LBJ: A Lifeby Irwin Unger, Debi Unger
recommended to anyone interested in the life and extraordinary career of the driven, tormented, dynamic and complex man who would probably have become one of the greatest US presidents ever were it not for Vietnam?" (Irish Times (Dublin), 30 November 2002)
recommended to anyone interested in the life and extraordinary career of the driven, tormented, dynamic and complex man who would probably have become one of the greatest US presidents ever were it not for Vietnam?" (Irish Times (Dublin), 30 November 2002)
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Lyndon Johnson was a son of the Texas Hill Country. A broad band of terrain just west of the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain, it is a beautiful region of rolling hills covered with cedar, Spanish oak, bald cypress, and cottonwood. During the fall, sumac and maple turn the hills bright red; during the spring, the fields and roadsides are blanketed with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, daisies, poppies, and buttercups. The land still supports white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, opossums, raccoons, and armadillos. Its original fauna included mountain lions, black bears, and gray wolves, even bison. "It is a place for dreams," writes Bill Porterfield.
Geologists call the Hill Country the Edwards Plateau. It is a raised former sea floor, and its soil, except in a few river valleys, is a thin layer over a limestone base. Its rainfall is erratic. At times the land succumbs to drought; at times it is struck by "gullywashers," cloudbursts that send walls of water down the rain channels with destructive force. The plateau marks the start of the West. Its people do not raise cottonor not very muchor sorghum, as in East Texas; they herd cattle, hunt, and grow peaches and plums. Stonewall, where Lyndon Johnson was born, was at a crossroads of East and West, a site that blurred a strong identification with either section. Acknowledging this hybrid origin, Johnson once referred to himself as a "cross between a Baptist preacher and a cowboy."
Although Lyndon Johnson lived in Washington more than half of his adult life, he was deeplyattached to his place of birth. "In almost every action that Johnson ... [took] as President," claims journalist Hugh Sidey, "there is a strand which can be clearly followed back to his home in Texas. As a branding iron sears flesh, the memories of ... the Texas Hill Country etched themselves on Lyndon Johnson's cortex." When he left the presidency in 1969, he returned to his ranch on the Pedernales River, a mile away from the tiny farmhouse where he was born. It was there that he died four years later, and after a formal state funeral in the nation's capital, was buried on its cherished river's banks.
If Johnson loved the Hill Country, he also loved Texas. His state was a more abstract concept than the rolling hills of the Edwards Plateau, but it was tightly entwined with his family's history. The first Johnson ancestor to reach Texas was his great-great-uncle John Wheeler Bunton, who arrived in 1833 while Texas was still a state of the Mexican Republic. Bunton played an important role in the Texas war of independence as both a soldier and a legislator. But he did not die at the Alamo, as Lyndon and his father claimed; he died in bed. The first direct Johnson forebear to reach Texas was his great-grandfather Robert Holmes Bunton, who came from Tennessee in 1858 and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. His daughter, Eliza Bunton, would be Lyndon's paternal grandmother.
The Buntons were the first in Texas, but the Johnsons were first in the Hill Country. In 1846 Jesse Johnson moved from Georgia to Lockhart, Caldwell County, in East Texas, where he acquired 330 acres of land and a respectable amount of other property. Somehow Jesse lost it all, and when he died in 1856, his ten children were left without an inheritance. Without money or chattels, his son, Sam Ealy Sr., Johnson's grandfather, joined forces with brothers Tom and Andrew and set out for Blanco County, farther west, determined to make their own fortunes.
The Johnson brothers settled along the Pedernales River near what would become Johnson Citynamed for a nephew who had surveyed the landand made good money raising cattle. Then came stints as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War. At one point Sam Sr. reportedly risked his life by carrying a wounded comrade from the battlefield on his own back. The Johnson brothers came back to the Hill Country after the war and resumed ranching. In December 1867 Sam married Eliza Bunton. The Johnson boys were among the pioneers of the "long drives" of the post-Civil War Cattle Kingdom era and became wealthy guiding their herds of Texas longhorns north up the Chisholm Trail to sell at railhead in Abilene. In 1871 Tom Johnson was reported to be the second richest man in Blanco County.
But then their fortunes, like their father's, turned. By 1870 the cattle market was glutted and the price per head at Abilene plunged. The next year they lost all their land. In 1877 Tom Johnson, who never married, drowned under never-explained circumstances in the Brazos River. Sam Sr., a father of nine, struggled to support his wife and family. After a few unsuccessful attempts at farming in other parts of Texas, he moved back to the Hill Country. Here, proud Eliza sold her last remaining wedding presents, her silver-mounted carriage and her two Thoroughbreds, to make a down payment on land on the Pedernales. This tract stayed in the family until her death.
The Johnsons never made a go of agriculture, and Lyndon's later devotion to husbandry on his ranch seems like an attempt to revise the family past. Although Sam Sr. now had a permanent farm, he remained relatively poor for the rest of his life. Farming in the Hill Country was hard. When the first settlers arrived they found green grass and gentle hills, suggesting fertile ground. But in fact, as we have seen, the soil was thin and the region afflicted with alternating periods of heavy rains and long droughts.
Lyndon's father, Sam Ealy Jr., the fifth child and the first son of Sam and Eliza Bunton, was ten when the family moved to the Pedernales farm. Called "Little Sam" to distinguish him from his father, he had a good mind, loved school, and hoped to continue his studies. But acquiring an education was hard for farmers' sons, who were needed at home to help out, and he had to finish high school by studying on his own and passing a special state examination that gave him a diploma and a license to teach school. He would always remember with pride his test scores of 100 percent in U.S. and Texas history.
