The first time I was in the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum was 1977, shortly after I moved to Austin. I was 25, a full-time student at the University of Texas and a part-time employee of a typing service. One day, the typing service got a contract to transcribe oral history tapes in the LBJ Library. I was one of the typists chosen to do the work.
Every day after classes I would walk across campus to the tall white library. The first thing you would hear as you entered was the voice of Lyndon B. Johnson himself. It emanated from two kiosks on the second level where videos of his speeches played continuously. If you were inside one of the kiosks, or nearby, you could understand what he was saying. But, if you were anywhere else in the building, you would hear the sounds from both sources at once, mixing together and echoing—Johnson's voice familiar, but the words and phrases themselves mostly unintelligible, surreal, as if you were trapped inside Johnson's brain, listening to his dream talk.
I worked on the top floor where this weird sonic jumble did not reach. But that did not mean it was safe from Johnson's voice. As soon as you stepped off the elevator, you would hear him again, this time coming from the Oval Office replica down the hall.
The replica had been built to serve as Johnson's office at the library. To make him feel more at home, he wanted it to be exactly like the Oval Office, with all the furniture, paintings, and bric-a-brac from the original office installed in the replica. Johnson did not use the office long. Two years after the library's opening, he died, after which the office became an exhibit, open to the public. Visitors could push a button by the door that started an audio tape of Johnson describing each object in the room and its meaning to him, as well as offering his thoughts on the majesty of the office, the loneliness of the office, and so forth.
It was a long tape that tested one’s attention span, with the result that most visitors would walk away before it ended, leaving Johnson to drone on for long stretches of time with no audience to benefit from his wisdom.
One night, after I had been working in this environment for several months, I had one of those dreams you have when you first fall asleep—short, but vividly realistic. In the dream, I was walking down the hall towards the Oval Office replica. As usual, I could hear Johnson's voice droning on and on. Also, as usual, there was no audience. But one thing was different. When I walked up to the office door, I saw the rotting corpse of Lyndon Johnson seated at his desk.
I awoke bolt upright in bed, and ever afterwards whenever I was at the library walking down that hallway—especially if I was alone—I would avert my eyes as I passed the office and quicken my step.
I worked at the library for about a year. It was easy work, and interesting. I would cue up the tapes on a reel-to-reel player, put on a pair of headphones, and, working a foot pedal to rewind, pause and fast-forward, transcribe interviews that had been conducted with people who had known Johnson at different times of his life.
Most of the interviewees spoke glowingly of him. Even those who were critical of him—Kennedy staffers, most notably—went to some pains to soften their criticism and try to find something nice to say. And yet, despite everyone's best efforts, what emerged from this Citizen Kane-style composite of interviews was not pretty. It was not said in so many words—in fact, was left entirely unsaid—but nothing could obscure the picture: Lyndon Johnson was an overbearing, coarse, ruthless, sociopathic, low-life, power-mad monster. Yes, he was a consummate politician, therefore could charm people when he had to, but the mask could easily slip, and often did. Nowhere is this more vividly documented than in a photo taken during the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign. Here we see an out-of-control Johnson angrily reacting to a heckler while Kennedy tries to restrain him.
Johnson lacked the very rudiments of couth. For instance, time and again, in the interviews I transcribed, people would describe him as a "fast eater" who, if you were unlucky enough to be seated next to him at dinner, would finish his plate before you had so much as lifted your fork and with a quick “you-don’t-want-that-do-you?” begin working on yours. In fact, no place at the table was safe from him. His long arms would be reaching all over the table, leaving many a person hungry.
Another bad habit of his was to dictate letters and conduct meetings while seated on the toilet. Also, if he happened to be near the White House swimming pool, he would suddenly strip naked, no matter who was present, and jump in. His apologists defend these behaviors as harmless eccentricities, a charming earthiness in his character. This earthiness, however, would also cause him to do things less charming, such as fondle women in front of other people, including his wife, Lady Bird.
And these weren't even his worst traits. He was also a bully. In one of the oral histories, I recall a reporter describing an incident in which a drunken Vice President Johnson followed him around at a Washington party all evening, angrily haranguing him about something he had written. The harangue only ended when the man fled the party.
And everyone had stories to tell about Johnson's famous techniques of persuasion: his big face only inches from his victim's, talking, begging, pleading, imploring, threatening, while his hands worked constantly, grabbing an arm, grabbing a lapel, jabbing the chest, grabbing and jabbing and moving ever closer with no regard for social distance, until the victim agreed to whatever Johnson wanted.
