The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Eight


With Eisenhower’s election as president in 1952, Ernest McFarland, the Democratic leader until then, lost his election, and Eisenhower carried a Republican majority (but a small one) into both houses. With McFarland gone, the post of leader was open in the Democratic party, and Johnson arranged to get it, with the help of Richard Russell, who could have had it himself, but didn’t want it. Instead, he wanted Johnson to have it, and conservatives in the party were happy to go along. They were convinced that Johnson shared their views, since he’d been voting with them for quite some time.
Johnson didn’t want just conservatives backing him, though, so he managed to change the Senate’s seniority system so young senators could get seats on good committees without having to wait for years, and several of these were liberals, as related in my last post. This made for a more united party, which could better resist Republican initiatives, and to a large extent it was united behind Johnson.
Johnson wanted to keep it that way. He didn’t want to push divisive issues, since there were a number of things all Democrats didn’t agree on, and any such issue he wanted to keep private. So he had Gerald Siegel, who had served with him on the Preparedness committee that had looked into many aspects of the conduct of the Korean war, to analyze drafts of any pending legislation, and contact any senators objecting to any of it to find out what it would take to meet those objections. That way much disagreement was kept behind closed doors, and the Democrats presented a united front to the Republicans.
This was a departure from the way the Senate had operated in the past, where disagreements were aired on the floor to educate all senators, as well as the public. But on the Policy committee Johnson wanted to submit only bills that had 100% backing, as a way of passing desirable legislation as a minority party. Therefore he suggested a liaison between the Policy committee and all the subcommittees, so the Policy committee would know about bills in the works, and where they stood. Another way of increasing the Senate’s efficiency.
But this changed the way the Senate had traditionally worked too: before, chairmen of committees and subcommittees had been very independent, which had made them powerful. Now Johnson, first through his staff, then more and more personally, was exerting control over staff members of other committees to find out what the committees were doing, and to help or hinder them as he thought desirable. Caro comments that if the Southern senators had realized what Johnson was doing, they could have stopped him. He was changing the power dynamic of the Senate, and that had implications for both liberal and conservative. But we’ll never know if at least some of them did understand it, and thought it was good, or thought it could help make Lyndon Johnson president (which Southerners generally thought would keep racial laws of the time intact), whether they thought the changes would benefit the Senate, or the Democratic party. This was, says Caro, the first time Johnson had used his political genius for anything larger than himself (though of course he benefited too), with the single exception of the rural electrification project in his home district. He was now beginning to have the power he’d been striving for, which he would use for his own benefit, but also for the benefit of his party and his country.
Eisenhower had won election in a landslide, and Democrats weren’t happy. But Johnson saw his presidency as an opportunity for Democrats, particularly because the Old Guard of the Republicans didn’t much like Eisenhower. If Democrats supported him against Republicans, they would be more popular, conflict between Republicans might benefit Democrats, and Lyndon Johnson would be more popular with conservatives in Texas–and he had an election coming up in two years. Supporting Eisenhower would not be difficult because the pending business was foreign relations, and many Republicans were isolationists, wanting the country to return to pre-World War II policies. That wasn’t Eisenhower’s position.
Some Democrats were easy to convince. Sam Rayburn considered Eisenhower truthful, a quality very important to Rayburn, and that he understood what the military needed. He would support Eisenhower’s estimates of what was needed for defense, and wouldn’t oppose him domestically, unless he tried to repeal Roosevelt’s reforms. Richard Russell thought Eisenhower knew his business militarily, and supported him on that basis. Others weren’t as easy to convince. It took a lot of conversation to persuade Senate Democrats how popular Eisenhower was, and that he’d been essentially carrying out Roosevelt and Truman’s foreign policy as head of the Allied force that invaded Europe, and later as commander of NATO.
So when Eisenhower proposed a resolution rejecting the “interpretations” of the Yalta treaty that had subjugated eastern Europe, instead of repudiating the treaty entirely, Republican isolationists (a strong wing of the party) were outraged. Johnson then announced that Democrats would support the resolution as it was. This was a relatively simple step, even if it was difficult to get a lot of Democrats to agree to it. The next challenge would be much more difficult.
This challenge came from an Ohio senator named John W. Bricker, who proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would put strict limits on president’s ability to negotiate with foreign countries by insisting that any agreements reached would not only have to be ratified by the Congress, but many state legislatures as well. Johnson was totally against this bill, saying it would tie not only Eisenhower’s hands, but the hands of any future president (and he planned eventually to be president).
The difficulty here was that there were many different things he wanted to accomplish in opposing the bill: he needed to oppose the bill without the public (and his conservative backers) knowing that he did, so he persuaded Eisenhower to publicly oppose it. That was the simplest part. Getting moderates and liberals to oppose it wouldn’t work: there weren’t enough of them to stop it. He had to get at least some conservatives to oppose it too, and he didn’t want the public to see conservatives allied with the president: he wanted them to see Eisenhower opposed by his own party, for Democrats to get credit for stopping the bill, and that he himself also get credit–all without alienating his conservative backers.
Part of the solution was to get a conservative Democrat to counter Bricker’s amendment with one of his own. It would have to be sufficiently similar that Republicans would support it and Eisenhower oppose, strong enough that it would supplant the Bricker amendment, but would still lose, and it couldn’t lose by a large margin, or his conservative backers would be upset. That was a lot to have to accomplish.
He got Walter George, a prominent Southern conservative to submit his own version of the amendment, which was very simple: no provision of a treaty could supersede the Constitution, and none could become effective “as internal law in the United State…except by an act of Congress.” This attracted liberal support, and the primacy of the Constitution made it palatable to most conservatives.
When it came time to vote, Johnson still had several things he wanted to make sure of.But A Republican compromise bill had been submitted, so Johnson arranged for a Democratic senator to move that the George bill be substituted for it. This would give Walter George a triumph, and would only have to pass by a simple majority, rather than the 2/3s majority necessary to pass the final bill. He didn’t want George’s amendment to pass, though, since it would restrict presidential powers he didn’t want restricted, but he wanted it to come CLOSE to passing. Bricker’s original amendment didn’t pass at all, so he was over one hurdle.
But George’s amendment did pass, and by a 61-30 vote, which was worrisome because it was a 2/3s majority, and Johnson wanted to make sure the bill didn’t pass the final vote. The situation was complicated because the Republican Majority Leader switched to vote for the George bill, and would probably carry some other Republicans with him.
Johnson was ready for that, though. He had persuaded three Democratic senators to switch, and vote against the bill, but some Republicans had switched too, and voted for it. The count stood at 60 for and 30 against, precisely enough to pass the bill. One senator had been asleep, but was found, brought to the floor, and voted no. The amendment failed by just one vote. Johnson had accomplished exactly what he wanted, and with very little margin for error, he had made no errors. He took pride in his ability to count votes, and this one showed that he was the very best at it. And such was his skill that his conservative supporters never learned that he had actually opposed the bill.
Caro remarks that this was a particularly important turning point. After the First World War Woodrow Wilson had worked hard to form the League of Nations, but the Congress had refused to ratify it. The United States had retreated into isolationism, and hadn’t participated in world politics again until World War II. We’ll never know, but had the USA been active earlier, that war might conceivably have been averted. We’ll also never know whether American domination of world politics after World War II has been a better thing than isolationism would have been. America’s foreign policy record has been quite mixed.


