Lyndon Johnson’s 1963 didn’t start out very well. Not only was he excluded and unimportant in the Kennedy administration, but Bobby Baker, who had been one of his most trusted assistants in the Senate, had gotten into a number of shady enterprises, including establishing a club where legislators and lobbyists could be bribed by sex. Johnson tried to distance himself from Baker, but they were closely connected. As reporters dug into the things Baker had been doing they discovered things that Johnson had been doing too.
An insurance agent had sold Johnson life insurance (Johnson had had difficulty getting insurance after his heart attack), and Johnson had then demanded (in return for his getting a commission from the policy)that the man buy advertising time on Johnson’s TV station in Texas, though it made no sense for an insurance agent in Maryland to advertise there, and also to supply Johnson and his wife with a stereo.
Robert Caro points out that the stereo was a relatively minor item, but it was connected with things not so minor. Johnson’s insurance premium was paid by the LBJ Company, which owned the TV station that Johnson insisted was owned by his wife. But if he wasn’t connected to it, why was the company paying his insurance? Johnson had never made more than $35,000 a year as a politician, but was actually a millionaire several times over. And the TV station had benefited from several favorable rulings from the FCC, so that his wife’s (ostensibly) company now owned more radio and TV stations, as well as land.
As with the insurance agent, much of this wealth had been amassed through people buying advertising time. The reason they had done it was to receive political influence in return. That would not look good to ordinary Americans, and John J. Williams, a Republican Senator from Delaware, who was very independent and disliked corruption, had become interested in the story, and the more he interviewed witnesses, the more questionable activities by Johnson he found.
On top of that, the Kennedys were talking about dropping Johnson from their reelection ticket. The Bobby Baker scandal was a good excuse to get rid of someone they didn’t feel comfortable with.
The campaign trip to Texas in November 1963 was also not comfortable for Johnson. He’d lost a lot of influence in Texas, partly because he was no longer in the Senate, partly because of the administration he was part of: conservatives didn’t like the Kennedys, and stopped backing Johnson.They didn’t object to his beliefs about civil rights, but he had promised them he could moderate Kennedy’s policies on taxes, and he wasn’t able to deliver. Kennedy wanted to close tax loopholes, which these conservative Texans used. When Johnson couldn’t stop that, he lost conservative support.
He was also disliked by Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, leader of liberal Democrats in Texas, who refused to ride in a car with him during a parade. John Connally, who had worked closely with Johnson for years, had left him after the 1960 election, and won the Texas governorship. He was now trying to show that he didn’t need Johnson.
Everything changed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Speculation has often connected Johnson with the assassination, beginning not long after it. Robert Caro says that in all of Johnson’s papers that he’s gone through he’s never seen anything to suggest he was involved. That doesn’t entirely exclude the possibility that he was involved, of course, and the assassination very possibly saved his political career.
Once it was certain that Kennedy was dead, Johnson took charge. He arranged for all the people of the administration at the hospital to which Kennedy had been taken to leave for the airport (not knowing just what was happening, or whether there was a conspiracy that might want to kill others too), and gather in one plane, where he took the oath of office before allowing the plane to fly back to Washington.
Johnson knew that Kennedy had several bills he was trying to get passed. He also knew that there wasn’t much time to pass them. There would be a necessary time of mourning for Kennedy, but there were also things that needed to be done if those bills were to pass. One was a bill cutting taxes, which Kennedy hoped would stimulate the economy; the other, possibly more important, was a civil rights bill. Johnson had previously suggested to Kennedy that he might want to pass the tax bill before introducing the other. The civil rights bill was far more controversial, and the tax bill could be held hostage to keep civil rights from ever coming to the floor. Kennedy hadn’t listened to that advice.
Beginning in Texas, and on the way back to Washington, Johnson pleaded with officials and advisers in the Kennedy administration to stick with him. “I need you more now than President Kennedy ever did,” he told them, and a number of them did stay, even though they didn’t much like Johnson.
Johnson felt their dislike, and felt the inadequacy of his education compared to theirs. They had, many of them, been educated in the Ivy League; Johnson had gone to a small teacher’s college in west Texas. Actually, Johnson had several aides who compared favorably to Kennedy’s friends in their abilities, but because those friends weren’t ostentatiously educated, he felt inferior.
But, says Robert Caro, when it came to governing, he had instinct. He knew immediately after the assassination that everyone was confused, no one knew what to do, and that he had to lead them out of confusion by providing direction. There was little he could do on the way back to Washington, or on arrival there, except to ask as many people as he could to help him. Not just Kennedy’s aides, but anyone else he could think of. But when he got to Washington, one of the last things he did that day was to write letters to Carolyn and John F. Kennedy Jr, telling them he was thinking of them, and that they could always be proud of their father.
