10 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2)


Johnson arrives at Southwest Texas State Teachers College ("San Marcos") in 1927.  Prior to enrolling in the college proper, he has to attend a crash course for students from rural schools, to make sure that he is prepared for the school's curriculum.  Johnson's eventual goal at the school is to earn his degree and find a profitable position as a schoolteacher.

Johnson's college years are very important for Caro, because they show the emergence of a number of key character traits which stayed with him throughout the rest of his career.  Moreover, during college, several of these traits are publicly known and acknowledged, and even mocked, by fellow students on campus.  Caro's treatment of this period has a few themes:

1.  Johnson was a compulsive liar.  He lied to conceal his poor background, and in order to self-aggrandize.  He lied perpetually, without shame, even when the person to whom he was lying to could obviously tell he was lying.  His habit of prevaricating was so widely known on campus that his nickname was "Bull[shit] Johnson".  An entire section was devoted to his dishonesty in one issue of the student yearbook.

2.  Johnson meticulously cultivated people who could be of use to him.  His primary object of attention was the school's president, but he also had a habit of sitting at the feet of professors (sometimes literally) with wide, adoring eyes, writing appreciative notes, and endearing himself in any way possible.  He made efforts to find the weak spots of people he wanted to win over, and capitalizing on them.  Caro gives the example of a final exam essay, written for a professor who was known to be a devout Christian.  Johnson wrote above his essay a note of thanks suggesting that the course had enriched his walk with Jesus.

3.  Johnson created systems of power in order to increase his own influence.  By the time Johnson was in his final year at San Marcos, he had become student employment czar (a theretofore nonexistent position), whom the administration consulted on the doling out of campus jobs.  In a time when cash was short and many students depended on their campus jobs in order to stay in school, this gave Johnson a great deal of power, and he used it to his own advantage.

4.  Johnson loved developing intricate (and very secret) political schemes.  Later in his college career, he joins a secret society ("The White Stars"), which he transforms from a social club into the unacknowledged dominant force in campus politics.  Johnson handpicks the officers of student government, organizes the rigging of campus elections, crushes his rivals, and blackmails opponents.  All in great secrecy.

Halfway through his college career, Johnson has accrued so much debt (from lavish expenditures on clothes and a car, it seems) that he is forced to drop out and find a job in order to pay his debts.  He finds a job teaching at a school for Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas.  Johnson is hired as principal of the tiny school, and he relishes the authority, pouring himself into his work without reserve.  For the first time in the book, we have a sense of how wonderful Johnson can be, and Caro's interviews with schoolchildren who remember him convey a sense of real care for their well-being and personal advancement.  He works extra hours every day, tutoring the school janitor on the side, organizing athletic competitions for the students, etc.  He leaves at the end of the year and returns to San Marcos to finish his degree.

After a riotous final year of college, Johnson gets another teaching job, in another southern backwater, Pearsoll.  He is there only very briefly, however, because his uncle is able to get him a job in a Houston public high school as speech and debate teacher, and he leaves for Houston half way through his first semester in Pearsoll.  Once again in Houston, Johnson pours everything he can into his job, resolving to take the school's debate team to the state championship for the first time ever by the end of his first year there.  And he does.  This is where we begin to hear what is, for Caro, Johnson's essential dictum: "If you do everything, you will succeed."  The two lead debaters on the team are L. E. Jones and Eugene Latimer, and Johnson takes them all the way—to defeat in the final round of the state championship.

During the summer recess, Johnson returns home to Johnson City, and is recruited by Texas politician Welly Hopkins, who is trying to get a seat in the state senate.  Johnson's campaigning abilities are extremely impressive to Hopkins, who wins the race with an overwhelming number of votes (thanks to Johnson) in areas he did not believe he could win.  Hopkins (who refers to the young man as a "wonder kid of politics") does Johnson a favor, and recommends him to his friend Richard Kleberg, a newly elected member of the U. S. House of Representatives, who is looking for a secretary to run his congressional office for him.  And so,  in 1931, midway through the first semester of Johnson's second year in Houston, he leaves with Kleberg for Washington, and for the U. S. Congress, which would be his home for most of the next thirty years.  This ends part two.