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The Return of LBJ

Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960

by Robert Dallek
Oxford University Press, 721 pp., $30.00

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years

by Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $25.00

Among the presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George Bush, Lyndon Johnson has no serious rival for the distinction of being held in lowest esteem in current public opinion. A recent Harris poll found him ranked at the bottom of nearly all categories named. These included high moral standards, in which even Richard Nixon placed above Johnson, and John F. Kennedy stood at the very top. There seems little doubt that LBJ is the president Americans now most love to hate.

No simple explanation would serve to account for this, but any attempt that neglected certain complexities would surely fail. Outstanding among them are those of the Vietnam War. What with conservatives blaming Johnson for losing it, liberals blaming him for fighting it, and Americans generally seeking some villain on whom to unload their burden of shame and guilt and unable to use a martyred Kennedy for that purpose, what better scapegoat could they find? And he a southerner who had shattered the Yankee myth of invincibility and subjected true-blue Americans to their first admittedly lost war. And further, how could so crass a southerner be permitted his claims to have done more for civil rights and blacks than any president since Lincoln, and to have gone on to score more humanitarian reforms with his War on Poverty and his Great Society program than all of them put together?

A public need has grown for evidence that would justify an ever more derogatory image of LBJ. This need has been served mainly by journalists of varied talents and methods with books of several degrees of fairness and balance or lack of both. The latest, longest, and most ambitious of these is a multivolumed work in progress by Robert A. Caro that only gets him to the Senate in its second large volume. Caro lays great stress on digging up facts, with special attention to those that support his thesis. The fairness and balance and sense of humor with which he uses his vast store of facts have been questioned by a reviewer in these pages who called his book “the inverse of gilding the lily.”1

In contrast to the attention historians have lavished upon his predecessors and successors in the White House, scholars have shied away from Johnson. No serious, full-scale biography by a qualified historian has come forth until the appearance of the recent book by Robert Dallek. Known best for his Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, and the author of several other books, Dallek plans two large volumes on Johnson of which Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960 is the first.

But how can anyone, however scholarly, pretend complete impartiality and detachment about a subject like Lyndon Johnson? Professor Dallek does his best to avoid partisanship, polemics, and thesis riding, and he attempts to deal fairly and fully with all sides. While he has gone so far, in a statement to the press, as to place LBJ along with FDR as “one of the two most brilliant American politicians of the 20th century,” he fills in the unsavory side of the story as well—ballot-box stuffing, law flouting, court manipulating, and the skulduggery of bullying and bribing. Politics, for Johnson, was giving and taking. That was the game as he learned it, only he played it harder and played it for keeps. Principles and noble causes were for the statesman he aspired to become, but one had to be elected and stay in office to become a statesman. Meantime ideals and causes could wait—except when they became useful from time to time.

For every quality offered to characterize the man by one acquaintance, its opposite was put forth by another. His principal aide for a time, George Reedy, called him a Jekyll and Hyde personality, “a man of too many paradoxes,” “magnificent, inspiring” one minute, “an insufferable bastard” the next. In Dallek’s words, “Lyndon was a paradox: driven, grating, self-serving on one hand; warm, enjoyable, giving on the other.” To reconcile the opposites: “in return for the attention, influence, and power he craved and aggressively pursued, he gave concern, friendship, and benevolent support.” For every complaint of his greed, vindictiveness, and offensiveness, one can find testimony to his generosity, magnanimity, charm, and humor.

Wherever he was and in whatever circumstances, LBJ needed to be the best and have the most. He had to be the center of attention, no matter what the cost. His height of six feet three and a half inches helped, but he would resort to anything needed, including his considerable gifts of mimicry, and an endless stock of anecdotes. In a pinch he was capable of setting off his alarm clock watch. Even his exhibitionism has been called, by some of the people asked by Dallek, another paradox—the cover for an alleged shyness and insecurity.

Work was an obsessive compulsion, “as essential to him as breathing,” and he “an addict who needed a regular fix.” He was at it by 6:30 AM and kept at it until the small morning hours. He dictated, read, and signed as many as 250 letters a day, chain-smoked some three packs a day, developed a bleeding rash between his fingers, and signed letters with his hand wrapped in a towel to keep blood from staining the paper. Everything was work, all work politics, and everything had to be done now. He imposed his relentless personal regimen on all who worked for him. “They worked at a breakneck pace—days, evenings, nights, often seven days a week, week after week.” And when they lagged or erred he “chewed them out” publicly and ruthlessly. Crackups and breakdowns occurred in the Johnson staff. Yet they usually came back for more with remarkable loyalty, often with professions of devotion.

