By Robert A. Caro
I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times—particularly political power.
Lyndon Johnson and Senator Richard Russell, December 17, 1963. Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto. Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum.
Why am I so interested in political power? Because in a democracy, political power shapes all our lives. You can see this in simple, small, relatively insignificant things. Robert Moses, the subject of my first biography, The Power Broker, agreed to put the Manhattan terminus of the Triborough Bridge at 125th Street instead of 96th Street, as had been planned and as was more convenient and logical, because William Randolph Hearst, the influential publisher, owned real estate on 125th Street and he wanted it condemned for the bridge. Every time you drive twenty-nine blocks out of your way to get to the Triborough Bridge your life is being affected—in a small way, of course—by political power as exercised by Robert Moses.
Writing About Political Power
This is a very minor example. But there are very big, significant examples, too. Every time a youth from a poor family gets to go to college because of one of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, and thus to escape from a life in the ghetto, and every time a black man or woman is able to walk into a voting booth and cast a vote because of one of Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Acts, that is a more significant example of political power. And so, unfortunately, is the fact of a young man dying a needless death in a useless war in Vietnam. In order to demonstrate and illuminate political power through a biography of a single individual, the biography has to be of the right individual. I selected Robert Moses because in The Power Broker what I was aiming at was to show how urban political power worked in America in the middle of the twentieth century—how power worked not just in New York, but in all our great cities; to show what was the true essence of urban political power, not the trappings but the heart, the raw, naked essence of such power. I selected Moses because he was never elected to anything. But for forty-four years he exercised more power in New York City and New York State than any official who was elected—more than any mayor, more than any governor. Therefore, I felt, if I could show what Moses’ power consisted of, and how he got it and how he wielded it, I would be showing the true essence of urban political power. Since no one else ever wielded such power, Moses was the ideal subject.
I selected Lyndon Johnson as my next subject because I wanted to attempt to do the same thing with national political power. What first attracted me to Johnson as a subject was not his presidency but his time as Senate Majority Leader. No Leader in history ever controlled, dominated, the Senate as he did. I felt if I could show how he did that, as I show in Master of the Senate, I would be showing the essence, the heart, of national political power.
We can see the roots of his genius in the acquisition and use of power in his youth.
Franklin D. Roosevelt first met Lyndon Johnson when Johnson, who was only twenty-eight years old, had just been elected to Congress. He had run on a platform that, he said, consisted of one word: “Roosevelt.” During the entire campaign, that was his only theme: “Roosevelt. Roosevelt. One hundred percent for Roosevelt.”
Lyndon Johnson had a great ability to charm older men who possessed the political power he wanted and who could help him get it. He was a master of flattery. One of his techniques with these older men was to literally sit at their feet. If they were sitting in a chair, talking, he would sit on the floor, at their knee, with his face tilted up attentively, drinking in their words of wisdom. His flattery went to extremes in so many ways that his contemporaries called him a “professional son.”
But Franklin Roosevelt’s affection for Lyndon Johnson wasn’t based merely on Johnson’s flattery. In attempting to explain to me the basis for the President’s rapport with the young congressman—a rapport almost unique in Roosevelt’s life—one of Roosevelt’s advisers, James H. Rowe, told me, “You have to understand that these were two great political geniuses. They could talk on the same level. Roosevelt had very few people he could talk to who could understand all the implications of what he was saying. But Lyndon, at the age of twenty-eight, could understand it all.” Roosevelt, speaking of Johnson, once said to Harold Ickes, “You know, Harold, that’s the kind of uninhibited young pro I might have been as a young man—if I hadn’t gone to Harvard.” Roosevelt also made a prediction. He said, “Harold, in the next couple of generations the balance of power in this country is going to shift to the South and the West. And that kid Lyndon Johnson could well be the first southern President.”
Harold, in the next couple of generations the balance of power in this country is going to shift to the South and the West. And that kid Lyndon Johnson could well be the first southern President.
