Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1991 Doris Kearns Goodwin
All rights reserved.
On the north bank of the Pedernales River in Stonewall, Blanco County, Texas, a mile of dirt road connects the ranch house where Lyndon Johnson died to the small farmhouse in which he was born. During his last years, Johnson often ambled the stretch of grassy river bottom, checking on his grazing Herefords, talking the entire way past the shack that once was his grandfather's house, past the low stone wall bordering the family cemetery, to the meticulously restored museum, his birthplace.
There, his talk sometimes turned to his childhood, stories attached to this room or that furnishing. Once, standing at the entrance to his parents' bedroom, where Lyndon slept when his father was away, Johnson described to me a long-remembered ritual: "First my mother washed my hands and face with water, then tucked me in between the cool, white sheets. She crossed then to that old marble dresser on the far side of the room and seated herself on the straw chair in front of the mirror. I watched her take out the long brown pins from her hair. Then she shook her head from side to side, brushing her hair. I used to count, fifty strokes with one arm, fifty with the other. Always the same. Then she emptied a pitcher of water into the washbowl and, with a small yellow cloth, she scrubbed her face, throat, and arms. Then she came back to the bed, said her prayers, and climbed in beside me. Propped against two pillows, she read to me from books she had read with her father long ago ... Browning, Milton, Dickens. I liked it better when she talked about when she was a young girl."
The world Rebekah described, as Johnson remembered it, was very different from the shabby life she was then leading with her husband and children on the bank of the Pedernales. Her parents had money, position, respectability. They lived in a two-story house surrounded by trees, terraced flower gardens, and a white picket fence. Her people — unlike their poor and ignorant neighbors along the Pedernales — were a proper, civilized breed of educators and preachers of European culture. She projected herself to her son as a dreamy young girl who had spent her afternoons reading poetry under the shade of the big trees in those gardens, her evenings discussing literature with her father, Joseph Wilson Baines.
Baines, a lawyer, educator, and lay preacher in the Baptist church in Blanco, Texas, was seen by his devoted daughter as the paradigm of religious ideals, moral thought, and civic duty. In the late 1870s he had served Texas as Secretary of State and afterward as a member of the state legislature, where, as Rebekah told her son, "he thrilled the chambers with eloquent speeches on the rights and duties of mankind, the evil of liquor, the importance of cleanliness in thought and deed, and the iniquity of speculation." With his encouragement, Rebekah had attended Baylor University — she was one of a small number of Texas women in college at that time — where she majored in literature and planned to write a novel about the old South before the Civil War.
"I'm certain she could have been a great novelist," Johnson told me. "But then her daddy died and it all came apart. All his life he had spoken out against the speculators. He was as righteous as they come. Then in 1904, while my mother was in college, he lost all his money on one disastrous deal. It killed him. He became very depressed and his health got worse until he died.
"My mother said it was the end for her, too. In early 1907 she moved with her mother to a smaller house in Fredericksburg, Texas. She taught elocution and corresponded for the local paper. She still wanted to do something big, to go places and write, but she said that after her father's death she lost her confidence in everything. By the time my father came into the picture she'd given up. She'd met him the year before, after he'd won his first victory in the state legislature. Her father thought he was the most promising young politician in Blanco County and wanted her to interview him for the family newspaper. He was tall. Six-feet-four."
Sam Johnson was a small-time farmer and trader in real estate and cattle. A great storyteller, his language crude and often vulgar, he was apparently a new kind of man for Rebekah, the opposite of her father. Eight months after her father's death, she married him and moved to the little farm on the Pedernales.
The anecdote Johnson told me of his mother's life does not cohere. If she had possessed the talents of a great novelist, it is hardly likely that her writing would have been completely stopped by her father's death. And her only published work, a history of the Johnson clan, is a highly mannered and sentimental rhapsody. "Now the light came in from the east," she wrote of Lyndon's birth, "bringing a deep stillness, a stillness so profound and so pervasive that it seemed as if the earth itself were listening. And then there came a sharp, compelling cry — the most awesome, happiest sound known to human ears — the cry of a newborn baby; the first child of Sam Ealy and Rebekah Johnson was 'discovering America.'" And her splendid image of Joseph Baines, a man who insisted on morals in politics and inveighed against speculators and drinkers, must be reconciled with the man who lost all his money on one speculative deal and introduced his only daughter to the hard-drinking, practical Sam Johnson.
