When he was twelve years old, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed to some friends, ‘Someday, I’m going to be president of the United States. The other children said they wouldn’t vote for him, to which he replied, ‘I won’t need your votes, as if he already knew how to steal elections. As a young man in his early twenties during his college years, he would go to Saturday-night dances dressed in a bright shirt, his hair combed into an elaborate pompadour, where he would strut around and tell anyone who would listen that he was going to be the president of the United States one day—an ambition repeated numerous times to others and no doubt thousands more to himself, as he grew older. In college, he told a fellow student, ‘Politics is a science, and if you work hard enough at it, you can be president. I’m going to be president.2 Another time, Lyndon broke up with his girlfriend, Carol Davis, because her father detested the entire Johnson family. Her father forbade her to marry into ‘that no-account Johnson family, saying, ‘Everyone in Blanco County knew that Lyndon’s grandfather Sam had been ‘nothing but an old cattle rustler—one generation after another of shiftless dirt farmers and grubby politicians.’ Johnson retorted, ‘To hell with your daddy. I wouldn’t marry you or anyone in your whole damned family… And you can tell your daddy that someday I’ll be president of this country. Eventually, securing the presidency became a deeply ingrained obsession.
Given the poverty of his family and his nominal education, he would have to explore every possible way to achieve his goal; he would not need the conventional path as long as he could use other, quasi-constitutional, means. Even when he was a child, qualified observers saw troubling character traits within him that portended the kind of extralegal methods that would characterize his political life. His grandmother on his mother’s side, Ruth Baines, regarded him as a disobedient delinquent and had considerable skepticism about Lyndon’s future. ‘More than once, Lyndon’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, recalled, ‘she told my folks and anyone else who would listen, ‘That boy is going to wind up in the penitentiary—just mark my words.’4 Lyndon apparently did not disagree with her, saying as he recalled his youth, ‘I was only a hairsbreadth away from going to jail.5 This nascent criminality grew stronger until it was LBJ’s central attribute.
Despite the realities of his impoverished family, Lyndon always liked to portray them as pillars of their community. J. Evetts Haley, a contemporary Texas historian, in 1964 noted Johnson’s ‘genius of warping time and coincidence to his political purpose, citing as one example his frequent exploitation of the community, Johnson City; Johnson claimed it was named after his family, though it was not.6 He would often introduce himself as ‘Lyndon Johnson from Johnson City, his way of implicitly communicating the status accorded to his family for being founders of the town; after he left Texas for Washington, he would use the same technique, yet stretch the lie even further to leave the impression not only that his family founded the town but that they were of some special aristocratic lineage. As Johnson’s most prolific biographer Robert Caro confirmed, if anyone asked Johnson directly whether there was a connection, ‘he would confirm that impression, saying that Johnson City had been founded by his grandfather, a statement that was, of course, not true...
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