On His Decision to Move to the Texas Hill Country
For me there were many obstacles in learning about Johnson's race for that goal, in learning about the young Lyndon Johnson and his early political career. Most of the obstacles were put there by Johnson himself. When he was President we saw what has been called an obsession with secrecy, and this obsession was striking, even when he was a young man—even when he was a college student, in fact. But perhaps the biggest obstacle was not him, but me—my background, which includes New York City, the Horace Mann School, Princeton, and an entire life spent in a city filled with museums and concerts, a life spent on crowded streets and sidewalks.
Lyndon Johnson was raised in the Hill Country of Texas. And that was about as different from my background as you can get. Often, during the years I was working on the first volume, I would be in New York one day, and the next day I would fly to Texas. In New York I might have had lunch with other writers, and the talk might have been about abstractions or about literature. When I left my office I would walk out into crowds of people on the street. The next day I would fly to Austin and rent a car and drive west into the Hill Country. And it sometimes seemed to me on such a day that I was going from one end of the world to the other.
The Hill Country covers twenty-four thousand square miles. That’s an area so large you could drop several states into it and still have considerable space left over. When Lyndon Johnson was growing up there its total population was about one person per square mile. Even today it’s a vast and empty and lonely place, where you can drive long stretches without passing a single house or a car. The hills seem to go on forever—every time you get to the top of one ridge of hills there suddenly are more ridges in front of you. The first settlers called it the land of endless “false horizons.”
I’ll never forget my first view of Johnson City, the first time I realized how hard it was going to be for an urban person like me, the ultimate city boy, to understand Lyndon Johnson. I had driven out of Austin about forty-eight miles, and at the top of what I later learned was called Round Mountain—it’s really just a tall hill, but it's the tallest hill around—I stopped the car. And in front of me this incredible empty panorama was stretching out literally as far as I could see. At first I thought there was nothing in it. And then all of a sudden, down below, off in the distance, I saw this tiny little huddle of houses, the place where Lyndon Johnson grew up. The Hill Country is a place where a predominant feature of life is loneliness. In fact, for a considerable portion of his boyhood, Johnson lived on a ranch in the valley of the Pedernales River, a place even more isolated than Johnson City. His brother once talked to me about how he and Lyndon used to sit on a fence that bordered a road running alongside their ranch and wait for hours, hoping that just one single person would ride by so that they would have someone to talk to.
The Hill Country was a place of terrible poverty. One of Lyndon Johnson’s best friends, to get some cash, once carried a dozen eggs to Marble Falls. To do that he had to ride all day, twenty-three miles across the hills, carrying the eggs in a box in front of him so that they wouldn’t break. And the cash he received for that day’s trip was one dime.
The Hill Country is also a land where the people are honorable and honest, to a remarkable degree. I learned that if you could only find the right question to ask, you would always get an honest answer. The people are neighborly and helpful beyond belief, and they have their own quite wonderful wisdom. Still, the culture of the Hill Country was so different from the one in which I had been raised that one day I said to my wife, Ina, “I'm not really understanding these people, or Lyndon Johnson. We have to move to the Hill Country.”
We moved to a house on the edge of the Hill Country, and for parts of three years I lived there with Ina, driving to lonely ranches and farms to interview the people who grew up and went to college with Lyndon Johnson and helped make up his first political machine.
There was a bright side to Lyndon Johnson's race to power, and a dark side. Let me talk about the bright side first.
The bright side is very bright. For Lyndon Johnson was a genius at what his Hill Country populist forebears would have defined as the highest art of government: the art of using the power of the sovereign state to help its people, particularly the least fortunate among them, people who couldn’t help themselves, who were fighting forces too big for them to fight alone. His father, who was a passionately idealistic rural legislator, had a wonderful phrase for it. He said that the duty of government is to help people who are caught in the tentacles of circumstance.