The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Seven


Lyndon Johnson wanted to be President, and didn’t feel he had a lot of time to get there. Men in his family tended to die young of heart disease. He had reached the Senate of the United States of America, but the Senate wasn’t organized in a way to facilitate his ambition: it was based on seniority, and rarely could anyone become an important Senator quickly. Johnson had to find a way to speed up the process in his case.
One way of doing that was becoming friends with Richard Russell, the most important Southern Senator. Russell’s father had been a politician, as Johnson’s had, and had wanted his son to be more successful than he’d been. Russell was determined to do what his father (and mother) asked. He was elected to the Georgia Legislature young, became its speaker young, and after a sitting Senator died, was elected to the Senate of the United States.
He was a man of great integrity, great knowledge, and great capacity for work. Outside of work he was a shy man who never married, not unlike Sam Rayburn, but didn’t seem to miss marriage and family quite as much. He was married to his work, and Johnson made a point of cultivating him, getting on the same committee as Russell, and consulting him as to what to do and how to do it. He began inviting Russell to his home, but took care not to invite him at the same time as Rayburn. Rayburn would come to dinners, so Russell was invited to brunch. They became friends, and stayed that way a long time.
The other thing he did was become the Assistant Leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate. The Senate hadn’t originally been set up to have a leader, as the House had, but early in the 20th century, during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, a leader seemed necessary to fight for legislation the President wanted, and organize the party behind that legislation. The leader didn’t have a lot of power, though, and one complained he had nothing to reward or punish anyone, so he had little power to get things done. The assistant leader, or Whip, had even less.
Democrats still had a majority under Truman, when Johnson decided he wanted to be Whip, but their leader was ineffective. Russell helped him get the job, to the wonderment of many, to whom being Whip seemed unrewarding at best, and he spent the first year or so just learning what was happening, and what sorts of options he had.
The first thing he needed was information, beginning with how each Senator was going to vote. Bobby Baker, who later became notorious, helped him a great deal with this.
Baker was just 14 when he began working in the Senate as a page, and quickly became a favorite of most Senators. He was fascinated with the institution, always wanting to learn new things, and became expert at finding things out. One of the best places to do this was the Senate Cloakroom, where Senators often hung out, feeling comfortable in a place where reporters were barred, and often willing to say what they really thought about various bills and issues. Baker learned who was who, and what each thought, and was willing to tell Lyndon Johnson where the bodies were buried. He didn’t just know how each Senator was likely to vote, but where each was at all times. Each Senator wanted to know when each bill was coming to the floor, so he (there were very few female Senators at that time) could speak for or against, or vote. Baker knew where each was, whether each wanted to be present for a bill, whether each was available, and if they weren’t, why not. Invaluable knowledge for Johnson.
One of the tasks of the Majority Leader was to schedule legislation. The Majority Leader Johnson worked under, Ernest McFarland, was ineffective, and was often back in his home state campaigning when he was supposed to be in the Senate. Johnson gradually took over scheduling of legislation from him, and people began to realize that if they wanted legislation scheduled, Johnson was the man to see.
With scheduling came a certain amount of power. If you displeased Johnson, you might have to wait a long time to get your bill scheduled. If you pleased him, he might help you pass it.
Harry Truman was a liberal, and wanted to get civil rights legislation passed. He did manage to get the Army desegregated, but few other of his initiatives passed. One of the reasons was Richard Russell, who was committed to segregation, and wasn’t willing to pass even anti-lynching laws. Russell was like Rayburn in being married to his work and incorruptible, but their social views were different. I don’t think Rayburn was particularly committed to civil rights (at least where it concerned blacks), but he was generally more liberal than Russell. Russell was able to kill bills he didn’t like in committee, and if they did make it to the floor, the South had the filibuster to use against them. The filibuster was essentially taking so much time talking that the session might end before legislation could be acted on, or other more immediately important legislation might demand a bill be killed. Liberals hated the filibuster, not so much for its existence–it was a tool that could be used to prevent majority tyranny–but because it was so often used against civil rights and other social legislation. Many white liberals felt it was long since time for blacks to have the same rights as whites, especially since quite a number of black (and other minority) soldiers had fought and died for the USA during World War II. Those who hadn’t died came home to find they were as subject to mistreatment as before. Black veterans added to the black community’s determination to have their rights recognized and enforced.
Russell wasn’t just a bigot, though, and certainly not ignorant. When Truman relieved Douglas McArthur, commander in the Korean war, for insubordination, many people were outraged. McArthur wanted to widen the war, bombing Chinese troops assisting North Korea on the Chinese side of the border, and possibly even using nuclear weapons. Truman wanted to keep the war contained.
When McArthur returned to the USA he was a hero in many people’s eyes. Richard Russell chaired the hearings into McArthur’s views, and whether they were correct. Russell didn’t denounce McArthur, as some might have done, but simply asked questions. As he did, it quickly emerged that McArthur’s viewpoint had been limited, and he hadn’t considered the dangers of drawing China further into the war, or maybe even Russia. Public enthusiasm for him quickly subsided.
Besides scheduling, Johnson was also good at counting votes, an extremely important political skill very difficult to master. One reason is that people emotionally attached to certain bills tended to think their virtues were obvious to everyone. Johnson had learned not to be too optimistic, and not to be a true believer. Those qualities could lead to failure, and he found failure hard to tolerate. So he spent a lot of time counting votes on the bills under consideration, while also keeping track of where bills were in committees, any amendments that were being offered, and so on. In counting votes, he never wrote a name, pro or con, until he was confident he KNEW how that person would vote, and many times he didn’t, and couldn’t. Some Senators wanted NO ONE to know their votes in advance. Nevertheless, however many blanks there were in his vote counts, his counts were by far the best on Capitol Hill. Another sort of information people came to him for.
