Bringing Up Lyndon

As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined.

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

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