Lyndon Johnson was a genius at what his Hill Country populist forebears would have defined as the highest art of government: the art of using the power of the sovereign state to help its people, particularly the least fortunate among them, people who couldn’t help themselves, who were fighting forces too big for them to fight alone.
When I was interviewing in the Hill Country, no matter what I was talking to people about, I found that one phrase was repeated over and over again: “He brought the lights. No matter what Lyndon was like, we loved him because he brought the lights.” They were talking about the fact that when Johnson became congressman from the Hill Country in 1937, at the age of twenty-eight, there was no electricity there. And by 1948, when he was elected to the Senate, most of the district had electricity.
Because I was from New York City, and electricity was always just there, the full significance of the fact went right over my head for quite some time, I’m sorry to say. I understood intellectually that he had brought electricity, but I didn't understand what electricity meant in the lives of impoverished farm families, or what their lives had been like in this isolated and remote region without it. Because there was no electricity, there were no movies. There were almost no radios; there were a few crystal sets, but the distances were too great—the Hill Country is so cut off from the rest of America that the people on its isolated farms couldn’t get many programs. In fact, one of the most poignant things that was told to me was how they loved Roosevelt but never heard his wonderful voice. “We really loved Roosevelt here, and we always read about his wonderful ‘fireside chats,’ but we could never get to hear the fireside chats.“
Because there was no electricity, there were no electric pumps, and water had to be hauled up—in most cases by the women on the farms and the ranches, because not only the men but the children, as soon as they were old enough to work, had to be out in the fields. The wells in the Hill Country were very deep because of the water table—in many places they had to be about seventy-five feet deep. And every bucket of water had to be hauled up from those deep wells. The Department of Agriculture tells us that the average farm family uses two hundred gallons of water a day. That’s seventy-three thousand gallons, or three hundred tons, a year. And it all had to be lifted by these women, one bucket at a time.
I didn’t know what this meant. They had to show me. Those women would say to me, “You’re a city boy. You don't know how heavy a bucket of water is, do you?” So they would get out their old buckets, and they'd go out to the no-longer-used wells and wrestle off the heavy covers that were always on them to keep out the rats and squirrels, and they’d lower a bucket and fill it with water. Then they’d say, “Now feel how heavy it is.” I would haul it up, and it was heavy. And they’d say, “It was too heavy for me. After a few buckets I couldn't lift the rest with my arms anymore.” They'd show me how they had lifted each bucket of water. They would lean into the rope and throw the whole weight of their bodies into it every time, leaning so far that they were almost horizontal to the ground. And then they’d say, “Do you know how I carried the water?” They would bring out the yokes, which were like cattle yokes, so that they could carry one of the heavy buckets on each side.
Sometimes these women told me something that was so sad I never forgot it. I heard it many times, but I’ll never forget the first woman who said it to me. She was a very old woman who lived on a very remote and isolated ranch—I had to drive hours just to get out there—up in the Hill Country near Burnet. She said, “Do you see how round-shouldered I am?” Well, indeed, I had noticed, without really seeing the significance, that many of these women, who were in their sixties or seventies, were much more stooped and bent than women, even elderly women, in New York. And she said: “I’m round-shouldered from hauling the water. I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent while I was still young.” Another woman said to me, “You know, I swore I would never be bent like my mother, and then I got married, and the first time I had to do the wash I knew I was going to look exactly like her by the time I was middle-aged.”
To show me—the city boy—what washdays were like without electricity, these women would get out their old big “Number 3” zinc washtubs and line them up—three of them—on the lawn, as they had once every Monday. Next to them they’d build a fire, and they would put a huge vat of boiling water over it.
A woman would put her clothes into the first washtub and wash them by bending over the washboard. Back in those days they couldn’t afford store-bought soap, so they would use soap made of lye. “Do you know what it's like to use lye soap all day?” they'd ask me. “Well, that soap would strip the skin off your hands like it was a glove.” Then they’d shift the clothes to the vat of boiling water and try to get out the rest of the dirt by “punching” the clothes with a broom handle—standing there and swirling them around like the agitator in a washing machine. Then they’d shift the clothes to the second zinc washtub—the rinsing tub—and finally to the bluing tub.
