The Big Idea
This is part 1 of a biography series on Lyndon Baines Johnson but it covers much more than just his life. It covers life as a poor American before, during, and after the Great Depression, how power worked in the early and mid 1900s, and serves as an excellent American history lesson. I learned more about America in this 1000 page book than I did in a year long class in high school
Ambition was not uncommon among those bright young men in the Dodge, but they felt that Johnson’s was uncommon—in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs. “There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic,” a fellow secretary says. “Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition. Everything he did—everything—was for his ambition.
10/10 – This should be on everyone’s bucket list. One of the best books I have ever read
“He had always been ambitious, even back in Johnson City,” Koeniger says, but there was a new level of intensity about that ambition now.
And he threw himself into the job, tried to do the best work possible, to be so good a teacher that his excellence could not but be acknowledged. Your letter always gives me more strength, renewed courage and that bulldog tenacity so essential to the success of any man.
Nothing could change him. Some men—perhaps most men—who attain great power are altered by that power. Not Lyndon Johnson.
God, he made you believe, man—you weren’t just [debaters]. You were people who were going to succeed. And we began to see that was true. He was sending you out in the world, where other people are applauding you.
The questions were all on a single theme: how to get things done in Washington, how to get ahead in Washington, how to be somebody in Washington.
ONCE HE KNEW HOW to do things in Washington, he started doing them—with the same frenzied, driven, almost desperate energy he had displayed in Cotulla and Houston, the energy of a man fleeing from something dreadful.
Work not only began unusually early in Room 258 (other secretaries say that no matter how early they arrived, the light in 258 was always on) and was not interrupted by lunch (Johnson and Miss Harbin would eat sandwiches at their desks) but also ended unusually late. The offices that, in those leisurely days, opened at nine, closed at four or four-thirty. Miss Harbin’s boardinghouse stopped serving dinner at eight, she recalls, “so, often, I couldn’t get there in time for dinner.”
“I remember him bounding in the door every day with a big smile, and saying, ‘Hi! How’s everyone from Pennsylvania today?’ He just radiated self-confidence.”
Recalling this mailing, one secretary says: “What I remember about Lyndon Johnson was his fantastic assurance in everything he did.”
he had a burning ambition to be somebody. He didn’t know what he wanted to be, but he wanted to be somebody.”
With only one or two staffers in each congressional office, many offices answered more and more of the mail with mimeographed form replies, or with pro forma promises, or simply didn’t reply at all—and still fell further and further behind. Kleberg’s office answered personally every letter that could possibly be answered. For Lyndon Johnson, the mail possessed almost a mystique.
Believing that “if you did just absolutely everything you could do, you would succeed,” he had tried to perform—perfectly—even minor tasks that no one else bothered with.
This condition was intolerable for the Chief, and … he decided that each boy and girl graduating from high school in the Fourteenth District that year should have a personal letter of congratulations from his Congressman, commenting on his glorious achievement. There were literally thousands of such graduates each year. So began the production of lists and concurrently the production of forty or fifty letters, different, so the graduates would not receive the same letter.…
The two teen-agers’ willingness to work so hard was based in part on their boss’ ability to inspire enthusiasm. To Johnson, Jones says, “every problem had a solution.… He was completely confident, always optimistic.… And this was contagious. It would absolutely grab ahold of you.”
In later years, Johnson’s penchant for forcing subordinates to watch him defecating would be called by some an example of a wonderful “naturalness.” Others would find it, as one journalist put it, “in part, a method of control. Bring Douglas Dillon into the bathroom with you, and he has a little less independent dignity.” This tactic was, indeed, “a method of control.”
(Some of the men, a Salvation Army worker reported, would never have come in at all had it not been for their inability to watch their wives starve.)
Since President Hoover felt that any involvement in relief by the federal government would weaken the national character,
Despite the urgency of witnesses’ pleas for help with relief funding, the Congressmen who had heard those pleas squabbled over minor details for weeks that turned into months—and the provisions of the bill that finally passed were so niggardly that the average relief stipend for a family of four would be fifty cents per day.
AS FOR THE leader of the government’s executive branch, when the Bonus Marchers begged Herbert Hoover to receive a delegation of their leaders, he sent word that he was too busy. Reinforced police patrols surrounded the White House; barricades were erected to close nearby streets to traffic; a New York Daily News headline proclaimed: HOOVER LOCKS SELF IN WHITE HOUSE. And in July, the President had the Army, with fixed bayonets and tear gas, drive the veterans out of Washington.
