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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"


Looking back at:

Lyndon's
Little Brother

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Being a lifelong little brother myself I understand that big brothers and little brothers have a complicated relationship. Little brothers can be a pain to big brothers, especially if little brother is a free spirit and big brother is someone important - like president of the United States.

One of the more famous presidential little brothers was Billy Carter. While older brother Jimmy was politicking for the White House, Billy almost ran the family peanut business into the ground.

Billy wasn't much of a businessman, but he was a wiz at drinking beer, telling dirty jokes and taking money from the Libyans.

But Billy Carter wasn't the first presidential little brother to take a walk on the wild side. Before Billy Carter there was Sam Houston Johnson. Remember him?

Sam Houston Johnson Sam Houston Johnson
Wikipedia

Sam Johnson, Lyndon's little brother, was just as colorful and entertaining as Billy Carter. It's just that Sam's brother was better than Billy's brother at keeping scandalous stories out of the Washington Post and the New York Times. I think I read somewhere about a full-time White House staffer whose job description was to keep Sam from causing presidential embarrassment.

Still, Sam was always good for a fill on a slow news day, usually to the humiliation of his brother the president.

Sam was earthy and outspoken. He gambled, hung out with questionable characters, passed a few bad checks and stretched the truth from here to San Antone.

But it was drinking that got Sam into trouble over and over again. He drank "to make other people look interesting."

One night in Brownsville, Texas Sam hit the sauce a little too hard and got thrown in jail. The White House staffer in charge of embarrassment prevention asked local authorities to quietly release the first brother, but Sam, in true little brother fashion, said he was just fine where he was and stayed until morning.

Despite living in LJB's shadow, Sam said he wouldn't trade places with his brother for all the tea in China. Sam even claimed Lyndon secretly envied his younger brother's carefree lifestyle and that LBJs anger at Sam's drinking, gambling and carousing was partly caused by jealousy.

Sam had a law degree but never went near a courtroom except as a defendant. He spent his life in government jobs as an advisor to his brother.

Of course working for LBJ would drive anyone to drink. Or as Sam put it "Anyone who works for Lyndon more than 30 days ought to receive a Purple Heart."

In 1970 Sam wrote a book called My Brother Lyndon. LBJ thought the book a little too candid and punished Sam the way he punished anyone who displeased him. He gave Sam the silent treatment.

Historian Robert Caro, while doing research on his famous work on LBJ, interviewed Sam, 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 he told me, too often they weren't true."

Several years later Caro met Sam on the street in Johnson City and found Sam a changed man. He had stopped drinking and started going to church.

On the eve of Jimmy Carter's inauguration, Sam Johnson had some free advice for first brother-elect Billy Carter. "Don't drink at the White House. Don't say anything on the White House telephone unless you want the whole damn world to know about it. Don't advise the president unless you know what you are talking about. It could be dangerous for the country.

Sam Houston Johnson filed for bankruptcy in 1973. He spent his last years in a room at the Alamo Hotel in Austin and a small house in Johnson City. He died in 1978 and is buried at the Johnson family cemetery in Stonewall.

Being a little brother is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse. "I was Lyndon's brother," Sam used to say. "You can't get any higher than that, or any lower."

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" May 15, 2021 Column

Sources:
"Sam Houston Johnson Had Capacity For enjoying Life," Brownsville Herald, December 12, 1978.
"Sam Johnson is Dead at Age 64," Spartanburg Herald, December 12, 1978.
"200 Pay Final Tribute At LBJ's Brother's Rites," The Victoria Advocate, December 14, 1978.
Sam Houston Johnson, My Brother Lyndon (Spokane: Cowles Book Company, 1970).
Robert Caro, The Path to Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1982).




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