Lyndon Johnson’s Texas Roots
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a southern President with a Texas accent. In some ways he exemplified the stereotypical Texan. In seeking a link between his social identity as a Texan and his liberal political views, however, it is difficult to see any strong causal connection. This essay will ask the question, how closely connected were his liberal politics to his persona as a Texan? Of course, as a senator from Texas, he had to be involved in Texas politics and to be concerned about voter issues in Texas, but it would be hard to prove that he agreed with the social and political views of his fellow Texans. In this essay, I will argue that LBJ’s communication style clearly reflected his Texas roots, but his liberal politics came from his father’s influence and the poverty of his upbringing.
A distinction can be drawn between Johnson’s style, which was Texan, and his political ideals, which were liberal. These two aspects of his psychology co-existed. As columnist Richard Strout of the New Republic commented, “[Johnson is] impulsive, emotional, sentimental, sensitive bumptious, corny, prolix, able and Texan. He’s also on the right side of some fine things and is pushing them with skilled and ferocious energy” (cited in Schulman, 1995, p. 75). Moreover, maintaining this distinction between style and political vision was important to functioning as an effective leader, for once the distinction faded and Texas ego merged with anticommunist liberalism, Johnson failed and fell.
Lyndon Johnson was born in the poorest part of Texas where the land and the weather were unsuitable and inhospitable to farming. No rich oil barons lived there. Farmers in the Hill country could barely eke out a living, and one good year for crops was nearly always cancelled out by two or more years of drought and loss. Johnson’s father was a state representative in the days when representatives were paid only $5 a day for two months of service a year — $2 a day if they didn’t get done on time. Presumably, state representatives were expected to hold office for the “honor” of it. Other elected officials made up for the lack of pay by accepting graft and bribes and using the system to enrich themselves, but Lyndon Johnson’s father Sam Ealy Johnson was incorruptible. He never accepted so much as a cup of coffee from a lobbyist or anyone that could ask a political favor of him in return.
Sam Johnson was beholden to no one, but the Johnson family was poor. Lyndon Johnson grew up with first-hand knowledge of what poverty really is — the drudgery and demeaning aspects that ruin the quality of real people’s lives. He may have blamed some of the family’s poor financial circumstances on his father’s integrity and unwillingness to bend his moral principles. We don’t know that for sure, however, because the book (Schulman, 1995) doesn’t discuss that possibility; however, the book does state that the neighbors considered Sam Johnson impractical. “Hill Country neighbors admired Sam’s compassion and steadfastness, but they thought him foolish, a man without common sense. Thirteen-year-old Lyndon saw his father’s disgrace and learned hard lessons from it” (Schulman, 1995, p. 8). As a politician his son, on the other hand, “never felt torn between principle and expediency. Effectiveness was his basic principle, the cornerstone of his brand of liberalism” (p. 42). So while LBJ believed in the same liberal principles his father did — that government could intervene and make the lives of the people better — his central goal was always to get the job done no matter what it took.
The people in the Hill Country depended heavily on his father to use his office to help them when they needed it. So the son, Lyndon, grew up with a tradition of personal service to voters, and it’s clear that he, too, extended his influence to help individuals. He liked to do favors for people. It kept them indebted to him, so that when he needed a political favor, they were likely to reciprocate. He also used his power to get whole communities the things they needed — jobs, federal aid for education, civil rights, electrification, etc. Schulman (1995) states, for example, “Johnson waged the battle for public power and rural electrification with peculiar, unusual vehemence — with a passion born of bitter memory and hard experience” (p. 21). He later said he remembered his mother washing by hand on a washboard and scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. “As a boy, he promised that he would free her of hard labor so she could have dainty, soft hands” (p. 21).
Johnson’s focus on individual and collective service, and his vision of the government as the agent of intervention that could significantly make people’s lives better, goes directly against the stereotype of the lone, independent Texan, able to face insurmountable obstacles, riding out to shoot down the outlaws, standing alone and not needing anybody (just as the single star on the Texas flag and motto “The Lone Star State” imply). Johnson’s genius was in his ability to get people to cooperate and do what he wanted. Texas democrats tended to be “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatives (and usually racist), not liberal like LBJ or in favor of social programs to help minorities, the poor, and the elderly.
From the start, Johnson wanted power in the national scene. He represented Texas, yes, but in Washington, D.C., not at home. Although his bigness and brashness seem to be reflections of the Texas “personality,” his belief in liberalism more likely sprang from the influence of his father’s liberal politics and the grinding, chronic poverty of the region in which he was born and reared. Despite the cultural rule that Texans stick together, he sometimes went against his Texan colleagues in Congress.
Once he “was one of only two Texas congressmen who defied the oil barons and voted with the president” (Schulman, 1995, p. 18). As Schulman puts it when describing another such incident, “Texans stick up for Texans, LBJ’s colleagues insisted, but LBJ would not budge” (p. 22).
Although Johnson shifted right and left at times as the political winds blew (particularly, in the late ’40s), he still always “believed the federal government must play the leading role in American life — guaranteeing economic opportunity and international security” (Schulman, 1995, p. 29). Granted, during his years in Congress, he voted with fellow Texans against every civil rights bill, but it was an emotionally charged issue, and he needed to stay in office. A pragmatist in every respect, he knew his time would come. He understood that the power to do something about civil rights rested mainly in the White House and worked toward the day when he would be there. So he was biding his time rather than expressing the views of a Texan. And biding his time did pay off. “A southern president — a product of that cruel and unjust system and long a political captive of it — had helped to dismantle Jim Crow” (p. 74).
