Nearly a month since my last blog, but I’ve actually been on a fast pace to get here, completing the 2500 pages of the three extant volumes of Robert A. Caro’s biographical work The Years of Lyndon Johnson. There’s a fourth book to come, but with Master of the Senate, (The preceding two being The Path to Power, Means of Ascent) we’ve now arrived at the eve of 1960, the year of his election to the vice-presidency. The next volume will presumably carry through the presidency to his death, though with Caro’s thoroughness, I wouldn’t put a fifth volume past him. He’s devoted over thirty years to the project so far. That’s nearly an entire career, with The Power Broker about the titanic Robert Moses of New York as his other Pulitzer claim to fame.
It’s hard to imagine a work of this length achieving a constant sense of urgency and drama. But Caro does it, and no brief quotations can convey how well he doe it. You’ll just have to try it for yourself. If you want to read just one, I recommend the second volume–Means of Ascent–which is the story of that run for the Senate. All drama all the time and more theatrical history than you can find in the evening news. Taken as a whole, however, The Years of Lyndon Johnson is such a monumental, disturbing, and well-written work, it almost reads like a novel.
Johnson was, in a sense, my second president. I was aware of Eisenhower, but with boyhood lack of connection to the adult world, didn’t feel part of his political era. When I graduated from high school in 1959, you still had to be twenty-one to drink or vote, so I was a spectator for the 1960 elections of JFK and LBJ.* By the time of the 1963 assassination, however, I had fully bought into and identified with the Camelot myth and was in deep grief with the rest of the nation. With Johnson’s succession followed the horror and the glory of Vietnam and the Great Society, respectively. LBJ didn’t start things in Vietnam, but he poured more lives than anyone else into the Southeast Asian jungles.
Even with Nixon’s Parrot’s Beak incursions into Cambodia and other fiascos, no other American bears more responsibility for those ugly years than Lyndon Johnson. On the other hand, no other person with a white skin save Abraham Lincoln did more to advance the cause of justice for American citizens of darker hue than Lyndon Johnson. And those two facts exemplify what Caro calls the dark thread and the bright thread in the fabric of LBJ’s life and career. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that none of it would have happened like that without the 87 fraudulent votes which Johnson stole to gain his senate seat in 1948.
Johnson grew up in intense poverty. Texas hill country was so poor, they couldn’t afford Negroes. Whites had to do all the “nigger work” themselves, so he was relatively free of direct experience with minorities of intense experience with normal southern prejudices of the time. Not as free as he claimed to be, of course. That would have been impossible. However, he demonstrated intense compassion for the poor of his own race as well as for those of other races from time to time. One of his early jobs was as a schoolteacher in a small Tex-Mex town where in the course of one year he practically transformed his have-not Cotulla High School into a place where kids could at least play ball and have a debate club. He identified with the transient kids who would be in class one day, then be trucked off to the fields the next. The same thing had happened to his own white friends (though not to him) when he was growing up. Again, when he had a chance to head up a youth employment agency as part of the early new deal, he did a lot to make sure black kids at least appeared to get more than their fair share of the resources. As a congressional representative, he pioneered through great personal sacrifice to bring electricity to sparsely-populated hill country when no power company wanted to do it.
That compassion, however, needed to coincide with his ambition, or it became expendable. Most of us have a streak like that unless we’re Mother Theresa. We’re glad to help others as long as it doesn’t cost us too much time, money, convenience. But Johnson carried this normal human impulse to gargantuan proportions–as he did most matters in his life. From his earliest days, he had to win, and had to be the center of attention. “Just had to,” as an early acquaintance put it. When he was around six, an older girl came by each morning to pick him up on her donkey to take him to school. He insisted on riding in front. “Lyndon, I’m older and it’s my donkey,” she’d say. But he persisted, and he did ride in front. Later on, he managed to manipulate the student government at his college so that he controlled yearbook, newspaper, and the student council which passed out student jobs. And he did it by stealing elections, small-time extortion, and gathering votes where no one else had thought to look. These elements of unscrupulous and genuine political genius continue throughout his career.
From his first federally elected post to the last, he was thrall to the financing of Texas contractor brothers George and Herman Brown. The had a partner named Root. Thus did Brown and Root grow rich with federal contracts, and thus did Johnson have unprecedented financing for his campaigns. You might recognize the name Brown, Root, and Kellogg. Parent company of Halliburton? Could it be that Johnson has helped make possible not only first Vietnam but the second? But I digress.
He was in a myriad of ways a thoroughly venal and savage man. He callously and intentionally destroyed careers to get what he wanted, verbally abused his employees and his family, persuaded himself that he deserved what he had stolen, that he had won it fair and square, scratched and rubbed himself in public in the the most intimate manner, pissed in the open anywhere he felt like it– even in the Senate parking lot in front of women, forced his staff to take dictation from him in the same room where he was defecating, and boastfully displayed his “jumbo” (as he nicknamed it) to male colleagues. He cared not at all for music, art, literarture, or theater, but he could read people with the eye of a psychoanalyst. He could tell you what you wanted most, dreaded most, and he wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of your desires and your fears to get what he wanted. His first priority for hiring staff people was not intelligence or education, but loyalty–which meant people whom he could call at midnight to come shine his shoes or do anything else he ordered.
And yet, he had the capacity to make himself charming and sought after. He was a gifted raconteur, witty and the life of any party. “Just plain fun,” many said. He made himself into a “professional son” with older men and women who were lonely. The powerful Sam Rayburn (also from Texas) in the house of Representatives was one. Richard Russell in the Senate was another. And these men would do for him what they would do for no one else. This was another impulse that started early. His college classmates called him “brown-nose” for the way he ingratiated himself with faculty and administrators. He worked harder and more thoroughly than anyone else, worked himself repeatedly into and through bronchitis, pneumonia, kidney stones, and a heart attack. He was frantic to get to the presidency ASAP because Johnson men tended to die early of heart attacks, so he was convinced he had to do it all by age sixty. His instincts and unscrupulousness enabled him to manipulate people and even institutions (He almost single-handedly subverted the Senate seniority system.) For his own gain. It mattered not who or what got demolished in the process. And so we got Vietnam. And yet, when his ambition and his compassion coincided, he achieved unparalleled benefits for millions. And so we got the great civil rights legislation of 1964 (same year as the Gulf of Tonkin.)
Maybe it wasn’t necessary in the end for Caro to write all these pages. LBJ’s 1948 Senate victory, I read, has now become a musical (The Winner), so the whole story may be passing into popular lore and the truth will no longer matter. Nevertheless, I’m waiting, waiting for that fourth (or fifth?) volume the way some people wait for Harry Potter’s next (or last). Even though I know how it turns out and they don’t, I can’t wait to see how it happened. As it turns out, even though I lived through it, I didn’t know a thing about it before.
* A Note on the initials: I don’t know whether Kennedy consciously cultivated the three-initial FDR echo, but Johnson certainly did. He was a new-dealer (when it was convenient), had wanted the presidency since boyhood, and went to the extent of making sure his wife and daughters (Lady Bird, Lynda Bird, and Luci Baines) would all be “LBJ’s”.