Lyndon Johnson had to take a break between his sophomore and junior years in college to make money to pay for his next year. He had arranged for a good job on campus, but had spent too much money and borrowed too much. He managed to get a job teaching school in a southern Texas town near the border, where most of the students were Mexicans. He could have slid by, doing the minimum, which was all these children were used to in their teachers anyway, but he didn’t.
Instead he brought discipline to the school. He didn’t care about the children’s culture, and never bothered to learn much Spanish, but insisted that they only speak English in and around the school. If he heard a boy using Spanish words during recess, he would spank him; if a girl, he would berate her.
But the children weren’t offended. He was giving them attention, which few others did. He also arranged for athletic equipment, and organized debates and spelling bees. Many of the children in later life had good memories of him.
He also taught the custodian English before and after school. He would pronounce and English word and have the custodian pronounce it after him, or spell one, and have the custodian spell it. He got nothing for doing this, in monetary terms. Apparently he recognized the kinship between the people in the town and himself. All came from poor backgrounds from which they’d be unable to escape without appropriate tools.
After his year at that school he returned to college, and organized the White Stars, as described in my last post.
I happened to hear Robert Caro, author of this biography, on NPR, talking about the Civil Rights Bill (this year is its 50th anniversary) Johnson passed much later in life. He commented that Johnson was a man of compassion, but also a man of ambition. When compassion interfered with ambition, ambition always won with him, but when they pointed in the same direction he achieved almost miraculous things.
A later summer he worked on the campaign of a Texas politician, Welly Hopkins, but Hopkins was unable to give him a job, so after graduating from college he managed to get another teaching job, this time in Houston.
In this job too he was energetic and demanding, and concentrated on preparing the students for debate competitions in great detail. He emphasized doing everything one could, controlling all the minor details as well as the major ones, and that doing this would almost guarantee winning. It almost did. In the state championship his debaters lost by one point. That methodology was what he would use himself in his career.
During his second year at the school he was offered a job as private secretary to Richard Kleberg, who had just won a special election to fill a vacancy in the 14th Congressional District. On securing the job he left the school and headed for Washington without even any warm clothes or money to buy them.
Once there, he began organizing Kleberg’s office, eventually hiring two of the White Stars he had known in college to assist him, and exploring Washington. In the office one of his priorities was to answer the mail as quickly as possible, so the constituents writing would feel connected to Washington (and hopefully more connected to Lyndon Johnson than to Richard Kleberg), and generating more mail.
As he slowly began to understand what was where and how to get things done in Washington, he began doing things. His first move was to get acquainted with as many important people in the government as he could, and their staff people. People who knew him well said he was always looking for his next job–what would it be, and how could he prepare for it? He was preparing now.
He had arrived in Washington in 1931, at the age of 23. The Great Depression had begun just two years before.
When reading about this period, I’m struck by the mirror image it gives of the Great Recession, largest economic downturn since the Depression, that we’re still in. Many of the problems are the same: wide economic inequality and corruption. The big difference is that the Depression struck in the second year of Herbert Hoover’s presidency. States gave as much aid as they could to the unemployed, but eventually ran out of money. Hoover didn’t want to do too much in the form of aid, fearing it would destroy American’s morale. So he did little, while Congress wrangled (achieving almost nothing), even when veterans of World War I descended on the Capitol and begged Hoover to negotiate with their leaders. Instead, he had the Army drive them away.
So by the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected, the country was ready for the government to do SOMETHING, even conservatives. And Roosevelt did do things. He admitted from the beginning that the country was in unknown territory, and that he would try things; if the things he tried didn’t work, he’d try something else. He did.
One of the problems of the Depression was one that had at least a 50 year history: farmers weren’t getting paid enough for their crops. They had tried to organize to change that, but their organization had been defeated. Now Roosevelt, among others, recognized that one of their problems was they were producing too much, driving the price for their crops down. He started a program to pay farmers for NOT planting all their acreage. This would give them a steady income, and enable them to hold onto their farms. Many farmers didn’t understand the program, and didn’t sign up for it. That’s where Lyndon Johnson came in. He contacted the influential farmers of his districts, and explained the program to them, getting them to sign up, and getting them to influence other farmers. This was one way he could serve his district and get to know important people there. The funny thing about his efforts to extend the benefits of the New Deal to the 14th Congressional District of Texas was that he didn’t believe in it–at least not when he was talking to important conservatives. People around him at that time agreed that he had a great need for gratitude, and the New Deal was seemingly made for someone with those feelings. And yet he seemed not to believe in it–except when he was talking to liberals.
