UP NOLAN CREEK: Larger than life
Sunday, 29 April 2012 by WAYNE CARPENTER
Growing up in the 1950's and 60's, one Texan's name frequently appeared in the headlines. The man was Lyndon Baines Johnson, from Johnson City, Texas. He served as a United States congressman, senator (the youngest and one of the most powerful men ever to serve as senate majority leader), and after an unsuccessful attempt to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 1960 was chosen by John Kennedy as his vice-presidential running mate. In November of 1963, he became the 36th president of the United States after Kennedy's assassination. Lyndon Johnson, love him or not, was always in the news. There is an often over-used phrase describing someone as "larger than life", but in the case of LBJ, it may actually be an understatement.
I had the honor of meeting President Johnson once and have enjoyed reading about his life and career over the years. For those of you who don't remember, LBJ grew up in the rural Texas Hill Country before it became an upscale mecca for retirees and tourists. In the era before the development of the chain of lakes along the Colorado River, many rural residents of the Hill Country did not have access to electricity. Bluebonnets and scenic vistas are wonderful, but they did little to relieve the economic hardship of many residents during Johnson's boyhood years. He attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College and then taught in a poverty- stricken school in rural south Texas before beginning his rise to power and fame. Those first-hand experiences with poverty greatly impacted his political philosophy.
My interest in Johnson clearly pales in comparison to the biographer Robert Caro. If you are not familiar with his writing, Caro is a Pulitzer Prize winning author who has spent many of his 76 years researching and writing about political power. Caro's books explain the hidden secrets of how political power is obtained and how it is exercised, both for good and evil, and more often, how grasping and wielding power summons both the best and the worst of human nature. Caro began writing about Lyndon Johnson in 1976. According to a recent article in the New York Times, he thought the project would probably take him six years and three volumes to do his subject justice. Now 36 years later, his fourth book about Johnson, The Passage of Power, covering LBJ's career from 1958 through 1964, will it bookstores in May. He is hard at work on yet another volume that will examine the last years of LBJ's life. Caro's books are not slim essays; they are fat onions of books that allow the reader to peel back layer after layer of the life and career of one the most complex personalities of any American historical figure. Caro's books are well written and meticulously researched and documented, and his depiction of Johnson's political life story is truly of Shakespearean proportions, full of triumph and tragedy.
Shortly after leaving the office of the Presidency, Johnson visited Belton for a dedication ceremony at Mary Hardin-Baylor College. As a history student, I was very excited about an opportunity to meet the man that I had observed through television and print news on an almost daily basis since boyhood. By this stage of his life he was in very poor health from a heart condition. He left office in January of 1969, four years later he died at the age of 64. His appearance was unlike the man I thought I knew from television and news photos. Instead of the larger-than-life wheeler-dealer who had been the most powerful man in the world, he seemed a shadow of my mind's image. He still stood tall, with famously big ears and hands, but he now seemed frail and subdued. Almost bald but with thin, white hair hanging down over the back of his collar, it was as though the strains of the presidency and the pain of the Vietnam War had drained from him the great strength he had displayed over the years. It was a beautiful day on campus, and I had shaken the hand of Lyndon B. Johnson. It was an experience that I will always remember, but as I drove away that morning, somehow I recall feeling slightly more saddened than elated.