The clothes would be shifted from tub to tub by lifting them out on the end of a broomstick. These old women would say to me, "You’re from the city—I bet you don't know how heavy a load of wet clothes on the end of a broomstick is. Here, feel it.” And I did—and in that moment I understood more about what electricity had meant to the Hill Country and why the people loved the man who brought it. A dripping load of soggy clothes on the end of a broomstick is heavy. Each load had to be moved on that broomstick from one washtub to the other. For the average Hill Country farm family, a week’s wash consisted of eight loads. For each load, of course, the woman had to go back to the well and haul more water on her yoke. And all this effort was in addition to bending all day over the scrubboards. Lyndon's cousin Ava, who still lives in Johnson City, told me one day, “By the time you got done washing, your back was broke. I’ll tell you—of the things in my life that I will never forget, I will never forget how my back hurt on washdays.” Hauling the water, scrubbing, punching the clothes, rinsing: a Hill Country wife did this for hours on end; a city wife did it by pressing the button on her electric washing machine.
Tuesday was ironing day. Well, I don’t intend to take you through the entire week here, but I'll never forget the shock it was for me to learn how hard it was to iron in a kitchen over a woodstove, where you have to keep throwing the wood in to keep the temperature hot all day. The irons—heavy slabs of metal—weighed seven or eight pounds, and a Hill Country housewife would have four or five of them heating all day. In the Hill Country it’s nothing for the temperature to be 100 or even 105 degrees, and those kitchens would be like an oven. The women of the Hill Country called their irons the “sad irons.” I came to understand why.
I came to realize that the man I was writing about had grown up in an area that was a century and more behind the rest of America, an area where life was mostly a brutal drudgery. When Lyndon Johnson became congressman he promised the people of the Hill Country that he would bring them electricity. They elected him congressman, but nobody really believed that he could do it. For one thing, there was no source of hydroelectric power within hundreds of miles. A dam had been begun on the lower Colorado River some years earlier, but the company that was building it had gone bankrupt in the Depression and its future was very uncertain. New federal financing was needed, and only the President could push that dam to completion. When Johnson got to Washington he became friends with Thomas Corcoran—“Tommy the Cork”—who was close to Roosevelt. Every time Johnson saw Corcoran he would say, “The next time you see the President, remind him about my dam.” And Corcoran reminded Roosevelt so often that finally one day Roosevelt said in exasperation, “Oh, give the kid the dam.”
Once the dam was built, there was a source of electric power, but there still seemed no feasible way of getting this power out to the people. The Rural Electrification Administration had minimum density standards—about five persons per square mile, I think it was—and they said, “We're not going to lay thousands and thousands of miles of wire to connect one family here and another family over there.” The story of how Lyndon Johnson persuaded the REA to do this—how he circumvented through his ingenuity not only the REA but dozens of government agencies and regulations and brought the people electricity—is one of the most dramatic and noble examples of the use of government that I have ever heard. Actually it took more than ten years—it was 1948 before some of the people got electricity. But they did get it, and the men I talked to who had worked on the line-laying crews would tell me how they never had to bring lunch because the farm families were so grateful. When they saw the crews coming, stretching that precious wire toward them across the hills, they would set tables outside, with their best linen and dishes, to welcome the men.
And all over the Hill Country, people began to name their children after Lyndon Johnson. This one man had changed the lives of more than one hundred thousand people—had brought them, practically by himself, into the twentieth century, and when Tommy Corcoran said to me, shortly before he died, “Lyndon Johnson was the best congressman for a district that ever was,” I knew exactly what he meant.
Thus we see the seeds of the Great Society in the young Lyndon Johnson.