He handled the Depression with equal firmness. In December, 1929, he had said, “Conditions are fundamentally sound.” In March, 1930, he said the worst would be over in sixty days; in May, he predicted that the economy would be back to normal in the Autumn; in June, in the midst of still another market plunge, he told a delegation which called at the White House to plead for a public works project, “Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The Depression is over.” In his December 2, 1930, message to Congress, he said that “the fundamental strength of the economy is unimpaired.”
Asked why, then, so many unemployed men were selling apples on street corners, he said: “Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.” His secretary noted that the President was beginning to regard some criticism as “unpatriotic.” In 1932, his tune had not changed; in April of that year, a visitor was authorized to report that “Conditions are getting better. The President was in high spirits over the economic improvement.”
Said Hoover: “Nobody is actually starving. The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”
When, after months of haggling, Congress finally passed a public works bill, the President called it “an unexampled raid on the public treasury,” and warned, “We cannot squander ourselves into prosperity.”
Police armed with tear gas and riot guns herded the “hunger marchers” into a “detention camp” on New York Avenue, where, denied food or water, they spent a freezing night sleeping on the pavement, taunted by their guards.
In Iowa, a mob of farmers, flourishing a rope, threatened to hang a lawyer who was about to foreclose on a farm. In Kansas, the body of a lawyer who had just completed foreclosure proceedings was found lying in a field. In Nebraska, the leaders of 200,000 debt-ridden farmers announced that if they didn’t get help from the Legislature, they would march on the Statehouse and raze it brick by brick. A
“I tell you frankly that it is a new and untrod path.” But he was going to try. “I tell you with equal frankness that an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of new means.”
His silence in this area was especially conspicuous because of his volubility in all others. If political tactics, for example, were being discussed, Johnson would be the center of the discussion; if the discussion concerned political issues—philosophy, principles, ideas, ideals—Johnson would not even be part of it. Realizing, as he entered a room in which a bull session was being held, that its topic was a serious issue, he would try to duck back out of the room before he was seen.
Amidst the swirl of ideas, Lyndon Johnson seemed unmoved. The son of the man who had said, “It’s high time a man stood up for what he believes in” seemed ready to stand up for nothing. At San Marcos, it was assumed this behavior stemmed from ambition. “He never took strong positions, positions where you knew where Lyndon stood,” one student had said. “He was only interested in himself and what could help himself.” The feeling in Washington was the same.
The young men commented to each other on remarks he made; once one of his three assistants drafted for his signature a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., on behalf of a constituent. The salutation in the draft was “Dear Henry,” and Johnson crossed it out, writing “Dear Mr. Secretary” in its place, saying, “Look, I can’t call him Henry.” There was a pause, and then Lyndon Johnson added: “There’s going to come a day when I will, but it’s not now.”
Ambition was not uncommon among those bright young men in the Dodge, but they felt that Johnson’s was uncommon—in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs. “There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic,” a fellow secretary says. “Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition. Everything he did—everything—was for his ambition.”
THE 1934 MAVERICK CAMPAIGN also marked Lyndon Johnson’s first involvement with one of the more pragmatic aspects of politics. Awakening early one morning a day or two before the election, in the big room in San Antonio’s Plaza Hotel that he shared with Johnson, L. E. Jones experienced an awakening of another sort. Johnson was sitting at a table in the center of the room—and on the table were stacks of five-dollar bills. “That big table was just covered with money—more money than I had ever seen,” Jones says. Jones never learned who had given the cash to Johnson—so secretive was his boss that he had not even known Johnson had it—but he saw what Johnson did with it. Mexican-American men would come into the room, one at a time. Each would tell Johnson a number—some, unable to speak English, would indicate the number by holding up fingers—and Johnson would count out that number of five-dollar bills, and hand them to him. “It was five dollars a vote,” Jones realized. “Lyndon was checking each name against lists someone had furnished him with. These Latin people would come in, and show how many eligible voters they had in the family, and Lyndon would pay them five dollars a vote.”
Gratitude—and other aspects of the quality he considered most important, the unquestioning obedience that he called “loyalty”—was, in fact, the prime qualification for a man receiving a Johnson job.
