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.


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