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Lyndon B. Johnson
The American Presidents
By Charles Peters, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Charles Peters
All rights reserved.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson entered this life on August 27, 1908, rural America was a vastly different place than it is today. Although motor cars had begun to appear in cities, the horse and buggy provided the only means of transportation in the countryside. Passenger trains traveling over a rail network much more extensive than today's did give many rural Americans access to cities and the business, cultural, and educational opportunities they offered. But there was no train service to Hye or Stonewall, the tiny communities between which was located the farm on the banks of the Pedernales River where Lyndon Johnson was born to Samuel Ealy Johnson and Rebekah Baines Johnson.
Reaching the nearest city of any size, Austin, required at least two days on dirt roads that turned into impassable quagmires when it rained. The trip gradually became less arduous as Henry Ford's Model T, first introduced the year Lyndon was born, gradually became rural America's preferred means of transportation, a role in which it was firmly established by the early 1920s.
Otherwise, life on the farm was largely devoid of modern conveniences. Rural roads did not get paved until the late 1920s and 1930s, when electricity also began to become available. Clothes were washed by hand with water drawn from wells. The outhouse was far more common than in-house plumbing. At night, light came from kerosene lamps. Meals were cooked on woodstoves with lunch, usually called dinner, the main meal of the day. (What we would today call dinner was referred to as supper.) There was, of course, no vacuum cleaner. Sweeping had to be done with brooms. Sweeping, carrying in wood and water, cooking over hot woodstoves, and scrubbing clothes on washboards in tin tubs made a hard life for women like Rebekah Johnson.
Sam and Rebekah were — or at least thought of themselves as — a cut above the usual run of country folk. Sam had already been elected to the Texas legislature and was concluding his second term when Lyndon was born. Rebekah had graduated from Baylor University at a time when college was beyond the reach of most American women and practically all of those living on a farm. Lyndon liked to brag, "My ancestors were teachers and lawyers and college presidents and governors when the Kennedys in this country were still tending bar." He would also boast about the rugged pioneers in his background, with tales of fighting Indians, herding cattle all the way through Kansas, and — displaying the gift for embroidering fact that would become characteristic — family members martyred at the Alamo. His mother, however, was more interested in the genteel than the pioneer side of the family background. This concern made her come close to turning her child into what other boys would call a sissy.
Years later, Lyndon recalled, "one of the first things I remember about my daddy was the time he cut my hair. When I was four or five I had long curls. He hated them. 'He's a boy!' he'd say to my mother. 'And you're making a sissy of him. You've got to cut those curls.' My mother refused. Then one Sunday morning when she went off to church, he took the big scissors and cut off all my hair. When my mother came home, she refused to speak to him for a week."
When Johnson was eight, he made clear he shared his father's concern by stopping the violin and dancing lessons his mother had arranged. His mother reacted just as she had to the haircut: "For days after I quit those lessons, she walked around the house pretending I was dead."
His mother's conditional love seems to have affected Johnson in two ways. First, he always worried that whatever approval he might receive could be quickly withdrawn. And second, he imitated his mother in his relationships with others, offering generous love until the recipient disappointed him and then administering to that unfortunate soul "the Johnson freeze-out," the same treatment his mother had given him.
Johnson had an idealized view of his mother, describing her as "sweet" and "gentle." "A more accurate description," according to George Reedy, who got to know Rebekah after he joined Johnson's Senate staff, "would include such adjectives as tough, stern, unyielding, obstinate, domineering. She was an unrelenting snob who reminded everyone in the first few minutes of a meeting that her ancestry included high-ranking Baptist clerics and intellectuals."
As he grew older, Lyndon was fascinated by the political world in which his father dwelt. When Lyndon was ten, in 1918, Sam was again elected to the Texas legislature. In the next six years, Lyndon often accompanied his father to the legislative chamber in Austin. Fascinated by the proceedings on the floor, he watched for hours and then wandered through the halls, soaking up the backstage gossip. Though a so-so student in school, Lyndon proved to be what one of his father's colleagues described as a "very bright and alert" observer of legislative wheeling and dealing.
