From Zoë Triska, Huffington Post: The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of Robert Caro's fourth volume on Lyndon B. Johnson, "The Passage of Power." It has been more than a decade since Caro's last book on Johnson came out. "The Passage of Power" was released today and published by Knopf.
When he was young–seventeen and eighteen years old–Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren’t paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.
With little mechanical equipment available, the road was being built almost entirely by hand, and his job, when he wasn’t half of a pick-and-shovel team with Ben Crider, a burly friend–six years older–from Johnson City, was “driving” a “fresno,” a heavy two-handled metal scoop with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. Standing behind the scoop, between its handles, as the mules strained forward to force the scoop through the hard Hill Country caliche soil, he would push as they pulled. Since he needed a hand for each handle, the reins were tied together and wrapped around his back, so for this work–hard even for older men; for a tall, skinny, awkward teenager, it was, the other men recall, “backbreaking labor,” “too heavy” for Lyndon–Lyndon Johnson was, really, in harness with the mules. But at lunch hour each day, as the gang sat eating–in summer in whatever shade they could find as protection from the blazing Hill Country sun, in winter huddled around a fire (it would get so cold, Crider recalls, that “you had to build a fire to thaw your hands before you could handle a pick and shovel . . . build us a fire and thaw and work all day”)–Lyndon would, in the words of another member of the gang, “talk big” to the older men. “He had big ideas. . . . He wanted to do something big with his life.” And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: “I’m going to be President of the United States one day,” he predicted.
Poverty and backbreaking work–clearing cedar on other men’s farms for two dollars a day, or chopping and picking cotton: on your hands and knees all day beneath that searing sun–were woven deep in the fabric of Lyndon Johnson’s youth, as were humiliation and fear: he was coming home at night to a house to which other Johnson City families brought charity in the form of cooked dishes because there was no money in that house to buy food; to a house on which, moreover, his family was having such difficulty paying the taxes and mortgage that they were afraid it might not be theirs much longer. But woven into it also was that prediction.
In many ways, his whole life would be built around that prediction: around a climb toward that single, far-off goal. As a young congressman in Washington, he was careful not to mention that ambition to the rising young New Dealers with whom he was allying himself, but they were aware of it anyway. James H. Rowe Jr., Franklin Roosevelt’s aide, who spent more time with Johnson than the others, says, “From the day he got here, he wanted to be President.” When old friends from Texas visited him, sometimes his determination burst out of him despite himself, as if he could not contain it. “By God, I’ll be President someday!” he exclaimed one evening when he was alone with Welly Hopkins. And an incident in 1940 showed the Texans how much he wanted the prize he sought, how much he was willing to sacrifice to attain it.
Lack of money had been the cause of so many of the insecurities of his youth, and his election to Congress, far from soothing those fears, had seemed only to intensify them: he talked incessantly about how his father, who had been an elected official himself–a six-term member of the Texas House of Representatives–had ended up as a state bus inspector, and had died penniless; he didn’t want to end up like his father, he said. He talked about how he kept seeing around Washington former congressmen who had lost their seats–as, he said, he would inevitably one day lose his–and were working in low-paying, demeaning jobs; over and over again he related how once, while he was riding in an elevator in the Capitol, the elevator operator had told him that he had been a congressman. Hungry for money, he had already started accepting, indeed soliciting, financial favors from businessmen who wanted favors from him, and had been pleading with two important businessmen–George R. Brown of the Texas contracting firm of Brown & Root and the immensely wealthy Austin publisher, real estate magnate and oilman Charles Marsh–to “find” him a business in which he could make a little money of his own. So when, one autumn day in 1940, the three men–Johnson, Brown and Marsh–were vacationing together at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, lying on a blanket in front of their adjoining cottages, and Marsh offered Lyndon Johnson a business in which he could make a lot of money, the two businessmen were sure the congressman would accept it. Marsh, who, in Brown’s words, “loved Lyndon like a son,” told him he could have his share in a lucrative oilfield partnership, a share worth three-quarters of a million dollars, without even putting up any money; he could “pay for it out of his profits each year.” To the surprise of both men, however, Johnson said that he would have to think about the offer–and after a week he turned it down. “I can’t be an oilman,” he said; if the public knew he had oil interests, “it would kill me politically.”