed affirmed suspicions born of hints contained in his mother’s prose. Writing of herself and of LBJ’s father she said, “In disposition, upbringing, and background, these two were vastly dissimilar….[He] was sensitive and nervous, impatient of inefficiency and ineptitude and quick to voice his displeasure….We had definite and opposing ideas [on many things] which makes for interest and piquancy in life.” In her old age Rebekah Baines Johnson would “shudder” at the memory of her days as a young bride on a raw Texas farm, of learning to adjust to “a completely opposite personality” and “a strange new way of life.” Her pink-gauze view of the world vanished: “At last, I learned that life was real and earnest and not the charming fairy tale of which I had so long dreamed.”
She had been a young woman teaching Expression and Elocution in Fredericksburg and writing for area newspapers when she met Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. She described Fredericksburg as “An Old World place” and “quite unexciting.” Along came young Sam Johnson—tall, strong, lively—to introduce her to the Austin political scene, to squire her to orations of Senators Joe Bailey and Charles Culberson, Governor Tom Campbell, even William Jennings Bryan. Sam Johnson himself was a young state legislator. One imagines he turned her head, that the romantic Rebekah Baines envisioned a more glamorous life than she would find on a Hill Country farm. Lyndon Johnson would remember his mother inexplicably bursting into tears when drawing water from the well or baking bread, and would recall attempts to comfort her by promising to grow up and take care of mommy. Mother kept private pin-money hidden in her pillow for unspecified “times of distress,” slept in one wing of the house with her daughters while her husband bedded in another near his two sons, and urged the young LBJ to seek wider horizons than had his father. It is not difficult to read disappointment, rejection, and uncertainty in these facts.
A family friend once said of Rebekah Baines Johnson, “She was kind of an early-century hippie. She thought she had married beneath her. She was pregnant all the time and laid around in bed writing poetry.” The psychologist Harold Lasswell described her as “an ambitious, domineering woman who thought she had married beneath herself.” Not long before his death, LBJ said her early force feedings and attentions had sometimes “smothered” him. There was, indeed, much of the ambitious stage mother in Mrs. Johnson. Always she pushed her first-born front and center, getting him into the public schools before he was eligible, quizzing him on his homework at the breakfast table, following him to the gate on school mornings to drill him in mathematical equations or dates of history. She was quick to challenge teachers who failed to give him the best marks, and even when Lyndon Johnson was of college age his mother frequently telephoned the president of San Marcos Teachers College to gain him a better campus job or other advantages. To a neighbor woman who mentioned in passing that all children “tell stories” —i.e., lies—she hissed, “My boy never fibs.” One senses she aspired for her son all the adventures and laurels she resented being absent from her own life, for originally she had been a lady of literary and social pretensions and many vain dreams. Young Lyndon Johnson would think his mother “sort of aloof” with others. When a common workman once called with his family at the home to make a holiday gift of a chocolate cake, the Johnson family matriarch was cool, distant, and eyed the offering with rude distaste.
The father, Sam Johnson, could be warm and hearty when he willed it. Often, however, he was a difficult man of dark moods, quick angers, and stinging sarcasms. There were frustrations to trigger his demons and fuel them: family fortunes rising or falling as he lost money in cotton speculation or made it in farming or real estate, or—again—years after having reached his political heights as a six-term member of the Legislature, accepting a Depression-era appointment as a $150-per-month state inspector of buses for the Texas Railroad Commission. Though his early ambition was to be a lawyer, he never made it. (In the Fifties, when I was a green Capitol Hill aide, LBJ advised: “You oughta get a law degree, young man like you. Come in handy no matter what profession you follow. Not getting one was my daddy’s greatest regret.”)
Congressman Wright Patman, who served with Sam Johnson in the Texas Legislature, remembers him as “the cowboy type, a little on the rough side.” Others have described him as often profane and overbearing, a man who feuded with a neighbor said to be well-connected in the Ku Klux Klan so that young Lyndon feared his father might be “tarred and feathered or worse”; he carried a gun even when on the floor of the Texas House and owned a celebrated temper. When he took out after a school teacher who he felt had abused Lyndon, the fellow left town so quickly he had to send for his clothes and personal belongings.
