Lyndon Johnson’s johnson was called Jumbo. He named it that himself. As a friend of mine pointed out, in olives, at least, jumbo is not the biggest size. LBJ was nevertheless generous in displaying Jumbo—to women, of course, and to men as well. Like Walt Whitman, he might have said, “There is that lot of me, and all so luscious.” He was also unselfish with other bodily functions. In the full flush of his egotism, a toilet for LBJ was just another seat of power, and he routinely conducted business from his porcelain throne.
All these details of the body are part of the intimate portrait of our thirty-sixth president by Robert Caro in the third installment of his magnum opus, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf), which was launched in 1982. Subtitled Master of the Senate (the sobriquet is borrowed from that old phrasemaker Doris Kearns Goodwin), it weighs in at a whopping 1,040 pages of text, with an additional 141 pages of sources and notes.
For almost a decade Caro “owned” Johnson, but in the past ten years or so new claimants have come forward. Robert Dallek’s Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960 and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 cover much of the same territory as Caro but in a less compelling narrative style. A frequent talking-head historian on cable TV shows, Dallek is a favorite among the considerable number of Johnson loyalists who live in Austin, while the redoubtable Caro, with his darker, more damning view of LBJ, is Mr. Non Grata in some parts of Texas. Historian Michael R. Beschloss, another familiar face from TV, is giving us the actual private words of LBJ in—so far—two volumes of oral history, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 and Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965.
Thus Caro, whose new volume spans only twelve years, from Landslide Lyndon’s ascension to the Senate in 1949 to his departure in 1960 to serve as Jack Kennedy’s vice president, might seem to be lagging behind. But if Dallek gives us the measured facts and Beschloss the sound of LBJ the man, Caro still does the best job of creating a word picture of Johnson’s physicality, his dynamics of the bawdy. Often it isn’t pretty. Johnson devoted his whole life to attaining power, and to further his progress along the “path to power” (the author’s recurrent metaphor for Johnson’s life), he would, in Caro’s words, “let nothing stand in his way.”
Power, it seemed, always resided in older men, often lonely older men, and Johnson played the role of “professional son” to a degree that disgusted many of his contemporaries. His M.O. was always the same: to identify the most important person in any organization in which he found himself and then ingratiate himself with that person. After a session with an elderly senator, Johnson told John Connally, “Christ, I’ve been kissing asses all my life.” In the House of Representatives the object of his affection was the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, and in his case, it was the Speaker’s bald dome that Johnson kissed. He told uncounted numbers of older, influential men that they were like a “daddy” to him and each lapped it up. In the Senate Johnson’s rapid rise to the top derived from his courtship of Richard Russell, of Georgia, another lonely bachelor. A subtext of Caro’s book is the degree to which flattery plays a role in the lives of successful public figures. No Renaissance courtier ever wooed a king or a queen more ardently than Lyndon Johnson wooed those who stood in a position to help him. Yet it must be said that Johnson had much to offer. There are toadies who are nauseatingly adept at flattery and whose abilities stop there, but Johnson impressed all the lonely, powerful men with his brains and charm, his political astuteness that rose to the level of genius, and his burning ambition.
Along with Johnson’s capacity to win influential friends, however, Caro reveals his willingness to be ruthless when it suited his goals. The example of Leland Olds is an instructive one. Now forgotten, Olds was the chairman of the Federal Power Commission and a longtime champion of the rights of the common man against the interests of power companies. In Johnson’s heroic fight to bring electrification to rural Hill Country Texans in the thirties, he was allied with Leland Olds. But in 1949, when Johnson saw an opportunity to do something for his oil-and-gas-rich backers in Texas, Olds, who favored regulating the price of natural gas, became a target. Johnson’s subcommittee hearings on Olds’s reappointment to the power commission turned into a commie smear job orchestrated by Johnson. During a break in the hearings, before Olds was turned down for reappointment and his life essentially ruined, the junior senator from Texas told him, “I hope you understand there’s nothing personal in this.…It’s only politics, you know.”
But of course that was just bull, because it was personal. For Lyndon Johnson the personal and the political were one and the same. Sometimes Johnson’s need for power required him to do bad things, and he did them. But sometimes a national good fell into alignment with his overweening ambition, and in those instances he shone.
The greatest of these moments—before Johnson assumed the presidency—occurred in 1956, when his desire to hold the highest office in the land coincided with the pressure building for a civil rights bill. LBJ had to escape the taint of being a sectional candidate; he had to cleanse himself of the odor of magnolias. Before this time, Johnson had been ideologically as lily-white as any son of the South one could name. His first major Senate speech began, “We of the South,” and many of his fat-cat supporters and political operatives were racist to the core. LBJ could use the n-word with the best of them, though as in other areas,