These are animal behaviors. Animals defecate in public, for instance, and mate in public, without the least concern for who might see. Also, alpha males of many species engage in various behaviors to assert their dominance. The ape showing its genitals, for instance, has its human counterpart in Johnson stripping in front of everyone for an impromptu skinny-dip. His haranguing the reporter or shouting and gesturing at the heckler also correspond to primate aggression displays. Apes also assert their dominance by mounting their fellow apes, a behavior different only by degree from Johnson's violation of social distance and grabbing and jabbing.
Once, during one of his early congressional campaigns, Johnson and three aides drove through a blinding Texas blizzard to the home of a wealthy rancher they hoped would contribute to the campaign. They spent the night with the rancher who like many old-time Texas country folk kept his house unheated on winter nights, causing it to be very cold in the morning.
Before daylight, Johnson's aides were awake, dressed, and ready for another long drive to the next appointment. But there was a problem with Johnson: he wouldn’t get out of bed.
"It's too cold," he said. "I cain't get up."
Very unlike Johnson, who usually was up before anyone else.
His aides began trying to persuade him to get up. It was important, they told him, that they get on the road as soon as possible to keep the next appointment. But he would not budge.
Finally, he said, "I need body warmth."
What he meant by this was that one of his aides should climb under the covers with him to provide the body warmth. This was immediately done. The chosen aide sheepishly shucked off his shoes and got into bed. Johnson then wrapped himself around the aide and rubbed against him until he felt warm enough to get out of bed.
This is a true story, straight from one of the oral histories I transcribed—a story which I have often wondered about. It is possible, of course, that Johnson really needed body warmth and might have died for lack of it. But, given his animalistic urge to dominate, I have to wonder if something more was going on.
These are not the only bad habits of Lyndon Johnson. There is another, and it is the ugliest of all. As a young man, he is known to have tortured and killed a dog, on another occasion a mule—incidents described in Blood, Power, and Money, the book written by Johnson's lawyer, Barr McClellan, who points out that, though the information is readily available to researchers in the LBJ Library, it has for some reason been ignored by scholars—even by the critically acclaimed, usually meticulous Johnson biographer Robert Caro. This omission is unfortunate, as it obscures the one most essential thing to know about Johnson—that he was a killer.
It is a fact of criminal psychology that children who torture and kill animals for recreation do not respect life in general and frequently grow up to kill human beings. This was Johnson's destiny. However, as an adult, Johnson did not have to dirty his own hands with these killings; he could send his own personal hit man Mac Wallace to do the job.
One of Johnson and Wallace's earliest victims was Department of Agriculture inspector Henry Marshall, who in the early 1960s was investigating Billy Sol Estes' cotton allotment schemes. This investigation was leading straight to Estes' partner in crime, then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, when Marshall suddenly died.
The death was ruled a suicide, albeit an unusual one. According to the evidence, Marshall first beat himself unconscious, then attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his pickup, stuck the other end in his mouth, asphyxiating himself, then crawled away, picked up his rifle, and fired several shots into his own dead body. Most remarkable, but not true.
In 1984, the true story emerged. In grand jury testimony for which he had been granted immunity, Estes described a 1961 meeting between himself, Johnson, Cliff Carter, and Mac Wallace, during which the Marshall problem was discussed. Johnson concluded the meeting by telling Wallace, "Get rid of him."
As a result of Estes' 1984 testimony, Marshall's death certificate was changed to read, "Cause of death—murder by gunshot."
Estes detailed other Johnson murders carried out by Wallace. One victim was Johnson's sister, Josefa, whose involvement in late-night sex orgies in Austin's Zilker Park had long worried Johnson. It was just a matter of time, Johnson feared, before the vice squad raided the park and a scandal erupted that would destroy his career. He solved the problem by sending Wallace to murder the hosts of these sex parties. Josefa continued to be a problem, however, leading to her own murder years later.
Another Johnson victim, according to Estes, was President John F. Kennedy.
In Blood, Power, and Money, McClellan presents evidence linking Johnson to the Kennedy assassination. Mac Wallace's fingerprints, for instance, were found on a box on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. McClellan also traces the money trail from Texas oil barons Clint Murchison and H. L. Hunt, who financed the assassination, to Johnson lawyer Ed Clark, who organized it.
The assassination, it seems, was necessary to save Johnson's political career. The federal investigations of the criminal activities of Billy Sol Estes and Bobby Baker were leading straight to Johnson, with growing speculation that Johnson would be dropped from the 1964 presidential ticket, and even worse, face indictment and prison. His only hope of escaping this disaster was to kill Kennedy and assume the office of the presidency. As president, he would have the power to stop these investigations—which is exactly what happened.