He was a drinking man. Sam Houston Johnson, in My Brother Lyndon, recounts LBJ’s objections. “Come on home!” young Lyndon would shout from outside the doors of local saloons when his father stopped for drinks with his political pals. He persisted, even when his father tried to treat it as a joke or bribe him to go home himself. The father stubbornly remained long enough to assert his independence and then left “somewhat mortified and rather annoyed.”
Though LBJ himself occasionally got drunk, and frequently enjoyed social belts of Scotch (despite his Texas pose of drinking only “bourbon and branch water”), he retained a life-long fear of the destructive powers of demon rum. He constantly lectured brother Sam Houston Johnson for his loose bottle habits. Once, in his Senate days, when LBJ came in potted from the golf course, he woke his brother and said, “Yes, by God, I want you to take a damned good look at me, Sam Houston. Open your eyes and look at me. ‘Cause I’m drunk, and I want you to see how you look to me, Sam Houston, when you come home drunk.” LBJ warned his suspected staff tipplers that drinking was a sign of weakness, not manliness, that it could make good men lose control. Those who failed to heed the warning were fired or shunted aside to jobs with lesser responsibilities and rewards—and this included his brother. LBJ was not, incidentally, a man who held his liquor exceedingly well. As a young man he tended toward fistfights when drinking and once wrecked the family car; as an adult, on those infrequent occasions when he was overly influenced, he would brag of his political power or grow careless in his yearnings for a little free-lance romance.
In his way, Sam Johnson was no less ambitious for his first-born son than was Lyndon’s mother. Each morning, almost ritualistically, he shook his son’s foot and said, “Get up, Lyndon. Every boy in town’s got a two-hour head start on you.” He grew impatient when LBJ dodged his share of the farm chores, and berated him or applied the razor strap for cheating little brother Sam Houston in bicycle trades or at dominoes. Though he sometimes accused young Lyndon of lackadaisical attitudes or—God help us—small ambitions, he became upset on learning that LBJ had advertised his budding shoeshining business in the Johnson City newspaper. Sam Johnson felt that it implied a certain financial failure on his part, that everyone would figure his son wasn’t properly supplied at home.
“I imagine I was closer to him than anyone in the family,” LBJ’s only brother would write of their father. “There was a kind of tension between them, a sort of competition…” There is not the slightest doubt. It was Sam Houston, not Lyndon, his father most frequently took on business trips. It was Sam Houston, six years younger than Lyndon, who rose before dawn to eat breakfast with his father while others slept. About sunup, Mrs. Johnson and the girls came in; Lyndon had to be shaken and dragged by the toe. When the teenage Lyndon quit home to adventure in California with three young friends—packing a hidden suitcase days in advance and leaving while his father was absent from home—Rebekah Baines Johnson accused her husband: “You’ve been too easy on Sam Houston and too strict with Lyndon. No wonder he took off for California.”
It is easy to see a family divided: parents each with a special favorite among their young, parents who by the evidence of all public accounts chose their two sons over their three daughters. When in a school recital seven-year-old Lyndon Johnson—as his personal selection—rendered a poem entitled “I’d Rather Be Mama’s Boy,” we may reasonably suspect that he was not unaware of the family rankings. From college, he wrote to his mother—not to his father. Letters between them often expressed such mutual admiration as to become maudlin, fawning, perhaps a bit sticky: mother and son seemed to have trouble giving each other enough assurances. “Your letters” —he wrote— “always give me more strength, renewed courage, and that bulldog tenacity so essential to the success of any man. There is no force that exerts power over me that your letters do.” Again: “Mother, I am now learning the things you have been trying to teach me since I was a little boy.” In an editorial in the San Marcos College Star he wrote an open letter: “There is no love on earth compared to that of mother. Our best description of it is that of all types of earthly love, it most nearly approaches the divine.” (Reading such carefully crafted hymns of love and praise as they became public in later years, I was astonished to recall that in the Fifties—when LBJ was a busy majority leader in the U.S. Senate—his staffers laughed at sometimes being assigned to draft a “chatty letter” to mama for her son’s signature.)
