The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part 9


After Lyndon Johnson was reelected in 1954, Democrat also had a majority in the Senate, so he became Majority Leader. As such, he could deal with the chairmen of various committees, instead of staffers, and more directly affect when bills were scheduled and what form they took. He could quash unwanted amendments in committee before the bills reached the floor, or prevent them from getting passed on the floor. Bills were coming to the Senate closer to the forms their sponsors originally wanted, and getting passed without a great deal of debate. No Majority Leader had had this kind of power before, and one may question whether it was good that debate was limited. But it was good for the Democratic party and for Lyndon Johnson.
He also had power to make committee appointments, and could reward or punish anyone by giving or withholding coveted committee positions. He could thus gather many Democrats who wanted to be on his “team”. So in 1955, as in 1953, every newly elected senator got a seat on a major committee, which probably made the Senate function more efficiently, and the expertise new senators brought could be put to use quickly. That probably served the country as well as the Democratic party and Lyndon Johnson.
But now that he had power he used it blatantly. With very few people would he be humble anymore. People he didn’t like he would refuse to talk to, and refuse to reward, if not outright punish. On the floor of the Senate he would even tell Senators to change their votes, without any circumspection. One colleague said it wouldn’t happen a lot, but it would happen.
Part of the efficiency with which the Senate now ran was because of Richard Russell. He wanted to finally end the Civil War, thought the way to do this was to elect a Southern president, and wanted Lyndon Johnson to be that president. So he made his Southern coalition understand that some bills would have to be passed that had a liberal “tinge”, which the Southerners wouldn’t have allowed under any other leader. This brought the party closer together, which would make it stronger at election time.
But Southerners would only compromise so much, and when they wouldn’t, Johnson would have to go along with them. One of these areas was Rule 22, concerning filibusters. Liberals wanted to get rid of that rule, or at least water it down. It was the rule that had prevented any civil rights legislation since 1875, and Southerners wanted to preserve it as their ultimate weapon, so Lyndon Johnson went along.
Robert Caro says that Lyndon Johnson’s interests always came first when they collided with the interests of the country, but sometimes they aligned. The Southern coalition wouldn’t always give him elbow-room, but sometimes they did, and the results were often surprising.
One of these issues was public housing, which conservatives hated, because they thought it was socialism, while liberals wanted to get people out of the slums. One conservative introduced an amendment to a public housing bill which would have cut the number of units subsidized drastically. Johnson argued to the Southerners that although the amendment cut the number of units, they would still be voting for what they deemed socialistic, so why not vote against the amendment, and then vote against the entire bill on the floor? He thus arranged to get the amendment rejected, and when the bill came to the floor it didn’t matter how the Southerners voted: everyone else wanted the bill to pass, and it did.
The very next day a bill to increase the minimum wage bill from 75 cents and hour to $1.25 came to the floor. Johnson had negotiated the raise down to $1.00 an hour, and was telling liberals if they didn’t go along with that they might get no increase at all, while telling conservatives that if they didn’t go along they might get stuck with an increase to $1.25.
The day the bill came to the floor Johnson noticed that during the time allotted for Democrats to debate that most of the bill’s opponents were off the floor, and quickly called a vote and passed it. Liberals, for the second day in a row, were amazed. Both sides were furious with him, but liberals quickly realized that they had at least achieved SOMETHING. $1.00 an hour was better than no increase at all. Johnson often said it wasn’t the function of senators to stand around saying principled things, it was their function to pass legislation. But now he had passed principled legislation. Whatever his beliefs were, they weren’t what had passed the bills: his skills had done that.
With more success came more pressure. He ate a lot, but didn’t eat healthily; he smoked a lot, he drank a lot, he was busy all day and well into the night. During his first campaign, for the House of Representatives, he had worked so hard that people who saw him said they didn’t believe ANYONE could work that hard. At the end of the campaign he came down with appendicitis, and such was his general condition that he had to spend weeks in the hospital.
The same had happened when he made his successful run to the Senate: he worked that hard again, and this time got an infected kidney stone, which he resisted being hospitalized for, and eventually insisted on an experimental treatment, which worked. Robert Caro suggests that if he didn’t succeed then, he may not have cared what happened to him, so he overcame 104 degree fevers and intense pain to win his Senate seat.
Now the same thing was to happen. This time it was a heart attack, and a bad one. Johnson didn’t want to stop what he was doing, didn’t want to go to the hospital, but was finally forced to. Caro remarks that in college he had had a reputation as a physical coward, but when the chips were down he could be, and was, courageous. When told he had to be calm to survive until he got to the hospital, he became calm.
After his heart attack he was at first depressed, but when he got some 4,000 letters and cards from friends and others, he came out of his depression, insisted that all 4,000 be answered personally, and began working again from the hospital, receiving visitors and calling people. Some thought this was probably better for him than inaction, which would have frustrated him to such an extent that he might have had another heart attack.
His doctors insisted he must give up smoking (he was a BIG smoker) and change his diet, and he had the will to do so. Caro says that he occasionally did have a cigarette or two, but that this was rare until after he retired from the presidency, when he began smoking copiously again. He also became a diet fanatic, and lost a lot of weight.
The other thing that he considered was that he still hadn’t reached the goal he’d been working for all his life: the presidency–and another presidential election was coming up. In the event, though, he had ambivalent feelings. He didn’t want to really run all-out unless he thought he had a real chance, but he was willing to make the effort to arrange things so he might have a chance. In 1956, though he came out at the Democratic Convention and really tried, things didn’t work out. The next chance he would have would be 1960, and to have a chance then, he needed to do something that would bring liberals to his side. He had the Southern senators behind him, but there could be no Southern president (there had been none since the Civil War) without a candidate who could appeal to more than one section of the country. Johnson knew this, as did the Southern senators who were his friends. They were willing to compromise a little to improve his chances, and he took advantage of that, as will be told in my next post.


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