History doesn’t run in straight lines. Robert A. Caro has focussed on a fixed point to talk about power. What it is? How it comes about. Who wields it? And how do they use that power? And in his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), in this first of four volumes, we follow not only the tale of LBJ, who becomes 36th President of the United States, but the story of the United States, a modern history.
Novels begin with flawed characters that need or want something. LBJ was born 28th August 1908 in the Lone Star State of Texas. His grandparents had fought against the Indians and the Mexicans and this was the frontier in which nothing grew but farms. Land was cheap, farmers with little water and poor soils were literally dirt poor. His father Sam Johnson great dream was that his son would be a lawyer. His mother Rebakah’s was a college graduate and her father was a prominent attorney. Mr Sam Johnson was something, he strutted rather than walked:
‘You can tell a man by his boots and his hat and the horse he rides.’
Mr Sam Johnson was an elected official, people liked him. He had the best and his first son had more and better than most. LBJ had a baseball to play with, but would only play when he got to bat. His rules or nobody plays was a rule he lived by then and in later life.
In novels flawed characters get their comeuppance. Mr Sam Johnson was a romantic. He tried to live in the past when his forefathers had their own ranches in the Hill County and run cattle hundreds of mile to the railway line and brought home bucketfuls of dollars that would last more than a lifetime. Mr Sam Johnson gambled his all to buy land and invest in cotton, which was on the up and up after the First World War. He borrowed from the banks, and from neighbours. The price of cotton crashed. Mr Sam Johnson, his wife and four children has to retire from public life, move from Johnson City back to live in a dog run in the Hill Country.
People have long memories. Locals loved nothing more than chewing over when Sam Johnson thought he was something and now couldn’t pay his store bills in town. Women mulled over how Rebekah didn’t know how to keep a clean house. She wasn’t thrifty. She didn’t know how to bottle and can pears for later so her children wouldn’t go hungry. Nothing had prepared her for life in the Hill Country.
One of the strength of Cato’s biography is not only that he should turn over the pages of every of the tens of millions of government documents concerning LBJ, which took seven years, and talk to local people who remembered him as a boy and young man, but also that he went to live in the Hill Country to find out what it was really like. There are frequent markers about rural poverty. A farmer’s son, for example, rides for twelve miles clutching twelve eggs to sell them for fifteen cents. Kids not being able to go to school in winter when it snowed because they’d no shoes. But only until chapter 27 of 37 chapters when LBJ as a congressman tries to break the monopoly of the utilities companies and get electricity to farms on the Hill Countries—prior to the Second World War—does how hard these women’s live were become apparent. Monday was washing day and Tuesday was ironing day. In dog runs with metal roofs above their heads, working in temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius, women had to chop wood, carry and boil buckets of water to heat the irons in them to work with the crumpled washing they’d cleaned on Monday. Irons were lumps of metal with metal handles, because handles with wood coverings cost a few cents more. This was in addition to all other chores, like feeding the animals and a large family. Farmer’s wives were round shouldered and old by the time they were thirty. They couldn’t afford doctoring so the perinatal tears most of them suffered from frequent childbirths went untreated. In the Twentieth Century they lived in the Middle Ages.
Sam Johnson frequently whipped LBJ for not doing his chores, for refusing to carry wood or water for the mother he so much loved he wrote to her every day when he went to college and demanded letters by return post. An escape route for the poor was education. LBJ baulked at it, but he went. He was never more than an average student, but a pattern emerges here that was to follow him all the way to Washington. He was known as ‘Bull’ (shit) Johnson to most other students. Garrulous as a manic depressive on an upcycle, his one subject and fascination was with himself. Later, when at parties and the subject wasn’t himself or his achievements, he had the ability to fall instantly asleep. He was always ready to take the next step before others realised there was another step. To get ahead he was ready to sacrifice everyone and anyone. To paraphrase what others in the dormitory he shared in Washington with other secretaries of Congressmen and up-and-coming talent. Whatever way the (political) wind blows that’s the way Johnson goes. His great talent, his ‘very unusual ability’ was secrecy and jumping before he was pushed.
Apart from getting others to do what he demanded, LBJ’s other ‘very unusual ability’ was hooking onto older men as mentors to smooth his path. ‘A professional son’ they never had, and asslicker of the highest order. LBJ had a preternatural talent for saying exactly what they were thinking. President Cecil E. Evans of the little Redbook college which ‘Bull’ attended, for example, paid Johnson four times in a semester to re-paint his garage because he was out of money. Similarly, Sam Rayburn a principled and laconic Speaker of the House of Congress treated LBJ as a son, even after finding out about his betrayal. President Roosevelt never did find out about LBJ’s volte-face on his Keynesian, New Deal policies, because the latter was a distant speck in his orbit and the face he was presented was always deferential, smiling and joking. Roosevelt put a stop on investigations into tax fraud involving LBJ’s backers that involved millions of dollars. LBJ could read a man and read a room in the same way most folk can read a familiar book. He was a professional politician of the first degree.
There’s irony in LBJ’s defeat when he ran for Senate representing Texas in 1941 to a cartoon figure ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ O’Daniel, a wildly popular radio talk-show host who didn’t have a policy, but embraced the flag, the Star Spangled Banner, talked about Jesus and how every farmer’s son loved their mom. This was an election LBJ had bought for him, he was already celebrating victory, when he was gazumped by other business cartels that simply bought more votes than LBJ and handed them to Pappy O’Daniel. Common electoral practice that was to spring up again when Texas interests demanded a recount of the chads in Florida after Al Gore had won the election to be President in 2009. Oh, dear, a mistake was made, business interests said it should have read George W C Bush. LBJ knew how the electoral system worked, inside out and upside down. We know how LBJ was later able to rig his next bid for a seat in the Senate and steal enough votes (volume 2). Bush had to be told and told who he was working for and why because he was so dumb. That’s power for you. I never thought we’d have a President dumber than Bush. Now we’ve got the moron’s moron going for re-election before he starts the Third World War, Pass the Biscuits Pappy and reach for the sick bag. Now we’ve got Bull Johnson as British Prime Minister whose only policy was economic self-mutilation and getting it done quickly. History isn’t meant to be funny.