In his final years LBJ became enchanted with a comely young Harvard professor, Doris Kearns—who helped with his memoirs of the presidency, The Vantage Point—and told her that her “intelligence, grace, and strong will” reminded him of his mother. It was to Doris Kearns, too, that he confided much more: that his mother had smothered him, that his parents had a stormy life together, that as a child he feared failure, that all his life he’d had bad dreams, that he’d always feared losing control—of being somehow paralyzed and powerless to act—in a time of maximum danger. Some of LBJ’s nightmares obviously took deep roots in home. In one he sat in a rocking chair, a huge heard of cattle bearing down on him, and yet was strangely unable to move. In another, he was in bed with his mother when suddenly his father would storm in the door, or—are you ready for this?—sometimes the father figure would be replaced by Bobby Kennedy.
Lyndon Johnson hated Bobby Kennedy. In the face of some evidence to the contrary, however, I am not convinced he equally hated his father. We all do, yes, in given instances or moments, and perhaps we go to the grave less than wholly cleansed of the formative resentments: Oedipus has visited more places than the mind of Sophocles. Despite their differences, Lyndon and his father had much in common. There was in their relationship that complex mixture of love and hate, pride and shame, hope and disappointment, gloom and joy so often experienced between men and their issue. Theirs was not a story as painfully unique as they doubtless considered it to be. Neither was introspective; they were not much inclined to cool self-analysis, nor did either find it natural to consider the special viewpoints of others. They were mutually self-centered, and even had they not been, their relationship probably would have been controlled more by blood than by brains, more by passions than by dispassionate reckonings. That seems to be the way, somehow, between fathers and sons.
Congressman Patman recalls of the young Lyndon, “He was so much like his father they were humorous to watch. They looked alike, they walked the same, had the same nervous mannerisms, and Lyndon clutched you like his daddy did when he talked to you.” Young Lyndon was a willing and apt political pupil at his father’s knee, sitting with him in the Legislature and rapidly becoming intrigued. Here he formed friendships that would last a lifetime—with Sam Rayburn and Wright Patman, with Homer Thornberry (then a House page boy)—and indelible impressions of the political process. He surely learned, too, the darker side of politics as he moved among his street-wise page boy contemporaries and heard their reports of life in the raw. Austin then, even more than now, had its friendly lobbyists eager to pick up the hotel bills of willing legislators, or to furnish the traditional beefsteak, bourbon, and blondes. Young Lyndon must have known of “drinking drys,” those legislators who back home railed against John Barleycorn and voted against it at each opportunity, but who made whoopee in the capital (or even in the Capitol) so long as a single lobbyist remained to pick up the tab. He must have learned of legislative secretaries who performed their best work at night, of loose campaign money, of those mutual back-scratchings indigenous to the smokier political rooms. Though Sam Johnson was always described by his son as an “agrarian liberal,” he enjoyed associating with lobbyists and the rich. These lessons were vital to Lyndon B. Johnson’s shapings; his own political conduct would forever be influenced by them. LBJ never resented the economic power of others, or the village pharaoh who lived in the big white house on the hill; he merely wanted to be that man, to emulate him. As Sam Johnson in his legislative days found his patron in Roy Miller of Corpus Christi and Texas Gulf Sulfer, so later would Lyndon discover his in George R. Brown of Houston Brown and Root.
The future President’s early life, spent on the family farm near Stonewall or in Johnson City, contained elements of the classic Tom Sawyer boyhood. Lyndon evinced a bit of the natural con displayed by Tom when he got that famous fence whitewashed: LBJ’s siblings say that when there were chores to do, he organized and supervised, rather than break his own back. He talked his brother into buying a bicycle more nearly Lyndon’s size than Sam Houston’s. He was ultra-competitive. By the time he was ten, Sam Houston writes, “Lyndon never let anybody beat him at anything if he could help it.” Though he made good grades in school in everything but Deportment, he read nothing not required and rejected violin lessons as sissy stuff; all his life, he would say that “culture was the business of womenfolk.” He so sassed and bedeviled one of his grandmothers that he virtually turned her against little boys. She predicted he would go to the penitentiary.