Unfortunately, that’s not all we see. There existed in the career and personality of Lyndon Johnson a dark side that is as dark as the other side is bright. We can see it in terms of his district, and we can see it in terms of Roosevelt. As good a congressman as Johnson was for the district, all he wanted to do with that congressional seat, from the day he got in it, was to get out of it and move up to his next step, which was the Senate. He tried to do that as soon as possible. He ran for the Senate just four years after his election to the House. He lost, but ran again in 1948 and won. And to win he switched sides completely. Texas at that time was dominated by oil interests and natural gas and sulphur interests. Their concern with government—state and national—was to make sure that government didn't interfere with them on behalf of the people. The payment of even a very small share of the billions of dollars they were taking out of the state’s soil would have enabled the state’s government to improve greatly the lot of the state’s people. But they didn’t want to pay any taxes at all. These men were reactionaries. They hated the working man, they hated the labor unions, they hated the blacks, they hated the Jews. And they hated Franklin Roosevelt.
Lyndon Johnson adopted their philosophy and their positions. He allied himself with them, and in return for their support he made himself their willing tool. The methods he used are not pleasant even to discuss. Betrayal was one of them. He betrayed Roosevelt. Roosevelt had helped him more than he had helped any other young politician. When Johnson came to the conclusion that Roosevelt couldn’t help him with his greater ambitions, he turned against Roosevelt in an instant.
Much sadder was his betrayal of Sam Rayburn. When people ask me, “What’s the most unpleasant thing you found out when you were doing your book? What was the most unpleasant part of your research?” I never have any trouble knowing what it was. It was when I found out what Lyndon Johnson did to Sam Rayburn.
Today Sam Rayburn, the great Speaker of the House of Representatives, is getting lost to history, which is a shame. But for two decades he ruled the House of Representatives as no man ruled it before or since. Rayburn was a uniquely honest man. He never wrote memos for the record; he never wrote memos to himself. Someone once asked him, after a long day in the House of Representatives, “How do you remember all the things you promised people?” Rayburn replied, “If you always tell the truth, you don’t need memos to remember what you said.”
I came to appreciate Rayburn’s power, but I also came to appreciate his loneliness. He very much wanted a wife and children. He didn’t have them. He once wrote to his sister, “God, what I would give for a tow-headed boy to take fishing!” During the week, of course, Rayburn would be surrounded by people—assistants, other congressmen, favor- seekers—in the House, but when the House adjourned for the day, the other people went home to their families. On weekends Rayburn was alone. He used to go for long walks all through Washington every weekend, roaming all over the city, with his face set in that grim look that we remember so well, as if daring anyone to talk to him, as if he wanted to be alone—because he never wanted to let anyone know how lonely he was. One of the last of the aides who knew the Speaker during this era told me how sometimes, driven by loneliness, Mr. Sam would telephone him at home on a Sunday and gruffly order him to come to his office in the Capitol, as if he had some urgent job for him. The assistant would go there and he'd watch Mr. Sam pulling open the drawers of his desk, one after the other, looking for something he could give the assistant to do.
When Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson came to Washington, they made themselves Sam Rayburn’s family. Once, talking of “The Speaker,” Mrs. Johnson said: “He was the best of us—the best of simple American people.” She truly loved Rayburn. She learned to cook his favorite foods—chili and cornbread and homemade peach ice cream—the way he liked them. Every Sunday Rayburn would come to the Johnsons’ apartment, and after breakfast Lady Bird would clear away the dishes and the two men would sit there with the Sunday papers, talking. Johnson played on Rayburn’s loneliness, and Rayburn came to depend on him. Rayburn was also like a father to him. Once, when Johnson was about twenty-six, Lady Bird was back in Texas on a vacation, and Lyndon came down with a serious case of pneumonia and was taken to the hospital. Sam Rayburn sat next to his bed all night, in a straight chair, chain-smoking cigarettes. And because he was afraid to disturb Lyndon if he was sleeping, he didn’t move, not even to stand up and brush away the cigarette ashes. In the morning, when Johnson awoke, Rayburn was sitting there with his lapels and his vest covered with ashes. And when he saw that Johnson was awake, Rayburn leaned over and said, “Now, Lyndon, don't you worry. Take it easy. If you ever need anything, call on me.’