For almost forty years—starting a year or two thereafter—Jesse Kellam would work directly for Lyndon Johnson. Although he was the older by eight years, he called Johnson “Mr. Johnson.” Johnson called him “Jesse.” Although Kellam liked giving orders—in a coldly domineering fashion (he made a point of never bestowing the courtesy of his full attention on a subordinate; when one was talking to him, his invariable, studied, habit was never to stop shuffling through, and at least ostensibly reading, the papers on his desk)—from one man he took orders, took them unquestioningly, with, in fact, a slavish obedience that, increasing over the years, eventually came to remind observers of Gene Latimer’s; as the years passed, and Kellam’s powerful personality became submerged in a personality more powerful, his gratitude for a word of praise from his master would be almost painful to watch—almost as painful as his reaction to his master’s anger. Latimer was not the only employee whom Johnson could make cry. What he said to Jesse Kellam behind the closed doors of his office is not known, but on more than one occasion, when the doors opened, Kellam, outwardly the toughest and most self-possessed of men, was to emerge with tears running down his hard face.
Across a crowded room—at a Texas State Society party, for example—he shouted orders at her, and the orders had to be instantly obeyed. “Lady Bird, go get me another piece of pie.” “I will, in just a minute, Lyndon.” “Get me another piece of pie!” Wingate Lucas says, “He’d embarrass her in public. Just yell at her across the room, tell her to do something. All the people from Texas felt very sorry for Lady Bird.”
Poverty, he was to say, only “tries men’s souls”; it is loneliness that “breaks the heart. Loneliness consumes people.”
“He is a member young in years, but old in accomplishment.”
When Silent Cal Coolidge noted that “You don’t have to explain something you haven’t said,”
In later years, he would frequently quote a Biblical axiom: “There is a time to fish and a time to mend nets.”
He would never ask a man to do anything against his own interests. “A Congressman’s first duty is to get re-elected,” he would say, and he would advise young Congressmen: “Always vote your district.”
THE NATIONAL YOUTH ADMINISTRATION was the inspiration not of Franklin Roosevelt, but of his wife, who said in May, 1934, “I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation.”
“Lost generation” was a phrase occurring with increasing frequency in discussions of America’s youth. Attendance at the nation’s colleges had begun falling in 1931, with more and more parents unable to afford tuition, and with students having a steadily more difficult time obtaining part-time jobs to help pay their way. High school attendance had begun falling in 1932 because steadily increasing numbers of teen-agers had to drop out and go to work to help support their families (often at a dime an hour—the prevailing Depression wage for teen-age workers); or because their families couldn’t spare them even the money necessary for books, or pencils, or bus fare—or shoes. “Again and again in many states,” wrote the historians of the NYA, Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, “we heard the word ‘shoes’ used as the equation for going to school—‘The children can get to school until it’s snowtime; they can’t go then unless they have shoes.’ Underwear can be made from sugar sacks. Clothes can be patched and remade. Shoes seem the insurmountable obstacle to school attendance.”
Out of every hundred such young people, then, only fifty reached high school; out of that fifty, only ten graduated from high school; out of that ten, only three even began college; and out of those three, fewer than two graduated from college—two out of one hundred.
While the New Deal might be making headway in other areas, it was losing ground on the youth front. Every year, either by graduating or dropping out, some 2.25 million more young people were leaving schools and colleges; and every year the number of young people both out of school and out of work rose. And, even more ominously, by 1935, a substantial number had been in that category for a long time.
To the nucleus of a staff thus formed, Johnson added new recruits whose personalities documented yet again the fact that what Johnson called “loyalty”—unquestioning obedience; not only willingness but eagerness to take orders, to bow to his will—was the quality he most desired in subordinates.
In some places, the response was: “We don’t want any federal handouts,” and in other towns, the small “in” group didn’t want any innovations that might interfere with its power; one area that particularly resisted the NYA, for example, was Karnack, Lady Bird’s home town—because of Lady Bird’s father.
Each of thousands of letters—from mayors, county commissioners, school board presidents, college deans, high school principals, students, state and federal officials—was, he ordered, to be answered the day it arrived.
He didn’t want the people to stop. “The nature of the man,” says one NYA staffer, “is to think of a hundred things for you to do during the day that you can’t get done.
Once, rushing by a desk with the mail piled high, he snarled at its occupant in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room: “I hope your mind’s not as messy as that desk.” The employee, by desperate effort, succeeded in getting to the bottom of the pile before the next mail arrived, and then wiped off the desk so its clear surface would earn the boss’ approval. The boss’ reaction: “I hope your mind’s not as empty as that desk.”