There was an old swimming hole—actually called the “Baptizin’ hole”—where Lyndon’s gang often repaired. A boyhood chum recalls that LBJ quickly became bored and urged his companions out of the water: “Then we’d throw mud on him so he’d have to get back in the swimmin’ hole to wash it off.” Regarded as a good country first baseman, he quickly wearied of the mild pick-up games and might walk away with the score tied. Whatever he did, he seemed to want to be doing something else.
As a teenager he was something of the small-town “jelly bean,” a sharpie who wore the only bow tie among his contemporaries and slicked back his hair. He enjoyed riding around in old flivvers, playing dominoes, and eating oceans of chili—which he slyly called “Mexican T-bone.” He squired a variety of young women to picture shows, which he never much fancied, and to country dances or political pie suppers, which he did. When he reported home from a country dance proudly wearing a black eye, his father tongue-lashed him for being a tough and a wastrel. His mother gently wrote of those relatively troubled years when LBJ, a high school graduate at age fifteen, seemed unnaturally rebellious to her: “Now followed a period of indecision and indifference. His parents were eager for him to attend college, but his mild interest in books at this time was discouraging.” She should not have been surprised when he ran off to California—she had long urged him to escape to higher things, and Johnson City bored him.
Lyndon Johnson would later romanticize the California experience. “Up and down the coast I tramped,” he would say, recalling jobs hopping tables, picking fruit, washing dishes, and running an elevator, “growing skinnier and hungrier.” There was a little of that, yes. Actually, however, Rebekah Baines Johnson had a relative—a prominent California attorney—who not only gave the young man an office job but also kept an eye on him and sent secret reports home. Though LBJ would recount a long and dismal hitchhiking experience back to Texas, others say he was brought home by a Johnson family friend who visited the West Coast.
He still was not ready for college. He took a job hauling gravel on a road construction gang for $1 or $2 per day, depending on how he told it. A coworker, Zeke Felps, recalls that it was customary for truck drivers to back up to the gravel pit and help others shovel the load. LBJ, instead, catnapped in the cab. Indeed, it appears to have been a time of great lethargy: he came in from work, bathed, ate supper, and soon was abed. Lectures and hints from his parents failed to move him; possibly he slept to avoid these. One day he came in from the road gang and said to his mother, “I’m tired of working just with my hands and I’m ready to try working with my brain. Mother, if you and daddy will get me in college, I’ll go as soon as I can.” Biographers seemed to have missed something here: was it that simple? Did the light dawn that quickly? Some main force or event surely has gone unreported, for on that day Lyndon B. Johnson suddenly went from slow speeds to the frenetic pace that would last until he died. Unless Doris Kearns thought to ask, we may never know.
Lyndon Johnson borrowed $75 from a local bank on his own signature, though he was still a minor, and hitchhiked to San Marcos. Vestiges of the teenage feud with his father repose in each of those acts. Certainly his father had the required money, and by Sam Houston Johnson’s testimony Sam Senior volunteered to give LBJ a ride. The son’s rejections of these offers show that the rebellion was not yet over, that not all wounds had healed.
“For a writer searching for a dramatic rags-to-riches angle,” Sam Houston Johnson wrote, “that picture of Lyndon trudging along a dusty country road with a cardboard suitcase is understandably tempting; but it gives a false impression about our family’s economic condition. Though he was never a wealthy man, our daddy was always able to provide for his family, sometimes more lavishly than others but never bordering on poverty. Our home was certainly no mansion by any definition, yet it was probably the nicest house in town while we were growing up.” Lyndon in later years liked to refer to himself as “the son of a tenant farmer”—inaccurate—and sometimes claimed to have been born in a log cabin that actually had been his grandfather’s. His mother described the small but quite presentable farm house birthplace as being in good condition. Newspapers of the Twenties described the Johnson farm as “one of the largest and best kept” in the area. Though LBJ claimed to have “slept on a cot in the school president’s garage” at college, he shared a decently furnished room with another student in an apartment above the president’s garage. Though he spoke of his shock in seeing Mexican-American children rummage garbage cans looking for food, he himself was never hungry; he saw soup kitchens, unemployment lines, and clots of desperate men during the Depression, just has he so often advertised—be he wasn’t in them. In a time of national want, he wanted not: he was teaching school in Houston for $1600 basic annual salary plus $1.50 per hour for special adult night tutoring, and he lived comfortably in the home of a relative. Over the years, a number of trusting and careless journalists perpetuated the poverty myth by accepting LBJ’s loose memories of having nothing to eat but “fried baloney and boiled potatoes.” This is not to say that LBJ was not impressed by those terrible times, but it is foolish myth-making to believe that he walked six miles barefoot to school and back in snowdrifts and that it was uphill both ways.
