Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960

By Robert Dallek | Go to book overview

1
The Heritage

FROM Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, the image of the selfmade man has effectively served occupants of the White House. All who could, made much of their rags to riches odyssey. "When I was young, poverty was so common we didn't know it had a name," Lyndon Johnson often said. A poor boy in a remote Texas town isolated from the mainstream of early twentieth-century American life, he grew up without indoor plumbing or electricity and sometimes made do on a bare subsistence diet. The rural small towns in which he received his elementary, secondary, and college schooling did little to broaden his horizons.

Yet Lyndon came to maturity believing he was special--a young man destined for exceptional things. And he was. Fueled by his early poverty, his ambition, like Lincoln's, "was a little engine that knew no rest." It helped carry him to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the vice presidency and the White House. But ambition alone did not give him the wherewithal, the inner confidence, to imagine himself in the Congress or the Oval Office. His family history gave initial stirrings to such dreams. In one of the many paradoxes that would shape his life, Lyndon was not simply an impoverished farm boy who made good, but the offspring of prominent southern families. Although he suffered painful self-doubts throughout his life, his heritage was a constant source of belief in a birthright to govern and lead. Stories told by his parents and grandparents about famous, influential ancestors were a mainstay of his early years. From the first, he thought of himself not as a poor boy consigned to a life of hardship, but as an heir of Johnsons and Buntons, Baineses and Huffmans, men and women who commanded the respect of their contemporaries and shaped public affairs.

A Texas journalist remembers how Lyndon "reveled in stories of Johnsons and Baineses who'd fought marauding Indians, of old uncles who drove cattle up the famous trails, of a hardy pioneer spirit in his

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