In his private life, what there was of it, some of the same characteristics and compulsions were manifest. He asked Lady Bird to marry him the day he met her. She was repelled and attracted at the same time, but soon yielded to what she described as the “whirlwind.” It was not an untroubled union, but they complemented each other’s personality traits and ambitions and worked together well. One of Lady Bird’s troubles was Lyndon’s womanizing and “compulsive need for conquests.” For a time, Dallek writes, he had “what amounted to a harem.” When John Kennedy’s activity of the sort was mentioned, Lyndon would declare that he “had more women by accident than Kennedy had on purpose.”

Origins, ancestry, parents, and childhood, essentials for understanding this seeming monster, are not neglected by Dallek. Was Lyndon the son of impoverished subsistence farmers or the descendant of prominent southern families? He was something of both. At least there was some substance to his claim that among his ancestors were congressmen (two), college presidents (one), and governors (one), “when the Kennedys in this country were still tending bar.” Lyndon came of the fourth generation of Texas Johnsons, the first two of which had seen better times. His grandfather, Sam Johnson, joined the Texas Populist Party, and his father called himself “a latter-day Populist.” Sam Jr. believed politics was a struggle between democracy and corporate power and won election to the state legislature, one of the last members “who still wore a gun and looked like a cowboy.” Lyndon admired his father, followed him everywhere in campaigns and rallies, and watched proceedings for hours from the Statehouse gallery as a boy.

His mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, whose grandfather was the college president on Lyndon’s family tree, did all she could to foster his conviction of his birthright to prominence. When her father died in 1906 it was his seat in the legislature Sam Johnson won and his daughter Sam married. Rebekah was not only born to the political life but she had a college education and aspirations for finer things. She gave this up for a life of drudgery in a log house in the hill country west of Austin without plumbing or electricity. When Lyndon was five and farming proved a failure they moved to Johnson City, a desolate village of 325 souls, no pavement, no trains, still no plumbing or power, and “almost nothing to do or any place to go.” Things got worse when Sam fell sick of an undefined illness, gave up his seat in the legislature, and went into debt. With no income, the impoverished family then began to live “from hand to mouth,” partly on charity, and fell deeper in debt. The best Sam could do at forty-six was to get a job as a part-time game warden at two dollars a day.

Lyndon’s response to this troubled and insecure childhood was an explosive mixture of rebellion, defiance, and arrogance. He was uncontrollable at home and in school, unwilling to submit to authority, and determined to bend siblings and classmates, even teachers and parents, to his will. With its bewildering and contradictory expectations of achievement and prominence and its realities of poverty and failure, his unhappy childhood dogged Lyndon Johnson all his days. He managed to get a degree at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, a “third class” institution with course requirements “closer to those of a high school than a college.” With no money from home, he did it on small loans and campus jobs, first collecting trash at $8 a month, later working as assistant janitor at $12, and finally as errand boy at $15. With the cheapest meal contract at $16 a month for two meals a day, he sometimes went hungry.

Johnson’s more important education was the on-the-job self-training he got from taking complete charge of the Washington office of a freshman congressman from South Texas in 1931. Richard Kleberg was a multimillionaire playboy devoted to horses, golf, and polo, and largely an absentee congressman. He cheerfully left the humdrum grind of office duties and the demands of constituents in the hands of the wholly green twenty-three-year-old youth he had been persuaded to bring along from Texas. With astonishing speed Lyndon mastered the essentials of coping with the 500,000 constituents of his boss, the mysteries of congressional manipulation, and the complexities of the Federal bureaucracy. As his mentors he enlisted the whole Texas delegation, including “Tex” Garner and Sam Rayburn, made friends with them all and acquaintance with dozens of other congressmen. He was “entranced” by the Share Our Wealth program of Huey Long.

In the depression years of 1931–1935 there could hardly have been a better training for a politician and a more thorough education in the needs of a supporting constituency. Johnson was an enthusiastic Roosevelt New Dealer and supporter of the fifteen major laws of the Hundred Days that changed American life. No liberal ideologue, however, he could talk like a conservative with conservatives and was impressed with how little ideas figured in Texas campaigns. When the National Youth Administration came along, he seized the opportunity of becoming head of the Texas NYA and saw the job not only as a way of discharging his passion for helping the poor and jobless but as a means of establishing a local constituency and statewide contacts for future campaigns. Leaving Washington in 1935, he declared to a friend, “I’m coming back as a Congressman.” And so he did.

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    Garry Wills in the April 26, 1990, issue reviewing Robert Caro, Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf, 1990).

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