There is a grain of truth in President Johnson’s memories of practicing oratory while sweeping the halls at San Marcos College. But only a grain. He and his mother so badgered the college president for a better deal that LBJ shortly was able to abandon the push broom for a desk in the chief administrator’s outer office. “Lyndon’s tone and attitude gave the impression he was far more than a messenger,” a faculty member later would say; the college president himself once said, “Lyndon, I declare you hadn’t been in my office a month before I could hardly tell who was president of the school—you or me.” Now the LBJ star was burning bright: he successfully organized insurgents to overthrow the most powerful fraternity on campus during school elections, became a standout debater (his best weapons being withering sarcasm and the ability to convert his opponent’s mistakes), and wrote editorials for the college newspaper.
What did the young Lyndon Johnson believe in? Nothing very exotic if one is to judge by his bland editorials. He seems, indeed, to have owned little or no ideology and was as far from doctrinaire solutions as he was from being a brain surgeon. His boldest stroke was to bemoan the fact that society tended to mistreat its nonconformists. Everything else he wrote was conformity personified, an amalgamation of Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie. “Do not sigh for Lindbergh’s wonderful luck,” he instructed after the Lone Eagle’s Atlantic crossing, “but determine to emulate Lindy’s glorious pluck.” He endorsed the value of “a strong personality,” “a well-trained will,” “ambition, that makes of a creature a real man,” “good deeds,” “the world’s need for men not for sale,” the glories of Sam Houston, and, of course, mothers.
I suspect at bottom he was not all that shallow. My own observations were that Lyndon B. Johnson knew the value of pretending to know less than he did, of endorsing popular sentiments, of ingratiating himself with the widest possible circles. Those are the tools of the politician and he early was that. He could use the carrot, as with his candied rather than candid editorials, or the stick—as when he made full and imaginative uses of his powers as errand boy to the college president. Not until he was safely in the White House did he endorse controversial issues if another choice remained. As Senator, he instructed his staffers never to quarrel with those who advocated positions on public issues which he did not share: merely “thank them for their helpful views” and keep his own a secret. Always he was a man who would not make waves until he was pretty sure he owned the ocean. John F. Kennedy now was among the martyred dead? All right, boys, let’s tell ‘em how he’s looking down from Heaven and pass that Civil Rights Bill in his name. The national Red scare had somewhat abated, and the popular President Eisenhower was grousing at Senator Joe McCarthy’s reckless libels and slanders? Okay, gang, let’s censure the son-of-a-bitch! Lame duck Governor Allan Shivers was losing his grip on Texas? Mr. Rayburn, let’s you and me challenge his ass at the precinct level for control of the party machinery. The big boys know he’s going out and we’re staying in. He was a man who could peacefully co-exist with racial segregation, Red-baiting, or a powerful political rival in Texas—until the right time came. Then he’d cut you a new one. Until he tripped over Viet Nam, he’d always done a good job of reading the public mood and going with it. Little wonder that his editorials in the late Twenties failed to endorse pot, abortion, or even mixed bathing.