Three years of teaching made Little Sam yearn to be a lawyer. Finding it impossible to rustle up enough money for law school, he went back to the farm, where he waited for something better to come along. In 1904 he learned that a seat in the Texas legislature from his county was vacant. He ran for it and won.
It didn't take long for him to realize that politicking was more stimulating than farming. Sam Ealy Jr.'s politics were a special brand. Sam Sr., his father, had been swept up in the revolt of Texas small farmers against the dominance of the planter-business elite during the 1890s, a time when cotton was a ruinous six cents a pound and the railroads had them by the throat. Sam Sr. became a Populist and ran on the People's Party ticket for the state legislature in 1892. He was defeated, but Populism did not die in Texas. Four years later the "respectable classes" mounted a vicious campaign against another Populist challenge, a campaign that resembled the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. Thereafter, the People's Party quickly deflated, leaving Texas a one-party state but leaving the predominant Democrats with a residue of anti-elite insurgency.
Lyndon Johnson's father, like his grandfather, was a defender of the "common man." Elected to the state legislature in 1904 as a Democrat, Sam Ealy Jr. opposed the "interests," the trusts, and big business. He supported an eight-hour day for railroad laborers, pure-food legislation, and municipal regulation of utility rates. He also attacked the Ku Klux Klan on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives at a time when many of its members were Klan sympathizers. "My father," said Lyndon, "was a liberal, progressive fella that dealt in helping the poor."
His forebears' political lives deeply influenced the future president. Johnson was born with politics in his blood. His great-great-uncle John Wheeler Bunton signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, helped write the new Lone Star Republic's constitution, sat in the first Texas Congress, and voted for the bill establishing the Texas Rangers. His mother's father, Joseph Wilson Baines, was a former Texas secretary of state and member of the state legislature. Sam Ealy Johnson Jr. would serve five terms in the Texas state legislature. On the day of his birth, LBJ would later recount, his grandfather Sam Ealy Sr., himself a failed office-seeker, rode through the Texas Hill Country announcing, "A United States Senator was born this morning!"
Lyndon's immediate political heritage was populistic. Some of his earliest memories were of listening to his grandfather "talk about the plight of the tenant farmer, the necessity for the worker to have protection for bargaining...." LBJ never repudiated his family's political credo, though he often suspended it in practice. Lyndon Johnson, wrote George Reedy, his later aide and presidential press secretary, felt an enduring passion "to make life easier for those who had to struggle up from the bottom. His interpretation of what was required might be open to question but not his desire to act."
Johnson's political legacy is congruent with his gut suspicion of intellectual and cultural elites, though ego more than principle, resentment more than morals, may have been at its heart. "The men of ideas think little of me," he confided to biographer Doris Kearns many years later; "they despise me." Toward people with patrician backgrounds and better education, he displayed an excruciating ambivalence. He was convinced that education was the only escape from poverty and secretly admired intellectuals and Ivy League blue bloods. But he was also jealous of those who never had to fight for their credentials, their cultivation, and their privileges. "My daddy always told me," Lyndon later confessed, "that if I brushed up against the grindstone of life, I'd come away with far more polish that I could ever get at Harvard or Yale. I wanted to believe him, but somehow I never could." His "betters" brought out the boor in Johnson. He often went out of his way to be boastful, churlish, and abusive with well-educated or cultivated men. He sometimes acted crudely in their presence, as if trying to reduce them to his own level and muffle his feelings of inferiority. His friends ignored his tasteless behavior; his enemies condemned him for it.
Yet Johnson's politics did not include typical Populistic rancor against businessmen and the merely rich. Despite his sympathies for the underdog, his father had associated with some of the lobbyists who collected around the Texas legislature and found a patron in Roy Miller, the jovial representative of Texas Gulf Sulphur and a member of the fabulously rich King family. Johnson himself never had difficulty getting along with millionaires, especially the rough-hewn, self-made kind. His friends included Texas oil tycoons, railroad magnates, TV executives, and Henry Ford II of the motorcar giant. Nor did it interfere with his own urgent quest for wealth. Johnson made himself a millionaire through adroit manipulation of the business system, yet he never ceased to identify with the men and women of common clay.
Johnson's parents met when Rebekah Baines was teaching elocution and working as a stringer for an Austin newspaper. At her father's suggestion she interviewed the young Texas legislator Sam Ealy Johnson Jr. and found him "dashing and dynamic." He in turn was delighted to find "a girl who really liked politics." Their dates often consisted of listening to admired political orators, including the populist hero William Jennings Bryan. Having just been spurned by a local sweetheart, Sam was determined not to let this beautiful and intelligent woman get away. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married on August 27, 1907.
Rebekah Baines considered her family superior to the Johnsons. A college graduate with fine features and genteel demeanor, she looked and acted like an aristocrat. Once past that first, fine careless rapture, she came to feel that she had married beneath her. She discovered, she told her son, that his "daddy was not a man to discuss higher things." He was "vulgar and ignorant." He liked to "sit up half the night with his friends, drinking beer, telling stories, and playing dominoes." She not only disapproved of her husband's habits; she also disdained his forebears, comparing them unfavorably with her own. She agreed with her husband's aunt, who often said: "The Baineses have the brains and the Johnsons have the guts."