He began to streamline Senate procedure by having bills unobjected-to brought up early in the session, limiting comments on them, and disposing of large numbers of them quickly. There was then more time for controversial bills. He also intervened to bring bills out of committee to the floor, or to keep bills in committee to kill them. Senators he did this for were grateful.
Another device was “pairing”. A senator who was absent, but didn’t want to be recorded as absent, could pair with another on the other side of the issue; both would then be recorded as not voting. The same could be done if a senator didn’t want to vote on a controversial issue, and didn’t want his constituents to know he hadn’t voted. He could justify this by his having removed a vote from the opposing side. He could “correct” the Congressional Record to show that he hadn’t been absent, but “paired”. A handy thing to be able to do in a reelection race if his vote, or lack of a vote turned out to be controversial.
Johnson used this device on a bill by arranging four pairs, with senators on the floor and senators who were absent. Those present, having been paired, withheld their votes, and swung an amendment from being passed to not being passed. This was a way in which pairing hadn’t been used before, and is a small example of Johnson’s political genius. He said himself that he understood power, and where to look for it. There are a number of other examples.
Using his influence with Sam Rayburn to get bills through the House (or not) was another source of power. If Johnson used his influence to help another senator, he’d make sure the senator knew. That would be another person he could ask for favors.
Money was still another. Johnson was constantly raising money, and very large amounts of it. Some he would use for his own purposes, but a lot would be given to other legislators to use for campaigns or whatever else. He had his aides frequently flying between Texas and Washington to bring large amounts of money in cash (which couldn’t easily be traced) to influence congressmen. By the time he became Assistant Leader, Republicans started coming by his office too. He hadn’t been important before, but he was now.
Since he was now important, he began to use others as tools to accomplish what he wanted. One of these was Hubert Humphrey, who had made a speech defending the civil rights plank that many wanted watered down at the convention that selected Harry Truman as the presidential candidate in 1948. The speech was powerful, the plank was approved, and Truman won the election, but Humphrey was persona non grata to most senators because most didn’t want the trouble trying to enact a civil rights bill would bring. Lyndon Johnson took the trouble to cultivate Humphrey, though.
Humphrey had a degree in political science, and had been mayor of Minneapolis, where he had pushed through social justice legislation, but he immediately realized that Johnson had a great deal to teach him. Johnson didn’t just know the Senate rules and precedents, but who all the legislators were, and what motivated them (the House included). He knew the business and labor lobbyists, the farm and rural electrification lobbyists, and everyone else that influenced government. Johnson was an actor too, subtle when he needed to be, a brute force when that worked better. His father had said that if you couldn’t walk into a room and tell who was for you and who against, you had no business being a politician. Johnson always knew.
He cultivated Humphrey because Humphrey could be his bridge to Northern Democrats, without whom he had no chance of becoming president. Almost a hundred years after the Civil War there was still resentment between North and South. There hadn’t been a Southern President since before the Civil War, and as along as the South was seen as separate from the rest of the country, there wasn’t going to be. Richard Russell wanted a Southern president to heal the wounds of the war, and in 1952 tried the role on for himself. But he was too identified with the South, and the South’s resistance to Civil Rights legislation, so his campaign went nowhere. Since he couldn’t be President himself, he began favoring Lyndon Johnson for the role, a desire that Johnson used later to good effect.
Northern senators saw Johnson in much the same light as Russell: a Southern conservative who always voted with the other Southerners, and as such was not a national figure who could become president. Johnson wanted to change their minds about that, and Humphrey was one of the tools he used. Caro quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne on Andrew Jackson, who, he said, was able to use anyone he came in contact with: the more intelligent they were, the sharper tool they would make. Johnson had the same ability.
So Johnson used Humphrey to get Northern Democrats to compromise with Southern ones, as an alternative to splitting the party. This was especially important early in the 1950s with a Republican President and a Republican majority in the House and Senate. Democrats needed to stay together to prevent Republicans from gaining an overwhelming majority and ramming through legislation Democrats would abhor.
Johnson therefore wanted to make the party as strong and united as he could. He spoke to Russell first, then to others, about reorganizing the committee appointments. Under the seniority system new senators had to wait to get appointments to desirable committees. Johnson thought this was a waste of talent. But the problem was that there only so many seats available, and some senators were not about to give up seats they’d waited for and wanted.
The solution to this problem came from the Republicans. Mike Mansfield had started out as a Republican, but was disenchanted with President Eisenhower, and declared himself an Independent. Robert Taft, Republican Majority Leader, wanted some committees expanded to make up for Mansfield’s desertion. Johnson negotiated with him, asking for more Democratic seats too, and opened enough seats on the various committees that he could spread people around, making room for those who wanted a seat on a particular committee, or giving them a seat on another committee they wanted. He managed to get new Senators Mike Mansfield and Hubert Humphrey appointed to the Foreign Relations committee, which was his goal to begin with. Those two, he thought, would counterbalance Robert Taft, who had been reviving isolationism.
By dismantling the seniority system, which had for so long contributed to Senate inefficiency, and doing it extremely quickly, more quickly than anyone could have imagined, he had not only benefited freshman senators, who would now be in a position to make a name for themselves, but also liberals, the group that liked him least. He was walking a careful line, trying to keep from alienating either conservatives, whose support he needed because of the part of the country he lived in, as well as the money he needed to advance his plans, but also liberals. He needed the whole Democratic party behind him if he wanted to become President, and in some ways he agreed with liberals, though he was careful not to let conservatives know that. But in having done so much, he had acquired power within the party, and that was the foundation on which he would build other things he would accomplish in the next few years.