Only a few months later Johnson did call on him. Roosevelt was creating the National Youth Administration, and Johnson wanted to be its Texas state director. Of course his first overtures to the White House were greeted with ridicule. He was only twenty-six years old. He was just a secretary to a congressman. Who would make him the head of a multimillion-dollar federal agency? Sam Rayburn had the reputation in Washington of never asking a man for a favor. But he went to Tom Connally, the old senator from Texas, and he asked Connally to use his patronage powers to have Lyndon Johnson appointed. In his memoirs Connally wrote, “It was an astonishing thing. Rayburn would not leave my office until I agreed to do it.” And as a result Johnson was appointed and his political career was on its way.
But there came a point, just a few years later, when Roosevelt needed a man in Texas. The man who had run the state for him, Vice President John Garner, was feuding with him. Only one man was going to have the power of the New Deal in Texas, the power to dispense its patronage and its contracts, and the logical choice was Rayburn, who was then Majority Leader of the House. So Johnson had to turn Roosevelt against Rayburn. And he did. No one was more loyal to Roosevelt than Sam Rayburn; in fact, when we look at so many of the bills that we've come to associate with the New Deal, they never would have been passed if Rayburn hadn't used his prestige and his political genius to get them through the House of Representatives. Johnson, by deceiving Roosevelt, made him believe that Rayburn was in fact his enemy. And Johnson became Roosevelt's man in Texas.
Now, learning about this dark side of Lyndon Johnson was, as I’ve said, not at all pleasant. I'll never forget learning about his betrayal of Rayburn. You never learn about a thing like that from just one document. But when you're sitting there in the Johnson Library, which has thirty-two million documents, if you keep reading enough of them you'll eventually come across almost everything. And gradually, as I was going through the intra-office memos, and the telephone calls and the telegrams from many different files, I began to see unfolding what had happened between Roosevelt and Rayburn and the role Lyndon Johnson had played in it. I can still remember my feeling, which was: “God, I hope this doesn’t mean what I think it does.” But in fact, as the memos and the letters continued and as I went to the people who were still alive who had written those memos and who could explain them, they did mean exactly what they had seemed to mean, and the story was just as sordid as I had feared it would be.
The major problem in writing about Lyndon Johnson’s early life was his desire for secrecy and concealment. He had a unique talent for it. I don’t think many people would have gone to the trouble, as he did, of having pages of his college yearbook, which detailed unsavory episodes in his college career, cut out with a razor blade from hundreds of copies of the yearbook. The nation saw this obsession with secrecy when Johnson was President, but, again, it went all the way back. A young man who worked for him when he was secretary to a congressman had been one of his students when Johnson was a high school teacher, and this man told me that after Johnson went to Washington he would write him the normal letters that a teacher writes back to the kids he has been teaching, but on each letter Johnson would write, “Burn this!” I asked what was in the letters, and he said, “Nothing significant. They were just casual letters, but he always wanted them burned. And he wasn’t kidding, because the next time he’d see you the first thing he’d ask was, ‘Did you burn those letters?’” I didn’t believe that, and I wasn't prepared to put it in my book, until finally this man found a letter with “Burn this!” written on it and showed it to me.
When Ina and I moved up to the Hill Country and people realized that I was there to stay—that I wasn't just one more historian coming through for a month and then going back to write the definitive work on what the Hill Country was like—they started talking more frankly. And they started to tell me the true story of Lyndon Johnson’s college career and indeed of his entire youth. It was a story very much different from the one that had been printed in previous biographies and in thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, and for quite some time I really didn’t believe what they were telling me. I still remember spending a long afternoon with one of Johnson’s college classmates, a man named Henry Kyle, who told me a sordid and amazing story about how Johnson at college had begun stealing elections, about how he won one campus election by using against a young woman what his lieutenants called "blackmail," about how Johnson was so widely mistrusted that he was called by a classmate “a man who just could not tell the truth.” I always try to type my interview notes up the same day, so that all the nuances will still be fresh in my mind, but I didn’t bother typing this interview because I thought it was probably not true but only the recollections of an envious and embittered college rival. In fact, it turned out to be completely true.