Sam and Rebekah moved into a small four-room cabin upstream from his father's land. Although by Hill Country standards the house was far from squalid, it was still a comedown for a refined young woman who remembered her spacious and charming childhood home. Sam painted the house bright yellow to cheer her up, but that failed to do the job. Rebekah was unsuited to the rigors of farm life. Farm work was hard not only for the men, but also for their wives. The women did their chores without the help of gas or electricity. They heated the water drawn from outside wells in cast iron kettles over wood stoves. They washed their clothes in zinc tubs, scouring away the ubiquitous farm filth on metal scrub boards with harsh, homemade soap. They cooked on wood-fired ranges that had to be continually stoked with logs and chips. They fed the chickens and cattle, grew their own vegetables, and then canned and preserved them for the coming winters. The workday seemed long even for rural women accustomed to this drudgery, but for Rebekah, who had no experience in homemaking and who admitted that she "never liked country life and its inconveniences ...," it was interminable. She sometimes felt overwhelmed. "I was confronted," she wrote in her memoir, "not only by the problem of adjustment to a completely opposite personality, but also to a strange and new way of life...." It was not, she added, "the charming fairy tale of which I had so long dreamed."
The birth of her son on Thursday, August 27, 1908, a year after her marriage, helped reconcile Rebekah to her less than satisfactory spouse and surroundings. As the first Baines grandchild, he was the object of much attention and affection throughout her family. The Lone Star State teemed with maternal and paternal LBJ relatives. Lyndon's prolific eight great-grandparents produced hundreds of Texas-based descendants, many of whom lived close enough to visit. His relatives provided the emotional nourishment that Lyndon would need until the day he died. And besides, he hated to let go of anyone in his past, family or friend. Typically, when he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the site of his first schoolhouse in Texas, he brought back from California his first teacher, Kate Deadrich Loney, to witness the ceremony.
His very personal political style was based on a familial model. He incorporated his staffs into extended families of which he was the sheltering, generous, and exacting patriarch, always alert to their achievements and loyalties, and acutely sensitive to their feelings for him. At times, however, he was the demanding parent, pushing his staff beyond their limits. Historian Paul Conkin calls him the "big daddy of American politics."
All his relatives were pleased with his looks; he had black curls, dark eyes, and white skin and resembled Eliza, his handsome paternal grandmother. The baby earned the regard of all who met him for, in his mother's words, "he was bright and bonny, a happy, winsome child, who made friends easily, ate and slept as he should, and woke with a laugh instead of a wail." But best of all, he was precocious. Rebekah couldn't wait to start teaching him. At two she gave him A-B-C blocks and taught him the alphabet. At three he could recite the Mother Goose rhymes and poems from Longfellow and Tennyson. She spent long hours telling him stories from the Bible, from history, and from mythology. By four he could spell "Grandpa," "Dan" (his horse), and "cat," and could read a little.
When Lyndon was two he had to share his parents' formerly undivided attention with his new sister Rebekah. Then, two years later, came Josepha. His only brother, Sam Houston, was born in 1914 when he was six, and a third sister, Lucia, arrived in 1916. Oldest siblings always feel displaced no matter how hard parents try to compensate. Although LBJ seemed to adjust, he could not help feeling exiled from paradise. One early memory reveals his subconscious dismay. He is playing ball with his sister Rebekah, while Josepha is behind them crying in her crib. As he throws the ball, his pregnant mother goes to comfort the baby, and the ball hits her in the middle of her stomach, causing her to lose her balance and fall down. Lyndon, as most of us would perceive, did not want another rival, but he also understood he must not harm his sibling-to-be. "I was terrified at ... what I'd done," recalled LBJ. "I was certain that her belly would pop just like a balloon." His mother later admitted that she was afraid the baby had been damaged but "at the time she said nothing of her fear; she immediately gathered me up into her arms and held me until I finally stopped crying."
The little boy had other means of deflecting attention from his siblings. Though warned that he would get lost or hurt, he ran away from home several times. His parents usually found him at Grandfather Johnson's or at the schoolhouse, but there were times when he hid in the fields, refusing to reveal himself when his parents called his name. "He wanted attention," said Jesse Lambert, the Johnsons' hired help. "He would run away and run away, and the minute his mother would turn her back, he would run away again, and it was all to get attention." As he got older, he began to wander off to more distant relatives, often meandering half a mile before someone spotted him and brought him back to his mother.
Mothers are usually the most important people in the lives of young children, and Rebekah assuredly was the guiding light for little Lyndon. Her life in a rural farmhouse often plunged her into despair. She counted on her firstborn son to make up for all the frustrations she had to endureher anger at her husband's failures and his drinking, her own lack of achievements, and the straitened circumstances in which she lived. She died in 1958, before he became president, but his successes gave her great joy. His election to Congress, she wrote him, had already made up for her previous disappointments. "You have always justified my expectations, my hopes, my dreams ... my darling boy, my devoted son, my strength and comfort." As his Senate accomplishments grew, so did her gratitude and pride. "Naturally, I love all my children," she said, "but Lyndon was the first, and to me he was the greatest marvel in the world. I had always dreamed of a career for myself, but Lyndon was career enough for me."