However concocted, Rebekah's family portrait, the types and conceptions she delineated, nonetheless affected Lyndon Johnson for the rest of his life, forcing divisions between intellect, morality, and action, shaping ideals of the proper politician and the good life. By contrasting the idyll of her cultured youth with the grimness of her marriage, Rebekah left her son forever ashamed of his roots on the Pedernales.
There is a sense in which Rebekah's story resembles that of many other educated women in the West, who found themselves trapped in a land and a life that they loathed, and yet whose only choice seemed self-denial. The "good woman" never complained in public; she considered it her duty to repress any awareness of the disparities between the civilization she had left behind and the one in which she had now placed herself.
In her ancestral history, Rebekah writes only: "I was determined to overcome circumstances instead of letting them overwhelm me. At last I realized that life is real and earnest and not the charming fairytale of which I had so long dreamed." A life devoid of all she reverenced — reading and long conversation — a tedious life of feeding chickens, scrubbing wash, sewing clothes, growing vegetables, became simply the problem of "adjustment to a completely opposite personality ... to a strange and new way of life, a way far removed from that I had known in Blanco and Fredericksburg."
To her son, however, Rebekah voiced her profound discontent, describing in anguishing detail the ordeal of her life on the Pedernales with Sam Johnson. "My mother," Johnson said, "soon discovered that my daddy was not a man to discuss higher things. To her mind his life was vulgar and ignorant. His idea of pleasure was to sit up half the night with his friends, drinking beer, telling stories, and playing dominoes. She felt very much alone. The first year of her marriage was the worst year of her life. Then I came along and suddenly everything was all right again. I could do all the things she never did."
"How children dance," Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "to the unlived lives of their parents," suggesting in poetic language much of the analysis that follows. In the course of this analysis psychiatric knowledge will be used as a means of understanding the formation of Johnson's behavior. This body of knowledge, however, is and perhaps always will be incomplete. There are mysteries of the human mind that no analytic technique can penetrate — mysteries which, over time, even the greatest psychiatrists, poets, dramatists, and novelists have been unable to explain. There is, for example, no psychiatric principle that can explain Johnson's immense talents, his extraordinary ability to harness his personal needs and direct his strength — tirelessly and with practical intelligence — toward the highest public achievements, or his capacity to sustain a private life whose intimate stability was rare, even among those not subject to the disintegrative pressures of a public career. Indeed, to know fully the disabling conditions of Johnson's youth can only increase admiration for the inexplicable power of his will.
Remembering his early years, Johnson spoke almost exclusively of his mother. When he mentioned his father, it was to enumerate his liabilities as a husband and explain what he did to Rebekah.
"One of the first things I remember about my daddy," Johnson said, "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."
Contention between Sam and Rebekah was not restricted to the nurture of their son. There were constant disputes over how the household should be managed, whether it would be a home or a hostelry. "I remember one Thanksgiving," he said. "Holidays always seem to mean a lot to women and they certainly did to my mother. She had gotten out the wedding china and roasted a huge turkey. Everything was set just right. She sat at the head of the table with her fancy lace dress and big wide sleeves. She was saying the prayers when a knock came on the door. My daddy answered and found a Mexican family with five children.
"They lived nearby. My father had done a lot to help them over the years. Now they were returning his favor. They had brought him a green cake, the biggest cake I'd ever seen. Well, the minute he saw them out there, cold and hungry, he invited them to dinner. He was always doing things like that. The dinner was loud. There was a lot of laughing and yelling. I liked it. But then I looked at my mother. Her face was bent toward her plate and she said nothing. I had a feeling that something was wrong, but I was having such a good time I didn't pay attention. After the meal, she stood up and went to her room. I followed a little behind her and heard her crying in there. I guess she was really counting on it being a private occasion. I looked at her sad face and I felt guilty. I went in and tried to make her feel better."
Yet these discords were mild, Johnson remembered, in comparison to the fights provoked by his father's drinking. In the Baines' family code, sobriety was essential; it ensured the cardinal quality, self-control. Sobriety was a promise of industry and reliability. Nor was Rebekah alone in her dismay; at that time, women throughout the West regarded liquor as the most threatening rival for their husband's acceptability, devotion, and income. Their anxiety sustained the Prohibition movement, which enlisted the support of thousands, among them Rebekah Baines Johnson. This war between good and evil was manifest in the two main symbols of the small Western towns — the church, with its steeple pointing upward to heaven, and the low saloon, with its swinging doors leading straight down to hell. There was no room in Rebekah's Protestant ethic for uncontrolled and frivolous behavior. Economic and social ruin awaited the drunkard. Temperance was both the sign of morality and the key to economic success.
