The major problem in writing about Lyndon Johnson's early life was his desire for secrecy and concealment. He had a unique talent for it. I don't think many people would have gone to the trouble, as he did, of having pages of his college yearbook, which detailed unsavory episodes in his college career, cut out with a razor blade from hundreds of copies of the yearbook. The nation saw this obsession with secrecy when Johnson was President, but, again, it went all the way back. A young man who worked for him when he was secretary to a congressman had been one of his students when Johnson was a high school teacher, and this man told me that after Johnson went to Washington he would write him the normal letters that a teacher writes back to the kids he has been teaching, but on each letter Johnson would write, "Burn this!" I asked what was in the letters, and he said, "Nothing significant. They were just casual letters, but he always wanted them burned. And he wasn't kidding, because the next time he'd see you the first thing he'd ask was, 'Did you burn those letters?' " I didn't believe that, and I wasn't prepared to put it in my book, until finally this man found a letter with "Burn this!" written on it and showed it to me.
When Ina and I moved up to the Hill Country and people realized that I was there to stay--that I wasn't just one more historian coming through for a month and then going back to write the definitive work on what the Hill Country was like--they started talking more frankly. And they started to tell me the true story of Lyndon Johnson's college career and indeed of his entire youth. It was a story very much different from the one that had been printed in previous biographies and in thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, and for quite some time I really didn't believe what they were telling me. I still remember spending a long afternoon with one of Johnson's college classmates, a man named Henry Kyle, who told me a sordid and amazing story about how Johnson at college had begun stealing elections, about how he won one campus election by using against a young woman what his lieutenants called "blackmail," about how Johnson was so widely mistrusted that he was called by a classmate "a man who just could not tell the truth." I always try to type my interview notes up the same day, so that all the nuances will still be fresh in my mind, but I didn't bother typing this interview because I thought it was probably not true but only the recollections of an envious and embittered college rival. In fact, it turned out to be completely true.
Lyndon Johnson was a great storyteller, vivid and persuasive, and he told stories that were repeated over and over again, in books and articles, thousands of times. He really created his own legend. And the legend isn't true. I'll never forget the day I first found that out for sure. Before that I had been getting a lot of hints about it. Lyndon Johnson died at the age of sixty-four, and when I started my research he would have been only sixty-seven, so most of the people who went to school and college with him and participated in his early career were still alive. Indeed, many of them, when I first arrived in Johnson City, were still living there, some of them on the very same street on which they had grown up.
When I began talking to these people, I would, in an attempt to get more details, more color, repeat the stories that had become the legend of Lyndon Johnson's youth, the legend he had created. At this point I really had no idea that they weren't true. But the people would say, "Well, some of that didn't really happen, you know," or, "Well, there's more to it than that, but I don't want to tell you what it is--you shouldn't tell bad things about a President." I began to get the feeling that something was drastically and basically wrong with the legend, but I didn't really pick up on what they were trying to tell me.
I had already interviewed Lyndon Johnson's brother four or five times, but the interviews were very unproductive, or, to be more exact, they were very unreliable. In the first place, Sam Houston Johnson drank a lot. He also talked with a bravado that made you rather distrustful of what he said. And when I would try to check out the various stories that he told me, too often they weren't true. I decided not to use anything that he had told me. One day, however, perhaps two or three years after I had stopped interviewing him, I met Sam Houston on the streets of Johnson City, and I saw a changed man. During the interim he had had cancer and had had at least one terrible operation. And he had stopped drinking. But more than that, when you talked to him, he was calmer. He had become very religious, and he was just a calmer, more serious kind of man. And I decided to try him again.
Now, the National Park Service has re-created Lyndon Johnson's boyhood home in Johnson City. They've done a very good job of it, according to his relatives, and it looks pretty much the way it did when Lyndon and Sam Houston were growing up. So it was arranged that I would bring Sam there after the tourists had left for the day. And when we were there all alone, I said, "Now, Sam Houston, sit down in your seat at the dinner table." They had this long dining-room table. The three sisters would sit on one side, and Lyndon and Sam would sit on the other, and the father and the mother were at the two ends. And I said, "I want you to re-create for me one of those terrible arguments that your father used to have at this table with Lyndon." I wanted to put him back in his boyhood--to make him remember accurately how things had happened. At first it was very slow going. I'd have to ask, "Well, then, what would your father say?" and then, "What would Lyndon say?" But gradually the inhibitions fell away, and it was no longer necessary for me to say anything. He started talking faster and faster. And finally he was shouting back and forth--the father, for example, shouting, "Lyndon, goddamn it, you're a failure, you'll be a failure all your life." By this time I felt that he was really in the frame to remember accurately, and I said, "Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me all the stories about your brother's boyhood that you told me before, the stories that your brother told all those years, only give me more details." There was this long pause. Then he said, "I can't." I said, "Why not?" And he said, "Because they never happened."
Sam Houston started from the beginning and told me a completely different story of Lyndon Johnson's youth--one that cast an entirely new and different and significant light on that youth, and on the character of this man who became President. And this time, when I went back to the people who were involved in these incidents, they remembered and confirmed them. Lyndon Johnson tried to write his own legend for history, and he almost succeeded. If I hadn't been lucky enough to come along when his brother and his sister and his boyhood companions and his college classmates and early political associates were still alive, that legend would have gone down in history.
In my opinion, America can't fully understand its history without knowing Lyndon Johnson.
-- Robert A. Caro