Her son, at least outwardly, returned the devotion. "My dear mother," he wrote, "the end of another busy day brought me a letter from you. Your letters always give me more strength, renewed courage and that bulldog tenacity so essential to the success of any man." At times he seemed a mama's boy. In this respect he was very much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the commanding leader who would be his sponsor and his model. To the modern sensibility their relationship seems to verge on the incestuous. When Lyndon's father was away on business, he sometimes slept in the same bed with his mother, who, as Johnson told Doris Kearns, first scrubbed his hands and face and "then tucked me in between the cool, white sheets." Lyndon would watch as she brushed her hair and washed her face, throat, and arms from a basin. Then she would get into bed with him and read him the classics or tell him stories about her girlhood. In the first grade his choice of a poem in a school recital was "I'd Rather Be Mama's Boy." In college, in an editorial for the San Marcos College Star, he extolled mother love as incomparable. "Our best description of it," he wrote on May 9, 1930, "is that of all types of earthly love, it most nearly approaches the divine." As Sigmund Freud has noted, "A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success." Certainly, his mother's fervent love contributed to his achievements. LBJ recalled how his mother made him feel "big and important" and made him believe he "could do anything in the whole world."
But Rebekah's love was not cost-free. From an early age she tried to stage-mother his life. If he didn't do his lessons, she would read them aloud at breakfast, and Johnson, a captive audience, would be forced to absorb the day's assignment. She would walk him to school, reading to him on the way. Johnson told reporter Isabelle Shelton in 1964 that on one occasion she "stayed all night with me working on plane geometry...." Mother and son did not go to sleep until just before his eight-o'clock class. "And I just did make it," Johnson admitted. "I mean I just made a passing grade." But it didn't stop there. She made him take college entrance exams even though he didn't want to, and even in college, when home for visits, she helped him on "everything." She would be "helping me now if she was here," he told Shelton, "and she'd be telling me what not to say in some of these speeches...."
If he felt gratitude, he also felt smothered. When he recited poems as a little boy, he remembered that the moment he was done, "she'd take me in her arms and hug me so hard I sometimes thought I'd be strangled to death." More damaging was her inconsistency. She set impossible goals for her son and was annoyed when he failed to achieve them. Rebekah's love was conditional. Her behavior toward her son vacillated between doting affection when he pleased her and total rejection when he failed her. At seven or eight, when he resisted the violin and dancing lessons she had signed him up for, she refused to acknowledge his presence. "For days after I quit those lessons," he told Doris Kearns, "she walked around the house pretending I was dead. And then to make it worse, I had to watch her being especially warm and nice to my father and sisters."
Rebekah again froze him out when he decided initially not to go to college. Her displeasure with him in this case lasted for months. Extreme inconsistency of parental love creates lasting anxieties. The victim fears that love depends on performance and resents being loved for his deeds, not himself. It left its mark on the adult Lyndon Johnson. For his entire life he had an insatiable need for attention, affection, and approval. Rebekah's qualities as well as her failings certainly influenced all his relationships with women. His wife, Lady Bird, in many ways served a maternal role. She helped him "on everything," he boasted, just the words he used about his mother. "Bird can still write the best speech of anybody in the family. Her judgment is better on reading something and giving it analysis.... She's always got the most discerning observations." In the years just before he died, he rearmed a close relationship with Doris Kearns, who helped him write his presidential memoirs. He told her that her "intelligence, grace and strong will" resembled his mother's.
Lyndon's bond to his mother did not preclude a powerful tie to his father. His beloved paternal grandfather was probably the first important male in his life. But he died when Lyndon was only seven, and the little boy turned to his father for comfort and for a masculine role model. Sam Ealy Jr. was a receptive target. Ninety years ago mothers often asserted ownership of their small sons by dressing them as girls and letting their hair grow long. One day, when Lyndon was four or five and Rebekah was in church, Sam Johnson took a large scissors and cut off all Lyndon's curls. It was about this time that Lyndon began to imitate his father, picking up his earthy, picturesque speech in contrast to his mother's refined diction. He was often restless in school, bursting at the seams to be doing things with his father. He loved to hear Sam Ealy Jr. talking politics on the porch at night with his cronies. "I wanted to copy my father always, emulate him, do the things he did," he later revealed. "He loved the outdoors and I grew to love the outdoors. He loved political life and public service. I followed him as a child and participated in it." Johnson's friend Otto Crider said that Lyndon lavishly admired his father, calling him a "great man." He told Otto that he wanted to become "just like my daddy, getting pensions for old people." It is significant that later in life he gravitated toward father figures. Although his relationship with older men inevitably had opportunistic aspects, he sincerely admired, even loved, Alvin Wirtz, Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, and Franklin Roosevelt. People who met him after his Texas years often thought his mother's influence grossly inflated. A friend of his early Washington years, Virginia Foster Durr, thought the "crazy stuff about his mother being the dominating influence in his life" was "so exaggerated." It is telling that his aides remember being assigned to write dutiful letters to her in their boss's name.
Sam Ealy Johnson Jr. shared his exciting political life with his son. In 1918, after a ten-year break to repair the family's fortunes, he decided to run once again for the legislature. This time he had the ten-year-old Lyndon's help in handing out campaign literature, stuffing envelopes, licking stamps, and hand delivering the material himself. Sam took his oldest son with him on campaign trips through the countryside. "We drove in the Model T Ford," Lyndon later recalled, "from farm to farm, up and down the valley, stopping at every door. My father ... would bring the neighbors up to date on local gossip, talk about the crops and the bills he'd introduced." Campaigning was the happiest time in his father's life, and Lyndon remembered that he himself "wished it would go on forever." Sam won reelection in 1918 and stayed in the Texas legislature until 1924. Once back in the political swim, he often took Lyndon with him to the state capitol to see the legislature in session. Johnson remembered sitting in the gallery for long stretches of time watching the politicians bustling about on the floor. "I heard my father pleading for seven-months school and for building little red school-houses," he said. "I heard him pleading for a way to get the farmers out of the mud. I heard him pleading for a rural route that would bring us our mail during the week."