The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Six


One of the strengths of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson is giving deep background, not only about Johnson’s family, where he grew up, and some of the important people in his life, but also of the differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives was intended to represent each state in proportion to its population, so a small state, like most of New England, had few representatives, while big states (and Texas was the biggest in both area and population, with competition only from California) had many more. The Senate was designed differently.
The Founders feared that transient popular passions could unduly influence legislation and the direction of the country, so they designed the Senate to be a check on the House. They took this step because most of them belonged to a sort of aristocracy (even if informal), and distrusted ordinary people. But they also feared tyranny, and understood that a majority could be as tyrannical as a minority. They didn’t trust ordinary people enough to give many of them the vote. Qualification for the vote demanded ownership of property. Andrew Jackson changed that during his administration, but Senators continued to be elected by their state legislatures until the following century. The Senate was part of the legislative branch, but a part superior to the House. This was partly achieved by giving the Senators a term of 6 years, compared to the House’s 2, and by having only one third of the Senate run for reelection every two years, while each House seat could be challenged every two. The Senate was thus the more stable and conservative institution, as it was intended, and would debate any measures for however long it took to educate the Senators themselves, and the rest of the country.
In the first half of the 19th century the Senate fulfilled its role brilliantly. Daniel Webster replied to a South Carolina Senator named Hayne, who was speaking for the much more famous John C. Calhoun, in favor of state’s rights, saying that South Carolina had no interest in a canal in Ohio. That was Ohio’s business. Webster replied that he didn’t see each state as a separate nation, but as parts of a single nation, so each state’s business mattered to every other state. Webster carried the day then, but the issue was still alive years later, when Andrew Jackson, as President, proposed a tariff bill the South considered onerous. Calhoun responded by saying each state had the right to nullify any bill in which it considered the Federal Government had overstepped its authority, leading Jackson to propose to enforce the tariff with military action.
Henry Clay then proposed a compromise tariff bill, in which each side would sacrifice something. Calhoun was able to agree with this, and when the compromise bill passed immediately left for South Carolina, where he persuaded the state legislature to repeal the nullification ordinance.
For a number more years Calhoun, Webster, and Clay would be giants in the Senate, sometimes combining, sometimes at odds, but producing compromises that averted civil war. But by 1852 they were all dead, and the war they had postponed began nine years later.
The Senate passed its immediate test after the Civil War when the Congress, dominated by radical Republicans, determined to punish the South, rather than reconcile with it, to the displeasure of Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Abraham Lincoln. Congress responded by voting to impeach Johnson. Since the South was still excluded from Congress, Republicans had the necessary votes to impeach. But Lyman Trumbull, of Illinois, who hated Johnson, and hated his position on Reconstruction, had second thoughts. He did not want a President impeached for trivial motives, fearful of the precedent it would set. On the day of the vote seven Republicans voted not guilty–the exact number needed to prevent a two-thirds majority. The seven were declared traitors, not only to their party, but to their country, and none were reelected. But they had avoided setting a dreadful precedent.
Things changed after that. Almost all Presidents were Republican after the Civil War, but most of them were weak. And after the war the country began to change from agricultural to industrial, and the Republican party became the party of big business, and big business began to dominate the legislative process. When the South was allowed into Congress again it began to dominate the Congress through seniority and by having chairmanships of the most important committees, which could either advance or strangle legislation, and the South always voted together. Woodrow Wilson, in 1912, became the first outstanding Democratic President in a long time, but after his time passed Republicans came back into power, and didn’t lose it until the Great Depression, which was shocking enough to bring about great legislative changes, many of which ordinary people, like farmers, had wanted for a very long time. Republicans, being the party of big business, were also the conservative party, although the parties were much more mixed than now. There were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, so things didn’t always proceed along party lines. Liberal Democrats wanted things that conservative Democrats wouldn’t allow. Virtually all the Southern congressmen were Democrats, and the powerful ones were conservative, so civil rights legislation didn’t get passed during the New Deal era. That would have to wait.
When Lyndon Johnson arrived in the Senate in 1949 his first challenge was to stand out from the crowd. He had always wanted to be President, but men in his family tended to die relatively early from heart trouble. He didn’t feel he had time to wait for seniority to come his way, so he had to make himself prominent.
One of the first ways he did this was when Leland Olds came up for renewal of his position as chairman of the Federal Power Commission.
Olds became a liberal because he had two summer jobs while in college in a vacation school in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and saw the impact industrialization had on ordinary workers lives. He didn’t like what he saw, so he became a social worker first, but didn’t feel he could make much impact from such a position. So he became a Congregationalist minister, but didn’t have a happy experience with that, either, left that field, and became a teacher.
During World War I he worked as a statistician for the government’s Industrial Relations Commission, and found he had a gift for understanding economics through analyzing huge amounts of data. He came to the conclusion that the working class weren’t receiving their fair share of the nation’s increasing wealth, and decided he wanted to teach labor leaders instead of college students. He became head of the research bureau of the American Federation of Labor. There he saw the brutality with which corporations frequently put down strikes, discovering too that “railroads were …deliberately contracting out locomotive repair work in order to create unemployment among their own employees…” The companies were more powerful than the AFL, and the strikes failed. Olds became a journalist, writing mostly for labor magazines and newspapers through a wire service. This was in the 1920s, and he was a voice crying in the wilderness until Franklin Roosevelt was elected President.
There were some who agreed with him, but didn’t have the power to make any difference. Some of these people looked to Communism to solve the problems caused by unregulated Captalism, but Olds wasn’t one of these. He distrusted Communism, at least partly because of strong religious faith, and believed that problems would only be solved by building from within the American tradition. He saw other countries doing things like controlling rents and ending child labor that he thought were good, but didn’t see the approach of other countries working in this one.
He studied how the power companies worked their finances. Holding companies sold equipment to operating companies at inflated prices, and operating companies passed those costs on to customers. There were relatively few of these, as rates were too high for many people, and especially rural people. Olds was able to make sense of the data he saw, and determined that rates could be lowered drastically without hurting the companies providing electricity, and thus making electricity available to far many more people. When rates were low enough farmers, among others, would be able to use electricity for lots of things, and power companies would still make their profits. He thought this was a way to break the cycle of poverty for many people. Henry Ford had had the same idea when he proposed to pay his workers enough that they could buy his product. Among many capitalists this wasn’t a popular thought, though.
Just at this point he was approached by representatives of Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York, who wanted to make electricity available to more people. After hearing Olds’s ideas, he offered him a job on a commission to study how to do this, and Olds accepted.
With the coming of the New Deal, Olds decided that capitalism could be controlled by government, as he saw being done, and became a strong supporter of FDR. In 1939 Roosevelt brought him to Washington as a member of the Federal Power Commission, and not long after, he became its chairman. He was a fair-minded man, and felt that the FPC was in fact protecting capitalism by regulating it. When his record was reviewed, his chairmanship was renewed without any difficulty.
In 1949 it was due to be reviewed again. Now natural gas, which the FPC regulated, had become much more profitable, and the companies producing it wanted to set its price higher than the FPC allowed. They lobbied hard for that, and Olds testified convincingly against themand .
Lyndon Johnson had been supported by oilmen from Texas, but they weren’t entirely convinced he believed in the same things they did. Johnson managed to get chairmanship of the subcommittee that would investigate Olds, and started researching his past.
By this time many people in the country had become concerned about Communism, and during his career Olds had written some 1500 articles about economics, and some of the things he had said in them could be interpreted as Communistic. Johnson and his staff dug these out, and when Olds testimony began, threw various quotes in his face. He had said that the Fourth of July would, in the future, be seen as anything but the birth of liberty; that Lenin had foreseen what would take the place of political parties when he said “All power to to the Soviets”, and that Olds had spoken on the same platform as the Communist Earl Browder.
None of this had much substance, but it gave the impression that Olds was a Communist, which was enough to frighten people (interestingly, this was before Senator Joe McCarthy had begun his “crusade” against Communism). Olds tried to rebut what had been said about him, but couldn’t remember in which articles he’d written the offending passages, and asked for time to combat the charges. He wasn’t given much time, and while he read his rebuttal, most of the audience walked out. His review may have looked fair on the surface, but was not.
Olds lost his job (which he had really loved), never worked for the government again,and ended his life in poverty. His whole family was affected by the unfairness of the attack. After the review was over, Lyndon Johnson said to Olds that he hoped he didn’t take it personally, that it was only politics.
Johnson had gotten some of the publicity he wanted, and convinced the oilmen of Texas he was on their side. All the regulations Olds had put in place were repealed, and the oilmen enjoyed huge profits.

