Lessons from Lyndon Johnson

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Books / lessonsfrom / Monday

Welcome to the last week of A Summer of Learning! I’ll write more of a wrap up post later in the week but I just wanted to say how thankful I am to those who have followed me on this blog through the summer.

But before we bid goodbye, we still have this week! Today’s post is a combined post for Monday and Tuesday. This is because I learned about the person (I talk about lessons from people on Monday) – President Lyndon Johnson – from a series of books (Books are on Tuesday) by Robert Caro. I’ll make sure that the post is meatier than usual to compensate for this. 

If I were to write a book like Words I wish I wrote, I am convinced that about 50% of it would be covered by phrases from Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. They are easily the best books I have ever read.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born to one of the poorest families in a town that belonged to one of the poorest parts of the US. But even as a kid, as he was working on paving one of the first roads coming into his native Texan Hill Country, he would tell his friends and co-workers: “By God I’ll be President one day!” It’s difficult to plot the path on the political ladder with an end goal that requires so many variables outside your control. But Lyndon Johnson plotted that path.

And he reached the top.

In his hungry grab for power, he left in his wake lessons that all of us should be aware of. Let’s dive into them.

Ends and Means

Perhaps the question that comes to my mind the most while reading the series is this: What do I think about Lyndon Johnson?

On one hand, he did a lot for the country and it’s people. On the national level, he is perhaps the most pivotal figure inside the government (MLK being the most pivotal outside of it) that rammed through the series of Civil Rights legislation in the decades after World War II in his roles as the Senate Majority Leader and later as the President. In doing this, he did what Kennedy couldn’t despite a Harvard education and far better rhetoric. On a local level, he brought electrification to the most desolate parts of west Texas. As a school teacher on the Texas–Mexico border, he taught the poorest children and insisted that they learn English. He stayed day after day after school ended – with no obvious political or financial gain to be had – to cultivate these children of day laborers. Lyndon Johnson, in other words, cared.

But on the other hand, he probably stole most of the elections he won as a Congressman and Senator. He lubricated the wheels of politics with corporate money at a scale not seen at the time and was in many ways a pioneer of expensive corporate-financed campaigns. He treated his wife like a member of his staff, constantly berating her in front of friends and family. He didn’t have an ideology – except that of unbridled personal ambition. He emotional manipulated men in power into believing that he believed whatever they believed. He used his political position to influence the sale of radio spectrum in Texas – spectrum that he bought to enrich himself. That’s quite a long rap sheet – even if you ignore the disasters that was the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Historical figures often have a complicated legacy but I think the idea that you should whatever is necessary to gain power with which you can then help people is not entirely convincing to me. But if LBJ was not President, we almost certainly would not have seen the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted into law.

Of course, there is no right answer to this. It is a deeply personal decision and one that changes from scenario to scenario. But it is important to be cognizant of one’s place on this spectrum of ends and means as it’s easy to keep going on a nefarious path if you convince yourself it’s for a greater good. More often than not, the greater good is just a mask for something more selfish. Taking a big picture of this spectrum also might allow opportunities to see if there is a way to align the ends and means so that they are not in conflict.

Being a professional son

One of the qualities that allowed Lyndon Johnson to level up in the game of politics was his ability to identify the networks of power and get to their main nodes. In college, he became the college president’s assistant after writing a flattering article about him in the college newspaper. When the college president would talk to students in an informal setting, LBJ would be at his feet, listening earnestly. It was this over the top deference that earned him the nickname “professional son.”

And his career as a professional son didn’t end in college.

When he was a Congressman in the House, he became a mentee to the Speaker of House and fellow Texan Sam Rayburn. Sam Rayburn was the seat of power in the House but was lonely and wished that he had “a towheaded boy to take fishing.” A fleeting marriage aside, he was extremely lonely. LBJ capitalized on this loneliness. He started inviting Rayburn to his house for meals on weekends – days when Sam Rayburn was even more lonely than usual because he was not at the Capitol. With help from his wife, he became a professional son again. Rayburn – a person who didn’t help anyone if it clashed with his integrity – helped Johnson no matter the ethical dilemmas.

In the Senate, he again recognized that “Richard (Dick) Russell was the power”. Dick Russell was the senior Senator from Georgia, a member on key Senate committee like Appropriations and Armed Services, and a leader of the Southern bloc – a group of Confederacy states. LBJ schemed to get on the Armed Services committee in order to spend more time with Russell. Dick Russell had the same problem that Sam Rayburn had – he had no sons or family. So, the Johnsons became his family and Lyndon Johnson became his son. It was due to Russell that LBJ became Senate Majority leader before the end of his first term in Senate – a feat that is astonishing in a Senate where seniority (time spent in the Senate) was the only criteria by which you got powerful positions.

I think most of the readers are not one to suck up to someone just to get their help. But there are less nefarious lessons to be learned from LBJ’s tactics. One would be to identity the sources of power in an organization and try to learn from them to fast track your learning. Another is to identity what people lack in their lives and try to fulfill those desires. This doesn’t have to be in a selfish way – it could take the form of complimenting someone on a characteristic that you know they are conscious and not 100% confident about.

This is a lesson that can turn into a slippery slope really quickly so again, it’s important to keep in mind where one is the slope and not cross lines you are not okay with crossing.

End goal as a decision-making tool

When you have a clear idea of where you want to be in life, it becomes much easier to use that as a filter for decision-making. It boils down everything to a simple question: “Does this help me achieve my final goal?” If yes, do it. If no, don’t do it.

Lyndon Johnson’s ultimate goal was to be the President of the United States. With this in mind, he knew what he had to do. Became a Congressman, then become a Senator, then run for President. He ultimately had to run as a Vice-Presidential candidate on the Kennedy-Johnson ticket because the country was not ready to elect a Southern President (not until George Bush senior would that be a thing). But he knew the steps to take because he knew the end goal.

He also knew what steps to avoid. When he was a member of the House of Representatives, a friend of his offered a dirt-cheap deal on an oil farm in Texas, he refused because “it would kill him politically.” He had only ran elections in Texas until then, and even if he ran for the Senate, being an oilman in Texas would hardly put a dent in his campaign. It was then that his friends realized the true scale of his ambition.

It’s difficult to admire Lyndon Johnson. It’s even more difficult to dismiss him. He was a pivotal President who would be remembered as the greatest leader of the liberal public since Lincoln were it not for the dark spectre of Vietnam. During the toughest periods of the Vietnam War, there were thousands of protestors outside The White House who would chant, “Hey hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Even after his Presidency when he moved to the Johnson Ranch in Texas, he would speak of “that terrible song.” But the ability to define an audacious goal when you are a nobody, and work towards that goal, chipping away at it bit by bit, is inspiring indeed.





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  1. Pingback: Best of the blog – A Summer of Learning

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