5/21/12 - sneaking daylight past a rooster

In today's excerpt - Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, wanted to be president from the time he was a teenager. Perhaps no other president in our history has desired the job with the same ferocious, unquenchable determination. That desire stemmed directly from the complete humiliation suffered by his father which then fell on young Lyndon and the entire family in the small town named for his forbears -- Johnson City, Texas. This excerpt is from the much-awaited, just-released fourth volume of Robert Caro's masterful biography of Johnson titled The Passage of Power:

"At the time he bought the ranch, Sam Ealy Jr. had been quite a figure in the Hill Country: tall, with a jutting nose and jaw, long ears and piercing eyes, out­going, friendly, and eloquent. Despite a streak of idealism that made him a fer­vent Populist and put him at odds with the 'interests' who dominated the Legislature, during his six terms in the Texas House he was surprisingly success­ful in getting bills passed. He and his growing family lived in Johnson City. The town, whose population during Lyndon's high school years was 323, was one of the tiny towns, miles apart from each other, that dotted the vast emptiness of the Hill Country, a little huddle of houses so cut off from the rest of the world by a sea of land that one of its residents called it an 'island town'; with no paved roads, it took hours to reach Fredericksburg or Austin, even when roads were passable.

"But the Johnsons' house was comfortable. 'The Hon. S. E. Johnson,' as the local newspaper called him, the only man in Johnson City who always wore a necktie, was for a while so successful in 'real-estatin' ' that he bought his wife the first automobile anyone in the town had ever owned, and provided her with a chauffeur to drive it. 'You can tell a man by his boots and his hat and the horse he rides,' he said, and his hand-tooled boots and pearl-gray Stetson were the most expensive money could buy. And his demeanor reminded people of an old Hill Country saying: 'Johnsons always strut; they even strut sitting down.' Johnson City was a religious town -- fundamentalist, revivalist, hard-shell religious -- but everyone knew that Sam believed in the Darwinian theory, that he attended church (on the irregular Sundays on which he attended church) only to please Rebekah, and that he would take a drink now and then, although, as John­son City knew, 'sneaking a beer by Jesus is like trying to sneak daylight by a rooster.' His financial success brought him respect, and he was so smiling and friendly, always so willing to spend days helping an old rancher get a pension, that he was a popular figure in the little town.

"All that changed when, in January, 1920, Sam moved his family to the ranch. The next years were years of drought, and as Sam's cotton was dying under the blazing Hill Country sun, so was the cotton market, as prices fell from forty cents a pound to eight cents. In September, 1922, when Lyndon was four­teen, Sam had to sell the ranch for whatever he could get -- which wasn't nearly enough to cover his debts.

"The Johnsons moved back to their house in Johnson City, but they were able to keep it only because Sam's brothers periodically made payments on the back interest on the mortgage. Often, there would have been little to eat in that house if it hadn't been for the covered dishes neighbors brought. There was no money in the house; the ranch had broken Sam's health, and it was always frail after that.

"In any small town, a world to itself, such a transformation would have been dramatic; in Johnson City, an unusually isolated town -- in which, as late as 1922, there was not a movie house or, except for a few outmoded crystal sets, a single radio -- its residents' interest in each other, and particularly in the fall of its most famous resident into ruin, was unusually intense. Sam Johnson became, in a remarkably short time, a figure of ridicule, as if Johnson City had been eager to turn against a man whose views -- on Darwin, on Prohibition -- violated deeply held beliefs. He didn't run for re-election, and he probably wouldn't have won anyway. A potential opponent coined a saying: 'Sam Johnson is a mighty smart man. But he's got no sense.' The remark was first delivered at a political barbe­cue. Everyone roared. The interests in Austin made sure Sam didn't get a state sinecure: the only job he could find at first was a two-dollar-a-day post as a state game warden.

"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. He couldn't pay what he owed to the local merchants, and he and his wife and children had to walk every day past stores whose owners were writ­ing 'Please!' on the bills they sent every month; they had cut him off from fur­ther credit, so that he had to shop -- and to run up bills which he also couldn't pay -- in other towns. A remark made by the Johnson City druggist soon gained wide circulation: 'Sam Johnson,' the druggist said, 'is too smart to work, and not smart enough to make a living without working.' His wife's education (she was the only woman in the area with a college degree) and 'pretensions' (her inability, for example, to work in the fields like other Hill Country wives) now made her almost a joke, too. And the children of Sam and Rebekah shared in their 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.' The Johnsons were, for the rest of Lyndon's boy­hood, the laughingstocks of Johnson City."


Robert A. Caro


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2012 by Robert A. Caro, Inc.


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