The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Five


In early 1941 Lyndon Johnson found out that the senior Texas senator had died. He immediately began lining things up to enter the race. He wasn’t yet as well known in Texas as Gerald Mann, state Attorney General, or Representative Martin Dies. Most Texans hadn’t heard his name.
Mann was a particularly strong candidate. He was a lawyer who was well-thought of, and at 31 had run for state Attorney General and won. After winning he had reorganized the Attorney General’s department, raising previously lax standards. He worshipped Roosevelt, and was popular in Texas. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have a political organization, and he didn’t have money.
Lyndon Johnson had both, and was going to use both. Herman Brown and his friends were providing money, Johnson had the beginnings of a political organization from when he had headed the Texas National Youth Administration, which he had headed before he’d even been elected to national office. He had obstacles to overcome, but not as many as those he’d overcome to become a Representative, since he also had the backing of Franklin Roosevelt.
But this campaign started out differently from the other. In his first campaign he’d been most effective one-on-one, showing great interest in every voter he talked to, looking into their eyes, shaking their hands, and putting an arm around their shoulders. This time he was making speeches, and public speaking wasn’t what he was best at. And now he was coming across almost as a bully, domineering and harsh. People weren’t too enthusiastic. In his previous campaign he had taken time to talk to everyone; now he pumped a hand twice, and moved on to the next. He wasn’t working as hard either, concentrating on the cities (where most of the votes were), and neglecting the towns and individual farmers he’d gone out of his way to cultivate the first time around. Mann didn’t have the advantages Johnson had, but was outworking him. Johnson was still winning, though.
That changed. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, governor of the state, decided to run. O’Daniel had only recently become a politician. He had been a flour salesman first, and had then turned to radio to sell more effectively. An unemployed country band asked him to sponsor them, and he did. They weren’t particularly successful until one day the regular announcer was sick, and O’Daniel substituted for him. He had the perfect voice for radio, and he didn’t confine himself to announcing. He started writing lyrics for songs the band performed, he wrote poems that he recited, and worked up to practically giving sermons. He got his own show, had it scheduled in the middle of the day when men wouldn’t be at home, and talked to housewives. He wasn’t an intellectual sort of performer, but his audience wasn’t interested in intellectuals. He didn’t know all his Texas history, having moved to Texas from Kansas, but he impressed people as being just an ordinary sort of person, though he not only had his own flour company (he didn’t manufacture the flour himself, just bought and rebagged it), but was a business college graduate, and dealt in Fort Worth Real Estate too. He was a lot wealthier than the average man.
One day he asked his listeners if he should run for governor, and they overwhelmingly said, yes. So he ran, and ran successfully. He turned out not to be a particularly outstanding governor, since he reneged on his promises, and didn’t even make an attempt to understand the government he supposedly ran. The legislators didn’t like him, he didn’t like them, but the voters DID like him, not realizing that his promises were worthless. He had promised a pension for elderly people, but couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to pay for it, for fear any tax would affect the oil men. He’d said he was against a sales tax, then tried to institute a new one. But voters still loved him. Now, after the race had already gotten underway, he decided to run for Senator.
At first he didn’t do much running. He was used to being popular, so he thought just announcing he was running would win for him. He was shocked to find out that he was behind both Mann and Johnson. Johnson had come up with two strategems that handicapped him: capitalizing on O’Daniel’s popularity, he told Texans that they needed to keep O’Daniel as governor, so he could work on funding their pensions. He also had his allies keep the Texas legislature in session, so O’Daniel couldn’t campaign.
Eventually the legislature did end their session, and O’Daniel did start campaigning, and then Johnson was in a fight. He had the organization, he had the money, but didn’t have the name-recognition O’Daniel did, and wasn’t nearly as attractive in person. He was still right there in the race, until election day.
On election day he seemed to have won by nightfall, and announced he had. He’d bought votes (a time-honored tradition in Texas, as elsewhere), and was sure he had enough. So he announced he had won. That was where he made a mistake. His announcement told O’Daniel’s organization how many votes they had to make up, and they did. Lyndon Johnson had always done everything he could think of to win, and he could think of a lot. This one time he hadn’t, and he lost.
Johnson didn’t become a senator. He stayed in the House of Representatives until 1949, which Robert Caro says was his time in the wilderness. He did acquire a radio station, which made him a lot of money, and with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, fended off an investigation into his campaign financing, which would have gotten him into a lot of trouble, had he been indicted. But most of the time he spent waiting to become a Senator. That’s when his instinct for power really began to show.

The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Four


One of the interesting parts of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson is his portraits of people who were important in Johnson’s life. One of these was Sam Rayburn, whose name I remember from the 1960s, but never knew much about.
Like Johnson, he was a Texan, and came from a poor background. Perhaps the most formative experience of his life was when he heard someone giving a political speech. He was thrilled, and decided he wanted to become a politician, and eventually Speaker of the House. This was unlikely. His family were farmers who were barely making it. One day he went to his father and told him he wanted to go to college. His father said he couldn’t send him.
Rayburn replied, “I’m not asking you to send me, I’m asking you to let me go.” His father let him go, and Sam went, knowing that subtracting his pair of hands from the farm would put more hardship on his family. As he was about to catch the train, his father met him, and handed him $25.00. That was a lot more money then than it is now, and Sam wondered how his father had even managed to save it. Then he went to college, ran for the state legislature, and won, serving three terms there, as he had predicted long before, then running for Congress. He won a seat there too.
He succeeded, as much as anything, because of the kind of man he was. He was short, but stocky and strong, and his personality was as strong as his body. He was honest at a time when most politicians could be bought. If he decided you were a friend he would stick with you through anything. His legislative passion was fighting against the “interests”, the wealthy corporations who dominated politics then as they do now. And he was Southerner, whose father had been a Confederate cavalryman. He hated the Republicans who had been the Carpetbaggers, and who backed the “interests”.
He arrived in Washington at the same time as Woodrow Wilson and a Democratic Congress. So there was some scope for him to work at legislation he was interested in. The unofficial motto of Washington was, you’ve got to go along to get along. Rayburn didn’t. He began working on bills to regulate the railroads, which the President wasn’t happy about. He defied Congressional leaders, and the President too, and got some of his bills passed. But then his time passed, Wilson suffered a stroke in his second term (after his attention had focused on World War I and Europe), and Republicans won the Presidency and the Congress. Rayburn kept his seat, but now was not the time he could say much, so he kept quiet. He wouldn’t get very vocal again until FDR was elected. For some 14 years he had to go along to get along.
FDR was the President he’d been waiting for, and with a newly Democratic Congress, since desperate people had voted the Republicans out, he was able to help enact the kind of legislation he’d always wanted.
He began with a “Truth in Securities” bill. The first draft of it was worthless, so he enlisted some young minds, and got them to rewrite it from scratch. He would look at a paragraph or two, and the writers could tell he knew nothing about securities. What he DID know about was parliamentary procedure, and people. He was honest himself, he could not be bought, and he could tell when people were being dishonest. When someone told him they couldn’t vote for his bill because his constituents wouldn’t stand for it, he understood, but he also knew what their constituents would stand for. And anyone who lied about it would never be his friend again. He shepherded the Securities bill into law, and then many more. Some had his name on them, many didn’t. “Let the other fellow get the headlines,” he said, “I’ll take the laws.” He later told Drew Pearson, the columnist, that he had been involved with many laws and commissions: the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and probably a lot more. But times began to change during Roosevelt’s second administration.
In a footnote Caro suggests that Presidents who win in a landslide often overreach. Roosevelt, he says, did when he attempted to “pack” the Supreme Court to keep it from striking down his legislation. Caro compares this with Johnson’s much later escalation of the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s Watergate fiasco.
One thing Roosevelt’s attempt did was to alienate his Vice President (whom he hadn’t told about it), John Nance Garner, also a Texan. Garner admired what Roosevelt had done in his first term, and being a conservative, had been invaluable in helping him do it, managing to persuade other conservatives to vote Roosevelt’s way. But he had wanted to end the new social legislation and stop the government from spending so much. He was particularly upset at the new labor tactic of sitdown strikes. He didn’t like unions anyway, and he spoke to Roosevelt about it, coming away with the impression that Roosevelt agreed with him, and would speak against the practice. Roosevelt didn’t.
A lot of people who dealt with Roosevelt felt that he didn’t tell the truth, and his promises were undependable. Garner’s disenchantment deepened. He was pretty sure Roosevelt planned to run for a third term, and he was against that, not only because it was against tradition, but because he felt no one should have that much power so long. He decided to run for President himself, and asked Sam Rayburn to help him.
This put Rayburn in a quandary. He and Garner were friends, but FDR was Rayburn’s hero. On the other hand, RAyburn was ALWAYS loyal to his friends, and decided to help. Garner’s candidacy began running pretty strongly too, until Lyndon Johnson got involved.
Johnson needed some way to stand out from the crowd. He also needed a way to get close to Roosevelt, and he found the way to do it by reporting to Roosevelt’s circle what was going on in the Democratic party in general, and the Garner campaign in particular. He also wrote a series of telegrams that pictured Rayburn as betraying the President, which wasn’t true. But Roosevelt believed it enough to cut Rayburn out of his inner circle, and become closer to Johnson. Johnson by this time was expert in being the “professional son”, and he impressed FDR as he had impressed a number of older men before. He had previously applied the same tactics to Rayburn, who was a very lonely man.
Rayburn wasn’t adept at small talk, let alone courtship. He would have loved to have married and had children, especially a son, and did marry–for three months. He never talked about what had happened, and never married again. Johnson sensed his loneliness, and began inviting him to visit every weekend. Johnson and his wife provided Rayburn with a place he could relax, Ladybird knew how to cook his favorite foods the way he liked them, and they grew very close. But Johnson didn’t hesitate to betray Rayburn to advance his own ambition. Rayburn eventually forgave him, but no longer had delusions about him.
Johnson also, with the help of Herman and George Brown, began influencing the Texas delegation. One obscure Senator, important in the campaign, had stated in August that of course everyone in the Texas delegation was for Garner. In December he was no longer for Garner, but for Roosevelt. Herman Brown’s money had changed some minds, and almost immediately he was rewarded: his company got a contract to build a Naval Airbase in Corpus Christi, a type of work they had never done before. All of a sudden Lyndon Johnson was FDR’s man in Texas, while Sam Rayburn and the Texas Senators were not. Meanwhile, war was obviously getting closer, and while there was a lot of isolationist sentiment in the country, most people wanted FDR to guide them through the war as he had guided them through the Depression. Garner’s campaign fell apart, and Roosevelt was reelected.
Johnson had had the chance to contribute financially to Roosevelt’s campaign, but had decided not to. He would be one of many if he did that. Instead, he decided to do something that would make everyone in Congress know his name. With the help of Herman and George Brown he solicited funds from other rich Texans and distributed them to Democrats running for national office. He was able to do this because the head of the Democratic Congressional Committee was ineffective at raising funds. Johnson not only raised funds, he decided how much, and to whom they would go. Those he didn’t think were effective politicians got little or nothing. Those who were got at least something, and some got even more than they needed. Democrats retained their seats, and they now knew Lyndon Johnson’s name.
Next would be his run for the Senate.