Once, a long-awaited WPA certification of children whose families were on relief and who were therefore eligible for NYA employment arrived late on Friday afternoon. There were 8,000 names on the list, and Johnson told Deason and Morgan that he wanted those 8,000 teen-agers at work—on Monday morning. Morgan’s first reaction was despair; the teen-agers couldn’t be contacted by mail over the weekend, and the NYA had already found that many teen-agers didn’t respond to letters, anyway. Morgan, whose assignment at the time was nothing larger than supervising a roadside park on which about twenty youths were employed, recalls that his first reaction was incredulity. But Johnson told him to take the twenty youths, divide up the 8,000 names among them, and have them spend the weekend going directly to the teen-agers’ homes to speak to them in person. “I got the kids in, and stayed there almost until morning, dividing up the names among them, by streets; I’d shout out an address on Guadalupe, and the kid who had Guadalupe would write it down. And Saturday morning, we hit the streets. We didn’t contact all of them, but on Monday morning, we had 5,600 of them down there, and we put them to work. That’s the kind of assignments he’d give you—that would seem nearly impossible.
The student aid program was, moreover, accomplishing its purpose. In 1935, it had encouraged students to return to school; in 1936, it kept those students in school. The fact that almost 40 percent of the students receiving NYA help in 1936 had received it in 1935 marked the beginning of a trend that would have pleased Eleanor Roosevelt: with the help of the NYA, a substantial percentage of Texas students who would otherwise—with the Depression still gripping the state—have had to drop out of school would make it through, year after year, all the way to graduation; by June, 1939, the NYA’s fourth year, more than a thousand graduating college seniors had received NYA aid for each of their four years.
(In fact, so poor were some of them that just being fed regularly was important to them; one Texas supervisor says that in their first week or two at an NYA Resident Center, they might gain ten to fifteen pounds.)
Herman was still the absolute boss of Brown & Root, and always would be—a situation with which George was perfectly content; asked what he did in the business, George would reply, “What Herman doesn’t do.”
But Lyndon Johnson had determined many years before the emotion that would govern his life—the emotion that, with “inflexible will,” would be the only emotion that he would allow to govern his life. “It is ambition,” he had written, “that makes of a creature a real man.” Pride, embarrassment, gloating: such emotions could only hinder his progress along the road he saw so clearly before him—the “vision” he had indeed held for so long. They were luxuries in which he would not indulge himself.
may not have adequately explained to you how good a politician he was. He was the very best.” They admired his thoroughness, his tirelessness—the way he threw himself into every aspect of politics, into everything he did, with an enthusiasm and effort that seemed limitless.
“He was a pack rat for information,” Fortas says. “And he was very, very intelligent. He never forgot anything. He would work harder than anyone else. I have never known a man who had such a capacity for detail.”
Rowe and Corcoran, disciples of Justice Holmes, called the tirelessness and enthusiasm that they admired “energy.” “Holmes used to say that in the last analysis the only thing that mattered was energy,” Corcoran says, “and Lyndon just bristled with it.” Fortas, more precise, says, “It was a matter of intensity more than anything, an intense concentration on whatever was being talked about, or on whatever was the problem in hand.” But however they defined it, they admired it—admired it to such an extent that while they might feel that they themselves were, in Fortas’ word, “technicians,” some of them were beginning to feel that Johnson might be something more.
And poverty and ambition were not all that Herman Brown and Lyndon Johnson had in common. Many poor boys have ambitions—even great ambitions. Few are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve them. Herman Brown, who had, year after year, lived in a tent, and then, year after year, practically lived in a car—slept in a car, ate in a car—had made the sacrifice; and the sacrifice—the work, the effort—had become very important to him.
Some of these farmers, in desperation, said they would move their houses so that they would be within fifty yards. TP&L said that it still would not hook them up. Moving houses would set a precedent, a company spokesman explained: Who knew how many farmers would try to move houses near electricity? Where would it all end?
LYNDON JOHNSON was so energetic and ingenious a Congressman that a knowledgeable observer called him “the best Congressman for a district that ever was.”
the words were taken from Hamlet: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
But he didn’t say anything. Congressmen now observed what classmates had once observed: that, while he might be speaking very volubly during a conversation on a controversial issue, he wouldn’t take a position on the issue—or, indeed, say anything of a substantive nature. He tried to avoid specifics, and if pinned down, would say what the other person wanted to hear.
