Lyndon Johnson’s Character
For many liberals, myself included, the name Lyndon Baines Johnson brings to mind the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and, unfortunately, the Vietnam War. Liberals point to all but the last as legacies of a great president committed, first and foremast, to racial equality and helping the nation’s poorest. For those reasons, many on today’s left look to Johnson as a Democratic idol whose domestic achievements and aims must again be channeled and pursued.
But these characterizations of Lyndon Johnson rely on historical accounts and studies that, for want of time, do not actually examine the man’s character. High school history tells us about Johnson’s virtues, but not his many almost unforgivable vices. To really understand Lyndon Johnson, to understand what motivated him, what drove his personality, what inspired the man today remembered for domestic benevolence and foreign blundering, one needs to read Robert Caro’s series.
Becoming Lyndon Johnson
Caro spares no detail in his examination of Lyndon Johnson. “The Path to Power” begins generations before Lyndon’s birth with a detailed account of the Texas Hill Country and its settlement. These chapters outline the harsh and wholly unforgiving Hill Country that tormented ranchers who happened to settle just past nature’s point of fertility. Unfortunately, that’s where the Johnson clan laid its stake.
The infertile soil of the arid Hill Country created a poverty passed down generations, unremitting in its anguish and unforgiving in its totality. Despite the miserly conditions of Hill Country farmers, the Texas state government by and large ignored them, focusing instead on helping special interests. As such, many Hill Country ranchers — including Johnon’s forefathers — embraced the great populist wave that roared through the country in the late 19th Century.
Populism sought to fundamentally change how the government treated its residents. Instead of kowtowing to special interests, populists argued that government should use its might to protect individuals by regulating business, busting monopolies, and fighting the amassed power of utility corporations. Lyndon’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson Jr, elected to office office after the initial populist surge, embraced the populist tradition and epitomized honest public service. For a few short years, Sam Ealy and the entire Johnson clan — namely Lyndon — earned the respect and admiration of their neighbors.
But that didn’t last long. Sam Ealy, whose character Caro goes to great lengths to describe and does so in a way that the reader feels an understanding, almost kinship, with the man, dreamed of revitalizing the one-time Johnson ranch. So he purchased, at an inflated price, the lands of his forebearers and set to work.
Sam Ealy failed. His failure plunged the Johnson family into abject poverty, living paycheck to paycheck as Sam Ealy performed ridiculing work and faced the scorn of the neighbors he once helped in Austin.
This had a profound influence on Lyndon. Caro focuses on these years, interviewing scores of people who knew Lyndon when the Johnson family hit its low-point, so the conclusions Caro draws and the stories he tells don’t feel like a biographer’s imaginative work, but the true description of a man’s life. And a bleak description Caro relays. Lyndon felt humiliated as his family became outcasts and he lost the respect of his peers because of his father’s shortcomings. His relationship with Sam Ealy permanently fractured as a result and his relationship with his mother didn’t fare much better.
Lyndon emerged from these years with a mission: Don’t be like his father. Value pragmatism over principles and, in doing so, attain power.
The Lust for Power
These lessons forever shaped and defined Lyndon. After telling the story of Lyndon’s youth with such a magnificent touch readers feel as if they watched Lyndon’s childhood through a window into his actions, thoughts, and desires, Caro turns to the beginning of Lyndon’s adulthood.
The following chapters build on the character Caro brings to life and describes how Lyndon embraces pragmatism over principles to gain power. Rarely does Lyndon come across as at all likable. His need to win and the lengths to which he would go in order to beat others may well shock the reader. Lyndon has no principles or core beliefs. No contemporary account can point to a Lyndon who acted to further some ideological goal. Instead, Lyndon did whatever he could to benefit himself and those loyal to him.
It’s a truly repulsive character and while readers may have sympathy for Lyndon given his roots in poverty, it remains hard for that sympathy to excuse his rather ruthless actions (ruthless even in the face of meaningless desires, such as student council elections at San Marcos Teacher’s College).
And yet, though conniving and wholly unpleasant to those his own age, Caro understands and makes readers understand that Lyndon had one quality that would serve him over the coming decades: He was a “professional son.”
The Professional Son
While the phrase may seem weird, Caro aptly describes in The Path to Power its meaning and how Lyndon used it to attract the support and goodwill of elders. Lyndon paid obsequious court to the holders of power, realizing, again as Caro brilliantly describes, how he could manipulate their feelings such that they showered him with favors.
This helped him pay for college, but also provided him with his first entree in public life. A
variety of seemingly chance events (again, masterfully flooded with details by the author) resulted in Johnson working for a congressman in DC. This congressman had little interest in the job, rarely coming into the office or pursuing work to help constituents. Lyndon happily took up those tasks while also currying favor with the congressman and his ultra conservative friends.