Lyndon Johnson, Part Three


The reason Alvin Wirtz wanted Lyndon Johnson to run for Congress was partly because Johnson had become a “professional son” to him, but also because there was work he wanted Johnson to do for one of his clients.
This client was Herman Brown. He had started working for a company constructing roads in Texas, which had gone broke. His boss paid him his wages by giving him four mules and some construction equipment, so he became a contractor.
He became a very busy contractor, eking out a living in Texas, where he was able to find a lot of small jobs, but no big ones. He would work at one job all day, then drive all night to get to the next job, or to bid on another one. He didn’t make a lot of money, so he lived in a tent for almost ten years, and when he married, brought his wife to live in the tent too.
But he dreamed of building large projects and getting paid big money to build them. He thought he’d gotten his chance when he was hired to build a dam in the back country on the Lower Colorado River, especially since the New Deal was releasing funds for such things. The one problem was that although President Roosevelt said he wanted the dam built, it hadn’t yet been authorized. Brown decided to take a chance, and go ahead and start building, even though it was going to take about $1.5 million to buy and install the equipment he was going to need. The project was budgeted at $10 million, of which $5 million had been released to him, so he began the job. The next $5 million was where he was going to make his profit, but he was warned that if there was anything that didn’t look right about the job, that $5 million wouldn’t get released. That’s when a second problem surfaced.
In other Western states it wouldn’t have been a problem. In those states public lands were owned by the Federal government, once the territories became states. But Texas had been a republic before becoming a state, so all public lands were owned by the state. This was a big problem, but Brown thought his representative could straighten it out, and make the enterprise legal. Then one further problem arose: his representative had a heart attack, and died.
That’s the other reason Wirtz wanted Johnson to run. He knew Johnson knew Washington, where the power was, and who to cultivate (he’d already cultivated as many people as he could). He didn’t see any of the other candidates as having the knowledge, intelligence, or drive to do the job he wanted done. That’s why he supported Johnson’s campaign.
Johnson knew this might be his only chance to begin climbing the ladder to where he wanted to go, so he threw himself into the campaign, working harder than his friends thought ANYONE could work. He broke down physically at the end, but he did win, and became a member of the House of Representatives.
He had immediate work to do: he had to get the dam authorized, which he did through Tommy Corcoran, one of Roosevelt’s right-hand men, who brought the subject up at an appropriate time, and got Roosevelt to approve it, then did the legwork to make it happen. Corcoran got used again to make sure the second $5 million was released to Brown. But then Brown decided he wanted the dam bigger.
The problem was that the dam wasn’t high enough to provide flood control–because it had never been intended for that. Alvin Wirtz wanted it built to provide hydroelectric power. The solution was to make it for both power generation and flood control, building it higher for an additional $17 million. The extra cost was managed by involving a second agency in the matter (The Bureau of Reclamation was the first), but even that came up $2.5 million short. Johnson had been cultivating Abe Fortas, one of the best legal minds in Washington, and his solution was to involve yet a third agency in it to make up the $2.5 million that was lacking. The whole business was complicated, but Johnson, through the friends he had cultivated, managed it. The dam would be built, and Herman and George Brown would get rich from it. And because of his efforts, they would support Lyndon Johnson in whatever he did in the future.
Johnson had tried to cultivate Herman Brown by being a “professional son”, but Brown happened to be immune to that tactic. He wasn’t interested in flattery. His background predisposed him to conservatism: he had worked hard and sacrificed, never being satisfied with where he was, always wanting to reach a higher level, and that kind of effort was what he valued in a man. If he was going to pay someone for something, he wanted their best effort to do the job. He had observed Johnson during his campaign, and understood just how hard he was trying. They were alike both in coming from a poor background, and in the effort they had made and were making to escape it. Brown could tell how hard someone was working, and respected Johnson for his effort. When Johnson gave him what he wanted, he felt he owed Johnson, and Johnson would make use of that in the future.
Brown had two brothers, and he brought them both into the business. George had a terrible accident underground that he almost didn’t survive, so once he had recovered he worked more on the political aspects of the company: getting jobs and making sure everything went well. The third brother didn’t want to work as hard as his older brother required, so left the company. Herman Brown didn’t like lazy people. He thought blacks were lazy, and he thought unions were encouraging whites to be lazy, so he didn’t agree with the New Deal. But since he liked Johnson, liked arguing with him at private parties, and because Johnson had done what he’d asked, he would support Johnson in the future, whether he agreed with what Johnson was trying to do or not.
Johnson had one other great accomplishment during his first couple of terms. He became involved with the Rural Electrification Act, which aimed to bring electricity to small farmers, and he especially wanted to bring electricity to the Hill Country in which he’d grown up.
Life on a small farm, especially in the Hill Country, was constant drudgery. Farmers had to plow with mules, which took a long time. They had to get up early every day to milk the cows, then milk them again at night. Their wives had to carry buckets of water many times a day from wells that were deep, and not near their houses. They had to cook on wood stoves, constantly adding wood, and having to constantly watch that the stoves didn’t get too hot and burn the food. That part was tolerable in the winter, but in the summer it was terribly uncomfortable, and carrying so much water so many times a day made the women bent and round-shouldered when relatively young. They survived through the winter by canning, and canning had to be done the day the fruit got ripe, which was in summer, in the hot weather, and the wives had to stay close to the hot stove to do it. Because there was no electricity, there was no refrigeration, except for ice. In cities people could get ice relatively easily. In the country they had to go long distances to get it, and it didn’t last long. Most people didn’t even have outhouses. They simply went outside when they had to, no matter what the weather. And if they wanted to encourage their children’s education at home, it had to wait until night, because they were too busy during the day, and at night they only had oil lanterns, which made it hard to read. Milking was done with oil lanterns too, but that was dangerous, because a fire could destroy a barn and the cattle quickly. So some farmers milked in the dark, a job that would take two hours with 20 cows, and had to be done before daylight in the morning, because they had to work in the fields all day as soon as it was light.