This was a continuation of his behavior at college, where he flattered the faculty and administrators, and agreed with everything they said. People who knew him said he was a “professional son”, able to get older people to like him, and want to help him. When he went to dances in Washington he didn’t dance with the young attractive women, but with the wives of Congressmen. He was planning ahead, looking for allies who would help him achieve what he wanted to achieve.
What DID he want to achieve? In 1939 a wealthy Texas businessman offered to give him an oil well that would make him rich. Lyndon Johnson WANTED to be rich, but he refused the offer, saying it would kill him politically. Why would it? Texans had no problem with oil, and didn’t think badly (most of them) about people who owned oil wells. George Brown who, with his brother Herman, would be very important in Johnson’s life, reflected that after three years of knowing Lyndon Johnson well, he finally realized after this incident just what Lyndon Johnson DID want, and how badly he wanted it.
Lyndon Johnson was a desperate man. That didn’t make him stand out from many of the people he’d grown up with, or many of the people living through the Great Depression. His intelligence, energy, and the means he was willing to use to accomplish what he wanted did make him stand out. When his chance came to run for Congress, his desperation would be shown clearly.
That chance came when a Representative of Texas’s 10th Congressional District died. Johnson had hoped that Kleberg, his boss, would accept an ambassador’s post, but Kleberg wasn’t interested. He was comfortable being a Representative, and incumbents from Texas usually won their elections, often running unopposed. Johnson knew little about the 10th District, but he knew a chance like this would be unlikely to come again soon. So he consulted with Alvin Wirtz.
Wirtz was a lawyer who enjoyed being a power behind the scenes, and Johnson had become his “professional son”. Wirtz had his own reasons for wanting Johnson to win the seat, and though he didn’t think much of the New Deal, advised Johnson to run on Roosevelt’s coattails. It was 1936, and Roosevelt was still popular, but had started to be less popular because of his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court to stop his programs from being declared unconstitutional. If Johnson proclaimed his support for Roosevelt (even though Wirtz didn’t really support him, and Johnson didn’t really either), he would win popular support, and also the support of Roosevelt himself, if he was successful. Johnson agreed.
People who knew Johnson agreed that he’d always wanted to marry money, and he had successfully married Ladybird Taylor, whose father was one of the very rich men in East Texas. Ladybird had some good qualities of her own, but allowed her husband to overshadow her and often treat her badly, ordering her around and berating her in front of guests. But her father immediately gave Johnson $10,000 to get his campaign started.
He could call on money from various lobbyists and other political friends too, at least partly through the help of Alvin Wirtz. He put up billboards, bought radio time, but most of all he traveled.
Austin was in the center of the 10th District, but Johnson didn’t think he could win in the city. He wasn’t part of that political machine, which had its own candidates. They didn’t necessarily object to Johnson running, but weren’t going to go out of their way to help him. So he took his campaign to the countryside.
Every day he would be on the road, stopping at country stores to talk to the proprietor and customers. He was never an extremely good formal speaker, but informally his friends said he could sell anything to anybody. Of course country stores would only reach relatively few people, so he stopped at every farm he could find to talk to the farmers. That was practically unprecedented, and certainly helped persuade farmers to vote for him, which wasn’t easy for them to do. They would have to travel many miles to vote, leaving chores (practically constant on a farm) undone. So he traveled daily, and after a full day of campaigning returned to campaign headquarters to make sure that his strategy was right, and everything was being taken care of.
He slowly began to gain traction in the race. His father, a successful politician–for awhile–suggested that since he couldn’t get a leader to introduce him before he spoke, to get an outstanding child. His opponents were telling people he was too young to serve. He found a young male relative, known in the area for his rodeo skills, to recite Edger Guest’s poem, It Couldn’t Be Done. Another candidate also said he was too young,that he was taking money from the “Interests”, and that he hadn’t been born in the district. Johnson answered that had his mother known the people of the district wanted a “city-slicker” to represent them, she might have done something about it, that he’d rather be a young whippersnapper than an old reactionary, and then denied that he was using any money but his own.
The latter wasn’t true; in fact, his first campaign was one of the most expensive in the history of Texas. One man closely associated with it thought the total spent was between $75,000 and $100,000, at a time when the dollar was worth much more than today.
But Johnson’s desperation showed in the way he pushed not only the people around him, but himself. At the end of the campaign he developed appendicitis, and had to be hospitalized for a long time. He had started the campaign at 181 pounds. After two weeks of recuperation his weight was 151. He was a tall man, so even 181 made him very thin. But he did win the campaign.