My favorite books have been about Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president. I’ve just completed author Robert Caro’s fourth book on LBJ: “The Passage of Power.” I’ve read all four of Caro’s books.
My fascination with LBJ stems from spending two years in Johnson City, Texas, as editor of the small town’s newspaper.
First, a little history lesson: Johnson City wasn’t named after LBJ. It was named after James Polk Johnson, a nephew of LBJ’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson.
Caro’s latest book deals with LBJ’s years as vice president and his ascension to president following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Johnson was elected president in 1964 with an overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater. LBJ died in 1973.
I was working at the Del Rio News-Herald in 1981 when the former publisher (the paper was sold) asked me to become editor of a newspaper he and his partners had just purchased — the Johnson City Record Courier. Johnson City then had a population of fewer than 1,000 residents.
The small town, located 50 miles west of Austin, is nestled in Texas’ Hill Country. My wife, Marilyn, was able to land a teaching job at LBJ High School (yes, the school was named after the former president).
We lived just outside of town during the first year, and then moved into the city after our first son, Lee, was born. Our house was within walking distance of LBJ’s boyhood home. Marilyn used to take Lee to the home and rock him to sleep on a porch swing.
As editor, I was able to meet some people who knew LBJ — including his cousin, Ava, who is quoted in Caro’s book. My best connection to the former president, though, came from a friendship I developed with a supervisor for the National Park Service.
Bob Hoff was in charge of bus tours of the LBJ ranch located in Stonewall, Texas, about 15 miles from Johnson City. Before work, I would jog on a dirt path just down the road from my office. Each morning, I would see another jogger on the same trail.
One day, we stopped to talk and a friendship was developed. Hoff and I spent considerable time talking about LBJ. He was, of course, well-versed on the history of LBJ.
One day, Hoff surprised me. He told me that Marilyn and I were invited to a dinner being hosted by former first lady Lady Bird Johnson. The dinner was in honor of a visit to the ranch by the director of the National Park Service.
We ate in the ranch’s airplane hangar, the same place that LBJ hosted a state barbecue dinner for the chancellor of Germany shortly after taking over as president in 1963.
I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember being introduced to Lady Bird Johnson. She was the perfect host. I even got up enough nerve to ask her if she would write a column for the Record-Courier. She smiled and politely told me that she wouldn’t be able to, as she was about to embark on a trip to China.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Caro was in Johnson City doing research for his book when I was editor of the Record Courier. I’m not sure I could have offered him any relevant information, but it would have been nice to meet him.
Caro doesn’t pull any punches in his book. Part of the book is devoted to the dislike LBJ and Robert F. Kennedy — JFK’s brother — had for each other. LBJ, of course, was able to get the Civil Rights Act passed, legislation that was first proposed by JFK but stalled in Congress. LBJ, who had been the Senate leader before becoming vice president, was able to prod Congress into passing this important legislation.
Unfortunately, LBJ’s stature was hindered by the Vietnam War. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” became the words that many remember him by.
LBJ decided not to seek re-election in 1964. He chose to spend the rest of his life on his ranch.
I like to remember him for his “Great Society” legislation and his compassion for those less fortunate.