Washing clothes was another problem. Without electricity there could be no washing machines, so women scrubbed the clothes on a washboard, then scrubbed them in a vat of water with lye soap (no one could afford soap from a store), which wasn’t very effective at getting dirt out, then put into a vat of boiling water, and stirred or “punched” with wooden paddles or broomsticks to get all the dirt out. Then the clothes were rinsed, wrung out, and put in a third tub with bluing. The clothes had to be punched and swished more to get the bluing all through them. That was one load. After each load the water had to be changed, which meant more running to the well and back, and most farms required eight loads of washing a week.
The next day was ironing. Of course there weren’t electric irons, so the irons were made of metal and had to be heated individually. They were placed on the wood stoves to heat, but inevitably some soot got on them, and had to be scraped off. If any wasn’t, that article of clothing had to be washed again. All that was hard on the back, but the heat (especially during the summer) might have been even harder to bear.
Then there was harvest time, when a woman had to cook for a crew of 20 or 30 men, instead of just her family. And shearing, when she had to pedal the shearing machine so her husband could shear the sheep. She also had to help with the plowing, the sowing, and picking the crops when they came. Women in particular got worn out young.
Electricity could change all that, but electric companies refused to supply farmers, especially in such a thinly populated area, claiming that their demand wouldn’t be enough to justify the cost of installation. Johnson and others didn’t believe this. They felt the power companies were inflating their rates to make more profit, and that if the rates were lowered, and electricity provided to more people (of some 6.8 million farmers in the country at that time, some six million didn’t have electricity) the companies would actually make more money. It was a struggle to get that bill through Congress. The utility companies didn’t like it, and they fought hard against it. But Sam Rayburn (whose name I remember from when I was young, without ever having known anything about him) got the measure through Congress. But getting the measure through Congress, and getting electricity to the Hill Country were two different things. The REA had worked for farmers in other areas, but population in the Hill Country was sparse, and companies argued that they couldn’t invest the capital to serve so few people. Johnson tried to get people to sign up for a cooperative to produce the power, but people generally wouldn’t. It was too scary. He warned the people of the area that if they didn’t sign up for the cooperative, when electricity came it would be provided by the local utility company, and would be too expensive for them, so some signed up, but not enough. So Johnson had to go to the REA, which got him nowhere. Then he went to Tommy Corcoran again, who got him an appointment with the President. He emerged from that meeting with the loan necessary to finance electrification, but it took a long time to get all the poles and wires put up, and the power turned on. Eventually, though, it did happen, and the Hill Country enjoyed an immense change.
That wasn’t all either. Much of the land had gotten overgrown with cedar, which is very greedy for water. Johnson could talk to the farmers on their own terms. He’d lived there, he knew first-hand what their problems were. And he was able to offer them $5 an acre to clear cedar from their land. That was a good strong motivation, and the farmers who did that discovered that grass started coming up where the cedar had been. Their land still wasn’t the most fertile, but at least they could raise a crop on it. They could also raise cows, one of which could be healthy on six acres of land, instead of 15 or 30.
He also worked to improve the roads, so farmers could get their produce to market before it spoiled, and to build new public schools and libraries. Caro comments that Johnson invented none of these programs, but made use of as many of them as he could. By his own estimate he got $70 million for his district.
As active as he was in these areas, he was very inactive on national issues. He had based his campaign on supporting Roosevelt, but didn’t do so in office. Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court had backfired, alienating his conservative Vice President, and other conservatives in particular. After his first term he was unable to pass any more domestic legislation, especially compared to the major acts he had passed in his first term. If Johnson had any strong beliefs on the issues, he kept quiet about them, not wanting anything he said to come back to haunt him later. He made very few speeches, and introduced almost no legislation, so that, except for serving his district, he did little but look for ways to advance his ambitions. His ambitions were as strong as ever, but he couldn’t see anything to do about them, except to avoid sabotaging himself, and running for the Senate when he got the opportunity. That was his next step.

The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part Two


Lyndon Johnson had to take a break between his sophomore and junior years in college to make money to pay for his next year. He had arranged for a good job on campus, but had spent too much money and borrowed too much. He managed to get a job teaching school in a southern Texas town near the border, where most of the students were Mexicans. He could have slid by, doing the minimum, which was all these children were used to in their teachers anyway, but he didn’t.

Instead he brought discipline to the school. He didn’t care about the children’s culture, and never bothered to learn much Spanish, but insisted that they only speak English in and around the school. If he heard a boy using Spanish words during recess, he would spank him; if a girl, he would berate her.

But the children weren’t offended. He was giving them attention, which few others did. He also arranged for athletic equipment, and organized debates and spelling bees. Many of the children in later life had good memories of him.

He also taught the custodian English before and after school. He would pronounce and English word and have the custodian pronounce it after him, or spell one, and have the custodian spell it. He got nothing for doing this, in monetary terms. Apparently he recognized the kinship between the people in the town and himself. All came from poor backgrounds from which they’d be unable to escape without appropriate tools.

After his year at that school he returned to college, and organized the White Stars, as described in my last post.

I happened to hear Robert Caro, author of this biography, on NPR, talking about the Civil Rights Bill (this year is its 50th anniversary) Johnson passed much later in life. He commented that Johnson was a man of compassion, but also a man of ambition. When compassion interfered with ambition, ambition always won with him, but when they pointed in the same direction he achieved almost miraculous things.

A later summer he worked on the campaign of a Texas politician, Welly Hopkins, but Hopkins was unable to give him a job, so after graduating from college he managed to get another teaching job, this time in Houston.

In this job too he was energetic and demanding, and concentrated on preparing the students for debate competitions in great detail. He emphasized doing everything one could, controlling all the minor details as well as the major ones, and that doing this would almost guarantee winning. It almost did. In the state championship his debaters lost by one point. That methodology was what he would use himself in his career.