According to her son, Rebekah saw this conviction painfully vindicated in her own husband's intemperance. "There was nothing Mother hated more than seeing my daddy drink. When he had too much to drink, he'd lose control of himself. He used bad language. He squandered the little money we had on the cotton and real estate markets. Sometimes he'd be lucky and make a lot of money. But more often he lost out. One year we'd all be riding high in Pedernales terms, so high in fact that on a scale of A to F, we'd be right up there with the A's. Then two years later, he'd lose it all. The cotton he had bought for forty-four cents a bale had dropped to six cents a bale, and with it the Johnsons had dropped to the bottom of the heap. These ups and downs were hard on my mother. She wanted things to be nice for us, but she could never count on a stable income. When she got upset, she blamed our money problems on my father's drinking. And then she cried a lot. Especially when he stayed out all night. I remember one bad night. I woke up and heard her in the parlor crying her eyes out. I knew she needed me. With me there, she seemed less afraid. She stopped crying and told me over and over how important it was that I never lose control of myself and disappoint her that way. I promised that I would be there to protect her always. Finally she calmed down and we both fell asleep."
The image of Rebekah Baines Johnson that emerges in these stories is that of a drastically unhappy woman, cut off from all the things that had once given her pleasure in life, stranded in a cabin on a muddy stream with a man she considered vulgar and brutish, a frustrated woman with a host of throttled ambitions, trying, through her first-born son, to find a substitute for a dead father, an unsuccessful marriage, and a failed career. She seemed under a compulsion to renew on her son's behalf all the plans and projects she had given up for herself. The son would fulfill the wishful dreams she had never carried out, he would become the important person she had failed to be.
"She never wanted me to be alone," Lyndon later recalled. "She kept me constantly amused. I remember playing games with her that only the two of us could play. And she always let me win even if to do so we had to change the rules. I knew how much she needed me, that she needed me to take care of her. I liked that. It made me feel big and important. It made me believe I could do anything in the whole world."
From his position of primacy in his mother's home, Johnson seemed to develop what Freud has called "the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success." The early privilege of his mother's intense love was a source of great energy and power. He learned the alphabet before he was two, learned to read and spell before he was four, and at three could recite long passages of poetry from Longfellow and Tennyson. "I'll never forget how much my mother loved me when I recited those poems. The minute I finished she'd take me in her arms and hug me so hard I sometimes thought I'd be strangled to death."
But as strong as Rebekah's feelings undoubtedly were, one gets the impression Lyndon never experienced her love as a steady or reliable force, but as a conditional reward, alternately given and taken away. When he failed to satisfy her desires — as he did when he refused to complete the violin and dancing lessons she set up for him when he was seven and eight — he experienced not simply criticism but a complete withdrawal of affection. "For days after I quit those lessons 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." The same experience was repeated later when Johnson refused to go to college and Rebekah closed him out for weeks, refusing to speak or even to look at him.
One cannot prove the existence of a pattern on the basis of three or four remembered incidents. But there does seem to be a connecting link between the syndrome implicit in Johnson's childhood memories — of love alternately given and taken away — and the pattern observed in nearly all his adult relationships. With friends, colleagues, and members of his staff, Johnson was capable of unusual closeness; he enveloped people, one by one, in the warmth of his affection and concern. If the hospital bill of a friend needed payment, he paid it. If an employee's child needed a new coat, he bought it. If a secretary's house needed renovation, he supervised. But in return he demanded a measure of gratitude and loyalty so high that disappointment was inevitable. And when the disappointment came, Johnson tended to withdraw his affection and concern — the "Johnson freeze-out" it was called — hurting others in much the same way his mother had hurt him years before.
So predictable was his tendency to spoil the relationships he most cared about that it suggests in him the presence of a powerful fear attached to the experience of intimacy: a fear reminiscent perhaps of that he must have felt years before as a consequence of the unique role he'd been asked to play in his mother's life. For though the young boy took obvious pleasure from certain aspects of his special role — "I loved it when my mother needed me and when she told me all her secrets" — he is certain to have feared, at least subconsciously, that his father might one day cease tolerating his presumption and take revenge. Johnson does remember the "absolute terror" he experienced one night when he was wakened from sleep in his mother's bed by the sudden opening of the bedroom door, only to find a younger sister standing there, in her nightgown, crying out for her mother. And from the fears of the boy would develop in the man a continuing sense that, in the end, his power to command love and affection was illegitimate, momentarily wielded but easily overthrown. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Copyright © 1991 Doris Kearns Goodwin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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