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.


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