Lyndon also loved the constant campaigning that was necessary to preserve his father's seat. "We drove in the Model T Ford from farm to farm, up and down the valley, stopping at every door," he would recall. "My father would do most of the talking. He would bring the neighbors up to date on local gossip, talk about the crops and about the bills he'd introduced in the legislature. ... Christ, sometimes I wished it could go on forever."
Sam's love of politics and his hatred of bigotry — he took on the Ku Klux Klan when it still dominated Texas — made a lasting impact on his son. But Sam also endowed Lyndon with something considerably less desirable, a taste for alcohol. Sam drank too much, and his drinking caused continuing tension in his marriage. This was the age of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the movement that led the nation to amend its constitution in 1919 to prohibit the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages. The movement, though fueled by the many domestic tragedies brought about by excessive drinking, had at its core an unattractive self-righteousness, which Rebekah brought in full measure to her relationship with Sam. She would enlist Lyndon in denouncing his father's unfortunate habit. As in most such cases in that era, there was a lot of anger accompanied by little attempt to understand the problem. The result was that Sam continued drinking and, with no one to figure out why, Lyndon, who had berated his father for his bad habit, became in adulthood a heavy drinker himself.
When Lyndon finished high school in Johnson City, where the family had moved, his mother wanted him to go to college, but he rebelled. He wanted to go to California with some friends. He was at an age when young people flirt with the hope of something magical happening to them that will give them the success their parents had to work so hard to grab even a piece of. And for Americans the one place that symbolized the possibility of that magic actually occurring was the Golden State of California. As was the case with many other young dreamers, however, that magic didn't happen to Lyndon Johnson. After a series of odd jobs, he returned home sixteen months later and worked for more than a year on road construction near his home.
He then followed his mother's wishes and enrolled at the Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, about thirty miles from Johnson City. San Marcos, as the college was often called, had seven hundred students, all white and nearly all Christian.
Few of the students were wealthy. Indeed, one of the school's attractions was that it was sufficiently inexpensive to be affordable, if only barely, by most Texas families. Tuition was seventeen dollars a semester, and room and board could be had for less than thirty dollars a month. Still, the Johnsons were sufficiently impecunious that Lyndon had to work to supplement what his family could pay.
He got a job as a kind of gofer for the school's president, Cecil Evans, delivering messages to the faculty in an era when telephones were still not in every office. In this role, Johnson displayed the gift for sycophancy that was to prove so valuable for him in later life. His flattery of Evans was shameless — and it had the predictable effect: "I was tremendously fond of him," Evans said. Lyndon became so influential with Evans that he was soon accompanying the president on trips to Austin, where Evans lobbied for financial help for his college.
Another patron and mentor whose favor Johnson sought was Professor Harry Greene, a professor of government. In Greene's case, as indeed for many of those who played a similar role in Johnson's life, genuine affection and respect were as much a factor in Johnson's sycophancy as his desire to use the mentor to further his own career. "A cross between Thomas Jefferson and Robert LaFollette" is the way one Johnson biographer describes Greene, "a great respecter of democracy and the Bill of Rights and a self-appointed champion of the common man" — which actually turned out to be a pretty good description of the man his pupil Lyndon Johnson would become.
And, of course, Johnson fully shared Greene's passion for politics. One classmate recalls how Lyndon regaled his friends with what one described as "marathon talk about political personalities and how he would run a campaign if he were a candidate." Lyndon, who was six feet three by the time he reached San Marcos, was skinny during his college years. This tall and lanky young man walking, according to a friend, "with long, loping strides," rushed around the campus "like the seat of his britches was on fire," managing always to look busy — indeed, "he could look busy doing nothing."
Johnson's ambition and potential were clear to all. He "was going somewhere," as they said. But, though they liked his warmth, his interest in them, and his ability to entertain, they disliked his bragging, his "brown nosing," and how "he'd just interrupt you" and insist on dominating the conversation.
He was popular enough to be named summer editor of the college newspaper and to play a major role in winning the student body presidency for his friend Willard Deason. He even managed to do something he was never able to do as president: suppress an article making fun of him that had been written for the college paper.
