In the Boat with LBJ

Book Review By Steve Labinski

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In the Boat with LBJ LBJ insisted his circle of friends to be dedicated, loyal and hard-working to the point of extremes. LBJ's biographer's cannot help discuss this when reviewing his life and political practices. This is also the main theme of John L. Bullion's new 363-page memoir on our nation's 36th President. Note that In the Boat with LBJ is not a biography - it is a memoir. If you are looking for a more historial, broader treatment, try the biographical series from Robert Caro. But reading this memoir is interesting, because you see some inside verification and fleshing out of stories which are omitted from the larger biographies.

The author's father, J. Waddy Bullion, worked in LBJ's inner circle as one of his tax attorney's for many years. Bullion was also one of the trustees of Johnson's blind trust. Apparantly, folks who worked for Johnson didn't just work for the man. Johnson utilized his own power and personal magnatism to stretch the limits of this relationship to get a product that goes beyond a common working relationship. Bullion uses the experiences of his father, plus other associates to build on this theme throughout the book.

A lot of the stories in the book are related by the author through stories told to him over the years by his own parents. For someone looking for a more scholarly treatment of subjects, this is definately a recurring problem with the book. Many of the stories are hear-say, related through a second or third generation speaker. Many of Bullion's stories are related by word from family and friends with the attitude that naturally they must be true.

Taking Charge
The Johnson White House Tapes
Edited by Michael Beschloss
Series of books containing the edited transcripts from LBJ's private, recorded conversations as President.
Original Texana reviews.
However, the benefit to this is that we receive a very close and detailed portrait of LBJ - almost to the point of TMI (too much information). Bullion relates a story told to him by his aunt of an instance where LBJ drops by their house in Dallas to cool his heels while waiting for his mistress. Yikes! Imagine what future associates of Bill Clinton can relate in their future memoirs.

However, this all turns to the book's advantage. It fills the 363-page book with a wide assortment of topics and stories, many of which readers of the President have never before heard. Buillion recounts how he first met LBJ very briefly when the senator was making a whistle-stop tour through West Texas. The youngster, who was taken to the event by his uncle, who personally knew LBJ, was in awe. Buillion then proceeds to relate colorful stories of Lyndon Johnson's friends in the area, and how growing up in West Texas during the Great Depression shaped their characters.

Once again, I think these conclusions are subjective leaps, however, Bullion's close stories with his personal knowledge of LBJ and the figures of the time do make for an interesting case.

What was Johnson's attitude towards his ethnic hired help? Was he a moral man? What was LBJ's business interests all about anyway? Bullion covers these and many other topics. We see a lot of personal stories involving familiar associates of Johnson, including John Connolly, A. W. Moursand and Walter Jenkins. However, the meat of the book involves LBJ and his relationship, both positive and negative with the Bullion family.

The theme of the book is that everyone in LBJ's circle of employees were in the boat with the man. This boat was captained by LBJ, and everyone in it was expected to follow the captain's instructions to the letter. Bullion relates many stories of LBJ's famous demanding expections of his employees.

The product is a memoir full of many personal stories, and an insight that one cannot get from a straight-forward biography. Bullion focuses largely on the Texas aspect of the man, as opposed to the White House side of his life. For example, we glimpse Johnson's business relations in Austin. We meet some of LBJ's family. The book includes many photographs, some from the LBJ Library, but many from his own familly's personal collection.

Book excerpt:

The major focus of the Johnson family's investments was the Texas Broadcasting Corporation, the corporation they established that owned and operated their radio and television stations in Austin and controlled the shares they held in other stations elsewhere in Texas. Dad did not advise them on these purchases. During the 1950s, he had little expertise in communications and almost no contacts within that burgeoning Texas industry. Besides, the Johnsons had already found an advisor with both advantages -- Don Thomas, a senior partner in the Austin law firm of Clark, Thomas.

LBJ began consulting with Thomas at the beginning of the fifties, which meant he was a comparative Johnny-come lately on the boat. No matter, his amazing string of unbroken successes in predicting which way the communications market would go recommended him to the Johnsons. He advised them on their heavy investments in the industry and swiftly established himself as the person who knew the most about the family's private business interests. My father enjoyed working with Don immensely. He was highly intelligent, exceptionally well informed, quick to grasp the essentials of a problem, and imaginative in finding solutions to it. At times, such people can be difficult collegues to work with. Don Thomas was the rare soul who complimented first-rate professional abilities with a pleasant, quiet, self-effacing personality. If he had a passion, it was his determination to remain behind the scenes and out of the public's eye. Others could take the bows; Thomas's satisfaction came from knowing that those who he respected admired his brilliance.

To Dad, he was the ideal teammate. For Lyndon Johnson, he became the rarest of birds, a personal friend. "No one," Dad told me recently, "was closer personally than Don to LBJ, except, of course, Lady Bird." Then he looked directly at me, and repeated with an intense emphasis: "No one."

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