Lyndon Johnson was a great storyteller, vivid and persuasive, and he told stories that were repeated over and over again, in books and articles, thousands of times. He really created his own legend. And the legend isn’t true. I’ll never forget the day I first found that out for sure. Before that I had been getting a lot of hints about it. Lyndon Johnson died at the age of sixty-four, and when I started my research he would have been only sixty-seven, so most of the people who went to school and college with him and participated in his early career were still alive. Indeed, many of them, when I first arrived in Johnson City, were still living there, some of them on the very same street on which they had grown up.
When I began talking to these people, I would, in an attempt to get more details, more color, repeat the stories that had become the legend of Lyndon Johnson’s youth, the legend he had created. At this point I really had no idea that they weren't true. But the people would say, “Well, some of that didn’t really happen, you know,” or, “Well, there’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to tell you what it is—you shouldn’t tell bad things about a President.“ I began to get the feeling that something was drastically and basically wrong with the legend, but I didn’t really pick up on what they were trying to tell me.
I had already interviewed Lyndon Johnson’s brother four or five times, but the interviews were very unproductive, or, to be more exact, they were very unreliable. In the first place, Sam Houston Johnson drank a lot. He also talked with a bravado that made you rather distrustful of what he said. And when I would try to check out the various stories that he told me, too often they weren’t true. I decided not to use anything that he had told me. One day, however, perhaps two or three years after I had stopped interviewing him, I met Sam Houston on the streets of Johnson City, and I saw a changed man. During the interim he had had cancer and had had at least one terrible operation. And he had stopped drinking. But more than that, when you talked to him, he was calmer. He had become very religious, and he was just a calmer, more serious kind of man. And I decided to try him again.
Now, the National Park Service has re-created Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City. They’ve done a very good job of it, according to his relatives, and it looks pretty much the way it did when Lyndon and Sam Houston were growing up. So it was arranged that I would bring Sam there after the tourists had left for the day. And when we were there all alone, I said, “Now, Sam Houston, sit down in your seat at the dinner table.” They had this long dining-room table. The three sisters would sit on one side, and Lyndon and Sam would sit on the other, and the father and the mother were at the two ends. And I said, “I want you to re-create for me one of those terrible arguments that your father used to have at this table with Lyndon.” I wanted to put him back in his boyhood—to make him remember accurately how things had happened. At first it was very slow going. I’d have to ask, “Well, then, what would your father say?” and then, “What would Lyndon say?” But gradually the inhibitions fell away, and it was no longer necessary for me to say anything. He started talking faster and faster. And finally he was shouting back and forth—the father, for example, shouting, “Lyndon, goddamn it, you’re a failure, you’ll be a failure all your life.” By this time I felt that he was really in the frame to remember accurately, and I said, “Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me all the stories about your brother’s boyhood that you told me before, the stories that your brother told all those years, only give me more details.” There was this long pause. Then he said, “I can’t.” I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because they never happened.”
Sam Houston started from the beginning and told me a completely different story of Lyndon Johnson’s youth—one that cast an entirely new and different and significant light on that youth, and on the character of this man who became President. And this time, when I went back to the people who were involved in these incidents, they remembered and confirmed them. Lyndon Johnson tried to write his own legend for history, and he almost succeeded. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to come along when his brother and his sister and his boyhood companions and his college classmates and early political associates were still alive, that legend would have gone down in history.
In my opinion, America can’t fully understand its history without knowing Lyndon Johnson.