Like Franklin Roosevelt, who was blackballed by the Porcellian Club at Harvard, Johnson was blackballed by the Black Stars, who at the time were the most powerful group on campus. During his college years he also ultimately suffered rejection by Carol Davis, a pretty blonde with whom he had fallen in love and courted for over a year. Carol was the daughter of a prosperous businessman who regarded Johnson's family as "shiftless dirt farmers and grubby politicians." Carol may have been the girl of Lyndon's dreams, but he was fortunate to have escaped having Mr. Davis as a father-in-law — Davis was a right-winger and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Just before their relationship ended, Carol and Lyndon attended the 1928 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Houston that year. Johnson used his college editorship to gain press credentials and was able to get on the floor where he could rub elbows with the party's movers and shakers. He got to see Franklin Roosevelt place in nomination the Happy Warrior, Alfred E. Smith, who became the convention's choice to be the Democratic candidate for president.
Following the convention Johnson spent what would have been his senior year at San Marcos teaching students in the small town of Cotulla. He took the teaching job because he needed the money to pay for his senior year at San Marcos.
If you were to take the train on the old Missouri Pacific line from San Antonio south to Laredo, you would encounter some of the flattest, driest, most inhospitable country in the United States. Along about halfway, Lyndon Johnson found Cotulla, a small town divided by the railroad tracks into one community that was Anglo and another that was Mexican American. Most of the Mexicans were poor farmworkers, treated by the Anglos, Lyndon said, "just worse than you'd treat a dog," and segregated in theaters, restaurants, and schools. It was to the Mexican school that Johnson was assigned.
The challenge brought out his very best. And a formidable challenge it was. His pupils lived in shanties, without running water, electricity, or plumbing. Some were so hungry that Johnson once saw them "going through a garbage pile shaking the coffee grounds from grapefruit rinds and sucking the rinds for the juice." But the school itself was decently housed in a brick building, although it was surrounded by a barren playground devoid of swings, slides, seesaws, or any of the other apparatus to which most schoolchildren were accustomed.
Johnson's class consisted of twenty-eight fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, many of whom were barely literate. The other teachers at the school, white women, made a quick exit at the end of the school day, not being eager to mix with the students more than they had to. Johnson, however, came early and left late. Determined to inspire a sense of hope in the beaten-down children, he developed extracurricular activities and arranged a parent-teacher group. He held spelling bees and organized a band, a debate club, and baseball and softball games. "I took my first paycheck and bought them a net, singing books for the choir, and second-hand musical instruments," he recalled. One check may not have bought all that, but there is no question that Lyndon Johnson had an impact on the children of Cotulla.
"His being there," one student said, was "like a blessing from the clear sky." Another described him as "the kind of teacher you wanted to work for." The general feeling was that he had helped them "tremendously."
Johnson had not taken the job in Cotulla to do good but to make money. Nevertheless, he had done good, and the experience left an indelible impression on his mind. "You never forgot what poverty and hatred could do, when you see the scars on the hopeful face of a young child," he said. "They never seem to know why people dislike them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes."
The impact of the experience is suggested by the fact that Johnson uttered those words thirty-six years later, as he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 at the Cotulla School.
The Cotulla School District was so impressed by Johnson — "one of the very best men I've ever had," said the superintendent — that he was implored to remain as one of its teachers. But Lyndon felt it was time to leave. "I wanted to finish my college work and in June of '29 I went back to San Marcos and continued right straight through there until August of 1930 when I got a bachelor of science degree," he later explained.
During that winter, Lyndon and his friend Vernon Whiteside visited the family home in Johnson City. Sam Johnson's attempts at making a living outside of politics — he had lost his legislative seat in 1924 — had largely failed, and the family was living at the poverty level. "What we had for supper that night was cornbread and milk," Whiteside said. Seeing his mother cook over a woodstove, Johnson determined that one of his aims in life would be to make sure that the Hill Country got electricity.
Nineteen-thirty was an election year, activating Lyndon's passion for politics. He worked for Welly Hopkins, who was running for the state senate, and his energy and intelligence quickly succeeded in impressing the candidate. "I rode all the byways in Blanco County with Lyndon," said Hopkins, "and followed his judgment in Hays County almost completely because he had a favorable standing with the local people in San Marcos."
Excerpted from Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz. Copyright © 2010 Charles Peters. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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