This situation had not changed much in 1938. In that year, the six candidates—three Democrats and three Republicans—for Oregon’s three seats spent a total of $12,987, a little more than $2,000 per candidate.
In only two of the twenty presidential elections since 1860 had the party which spent less money come out the winner; those were the elections of 1932 and 1936, and the rule had been shattered by the Depression combined with the extraordinary popularity of Roosevelt—but now the Depression was over and so, apparently, was at least some of Roosevelt’s popularity, and the old rule could be expected to reassert itself.
By 1934, it was apparent that underneath those barren, dried-out cotton fields and miles of stunted pine trees was an ocean of oil more than forty-five miles long. By 1935, the East Texas pool was producing more oil than any state had ever produced—more than any nation had ever produced. Spindletop, with its hundred million barrels, had been huge. The East Texas pool had five billion barrels—fifty times as much as Spindletop.
One week after he had taken his job, he was able to write Rayburn aide Swagar Sherley: “We have sent them more money in the last three days than Congressmen have received from any committee in the last eight years.”
OF THE ELEMENTS in Lyndon Johnson’s career, none had been more striking than his energy.
The requests were answered—with a thoroughness that would have been familiar to Gene Latimer and L. E. Jones, whose high-school debate coach had taught them that if you took care of all the minor details, if “you did everything you could do—absolutely everything—you would win.”
As for rural areas, certain “boxes” in the Tenth District of Texas were not the only precincts which could be delivered for a candidate if a payment was made to a local Sheriff or County Commissioner.
it would be difficult to imagine an era in which most Congressmen were left to fight their campaigns without significant help from their national party, but before Lyndon Johnson, that was, certainly in the case of the Democrats and to some extent in the case of Republicans, largely the practice. Discussing what Lyndon Johnson did in the campaign of 1940, James Rowe says flatly: “Nobody had ever done this before.”
A HALLMARK OF JOHNSON’S CAREER had been a lack of any consistent ideology or principle, in fact of any moral foundation whatsoever—a willingness to march with any ally who would help his personal advancement.
During the war, Brown Shipbuilding—under contracts with provisions so favorable that profits were all but guaranteed—would carry out $357,000,000 worth of work for the Navy.
He told Harold Ickes that Johnson was “the kind of uninhibited young pro he would have liked to have been as a young man”—and might have been “if he hadn’t gone to Harvard.” And, Ickes recounted, Roosevelt had also said “that in the next generation the balance of power would shift south and west, and this boy could well be the first Southern President.”
When someone sneered at Carroll Keach for again being only Johnson’s chauffeur, Keach replied simply: “Everyone can do something for him. This is what I can do for him.”
And his people said, you never put the chairs so close together at a political rally: you want to make it look like there are more people there.” They removed every other chair; “we spread out those chairs across the whole hillside,” and the press reported that Johnson had drawn a larger audience than in fact he had. “Now that sounds like a simple thing,” Lucas says. “But at the time I didn’t know that.”
In part, it was because the state was largely rural: only a third of its 6,450,000 residents lived in cities; a third lived in small towns, and a third still lived on farms.
During the pre-war era, the cost of a typical statewide campaign in Texas was about $50,000; an expensive campaign might run as much as $75,000 or $80,000; says one politician who managed many campaigns during that period:
The wording on the plaque he had hung on the wall behind his desk—“I sacrificed no principle to gain this office and I shall sacrifice no principle to keep it”—did not strike a false note with those who knew him,
During the campaign, he had repeatedly promised to fight to the finish any proposed sales tax, which would fall hardest on the small wage-earners (or “common citizens”) whom he was allegedly championing; no sooner had he been inaugurated than he tried, unsuccessfully, not only to push through a sales tax (secretly drafted by his oilmen allies and the state’s largest corporations) disguised under a different name, but to make it a permanent part of state government by incorporating it in a constitutional amendment (the amendment would also have permanently frozen—at ridiculously low levels—taxes on oil, natural gas and sulphur). As for his pension plan, he refused to discuss new taxes to pay for it—lest one of the new taxes turn out to be a tax on oil. And with this refusal, his pension plan was effectively dead.
Lyndon Johnson spent hundreds of thousands of dollars—according to one estimate, half a million dollars. Johnson’s first campaign for the House of Representatives had been one of the most expensive congressional campaigns in the history of Texas. His first campaign for the Senate was the most expensive campaign in the history of Texas.
“He was a kind man, but he would be distressed if he ever thought you had found that out.”