Lyndon adopted much of his father's political style. Sam Ealy Jr. took good care of his constituents. He helped to get pensions for elderly veterans or their widows, sometimes traveling to San Antonio or Houston to locate the necessary documents. He induced the legislature to appropriate $2 million for seed and feed during a serious drought, making Texas one of the first states to grant relief in times of natural catastrophe. "If there was some legislation to be passed," recalled Stell Gliddon, a newspaper editor and postmaster of Johnson City, "it was always to ... Sam that people went, and he was always there to do it." Some of Lyndon Johnson's famous mannerisms were those of his father. Sam was tactile, touching all those he conversed with. "He would get right up to you, nose to nose, and take a firm hold," said future Texas Congressman Wright Patman, who had shared a desk with "Little Sam" in the state legislature. And they resembled one another physically. Sam Ealy Jr. was a tall man with smooth, dark hair and a strong chin. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his adult son. "They looked alike, they walked the same," noted Patman.
But his relationship with his father was as full of ambivalence as his relationship with his mother. Lyndon's younger brother, Sam Houston, felt that he himself was his father's favorite and that "there was a kind of tension" between Lyndon and Sam Ealy, "a sort of competition that frequently occurs between a father and the oldest son." Sam Houston describes a mind game between the nine-year-old Lyndon and his father. The Johnson house was not well heated, and at night Sam Jr. would ask Sam Houston to get into his bed to contribute his body warmth. Like a puppy, the three-year-old would oblige, only to hear his older brother, after their father had fallen asleep, call to the little boy to come back to warm his bed.
Like Rebekah, Sam Jr. was very ambitious for his oldest son. He would wake Lyndon up every morning by shaking his feet and scolding, "Get up, Lyndon. Every boy in town's got a two-hour head start on you." And his father was almost as creel as his mother when it came to Lyndon's reluctance to go to college. At one point he told his wife in a voice loud enough for his son to hear: "That boy's just not college material."
Though his father was capable of great warmth, he was also very moody. Cordial and captivating one minute, Sam Jr. could be angry and sarcastic the next. In addition, he was an old-fashioned patriarch who wanted things done his way, and when thwarted revealed a bad temper. Some of his tantrums terrified Lyndon, who remembers that his father would beat him with a razor strap. Lyndon also objected to his father's drinking. As a young adolescent he and some friends stood outside the saloon yelling for their fathers to leave. Embarrassed by his son's conduct, Sam offered him a quarter to go away, but the boy would not back down.
Johnson's stormy and ambivalent relations with his parents would in many ways foreshadow his later interactions with his friends, his staff, and his superiors and, when he was president, toward both his supporters and his opponents. He was generous and affectionate when the spirit moved him or when he perceived someone in need. He paid for hospital bills, warm clothing, and home repairs for friends and staff. He was especially generous to childhood pals. During the Depression he bought Ben Crider "the best suit of clothes" he "ever owned in his life," and signed a bunch of blank checks that Crider could use to pay expenses in those hard times. He would spring for luxuries for friends on impulse. Years later, he unexpectedly gave George Reedy an expensive Lincoln automobile as a gift. But like his mother's, his price was high. He needed to be in control of everybody's behavior and expected a level of allegiance and gratitude often impossible to fulfill. He would also emulate his mother by freezing out the people who displeased him. He had wide mood swings like his father, changes that bordered on the pathological. People often observed him oscillate between grandiosity and gloom in amazingly short intervals. And even though he became president, the most powerful figure in the world, he would always question his worth.
When Lyndon was five, his father, who liked rural life and farming no more than his wife did, moved the family to Johnson City, the seat of Blanco County. Here he took up real estate and cattle dealing.
The Johnson family lived in a small frame house that LBJ later lovingly restored. The town had a population of only three or four hundred and lacked electricity, piped-in water, and a sewage system. It did not have a rail connection to the rest of the state; goods, people, and mail arrived and departed by horse, wagon, and buggy until autos came into wide use. The town boasted a courthouse, a card, three grocery stores, a barbershop, a blacksmith shop, a bank, and a post office. For a time it had a saloon, though many of the townspeople were prohibitionists and in 1916 voted to close it. All these establishments were lined up along a one-block street. The community had a combined elementary and high school building where Rebekah taught poetry and public speaking. It had three Protestant churches, and these were the centers of social as well as religious life.
The Johnsons, like most other families, used an outhouse for nature's urges and a pump-activated well for water. But if living conditions in Johnson City were only a modest advance over the farm's in a physical sense, the Johnsons were less isolated than they had been. Though Lyndon's mother would have preferred a real city with some cultural life, she kept busy editing a weekly newspaper, the Record-Courier, and taking care of her family. She also joined the local temperance society, a move intended, perhaps, to defy her husband.
Lyndon's introduction to formal education began before the move to Johnson City and was a by-product of his wanderlust. Across the field from the Johnsons' farm was the play area for the one-room Junction School. The age for starting school in Texas was five, but at four the eversociable Lyndon began to toddle off to the playground at recess when he heard the sounds of play. He could not be stopped. In desperation, his mother persuaded the teacher, Kate Deadrich, to permit him to enroll. Although ahead of his age mentally, he was still childish emotionally. When it came his turn to read aloud, he would only do so by sitting on Miss Deadrich's lap. He had completed a primer and a reader when whooping cough cut short his first year of school.
