I’ve always admired Lyndon Johnson for pushing through the Civil Rights Bill 50 years ago, especially since he realized he was breaking up the Democratic coalition that Franklin Roosevelt had built when he was President. Vietnam, however, was not so admirable.
Robert A. Caro’s 3 volume biography of Johnson is pretty fascinating (and I haven’t even quite finished the first volume). There’s a lot of history I wasn’t very familiar with, and biographical sketches of people (some of whom I’d heard of, some not) that were illuminating. Caro shows how a lot of people and events fit together.
To understand Johnson, one of the things you have to understand is where he came from: the Hill Country of West Texas is a beautiful area, but not very fertile. Rock underlay the shallow topsoil, and since the area was hilly, incautious plowing encouraged erosion, which often happened. The climate was also undependable. One year (or even three or four) might have enough rain to produce a good crop, but eventually a year would be dry, and it might be dry several years in a row. So the area was both isolated and poor.
This was an area that supported the Populist party that began in the 1880’s. This group supported farmers, who weren’t getting paid enough for the crops they produced. The Populists set up cooperatives to sell the crops to give the farmers better prices, but failed because Eastern merchants refused to deal with the cooperatives. They started a political party, elected some representatives, and considered running their own nominee for President. But William Jennings Bryan took over their issues, so the Populists voted for him as the Democratic candidate–and lost. Bryan ran twice more, and lost both times. The Populist party was dead by the first decade of the 20th century.
But Lyndon Johnson’s father, Sam, believed in Populism, and became a representative to the state government. He was honest, refusing to allow anyone to buy him anything, was very popular, and was a natural politician with lots of talent. Unfortunately, he made the same mistake his father had made: counting on the land to produce a good crop, and betting everything (including all he could borrow) on that. That year was dry, and he lost everything.
Lyndon had loved his parents until his father’s failure; then he turned against them. He refused to obey them, refused to study in school, and was determined not to go to college, which both his parents wanted him to do. He tried working at a job for a lawyer in California, but found he was doing illegal things, so returned to Texas. Then he worked at road-building, an extremely hard physical job, and decided physical work wasn’t very enjoyable for him, especially since it didn’t pay well. So he decided to go to college.
One of the most significant stories about him came about during his college years. There was a society called the Black Stars, which was mostly the athletes and their girl-friends, and they were the ones who got most of the offices in the student government. Johnson took advantage of another organization started for all the outsiders to get power for himself.
He wasn’t well-liked by the students, but was by the professors and administrators, because he flattered them outrageously. Through the other club, the White Stars, and through his contacts with the teachers and officials, he managed to get his candidates elected to the student government and to get most of the good jobs available assigned to members of his group. Most students had to work to be able to afford school, so this was an important power to have.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this accomplishment was that hardly anyone even realized it was going on. Nobody knew about the White Stars, except its members. And no one knew why jobs were suddenly going to the less popular students, though they had a sense Lyndon Johnson had something to do with it. People still didn’t like him, but because he had power, they had to pay attention to him.
The end of that story came much later, though, after the end of Johnson’s Presidency. He visited the college, and remarked that he had established a dictat… (he didn’t quite say dictatorship), and that it had been Hitlerian. It was near the end of the day, he was tired, and in poor health, but as soon as he realized what he’d said, he ended the conversation and left. Caro comments that if a student hadn’t had an audio recorder, probably no one but the people he’d been speaking to would ever have known what he’d said.
Caro almost exclaims about the difference between him and his father (who had been incorruptible), that Lyndon Johnson had made those comments unprompted by anyone else, and that he’d been PROUD of that accomplishment. It shows not only his attachment to power, but his lack of idealism. He didn’t have beliefs he would be true to, no matter what. He wanted to win, and desperately. Later episodes would show just how desperately.