During his second year at the school he was offered a job as private secretary to Richard Kleberg, who had just won a special election to fill a vacancy in the 14th Congressional District. On securing the job he left the school and headed for Washington without even any warm clothes or money to buy them.

Once there, he began organizing Kleberg’s office, eventually hiring two of the White Stars he had known in college to assist him, and exploring Washington. In the office one of his priorities was to answer the mail as quickly as possible, so the constituents writing would feel connected to Washington (and hopefully more connected to Lyndon Johnson than to Richard Kleberg), and generating more mail.

As he slowly began to understand what was where and how to get things done in Washington, he began doing things. His first move was to get acquainted with as many important people in the government as he could, and their staff people. People who knew him well said he was always looking for his next job–what would it be, and how could he prepare for it? He was preparing now.

He had arrived in Washington in 1931, at the age of 23. The Great Depression had begun just two years before.

When reading about this period, I’m struck by the mirror image it gives of the Great Recession, largest economic downturn since the Depression, that we’re still in. Many of the problems are the same: wide economic inequality and corruption. The big difference is that the Depression struck in the second year of Herbert Hoover’s presidency. States gave as much aid as they could to the unemployed, but eventually ran out of money. Hoover didn’t want to do too much in the form of aid, fearing it would destroy American’s morale. So he did little, while Congress wrangled (achieving almost nothing), even when veterans of World War I descended on the Capitol and begged Hoover to negotiate with their leaders. Instead, he had the Army drive them away.

So by the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected, the country was ready for the government to do SOMETHING, even conservatives. And Roosevelt did do things. He admitted from the beginning that the country was in unknown territory, and that he would try things; if the things he tried didn’t work, he’d try something else. He did.

One of the problems of the Depression was one that had at least a 50 year history: farmers weren’t getting paid enough for their crops. They had tried to organize to change that, but their organization had been defeated. Now Roosevelt, among others, recognized that one of their problems was they were producing too much, driving the price for their crops down. He started a program to pay farmers for NOT planting all their acreage. This would give them a steady income, and enable them to hold onto their farms. Many farmers didn’t understand the program, and didn’t sign up for it. That’s where Lyndon Johnson came in. He contacted the influential farmers of his districts, and explained the program to them, getting them to sign up, and getting them to influence other farmers. This was one way he could serve his district and get to know important people there. The funny thing about his efforts to extend the benefits of the New Deal to the 14th Congressional District of Texas was that he didn’t believe in it–at least not when he was talking to important conservatives. People around him at that time agreed that he had a great need for gratitude, and the New Deal was seemingly made for someone with those feelings. And yet he seemed not to believe in it–except when he was talking to liberals.

This was a continuation of his behavior at college, where he flattered the faculty and administrators, and agreed with everything they said. People who knew him said he was a “professional son”, able to get older people to like him, and want to help him. When he went to dances in Washington he didn’t dance with the young attractive women, but with the wives of Congressmen. He was planning ahead, looking for allies who would help him achieve what he wanted to achieve.

What DID he want to achieve? In 1939 a wealthy Texas businessman offered to give him an oil well that would make him rich. Lyndon Johnson WANTED to be rich, but he refused the offer, saying it would kill him politically. Why would it? Texans had no problem with oil, and didn’t think badly (most of them) about people who owned oil wells. George Brown who, with his brother Herman, would be very important in Johnson’s life, reflected that after three years of knowing Lyndon Johnson well, he finally realized after this incident just what Lyndon Johnson DID want, and how badly he wanted it.

Lyndon Johnson was a desperate man. That didn’t make him stand out from many of the people he’d grown up with, or many of the people living through the Great Depression. His intelligence, energy, and the means he was willing to use to accomplish what he wanted did make him stand out. When his chance came to run for Congress, his desperation would be shown clearly.

That chance came when a Representative of Texas’s 10th Congressional District died. Johnson had hoped that Kleberg, his boss, would accept an ambassador’s post, but Kleberg wasn’t interested. He was comfortable being a Representative, and incumbents from Texas usually won their elections, often running unopposed. Johnson knew little about the 10th District, but he knew a chance like this would be unlikely to come again soon. So he consulted with Alvin Wirtz.

Wirtz was a lawyer who enjoyed being a power behind the scenes, and Johnson had become his “professional son”. Wirtz had his own reasons for wanting Johnson to win the seat, and though he didn’t think much of the New Deal, advised Johnson to run on Roosevelt’s coattails. It was 1936, and Roosevelt was still popular, but had started to be less popular because of his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court to stop his programs from being declared unconstitutional. If Johnson proclaimed his support for Roosevelt (even though Wirtz didn’t really support him, and Johnson didn’t really either), he would win popular support, and also the support of Roosevelt himself, if he was successful. Johnson agreed.

People who knew Johnson agreed that he’d always wanted to marry money, and he had successfully married Ladybird Taylor, whose father was one of the very rich men in East Texas. Ladybird had some good qualities of her own, but allowed her husband to overshadow her and often treat her badly, ordering her around and berating her in front of guests. But her father immediately gave Johnson $10,000 to get his campaign started.

He could call on money from various lobbyists and other political friends too, at least partly through the help of Alvin Wirtz. He put up billboards, bought radio time, but most of all he traveled.

Austin was in the center of the 10th District, but Johnson didn’t think he could win in the city. He wasn’t part of that political machine, which had its own candidates. They didn’t necessarily object to Johnson running, but weren’t going to go out of their way to help him. So he took his campaign to the countryside.

Every day he would be on the road, stopping at country stores to talk to the proprietor and customers. He was never an extremely good formal speaker, but informally his friends said he could sell anything to anybody. Of course country stores would only reach relatively few people, so he stopped at every farm he could find to talk to the farmers. That was practically unprecedented, and certainly helped persuade farmers to vote for him, which wasn’t easy for them to do. They would have to travel many miles to vote, leaving chores (practically constant on a farm) undone. So he traveled daily, and after a full day of campaigning returned to campaign headquarters to make sure that his strategy was right, and everything was being taken care of.

He slowly began to gain traction in the race. His father, a successful politician–for awhile–suggested that since he couldn’t get a leader to introduce him before he spoke, to get an outstanding child. His opponents were telling people he was too young to serve. He found a young male relative, known in the area for his rodeo skills, to recite Edger Guest’s poem, It Couldn’t Be Done. Another candidate also said he was too young,that he was taking money from the “Interests”, and that he hadn’t been born in the district. Johnson answered that had his mother known the people of the district wanted a “city-slicker” to represent them, she might have done something about it, that he’d rather be a young whippersnapper than an old reactionary, and then denied that he was using any money but his own.

The latter wasn’t true; in fact, his first campaign was one of the most expensive in the history of Texas. One man closely associated with it thought the total spent was between $75,000 and $100,000, at a time when the dollar was worth much more than today.

But Johnson’s desperation showed in the way he pushed not only the people around him, but himself. At the end of the campaign he developed appendicitis, and had to be hospitalized for a long time. He had started the campaign at 181 pounds. After two weeks of recuperation his weight was 151. He was a tall man, so even 181 made him very thin. But he did win the campaign.