Johnson remained the youngest in his grade in his new elementary school, after the move to Johnson City. Yet his native talent and intelligence, as well as his mother's close supervision of his schoolwork, helped him surpass his older classmates scholastically. He got mostly A's. His peers thought he was brilliant. "The boys his age just wasn't his class mentally," said his friend Ben Crider, Otto's brother. Yet Johnson's mind, even at five, was mostly on politics. In the first grade he was already passing out campaign literature and listening attentively when his father and friends discussed affairs of government. "I'd just sit there," LBJ reminisced, "and eat it up."
In other ways, his youth was similar to that of other Texas boys of his class and location. His first close friend was Huisso, a Mexican American boy who lived across the fields from the Johnsons. "We raced our horses together," Lyndon recalled, "when we were both just learning to ride." According to Kittie Clyde Ross, Lyndon's cousin by marriage, the Johnson City kids "played all sorts of things that children play and fussed, squabbled, all the other things that kids do." Lyndon had a succession of dogs, the first named "Bigham Young." When one of his hunting dogs, "Evelyn," had a litter of puppies, Johnson put up a sign in the barbershop: "See me first for hound pups, Lyndon B. Johnson." And he managed to sell all of them. He had lots of assigned farm choresgathering eggs, putting logs in the wood box, slopping the pigs. Like Tom Sawyer, he sometimes managed to coax his siblings and friends to do them for him by passing out cookies as rewards. He often went "varmint hunting" with his friends, but despite his later Texas macho image, never wanted to kill the foxes, squirrels, and rabbits. Once, when taunted by his father about his "cowardice," he killed a rabbit and then promptly vomited. Lyndon picked cotton, built fences, and herded goats for twenty-five cents a day at other farms and ranches nearby. Like other rural boys in these years, he played marbles and baseball and went swimming in the "Baptizin' hole" with his friends. But he was easily bored and always wanted to find something else to do.
At age ten Lyndon started a business of his own shining shoes, getting his mother to run an ad for him in the local paper. His business premises was the town barbershop across from the courthouse, the center of political talk and gossip. Only one daily big-city newspaper was delivered to all of Johnson City, and it came to the barbershop. Lyndon was the first to read it, running from school to the barber's as fast as possible to peruse the paper from front to back, sitting in the barber's chair. He then narrated the news to the customers, often with his own comments on its significance. At dinner, his father would pose questions of contemporary interest to his family, guests, and friends, and after dinner the family would engage in debates. When his father came back from Austin with the Congressional Record, Lyndon carried it around ostentatiously wherever he went.
Sam could not avoid the problems of the family farm even while serving in the legislature. His mother, Eliza Bunton, died in 1917, two years after her husband, Sam Sr., leaving the 433 Johnson acres in Stonewall to her eight children collectively. Dividing up the farm eight ways was clearly unrealistic, and in 1919 Sam decided to buy out his siblings, mortgaging all his other assets, and eventually taking on a very large debt. The family moved to the farm. He expected to repay this debt by raising cotton, but by the time the first crop came in, cotton was selling at less than eight cents per pound. In 1922, ruined financially, he had to sell the farm and move back to Johnson City. The family was saved from complete bankruptcy by the intervention of Sam's brothers Tom and George, who paid some of the back interest and who made sure the Johnson children would not be deprived.
His father's misfortune profoundly affected Lyndon. "The experts ... tell us," he declared, "that one of the necessities for children is the feeling of security in their formative years. I know that as a farm boy I did not feel secure, and ... I decided I was not going to be the victim of a system which would allow the price of a commodity like cotton to drop from 40 cents to six cents and destroy the homes of people like my own family." The family was never dirt poor, but the Johnsons' fortunes had gyrated wildly. Each of his grandfathers made a fortune early in life and then lost it, bequeathing to their children and grandchildren the burdensome family myth of vanished wealth. The family's economic hardships while Lyndon was a child not only reinforced his sympathy for the needy but also undoubtedly bolstered the urge to get rich that marked his later career.
Sam's economic difficulties impaired his health and morale. He spent weeks at a time in bed, getting up only to sign the business papers that foreclosed his remaining property. In 1924 he gave up his seat in the legislature. The following year he got a government jobforeman of a highway-grading crew resurfacing the rough parts of the AustinFredericksburg Road, which he himself had proudly sponsored as a legislator. During this period Sam began to drink heavily. His personal and economic collapse affected his wife's pride and her own mental health. "There was nothing mother hated more," LBJ told his biographer Doris Kearns, "than seeing my daddy drink.... When she got upset, she blamed our money problems on my father's drinking. And then she cried a lot." Much of her time was spent writing poetry and fantasizing about the past, to the neglect of her home and children.
These years were emotionally difficult for Lyndon. In his early adolescence, suffering all the upheavals of puberty, he had lost his most important male role models. His beloved grandfather had died a few years before, and now his father seemed no longer worthy of respect. Sam's failure to live up to family responsibilities compelled his son to take his place. Lyndon felt bitter at the new family burdens, sometimes resenting his brothers and sisters, sometimes bullying them, sometimes manipulating them. His sister Rebekah remembered him as bossy. "He thought he was papa," she said. The paternal role, both the nurturing and the coercive sides, stayed with him his entire life and influenced all his political relationships.
These were also his high school years, and though his mind was not often on his schoolwork, he managed to get A's and B's. Given his family's bent, it is no surprise that his favorite academic subjects were history and government. These interests was reinforced by the lively teaching of Mr. Scott Klett, the school district superintendent, who taught high school "civics" on the side. Klett, at one point, divided his small class into two sides, pro and con, and let them debate the issue of the United States joining the League of Nations. Lyndon, by choice, was on the pro-League side.