On the day of the assassination, Don Reynolds, a Bobby Baker associate, gave sworn testimony to the Senate Rules Committee describing a $100,000 payoff to Johnson for his role in securing a $7 billion defense contract for General Dynamics to develop the TFX fighter plane. The moment news of Kennedy’s shooting was announced, Reynolds’ testimony was terminated and never resumed. Also, one of Johnson's first acts as president was to halt further investigations into the l Estes matter. Attorney General Robert Kennedy's investigation of Mob figures such as Carlos Marcello, another Johnson crony believed to have been involved in the assassination, came to an end as well.
It would, however, be an over-simplification to say that the killing of Kennedy was solely Johnson's idea, or that its sole purpose was to save his political career. Other men besides Johnson had much to lose by the continuation of Kennedy's presidency, and much to gain by his death.
Kennedy had eliminated the oil depletion allowance, signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, begun withdrawing troops from Vietnam, refused to go along with Pentagon projects such as Operation Northwoods, made known his intention to destroy the CIA, and signed Executive Order 11110, ending the power of the Federal Reserve to loan money to the government at interest. With each new transgression against the power structure, Kennedy was costing too many men too much money, and greatly curtailing their power. As a result, there began to be talk within the military-industrial complex and among international bankers that Kennedy should be eliminated and replaced by their man, Johnson.
Johnson owed his entire career to his biggest supporter, the Austin-based construction company Brown and Root. In return for the company’s support, he always looked out for its interests, securing it lucrative federal contracts over the years. With the Vietnam War on the horizon, Brown and Root and other military-industrial contractors stood to make huge profits—all of which was threatened by the direction the Kennedy administration was going. With the Kennedys pushing the investigations of Johnson behind the scenes and preparing to dump him in '64, it was clear what the future held for these companies if they did not act in Johnson's interests. His interests were theirs.
So Kennedy was killed, Johnson became president, the war in Vietnam went on as planned, and today the LBJ Library looms over the University of Texas campus as a sort of monument to the assassination.
I worked at the library for about a year. After that, I went back once to take my daughter there for a school assignment, but otherwise never went inside again, though I live in Austin and drive past often.
Then one day a few years ago, I went there to see a special exhibit on Lewis and Clark. My daughter, now grown, was with me. Before touring the exhibit, we went into the main hall to look at the Johnson exhibits. There we found none other than Johnson's daughter Luci Baines conducting a tour for a group of church ladies. They had just reached the display dealing with the Kennedy years.
We attached ourselves to the group and listened. Luci Baines described her father's relationship with President Kennedy. "It's true they had their disagreements," she said, "but my father always had the highest respect for John F. Kennedy. Theirs was a great friendship, and a great working relationship."
"Except for the time he had Kennedy killed," I whispered to my daughter.
We left Luci Baines to see the Lewis and Clark exhibit. On the way we passed one of the kiosks where the Johnson speech videos used to play. There was a sign that read "The Humor of LBJ."
"Let's look at that," I said.
We stepped inside the kiosk, but to my surprise, the video screens were gone and in their place was a life-size mannequin of Lyndon Johnson, dressed in a cowboy outfit and leaning on a wooden fence holding a lasso, sort of Will Rogers-like.
It appeared to be some kind of Disneyland-style robot, or audio-animatronic as they’re called, but it was perfectly still and not saying anything.
Was it broke? Or was there a button to turn it on? I looked, but didn’t see a button. Then I noticed two empty chairs facing the robot. As an experiment, I sat down in one of them. It worked! The moment my buttocks hit the chair, a spotlight lit up LBJ and he came alive. My daughter sat down beside me and we began experiencing the Humor of LBJ.
The robot began lip-syncing to audio tapes of the real LBJ telling funny stories, the kind of anecdotes that are told at after-dinner speeches. The mouth movements were accompanied by robotic hand gestures. Sometimes the head would turn, too, causing the LBJ robot to look you right in the eye for a moment, with creepy effect. The intent, no doubt, was to simulate life-like movement, but the stiffness and unnaturalness of these movements instead only made it seem more robotic. It also had a dead look, reminding me of my dream from decades earlier—the one in which I saw Johnson's corpse in the Oval Office replica upstairs. I shuddered.
The Humor of LBJ went on. And on. And on. And on and on. The robot seemed to have an endless supply of anecdotes. He might have gone on telling them for hours, but we decided to give him a rest.
We stood up. The spotlight went off. The robot froze and fell silent in mid-sentence.
"If only it had been that easy to shut him up in the Sixties," I said.