The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power
Caro, Robert A.
Lyndon Baines Johnson could read people. He used to tell his staff members how to do it. “’Watch their hands. Watch their eyes,’ he told them. ‘Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.’ Teaching them to peruse men’s weaknesses, he said that ‘the most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say’—and therefore it was important not to let a conversation end until you learned what the man wasn’t saying, until you ‘got it out of him.’”
As a teen, plowing Texas hill country road beds behind a team of mules, Lyndon Baines Johnson declared, “One day I’ll be President of the United States.” The ambition burned in him from then on. One reason for it is that he needed to bury shame that burned as acutely as the ambition. As a boy, LBJ had been mortified by his father Sam’s failure. Sam had owned an enormous cotton farm, but had paid too much for it. Then his cotton failed and the prices for cotton plummeted. Sam Johnson lost the farm and the family had to move into a tiny home in Johnson City, “a shanty, really, a typical Texas Hill Country ‘dog run’: two box-like rooms, each about twelve feet square, on either side of a breezeway, two smaller ‘shed rooms’ and a kitchen, all connected by a sagging roof.” Sam Johnson had been one of the most successful men in the area, a big ranch owner, a leader, the owner of the first automobile in the area, which he hired a chauffeur to drive. But now the family was destitute, dependent on kind-hearted neighbors even to have enough to eat because area stores had cut off the family’s line of credit. Soon Sam Johnson “became a figure of ridicule,” and Lyndon knew it. “He was to die—in 1937—as a penniless bus inspector; the only thing he had to leave his children was a gold watch and a legacy of the townsfolk’s sneers.” Lyndon and his siblings shared in the shame. “One of Lyndon’s classmates at Johnson City High School, Truman Fawcett, was sitting on his uncle’s porch one day when Lyndon walked by. ‘He’ll never amount to anything,’ the uncle said, loud enough for Lyndon to hear. ‘Too much like Sam.’” For the rest of his life, LBJ above all wanted “not to be like Daddy.” It meant not to fail publically and shamefully. It also meant not to be a romantic, an idealist, a dreamer. It made LBJ always want to be just the opposite: “pragmatic, cynical, tough, shrewd.” In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election Johnson had opportunity to gain the Democratic nomination for President. He wanted to be President fiercely. But his early shame made him ‘petrified,’ ‘haunted’ by the fear of failure. His ambition and shame tugged at each other so profoundly as to paralyze him. He didn’t make the trips and speeches that would be necessary for him to secure the nomination. So John F. Kennedy got the nomination instead, a sickly playboy LBJ dismissed as an inexperienced, spoiled rich kid.
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In the weeks following President Kennedy’s assassination, the nation was convulsed with grief. People couldn’t concentrate on their work. Joy seemed to have fled the land. And uncertainty reigned when it came to assessing the new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. He had been a non-entity in the Kennedy administration, by design. Now he was President. Now, in a time of great national uncertainty, he had to appear confident, certain, ready for the job. Which he did. In a speech to the joint houses of Congress on November 27, 1963, five days after President Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson delivered just the speech the nation needed. He used JFJ’s assassination to powerful effect, reminding the nation that JFK had wanted a comprehensive civil rights bill, and that it was now the nation’s calling to pass one. “’This is our challenge,’ Johnson said, ‘not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment, but to continue on our course so that we may fulfill the destiny that history has set for us.’” Accordingly, he said, “’no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.’” Members of Congress often stood and cheered and applauded—except the Southerners who sat and did not applaud. They were “islands of silence in a sea of applause.” And then the ending. Johnson spoke the last lines “with so much emotion that his voice seemed on the verge of breaking: ‘America, America, God shed his grace on thee,’ Lyndon Johnson said. ‘And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.’” Now everybody stood to applaud at length—the Southerners too, because while their racism was strong, their patriotism was stronger. “Yet it wasn’t the applause that most forcefully struck some of the reporters watching the scene from the Press Gallery, but the tears. ‘Everywhere you looked,’ Hugh Sidey said, ‘people were crying.’” Johnson had shown his strength to the world. And (p. 601) he had caught the crest of the country’s wave of emotion over its fallen leader.
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Prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, President Lyndon Baines Johnson got out his bag of tricks from the days when he was majority Leader of the Senate, and worked tirelessly to attend the bill in Congress. Meanwhile, teams of religious leaders from all over the country converged on Washington. Nuns far away from their convents for the first time, priests, Protestant ministers, rabbis. They held services, prayed in front of the Lincoln Memorial, visited congressmen, spoke to reporters. Passage of a civil rights bill was spiritually important to them, and they said so. They ‘crammed the galleries” on Capitol Hill. One observer said that in the battle for civil rights, all these spiritual leaders in Washington were like “’getting an army with fresh new guns, fresh rations . . . . It made all the difference in the world.’” Senators found they had to contend with this army of God, and some weren’t happy about it. But they ended up voting for civil rights.