If Lyndon Johnson sometimes liked to make his root beginnings appear more humble than in fact they were, a part of him also needed to stress his family’s respectability and its ties to frontier Texas. He reveled in stories of Johnsons and Baineses who’d fought marauding Indians, of old uncles who drove cattle up the famous trails, of a hardy pioneer spirit in his genes. “Listen, goddammit,” he once said, “my ancestors were teachers and lawyers and college presidents and governors when the Kennedys in this country were still tending bar.” Brother Sam tells of the teenaged LBJ blessing out a girl friend who reported disparaging remarks about the Johnsons made by her father: “To hell with your daddy. I wouldn’t marry you or anyone in your whole damned family. But he’s right about us Johnsons sticking together—we always have and always will, and we sure don’t need to mix with you family to get along. And you can tell your daddy that someday I’ll be President of this country. You watch and see.”*
(*This is one of a half-dozen claims the young LBJ allegedly put on the presidency, according to the later recollections of otheres. Perhaps, however, such testimony owes much to hindsight. Another legend, for example, had LBJ’s grandfather galloping by horseback through the Texas hils to say, “A future United States Senator was born today—my grandson.” Actually, the grandfather years later wrote a friends, “My grandson is as smart as they come and I expect he’ll be a Senator by the time he’s forty.” This seems to be the seed of the more romantic story.)
There was, indeed, a defensive regionalism in LBJ. From the first days of his presidency he was convinced that the “Harvard crowd” wouldn’t give a Texan a chance, that they would mock his accent and his taste for barbecue and consider him a dumbass simply because of his roots. In this he was not entirely without perception, though at times Johnson seemed to extend himself to make the prophecy come true. David Halberstam has written of LBJ’s compulsion to attend the call of nature while instructing his advisors, grunting and splashing as they shuffled uncertainly in the bathroom door, and of how C. Douglas Dillon—a breathing personification of the elite Eastern Establishment—“was virtually driven out of the Cabinet by this maneuver alone.” Often, in the presence of national newsmen or powerful Establishment people, he seemed to delight in scatological jokes and barnyard expressions. When someone suggested the retirement of J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ said, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.” He whooped a cowboy yell inside the Taj Mahal, more, I suspect, to appall or confound his critics than to hear the echo. He was a man who spent almost four decades inside the halls of power, the equal of kings or better, yet who stubbornly clung to his Texas origins in his associations, his speech, his stories, and his preferences.
On the evening when Dr. Martin Luther King was fatally shot, and an aide warned the President that Washington’s outraged blacks might march on Georgetown and burn it, he replied with a twinkle, “I’ve waited for this day for thirty years.” He never had been comfortable in Georgetown, with its bright brittle drawing room chatter and people he considered to be no more than elegant fops, dandy dilettantes, or worse. He had the old chauvinistic instincts indigenous to the macho country boy, and one of his worst insults—invariably directed at the Bundys, the Goldmans, and the Schlesingers, the polished intellectuals—was to sneer that such-and-so fellow “probably has to squat to pee.” In retirement, rather than admit the Viet Nam War had forced him from office—although his abdication speech had faced it forthrightly enough—he would say No, no, they wouldn’t give a Texan a chance, those Harvards and the Georgetown crowd. When Ted Kennedy made the wrong turn at Chappaquiddick bridge, LBJ gloomed that Kennedy probably would get away with it: “But if I had been with a girl and she had been stung by a bumblebee, then they would put me in Sing Sing.” He shared with Richard Nixon—though he didn’t as doggedly brood over it—a sense that although he had been to the top, he always would remain, somehow, an outsider. This insecurity surfaced when he lamented not having been better educated, not having known certain advantages. It may have had more than a little to do with his close friends being selected almost exclusively—with the exception of a few early New Dealers—from among Texas or Southern or Southwest politicians.
