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.


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