150 Years Of The Atlantic December 2006

American Icons

This is the eleventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
April 1982
By Robert A. Caro

In 1982, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Robert A. Caro profiled former President Lyndon Johnson as an uncannily driven twenty-eight-year-old first-time candidate for Congress.

All his adult life, because of the agonies of his youth, the insecurity and shame of growing up poor in the Hill Country, [Johnson] had grasped frantically at every chance to escape that past, no matter how slender. In Washington, and before that, teaching school in Houston and Cotulla, he had worked so feverishly, driven himself so furiously—had whipped himself into the frantic effort that journalists and biographers would describe as the result of “energy” when what lay behind it was really desperation and fear. He wanted, he told aides, to do “everything—everything—possible to succeed, to earn respect, to “be somebody.” As one said, “There was a feeling—if you did everything, you would win.”

The feeling had been reinforced by experience. In each of his jobs, he had done “everything”—had lashed himself into an effort in which, an aide says, “hours made no difference, days made no difference, nights made no difference,” into an effort in which he worked weekday and weekend, day and night. And he had “won,” had made the most of each of those slender chances …

The men who knew Johnson best—who knew best how utterly unsparing of himself he was willing to be—had felt at the start of the campaign that, as [his aide] Gene Latimer put it, “No matter what anyone said, we felt he had a chance, because we knew he would work harder than anyone else.” But even these men had not known how hard he would work …

At the end of a long day of campaigning, the sun would be disappearing behind the hills; the first stars might be out. Or perhaps darkness would already have fallen—the black darkness of Hill Country, unbroken for miles by a single light. Keach [his driver] might have pointed the car back toward Austin; if it was dark, the city would be a glow on the horizon as he sped through the black hills, so tired that he could hardly keep awake, and could think only of falling into his bed. And then Johnson, sitting beside him, rechecking in the fading sunlight or in the light from the dashboard the list of names he had been handed that morning, would realize that somehow they had missed one, that one farm back there in the hills behind them had not been visited. “If that happened,” Keach recalls, “we would go back, no matter how hungry and tired we were, no matter how far it was. Sometimes I could hardly believe we were going back, but we always did.” He would turn the car; they would be heading away from the glow in the sky, back into the hills, back along the highway looking for the mailbox, then along the path the mailbox marked, jouncing through the ruts in the dark. Keach knew how tired his Chief was. But his Chief was portraying a candidate with youth and energy—it was important that voters not see his tiredness. “He would be very fatigued, very,” Keach says. “But he never let a voter see the fatigue.” When they reached the farm at the end of the path, all the farmer would see, in the last rays of daylight or in the glow of a kerosene lamp, as Lyndon Johnson strode toward him, was a face—young, eager, enthusiastic—all alight to see him …

Lyndon Johnson had determined, many years before, the emotion that would govern his life—the emotion that, with “inflexible will,” would be the only emotion that he would allow to govern his life. “It is ambition,” he had written in an editorial in his college newspaper, “that makes of a creature a real man.” Pride, embarrassment, gloating: such emotions could only hinder his progress along the road he saw so clearly before him. They were luxuries in which he would not indulge himself.

Vol. 249, No. 4, pp. 34–89

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