More than any other modern president he harked back to the land of his past, felt tugged toward it, seemed literally to search for his boyhood tracks in its dust. Richard Nixon seldom looked toward Whittier, Dwight Eisenhower was no special fan of Abilene, Jack Kennedy could take Boston or leave it. But Lyndon Johnson knew the nostalgic pull of a given place, knew that special gravity of the heart and the head certain to bring one back. Hugh Sidey wrote in Life, “The President returns and returns, hands in his pockets, loitering like a boy, remembering the sights and the sounds. He cannot stay away long.” Once, lolling on what he called simply The Ranch, LBJ said to newsmen, “The cows are fat. The grass is green. The river’s full, and the fish are flapping.” Though he enjoyed thinking of himself as a gentleman rancher, he liked in his speeches to recall what a hard, demanding, arid land he and his ancestors had conquered. One of Johnson’s most moving and eloquent speeches paid tribute to a harsh land and its stubborn conquerors, and contained the phrase, “poor caliche soil”—written, ironically, by Dick Goodwin, who then had never been to Texas. LBJ loved it, however, and later would say of other speeches, “Let’s put some of that ‘poor caliche soil’ in it.” For all his swaying feelings about that land, he spoke for so many expatriates when he said that he wanted to spend his final years where “they know when you’re sick and care when you die.”
What mysteries haunted him, what answers did he seek, what affirmations of life did he need now that he moved toward the shadows, that he so stubbornly sifted the sands of his personal past? This, now, from a man who once snapped, “There’s no sense worrying over the past, it’s done and gone and you can’t do anything about it”; this from a man who never felt much affinity toward written history and seemed a long way from introspections. Yet, in retirement, he roamed the small towns and rural paths of the Hill Country as if to reclaim something of the promises and challenges of an earlier time.
One mid-morning a couple of years after Lyndon Johnson’s retirement, a school teacher friend of mine from Pampa—Aubra Nooncaster—en route with his family to visit the restored LBJ birthplace, teased his young son that he had telephoned ahead to be certain the former President would personally greet them. Nooncaster was astonished, on stepping onto the front porch, when Lyndon Johnson rushed out the front door, hand extended, crying, “Welcome to my birthplace!” Johnson marched about telling old tales of his youth, read passages of poetry described as precious to his mother, bestowed souvenir gifts, and generally left the Nooncaster family numb and bedazzled. What in the world was he doing there, what need was he serving, that random tourists might discover him puttering among the artifacts of his beginnings? In his final years, he had two main preoccupations: his death—which, with the aid of computers and his family medical history, he predicted within two months of accuracy—and his early life. Only a fool would fail to judge them as interrelated.
Well, did the Texas experience—his Texas heritage—place any special worms in his head, cause or aid any peculiar aberrations in his presidential conduct? Though the response may inspire outrage from Amarillo to Angleton, I come down on the side of those who think it did.
He took the Texas Ranger myth and the Alamo too much to heart; it made him say foolish things such as “When a Texas Ranger gets hit he just keeps on acomin’”—as if, literally, such men were bulletproof—or to beg his boys in Viet Nam to “nail the coonskin to the wall.” It caused him to claim heroic ancestors he did not have at the Alamo, and to concoct a story of being fired on by “a Japanese ace” during World War II when in truth he had been awarded a “political” decoration by General Douglas MacArthur after going along as an observer on a photo-and-recon flight. This tells us something of his mind-set in matters of war, and it was war, after all, that brought him down.
He early fell for the legend of the Wild West, for all the gory glorification of shoot-outs and show-downs and bad towns tamed by gunslingers wearing white hats; he could be downright embarrassing should he get strung out in recitation of such myths, especially when he attempted to correlate them to that hateful and vexing and impossible Asian war. He did not read books past an early point in life, and so the examples he drew from literature, the lessons he learned from it, stressed the romantic, the old-fashioned, the lovingly contrived myths and carefully preserved legends. His was the literature of boosterism, of Horatio Alger, of Travis defining honor by drawing a line in the dirt and waiting for the bold to step across it. It was, in a word, simplistic.
He never learned, I think, in an age of nuclear weapons and impersonalized killing machines, that there no longer was room for clear brave deaths, for lines to be drawn in the dirt with swords, for Custers making that last defiant stand. Or, at best, that such random personal acts of bravery now counted, somehow, for much less than they once had—because, in the end, two or three fiercely heroic grunts dying in a firefight could have little real impact on the outcome of a war controlled by computerized weapons, hostile public opinion at home and abroad, international intrigues, corruption and malfeasance among our South Vietnamese allies, and that combustible fuel driving a soldier to fight harder on his native ground than an outsider ever could.
