Hey hey, LBJ

My curiosity was aroused by the buzz about the latest instalment of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, so I decided to start at the beginning, with The Path to Power. Johnson has always had a mixed reputation, and I certainly wasn’t expecting or hoping for the sort of misty-eyed teen-crush bio that his predecessor seems to inspire. But I was not prepared for the most unappealing portrait I can remember. Based on Caro’s account, if invited to hang out with the teenaged LBJ, Mussolini, or Michele Bachmann, I’d have to think about it.
Young Lyndon was born into a family with pretensions—a neighbor said of his father’s generation, “All the Johnsons strutted, except George, and George strutted a little. A Johnson could strut sitting down.” Lyndon’s father Sam certainly did more than a little strutting—when times were good, he not only bought a big fancy car in a town where almost nobody could afford one, he hired a local to be his chauffeur. He bought his big pearl-gray Stetsons from the fanciest shop in Austin, and frequently rocked a big old Colt revolver as a fashion statement.
Sam was also what Caro charitably calls a dreamer. That is to say, he was a farmer who never planned for a bad year and a speculator who never planned for a down market—what you and I might call a profligate nitwit. So when hard times came, the family was placed in the awkward position of having to beg for loans from people they’d always looked down on, then having to tell those people they didn’t have the money to pay back the loans. In a dirt-poor town, the grocer to whom you owed $200, probably as much as he made in a year, was liable to resent it.
It’s not surprising that little Lyndon developed a slippery relationship with the truth, at least not to me, whose mother lived in a house of genteel elegance even though the same environment looked to everyone else like squalid chaos. Lyndon told people at Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College that his grandfather had founded the town of Johnson City, which was a lie, and he would also lie about trivial things like having bought his 10-cent Woolworth’s socks for a dollar at an Austin boutique. He warned a cousing off dating a certain young man because he was “common”; keep in mind that at this point LBJ was a semi-literate punk who spent his days as an unskilled laborer on a road crew and his night in acts of pointless theft and mindless vandalism.
Oddly, though, Lyndon would lie in the other direction too, playing up his poverty. One day he walked into the café and begged for food, saying there was none at home, unaware that two of his friends were already in the café, having come there from the Johnson home, whwere they had just eaten lunch with Lyndon. Johnson liked to tell people in later years, including some lazy biographers who parroted the story, that he had run off to California and spent two years working his way up and down the coast, washing dishes, picking grapes, and struggling to stave off hunger, before hitchhiking home. He did indeed run off to California, where he immediately called up his lawyer cousin Tom Martin. He stayed for one year, living in Martin’s four-bedroom house and clerking in his law office, before being driven back to Texas in his uncle’s big Buick.
There is nothing disgraceful in this story—Johnson just had an aversion for the truth that earned him the college nickname “Bullshit Johnson,” shortened to Bull in mixed company, and he apparently showed no shame or embarrassment when caught. This habitual lying would make him an extremely annoying person, but it was not, as Caro tells it, anything like his worst feature. Johnson was a toady to anyone in authority (one schoolmate says word cannot express his level of “kowtowing and suckassing”), contemptuous to his equals, and a bully to anyone smaller or weaker. When his father would assign him chores, he would invariably make his little brother and sisters do them, even if they involved carrying loads too heavy for them.
He was both a deadbeat beggar and a spendthrift braggart, borrowing money from people who had little and never paying it back, then spending it on ostentatious vanities (fancy clothes, expensive hairdos, a car (unheard of for a student at SWTTC)). He boasted not only about his sexual contests (“Time to give old Jumbo some exercise [grabs penis]. Wonder who I’m gonna fuck tonight.”), but also about his fighting prowess, but was of course a coward: when he stole his father’s car, he ran away rather than face his father’s wrath. Having provoked a fight at a card game, the 6-4 Johnson fell back on the bed, kinked his legs in the air and shouted “Don’t hit me or I’ll kick you.”
To counterbalance the avalanche of distasteful and contemptible behavior, Caro offers, so far as I can recall, nothing. No acts of kindness, no acts of courage, not even something nice said without an expectation of reward. Zip.
One starts to wonder if Caro can be trusted—I don’t think I’ve ever known such a uniformly awful person; I mentioned my mother above, but though her delusions and confusions had destructive effects, she wasn’t truly evil. Caro does cite sources for his assertions, but there are some hints that his story may not be the only one. First, LBJ did have friends, though it is hard to imagine why. Second, there is the oddly indulgent treatment of his father. It is conceded that Sam had a ferocious temper, but this is minimized (he was always sorry after his violent outbursts, as if that’s supposed to make it OK), and the apparently nightly violence is represented as just another instance of Lyndon’s histrionic manipulativeness. We are told that neighbors expected to have their dinner-table conversation interrupted by the sound of Lyndon screaming as his father beat him, but Caro’s conclusion is that this shows what a sissy Lyndon was and how he was willing to embarrass his family.
Caro says LBJ never bore obvious marks of beating as many of the other boys did, and that spankings were de rigueur in his culture, and that Lyndon was a known exaggerator…all very well and good, but surely this nightly ritual theater of pain tells us something unsavory about the father too? What sort of father would keep it up despite its obvious lack of effect?
And then there is the matter of history, not directly related to LBJ but relevant to Caro’s credibility. He echoes the old lie of imperialists around the world, that the land was empty when the white men got to Texas. He says it more than once, though he knows it isn’t true: he knows there were Mexicans living there, and he knows the hill country was a grassland because of fires set by Native Americans before the ignorant white farmers turned it into a combination of scrub and stony desert. He knows that the settlers were threatened by Comanches, whom he describes as “savage” and “barbaric.” Maybe so, but he never attributes barbarity to white people; he counts the whites who were murdered, but if any Mexicans or Native Americans were killed or dispossessed, mum’s the word. I know this was once typical, but the book was written in the 1980s, when a historian should have known better. Finally, he writes about how the Johnsons came to Texas after “Georgia had been cleared of Indians.” As a description of the tragedy and betrayal that led to the Trail of Tears, that’s just painful. Can we expect to hear in an upcoming volume about how Poland was cleared of Jews, or how Srebrenice was cleared of Muslims?
That said, it’s a weirdly fascinating book; Caro gives a vivid, credible picture of Texas culture, at least the culture of white Texans, and it’s as hard to turn your eyes away from LBJ as it is to turn them away from Iago.

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2 Responses to Hey hey, LBJ

  1. Mary Evelyn White says:

    I wonder what the response was to this biography in the ’80’s? Do you know? That’s just disturbing. Of course, I’ve heard some of the anecdotes before, but certainly not all of them and not all in one piece. You do have to question a biographer, though, who got so much else wrong about history. I wonder if that’s where the word, “Johnson” for penis originated. Just kidding.

  2. Pingback: Some Books of 2012, Poetry and Non-Fiction | lippenheimer

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