Together, the two events — single-handedly doing a congressman’s work while donning his professional son persona to be held in high graces by powerful reactionaries — describe Lyndon best: A man with an unmatched work ethic willing to go to incredible lengths to help those whose votes he might later need and a pragmatic soul able to make all like him by believing he shared their ideology.
The first point almost makes Lyndon likable. He worked and worked and worked for the benefits of the congressman’s constituents. This included waking at ungodly early hours and returning to bed long after midnight. His dedication truly helped many. But this is tempered by its transactional nature — Lyndon only helped them to his name would be tied to that help and thus the beginnings of a political base formed — and the extent to which he whipped others into echoing his feverish work pace.
Lyndon regularly belittled coworkers in the rudest ways imaginable, from routine cussings to exploiting their sensitivities. This behavior drove many to exhaustion or a perverse psychological dependency on Lyndon, another confusing concept that Caro explains well. His wife, Lady Bird, would frequently experience the same deplorable treatment. It’s hard to look upon Lyndon favorably given how he treated his peers.
Liberal and Conservative
Lyndon also had a unique ability to either a true New Deal liberal or a staunch conservative, depending on his audience. With whomever he spoke, Lyndon would agree with that person’s ideology, fully embracing his companion’s policy viewpoints and arguments. He did so with enough knowledge and persuasion that if a liberal spoke with Lyndon, that liberal truly believed Lyndon embraced the New Deal; a conservative speaking with Lyndon came to believe Lyndon supported the New Deal for political gain only and was actually a conservative.
This posturing could only be possible by a man who didn’t have any principles — that is, by a man who believed in no ideology. Again, Caro’s expose into Lyndon’s upbringing lends understanding to this: Pragmatism necessitated that Lyndon have no core beliefs. By agreeing with all, he would anger none and thus build a strong web of connections all of whom believed Lyndon to be an ally in their causes. Lyndon could thus gain favor with the rising New Deal class while also cultivating the support of wealthy Texas donors, reactionaries each and every one.
Caro brilliantly describes Lyndon’s opportunism and the lengths to which he’d work to create opportunity and exploit it wherever it appeared. He lusted for power and wanted it by any means possible — and so worked to attain power even to his mental and physical fatigue. An admirable work ethic met with questionable actions and downright shady dealings to capitalize on opportunity.
“The Path to Power” includes a detailed account of Johnson’s first race for the House and how Johnson overcame numerous obstacles to win a seemingly unwinnable race. But we quickly see that in the House, even after cultivating a strong (professional son) relationship with the almighty Sam Rayburn, that Lyndon was not satisfied. He had higher aims.
And to achieve those goals, he had to wiggle his way into connections with power — namely, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To become Roosevelt’s go-to Texan, Lyndon betrayed his mentor and dealer of favor, Sam Rayburn, in a move chronicled by Caro and which leaves readers with a sick taste in their mouths. Lyndon demanded the loyalty of his staff and subservients, but didn’t offer that loyalty to those on whose favors he relied.
Almost a Senator
Caro’s masterpiece concludes with Lyndon’s first run for the Senate. In these accounts, we learn of politics darker side, include the demagoguery that dominated far too many campaigns and to which voters succumbed as well as the corruption and illegal behavior that, for a time, dominated Texas politics.
Lyndon, to his credit, did not embrace demagoguery (his opponent, and eventual victor, Pappy O’Daniel, on the other hand, used populist and demagogic overtones to establish a rabid base of supporters who voted for the know-nothing), but corruption and illegality defined his campaign. Vote buying throughout Texas, especially in minority areas, provided Lyndon with thousands of votes. Illegal laundering of money from corporations into his campaign coffers enabled such buying and extensive campaigning. Lyndon and his wealthy benefactors skirted campaign finance laws to such an extent that without President Roosevelt stymying an IRS and DoJ investigation into the matter, Lyndon and his donors would have been in deep legal trouble.
Not Who We Think
“The Path to Power” challenges our assumptions of Lyndon Johnson. It portrays a power-hungry man, ruthless in action and despicable in treatment of his peers. It shows someone valuing pragmatism over any semblance of ideology — who would, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid voice his actual opinion on any matter, regardless its triviality.
Caro’s work is a truly magnificent book that reveals Lyndon Johnson, the man, not the liberal icon. Everyone hoping to learn more about the 36th president should read it and the series.
Disclaimer: PoliticalEdu is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to political-edu20.amazon.com. Such involvement does not in any way influence PoliticalEdu’s reviews or opinions.