From his utterances and actions as applied to the Viet Nam War, I believe we may fairly conclude that LBJ was a victim of the six-gun syndrome and all it implies, a syndrome that—while surely American to the bone—may also be described as particularly, if not peculiarly, Texan. Against these early lessons, what chance did the Harvards and Clark Cliffords and street peaceniks have? For these lessons precluded retreat or defeat or even the damning tinge thereof; they blinded him to realities; they cost precious national coin and drove him from office.
It is possible that had LBJ grown up in Houston or Dallas or even a middling-sized Texas city—rather than in a remote rural village—he might not have been fashioned into the puzzling combination of arrogant wheeler-dealer and self-doubting Thomas that he became. Though he had one of the quickest, most absorbing minds it has been mine to witness—and could grow quickly impatient with those less gifted—he was capable of fretting about his “cow college education,” of wondering in moody moments whether he had the capacity to be President. In other moments he could, with equal fervor and equal sincerity, complain that he seldom was appreciated to the full extent of his talents. He gained strength from the memory of having always led his village contemporaries in competition and from having come so far from Johnson City, and yet he privately wondered whether his potential or development had been curtailed simply because his root beginnings had not offered much in the way of day-to-day challenges. I imagine that sometimes he tossed in a sleepless bed, or stared into a cooling fire, trying to balance out whether he had been all that special a duck or whether the pond simply had been too small. If he did, the evidence would seem to indicate that he failed to reach a consistent conclusion. This mystery probably accounted in part for his sneering at the Harvards on the one hand and envying their better starts on the other.
He was influenced, too, in the treatment of his own staff members, by the traditional Texas attitude toward the hired help. Virtually a non-union state for much of Lyndon Johnson’s life, Texas has always pretty much considered the employee to have only such rights as a benevolent employer sees fit to grant: it has been one huge company town. Brother Sam Houston Johnson wrote: “An employee owes complete loyalty to his employer. That was almost a phobia with him. Any shade of criticism or lack of enthusiasm from any staff member could be suspect. A staffer’s duty was to carry out instructions, not to challenge them.” Few of LBJ’s employees ever were able to nay-say him: John Connally more than others; Bill Moyers up to a point; Horace Busby now and again. “An eight-hour man ain’t worth a damn to me,” he often stated. He explained why as a U. S. Senator he had a dozen married couples on his payroll: “I don’t want some wife at home complainin’ that the cornbread’s gettin’ cold while her husband’s doin’ somethin’ for me.” He once asked Bill Brammer whether he had written The Gay Place “while you were workin’ for me,” and when Brammer stammered that he had written the book “at nights and on weekends,” Johnson dismissed him with the comment, “You ought to have been answering my mail.” This insistence on a blind, tireless application of energies toward his own goals or purposes would eventually drive off many of the better, more sensitive staffers—and would cause LBJ to die feeling bitter toward those he felt had deserted him to feather their own nests, advance their own careers. More important, it made it extremely difficult for most of his staff to offer candid advice on matters of the public business.
History’s jury is still out on our only true Texas President—it does not seem to matter much that Dwight Eisenhower happened to have been born in Denison and left while still in dresses—and, one supposes, the disputes will long rage over what Texas did to him or for him. One of the few eloquent passages in The Vantage Point is revealing, however, in expressing some sense of wonder that a boy from Johnson City could have scaled the heights. Of his first night back at The Ranch, after leaving the White House for good, LBJ wrote:
“I went outside and stood in the yard again, looking up at the moon in the broad, clear Texas sky. My thoughts went back to that October night in 1957 when we had walked along the banks of the Pedernales River and looked for the Soviet Sputnik orbiting in the sky overhead. I thought of all that had happened in the years between. I remembered once again a story I had heard about one of the astronauts from the crew of Apollo 8, which a month ago had circled the moon only a few miles above its surface. Soon after his return to earth the astronaut had stepped into his backyard at home and looked up at the moon. He had wondered if it really could be true that he had been there. I had recounted this story a few days ago to a group of friends. Perhaps, I told them, the time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the power and the splendor of the Presidency and find it hard to believe that I had actually been there.”