LET'S REMINISCE: When Lyndon Johnson arrived in Washington

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

I’ve been reading a excellent biography of Lyndon Johnson, and the chapter about the start of his career in Washington is especially interesting. Relying on personal anecdotes and candid interviews, Doris Kearns Goodwin was able to obtain detailed background for her biography “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” (1977).

LBJ’s political career began in 1931 when Richard Kleberg, who was heir to the King Ranch, was elected to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives, and he appointed Johnson to serve as his legislative secretary. Johnson rode a train for two days through the states of the old Confederacy toward Washington, where he would, with one short break, spend the next thirty-seven years.

The day after his arrival he moved into the Dodge hotel, where he would have frequent contact with the 75 other congressional secretaries living in the same building. Before he had even unpacked his suitcase, he was walking up and down the hall, knocking on doors, shaking hands, and sharing his life story and future plans. One bathroom at the end of the corridor served all the tenants on the long floor, and that first night he went in and out four times and took four showers in order to talk to as many people as possible. The next morning he went into the bathroom five different times at ten minute intervals to wash his face and brush his teeth so that he could talk to more people.

Within a week Johnson had chosen five young men whom he regarded as the most clever, most experienced and the most informed to be his “teachers” as he figured out how the Congress worked. His every conversation became a planned interview in which he probed, questioned, and directed the discussion toward his ends.

And while people were the main source of his education, he also read the three daily newspapers of Washington of that era, as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the local Texas papers. Every evening he put together a packet of night reading, including the daily Congressional Record, copies of pending bills, pamphlets, booklets, newsletters of various organizations and committee reports. He relaxed in bed with a sheaf of government documents in the same way that others relax with a good mystery novel.

Kleberg had little interest in performing the day-to-day duties of a Congressman, instead delegating them to Johnson. After Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election, Johnson became a staunch supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal. Johnson was soon elected speaker of the "Little Congress," a group of Congressional aides, where he cultivated Congressmen, newspapermen, and lobbyists. Johnson's friends soon included aides to President Roosevelt as well as fellow Texans such as Vice President John Nance Garner and Congressman Sam Rayburn.

One of Johnson’s fellow Congressional secretaries, Arthur Perry, summed up Johnson’s quick study of Congress: “This skinny boy was as green as anybody could be, but within a few months he knew how to operate in Washington better than some who had been here 20 years.”

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.