No man wanted more ferociously to be remembered than Lyndon B. Johnson. A metamorphosis had taken place when, in 1955, as majority leader of the Senate, he suffered a serious heart attack. In the months that followed, he fell into a depression so consuming that it appeared he was grieving over his own death. “He’d just sort of lie there,” one aide recalled. “You’d feel that he wasn’t there at all, that there was some representation of Johnson alongside of you, something mechanical. Then one day he got up and he hollered to have somebody come up and give him a shave, and just in a matter of minutes the whole hospital started to click.”
The crucial tonic, it soon became clear, was not administered by the doctors and the nurses, but by the spate of more than 4,000 letters of concern, condolence, and love he had received. They invigorated him as if they’d been life-giving transfusions. During his recovery, Johnson’s New Deal friend Jim Rowe sent him a recently published biography of Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln, as a young man, had suffered an incapacitating depression, he had told friends that he was more than willing to die, but that he had accomplished nothing “to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.” Would “any human being remember that he had lived?” Would anyone remember anything he had done?
Johnson now asked himself a similar set of questions. He had laid the foundation of a substantial fortune, but what purpose did that wealth serve? He had learned to manipulate the legislative machine of the Senate with a deftness without parallel in American history. But to what end? What large and lasting benefit to the people at large had issued from such an accumulation of power? When he returned to the Senate, he rededicated himself to the values that had originally drawn him into public service—the idea that government should be used to help those who needed help: people of color, the elderly, the sick, the undereducated, the ill-housed. He had returned from the crucible of his massive heart attack with a clarified purpose, a deep resolve to move his country forward on a progressive path.