Paul Prather: LBJ biography has me rethinking the dual nature of all of us

Contributing columnist,Paul PratherJuly 19, 2014 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that we tend to over-simplify people and institutions into simple categories: good or bad.

But in truth, very few people or organizations are starkly one thing or the other.

Real life is more complex. It's likelier for someone or something to be simultaneously good and bad, or somewhere disconcertingly in-between.

Nothing has reinforced this for me more than reading — or, recently, listening to digital audio recordings of — Robert A. Caro's epic four-volume (and counting) biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Born on the Pedernales River in Texas' hill country, Johnson was the son of Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., a state legislator and pie-in-the-sky dreamer who, during his son's boyhood, lost his money and clout, and became a local laughing stock.

Consequently, Lyndon grew up working menial jobs and attended a poor boy's college, Southwest Texas State Teachers' College. For a time he taught Mexican-American kids in a segregated school in isolated Cotulla, Texas.

From early on, he seethed with resentment and unprincipled ambition.

He loathed his father for his failures.

He cynically set out to marry wealth (and eventually succeeded).

He was known among friends and critics as a compulsive liar who couldn't tell the truth even when there was no reason to lie.

In college, he stole an election for president of an inconsequential student club then turned the club into a locus of campus patronage and personal power.

Later he narrowly stole a U.S. Senate seat.

Indeed, his practice of stealing close elections led to one of his more unflattering nicknames, "Landslide Lyndon."

He shamelessly, almost cartoonishly, courted and won the affection of influential mentors, first at college and later in Congress. Among the shrewd leaders he successfully co-opted were FDR and legendary U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Sam Rayburn.

As obsequious as he acted to those whose greater power might benefit him, he proved equally abusive to those he considered inferiors.

He was so cruel to his employees some talented political pros refused to join his staff, and people who did often dissolved into tears and trembled in his presence.

He serially cheated on his devoted, long-suffering wife, Lady Bird, and ridiculed her in front of colleagues and reporters.

During World War II, already a Congressman, he decided for political expediency he must join the armed forces. He pulled every string to avoid combat, then flew on exactly one bomber mission in the Pacific. When Japanese Zeroes attacked his plane, he remained cool. Later, though, he went home and portrayed himself as a war hero.

Throughout his career, he extorted gifts and campaign money from businessmen.

In Congress, he allied himself with the racist Dixiecrats for years, fought integration and threw around the n-word with abandon.

Johnson was a thoroughly egomaniacal, despicable, venal man.

Except when he was wasn't.

In Cotulla, he was said to have been the only white teacher who genuinely cared about his brown students. He spent his own limited money for a book from which he tutored the school's Mexican janitor before and after school.

He claimed to have vowed something to himself after that job: If he ever gained the power to help people of color and the poor, he'd do it.

Despite his past as a Dixiecrat, once he'd ascended to Senate Majority Leader — a post Johnson, a political genius, transformed from a do-nothing job no one else wanted into the Senate's most powerful position — he helped pass the first successful civil rights bill in nearly 100 years.

When thrust into the presidency by President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Johnson emerged from the bloody motorcade in Dallas and assumed the mantle with a steely calm that amazed aides.

Within days, he set about focusing his brilliant gifts for strategy, chicanery and bullying to push for the far-reaching and unpopular Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later to multiply federal aid to the poor with his War on Poverty.

Warned that supporting the Civil Rights Act would waste his new presidential clout on a lost cause, Johnson replied, "Well, hell, what's a presidency for?"

It's almost as if, hidden within the heart of that amoral politician lay a moral core, as if he'd been biding time for 35 years until he found his opportunity to help those kids in south Texas, as well as black people and poor whites such as the Johnsons on the Pedernales.

What can we say of a man such as Lyndon Johnson?

Was he evil? Was he good?

The answer to both is yes.

He was tortured by big demons. He also had visions of giant angels.

Both his sins and his virtues were larger, and were played out in larger arenas, than yours and mine.

Still, in the dual essence of his nature, he was pretty much like us all.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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