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.


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