Known as a prodigious talker and a big joker, Lyndon became president of his senior class and graduated second in a class of six. His mother described him as a "popular, fun-loving teen-ager." Rebekah exaggerated both his popularity and his merriment. If these were his characteristics at times during his adolescence, his need to be noticed, if anything, had increased with the years. He hated to lose in sports or in a fight with another boy, and when he did, he ran home through the streets crying, a peculiar mode of behavior for a boy in his teens. "All anyone had to do was touch Lyndon, and he let out a wail you could hear all over town," said Emmette Redford. "He wanted attention. He wanted everyone to know someone had injured him. He wanted everyone to feel sorry for him." But Redford liked him in spite of this and thought most others did, too. He was "personable and outgoing," he later said. His appearance was also intended to attract notice. He was the only boy of his age who wore a bow tie and slicked back his hair. In his senior year he sported the only straw boater in Johnson City and a spiffy summer suit.
In high school Lyndon's closest friends were the Crider and Redford boys. His first girlfriend was classmate Kittie Clyde Ross. She and Lyndon went on picnics beside the Pedernales and attended Johnson City women's club socials, where ice cream and cake were the standard fare. They also marched in temperance parades in town and went to silent movies in the makeshift town theater above an office building. Reminiscing many years later about their relationship, both remembered they did not kiss, then considered a daring act by adolescents. Though Sam Ealy was personally popular, his drinking in a temperance town and his reputation for not paying his bills to the local merchants made him suspect to the prosperous, respectable Rosses, and they took steps to abort their daughter's relationship with Lyndon. When, at her parents' behest, Kittie turned down Lyndon's invitation to go to the annual Johnson City-Fredericksburg baseball game and picnic, he never asked her out again. But he did not forget her. Johnson was a sentimentalist who reveled in nostalgia and enjoyed seeking out old friends from childhood and youth. In January 1965 he invited Kittie and her husband to his inauguration, flew with them from Austin to Washington on Air Force One, and then saw to it that they had a good time at the inaugural festivities.
If his relations with the respectable Kittie seem proper and innocent, he was not a prig. During his high school years, much to the chagrin of his mother, Lyndon began to act boisterous and aggressive like many other adolescent boys. There were episodes of furtive drinking and reckless driving and a growing interest in sex. At one point Lyndon borrowed his father's car and went off to carouse with some friends. He drove the car into a ditch, badly denting its fenders. Too frightened to face his dad, he ran away to some cousins in Robstown, near the gulf, and got a job in a cotton ginning establishment. When Sam learned where his son was, he promised to forgive him, and sent Walter Crider, another Crider friend, to bring him back. As Lyndon remembered it, his mother did not overlook the accident. Instead of scolding him, however, she withdrew, staring at him, whenever she saw him, with a baleful eye.
As he later said, his teenage preoccupations never eclipsed his interest in current affairs. While his father was still in office, Lyndon campaigned for other Democratic candidates, placing election posters in the local shop windows. In school he was a member of the debating team, winning his first argument, on whether Texas should be divided into a number of states. In his senior year, he and his partner won the debating championship of Blanco County, but did not make the statewide finals. The skinny, six-foot-tall young man was also the valedictorian at his graduation.
Lyndon bitterly disappointed his parents when, after graduation, he announced that he was sick of school, tired of being a "sissy," and, unlike the rest of his classmates, would not go on to college. Rebekah reprimanded him with "a terrible knifelike voice," and when that failed to persuade him, shut him out completely. At the dinner table she spoke only to her husband and her younger children, ignoring Lyndon's very existence. "We'd been such close companions," he recalled sadly, "and boom, she'd abandoned me." Lyndon was hurt by her anger, but he could not, at that point, face four more years of school.
Lyndon finally yielded to his mother's pressure but then faced another delay in starting college. Johnson City High School, a two-story stone structure housing eleven classes in five rooms, was not accredited. Like similarly situated applicants from Johnson City High to Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, he would have to take six weeks of intensive remedial courses and then pass entrance exams in three subjects, including math. In August or September 1924 Lyndon registered at San Marcos for the preparatory curriculum (the "subcollege"). It is not clear what occurred that fall. Probably he engaged in personal civil disobedience. He either did not attend classes, dropped out completely, or failed one or more of the exams. Whatever happened, he returned home in disgrace, and began making plans to go to California with some noncollege-bound buddies from town, Walter and Otto Crider, who had bought a Model T Ford and planned to join their older brother, Ben who lived in Tehachapi and promised to find them jobs in the cement factory where he worked.
Sam Jr. objected strenuously to Lyndon's scheme, but the rebellious adolescent was determined to go. Waiting until his father was out of town on business, Lyndon grabbed his already packed suitcase from under the bed and notified his companions that he was ready to leave. "In less than ten minutes," according to Lyndon's younger brother, "they ... filled the gas tank, and zoomed out of town...." Three hours later, when Sam Jr. returned, he erupted in fury. "Cranking the phone as if it were an ice-cream machine, he called the sheriff of nearly every county between Johnson City and El Paso ... asking them to arrest his runaway son...." Lyndon outsmarted his father by asking his companions to sleep during the day and drive by night "while the sheriffs were snoring away."