It was Johnson’s communication style — not his politics — that was so stereotypically Texan. Texans are supposed to be tall and white, which LBJ was and to have the Texas drawl, which he did.
They wear ten-gallon hats, boots, and fancy belt buckles. In appearance and manner, he was a huge presence, “bigger than life” like Texans are supposed to be, and fulfilled the stereotype of the boasting, arrogant Texan, overbearing, and full of confidence. A picture of him (Schulman, 1995, p. 44) shows him giving “The Treatment” to Abe Fortas, towering over him and making a point right into his face. Except that Fortas is smiling, you would think Johnson was a big bully. This style was very apparent in the Senate where he became the youngest majority leader ever:
He…soon became the most successful and most powerful floor leader the Senate or the nation had ever seen. Central to Johnson’s leadership was his personal style, what syndicated newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak…vividly portrayed…as “supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all of these together. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling” (cited in Schulman, 1995, p. 44).
Later, when he took over the presidency, his Texas style became a topic for journalists — partly because it contrasted so sharply with the traditional Boston manners of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy and his administration. Unlike the polished Harvard tones of JFK, there was an “earthy” quality to Johnson’s speech that smacked of Texas and the boyhood farm. For example, he didn’t have time for “brief visits” from “prominent citizens” (p. 67) and told his special assistant Jack Valenti, “by the time a man scratches his ass, clears his throat, and tells me how smart he is, we’ve already wasted fifteen minutes” (cited in Schulman, 1995, p. 68).
Getting liberal legislation passed into law was LBJ’s benchmark of effective leadership. He knew how to do it. The most successful at this of any president ever, he followed every detail of legislation and demanded that his aides not simply think they had the support of a representative in Congress but know they had it! “You’ve got to know you’ve got him, and there’s only one way you know’…Johnson looked into his open hand and closed his fingers into a fist. ‘And that’s when you’ve got his pecker right here.’ The president opened his desk drawer, acted as if he were dropping something, emphatically slammed the drawer shut, and smiled” (p. 88). Meanwhile, Congress complained it was “bullied, badgered, and brainwashed” (p. 91) by President Johnson’s strong-arm Texan tactics.
Schulman (1995) argues that Johnson’s liberalism changed national social policy “profoundly” and “permanently altered the nation’s political landscape” (p. 121). The Great Society might have come into fruition, and fulfilled all the liberal dreams of economic security and equality, if it hadn’t been for the war in Vietnam. The war ate up the money for social programs and hogged all of the president’s attention. A cartoon (p. 128) shows a beleaguered Johnson, in a suit that is too big and not looking Texan at all, caught between a huge, whorish looking woman (the Vietnam war) and a thin, orphan-like waif of a woman (labeled U.S. urban needs).
Because of the war and racial strife (riots, etc.) belief in liberalism and established institutions as the way to make society better began to fade among the voters as well as faith in him as president. “He knew that the war was dividing the nation, dominating his schedule, compromising his great plans, and killing his presidency…. His hopes for a liberal reconstruction of America, for a Great Society, for a record of achievement exceeding all other presidents, [rotted] in the jungles of Southeast Asia” (p. 123). Lady Bird Johnson perhaps explained the problem best when she commented that foreign relations problems “do not represent Lyndon’s kind of Presidency” (p. 125). His kind of presidency focused on domestic issues and social programs.
He was caught, however, in the mindset of the cold war. Schulman (1995) argues that Johnson held on to outdated cold war ideas as “an uncritical adherent of liberal anticommunism” (p. 126) believing that the U.S. had a duty to defend countries around the world from communist encroachment. Moreover, LBJ’s communication style and talent for getting his way in Congress was ill-suited to foreign relations. He was “out of his element” and lacked the intimate knowledge of his opponents that he always had had in Congress. Instead of reliance on his political instincts, he had to rely on “experts” in foreign policy. He couldn’t get together with foreign leaders face-to-face and work his persuasive magic on them. He sometimes bungled and misjudged his adversaries. In a sense, his Texas style of communication became a liability to him because he couldn’t adjust. Caught in the middle between hawks and doves, he tried to create a consensus (as he always had in the past) but there was no consensus on the war.
Criticized on both sides, Johnson needed to win over the press and the people; and this, above all, LBJ was ill-prepared to achieve. Television had become the nation’s primary news medium and LBJ, never a brilliant public speaker, looked terrible on the tube — his wordy, folksy style looked forced, phony (p. 145).
Worse, the public started to see him as a liar. Califano said his “fixation with keeping options open on any new policy venture until he had every political stone turned and set in place was, in good part, why he was such an effective legislator. [but] the misleading body language played badly with the press corps and the public…” (p. 146).
Schulman argues that LBJ could not withdraw from Vietnam because “it would have meant a major defeat for the free world, disgracing Johnson’s presidency…” Perhaps, then, the war represents the psychological space where Johnson’s liberal politics met and mingled with Johnson the Texan — the big man who faces insurmountable odds and never gives up. When the two converged, his leadership became ineffective and his presidency was ruined.
Schulman, B.J. (1995). Lyndon B. Johnson and American liberalism: A brief biography with documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press.
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