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.


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