Books: LBJ Had a Bright Side and a Dark Side

Culture Watch

Robert Caro’s latest book is Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf).

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.

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.

This article is excerpted from an essay by Robert Caro that appears on the Knopf website.