Lyndon and his friends managed to make it to California, after a ten-day journey in the renovated Model T they called The Covered Wagon. There, only two of the boys got work in the cement factory; the other two, including Lyndon, became farm laborers, harvesting grapes and other fruit. Lyndon later fascinated listeners with colorful descriptions of his near starvation and "the grapes he picked, the dishes he washed, and the cars he fixed." It is not clear how much fruit the future president actually removed from the vines for sale. But the grapes proved useful in any case. As he wrote his brother, he was sick of "eating warm grapes for breakfast, lunch and supper." After a few weeks of this wretchedness, he called his cousin Tom Martin, a lawyer in San Bernardino, to ask for a job.
The round-faced, paunchy attorney, son of Johnson's Uncle Clarence whose house is now part of the Johnson ranch, gave Lyndon and his friend John Koeniger jobs as clerks in his office, and promised to train them as lawyers. California, like Texas, required passing a bar examination, but nearby Nevada did not. If Lyndon and John worked hard, Martin promised, he would see to it that his friends in the neighboring state got the young men admitted to the Nevada bar. Lyndon was delighted at the opportunity to become a lawyer. This seemed to be his first real chance to become independent, make good money, and be somebody his parents could respect, even if he did not have a college education. He applied himself to his new job with the energy and dedication that was lacking in high school. He spent his spare time reading the law books in Martin's office. "Lyndon wanted to be a lawyer," said Koeniger, "wanted it very badly."
Unfortunately, Tom Martin had serious character flaws. He had bolted to California after a scandal in San Antonio forced him to resign as police chief. He was married with a child, but when his wife departed for Texas on a visit, Martin invited his girlfriend, a Hollywood actress named Lotte Dempsey, to stay with him in San Bernardino. While Martin and Lotte partied and romanced with all their might, Lyndon and Koeniger tried to run the office by themselves. When they found themselves paying Martin's bills out of their own pockets, they began to have second thoughts about the whole enterprise. Then the seventeen-year-old Lyndon found out he would not be able to practice law in Nevada until he was twenty-one. To make matters worse, Nevada was making it difficult to get a law license without a college diploma. That fall of 1925 Lyndon decided to ride back to Texas with his Uncle Clarence Martin, who was returning from California after driving his son's wife and child back from their visit.
So Lyndon returned home in his uncle's Buick, but not as an emotionally secure, financially independent adult. He was still under the wing of his family, and was broke and disillusioned. His friends and neighbors noticed the change. "Before he went to California, he was just a happy-go-lucky boy," said a neighbor. "When he came back, well ... I saw what disappointment had done." It was on the drive back, he told Doris Kearns, that he decided to become a politician, thinking it would both gain the respect of his father and recapture his mother's love. If he could "build great power and gain high office" his mother "would never be disappointed" in him again.
Whatever splendid resolutions he made on the trip back, Lyndon did not immediately buckle down when he arrived home. Instead, he joined a road-building crew near Johnson City, where he scooped up sand and gravel, swung a pick and shovel, pushed wheelbarrows, and drove a tractor. He also resumed his semidelinquent behavior after hours, taking up with an older, wilder group of boys who drank moonshine whiskey, showed off for the girls, and played mischievous pranks. He wrecked his father's car again and this time ran away to an uncle in San Antonio. Then one Saturday night he came home from a dance that had ended in a bloody fight with both a bruised nose and an arrest citation for disorderly conduct. His mother sat on the edge of his bed, weeping copiously. "To think that my eldest born would turn out like this," lamented Rebekah.
Finally, one winter evening in 1927, Lyndon returned home from his road work cold, wet, and exhausted. "[A]ll right," he said to his mother, "I'm sick of working just with my hands and I'm ready to try and make it with my brain. Mother, if you and Daddy will get me into college, I'll go as soon as I can." Rebekah dashed to the phone and made arrangements for him to be admitted to Southwest Texas State Teachers College, pending satisfactory completion of the preparatory course in the "subcollege."
One week later Lyndon hitchhiked to San Marcos to take his entrance examinations. He had now been out of school for almost three years. As part of the admissions process he submitted a paper on current affairs. It easily qualified as evidence of his language ability. In fact, the head of the English Department at San Marcos remembered it as so well written that she could hardly "believe that a boy so young could have had such a wide grasp of politics." It was the math he was worried about, since he had scraped by in high school only with the tutoring of his cousin Ava. His mother now flew to his rescue, arriving in San Marcos like an angel of mercy. Johnson would never forget her help on his exams. "She came to San Marcos," he recalled, "and stayed up with me the entire night before the math exam, drilling me over and over until it finally got into my head." He passed all of his entrance exams. He would enter college on March 21, 1927, the start of the spring semester.
Lyndon was on his way. His years of childhood and adolescent rebellion were over.
Meet the Author
IRWIN UNGER won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for The Greenback Era. His most recent book was The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
DEBI UNGER is a writer, editor, and researcher, and was, most recently, coauthor of America in the 20th Century. They both live in New York City.
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Lyndon Baines Johnson was a strong man, who accomplished strong work. He grew up in Texas, and lived the life that we should all cherish very dearly today in post-9/11. Unger and Unger are biographers, who bring the Midwestern flair of Texan everyday life to the fore. As seemingly coy that may feel to premonition, it really just sits well with you if you've been there. There is so much to cherish about this president and the moves he initiated. Also Ladybird Johnson: another First Lady who stood for something which finally meant grandeur but on a larger scale. Defensibly, the Vietnam War was begun to save a nation's people. In the end, Johnson stood for peaceable life, and love. You will get much more from this book. I did.