I wanted, I guess, to show in terms of Washington, to show in terms of Capitol Hill, the contrast between what he was coming from—the poverty, the insecurity, the land of dog-run log cabins—and what he was trying for. I first got a clue about how I might be able to do this by talking to the young woman who worked with him as the other assistant in that congressman’s office, a woman named Estelle Harbin. I asked her what he had been like and she described him. It was a vivid description. She called him a real tall thin boy, he was gangling, he was skinny, he was awkward, those big ears sticking out, his clothes didn’t fit him well, he had long arms and the sleeves were never long enough, and his wrists were always sticking out of the cuffs. (Alice Marsh, the sophisticated mistress who taught him to wear cuff links was still some years in the future.) He was very poor, Ms. Harbin told me. He arrived in Washington in December, 1931, with a cardboard suitcase and only one coat, a thin topcoat not adequate for Washington winters. I asked Ms. Harbin what would he say to you and she said, Well, he couldn’t stop talking about his train ride to Washington. He would say, “Have you ever ridden in the Pullman [a sleeping car]? I never did until I went up.” “Have you ever eaten in a dining car? I never did.” When he received his first monthly paycheck he told Miss Harbin that he wanted to deposit it in a bank but that he didn’t know how to open a bank account: He had never had one. She also told me how quickly Lyndon Johnson learned, how desperate he was to learn, how he became, so quickly, in her words “the best congressional assistant there ever was.”
Estelle Harbin lived somewhere behind the Library of Congress, and sometimes she would be coming to work and she would see Lyndon Johnson coming up Capitol Hill. And she said to me that every time he got in front of the Capitol he would start running. Well, I wanted the reader to feel all this. I wanted not just to say that he was coming from poverty, the land of little dog-run cabins, and was trying for something monumental. I wanted to make the reader see the contrast between what he was coming from and what he was trying for—to see the majesty and the power of what he was trying for. I wanted to make the reader see this and feel this as Lyndon Johnson saw and felt it. I kept thinking that the key to doing that, to showing that, was somehow on that walk along Capitol Hill. So I kept taking that walk over and over again—I don’t know how many times I took it, but it was a lot of times—but I didn’t see anything there. Yet obviously something on that walk had excited him and thrilled him so much that he’d break into a run every morning. And I wasn’t seeing anything that would account for that. Then something occurred to me. Although I had taken this walk a lot of times, I had never done it at the same hour that Lyndon Johnson took it, which was very early in the morning, about 5:30 in the summers, about 6:30 in winter. Since he and Estelle had been raised on ranches, they got up with the sun. I decided to try doing that to see if there was something, and there was. It was something I had never seen before because at 5:30 in the morning, the sun is just coming up over the horizon in the east. Its level rays are striking that eastern façade of the Capitol full force. It’s lit up like a movie set. That whole long façade—750 feet long—is white, of course, white marble, and that white marble just blazes out at you as that sun hits it. And then I felt I had found a way not to lecture the reader on the contrast between what Lyndon Johnson was coming from and what he was striving toward, and how that contrast helped explain the desperation, the frenzied, frantic urgency of his efforts—a way not to tell the reader but to show the reader that point instead.
That was the worst night. We were really at the end of our rope. I didn’t know what to say to Ina. I didn’t know how to face her…I knew I was going to have to go back to work, and it was going to be very hard to finish the book. By this time I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I had learned some things it was important for people to know. But they were never going to know them if I didn’t finish the book. And that night, I just couldn’t see any way of finishing it. Soon after, luckily, things changed. My editor left his publishing house, and there was an “out” clause in my contract saying that I could leave if he left. I knew I needed an agent...
...Then I went to see Lynn. I remember sitting across the desk from her, and there was a call she said she had to take. She was selling a Tom Wolfe story to some magazine. And as I listened to her on that call, I said to myself, that’s what I need. Lynn had read my manuscript, and said, “I’d like to represent you, but you have to tell me something first. Why do you look so worried?” I didn’t know I looked worried. But of course I was. I told her, “I’m worried that I won’t have enough money to finish the book.” My editor had left me feeling that few people would read a book on Robert Moses, and that therefore no publisher would give me the money I needed to finish it. She asked how much money I was talking about. I told her I needed enough so I could spend two more years on the book. I thought it would take me two years. I don’t remember the exact amount I specified, but I know it was not that large. And all of a sudden there were other sentences that I’ll never forget. She said, “Is that what you’re worried about? Then you can stop worrying right now. I can get you that by just picking up the phone. Everybody in New York knows about this book.”