Once back in Washington he busied himself finding out what needed to be done, and asking others to help him. He started asking prominent men for help: George Meany, leader of the United Mine Workers, and other union leaders; then civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Whitney Young. He humbled himself before members of the Kennedy administration, telling them he didn’t know anyone as smart as them, and that he needed their help. He said later, “I knew how they felt. He was gone, and with his going they must have felt everything had changed…So I determined to keep them informed. I determined to keep them busy. I constantly requested their advice and asked for their help.” He must have been tempted to pay some of them back for the slights he’d received, but during that period he never did. He and the nation needed continuity, and the Kennedy people gave it.
Then he had to meet with foreign leaders who had come for Kennedy’s funeral. He had little time to be briefed, had to soak up what information he could almost instantaneously, and fell back on his talent for making connections with people he’d never met, or had only met briefly. He was able to do that, even with the Russians and President deGaulle of France, neither of whom much liked America. As soon as that was over it was time to meet with as many governors as he could. He urged them to talk with their congressmen and work for America. He won them over too.
Next was to get the tax bill and budget passed. The budget had to be passed first, and Harry Byrd, Senator from Virginia, wasn’t going to allow it out of his committee if it was over $100 billion. Johnson knew the budget needed to be higher, but that a choice would have to be made being having it higher or getting it passed. Getting it passed was the key to breaking the logjam in the Senate,where almost any Senator could prevent legislation from passing or even getting to the floor, and any Senator displeased with the administration and what it asked for would jam on the brakes, so he made cuts to guarantee the budget would stay below $100 billion. That, and Byrd’s liking for him, was the way to get Byrd to cooperate. Kennedy’s primary economic advisers were impressed too.
Then he had to make his first speech as President. He had often not been good at public formal speaking, as bad at that as he was good at talking to people one-on-one. Now he had to make a speech and make it a good one. He had often ruined speeches by rushing through them, and shouting instead of speaking. He knew he couldn’t afford to do that now. So he typed each paragraph, left an empty space between it and the next, and wrote “pause” in each space by hand. This he managed to do when he spoke.
He spoke about how the president had been assassinated, and how many might wish for the country to fall apart for lack of leadership, how people could come together and act on the important things that needed to be done. Not everyone applauded, particularly not the Southern senators when he spoke about civil rights. But many did applaud: he was interrupted by applause 31 times. And such was the emotion with which he spoke that many people cried when he was done.
When he had been preparing the speech he had gathered some of his allies to help him. They disagreed on what his priorities ought to be, some saying that a president had only so much political influence, and it shouldn’t be wasted on lost causes, meaning civil right. Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
One thing it was immediately for was creating the Warren Commission to investigate Kennedy’s death. When we think of it now, we usually think, “Coverup.” Caro reminds us that, first, Johnson’s initial desire was to have the assassination investigated in Texas, which had jurisdiction. He came to realize that it needed to be investigated by a Federal commission, which everyone could watch. Johnson was able to get some of the men with the greatest integrity in the country on the commission, including Earl Warren and Richard Russell, and, in Caro’s opinion, it succeeded in allaying the country’s fears–for awhile. Johnson, and others, feared that chaos could result from not facing the tragedy, and for awhile many felt that the Warren Commission had managed to assuage those fears. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to investigate as many aspects of the case as they should have, and many people still believe that the assassination was a conspiracy. It was an attempt to reassure the country, but ultimately unsuccessful. Johnson went against his preferences by giving up control, and allowing people he hardly knew to investigate, but that was what needed to be done, so he did it.
Then it was time to work on civil rights. Franklin Roosevelt had overreached when trying to pack the Supreme Court, and had been defeated. His proposal had brought together conservative Republicans and Democrats, otherwise usually opposed, and once together, they had stayed together to defeat all Roosevelt’s domestic agenda. After his first term, he was unable to pass any more domestic legislation, and neither could his successors. Harry Truman had wanted to pass civil rights legislation, national health insurance, and expanded unemployment insurance. He managed to pass almost none of it, at least partly because Richard Russell, Senator from Georgia, was able to take other important bills hostage, so a choice had to be made between which bills were most important. Civil rights had lost almost every time. When it hadn’t, it had been Lyndon Johnson’s doing, but in order to pass those bills, he’d had to water them down. That wasn’t going to be good enough now, when there were increasingly more black voters, and someone would have to pay attention to them if they wanted to get those votes.
The bill that had been submitted was stalled in the House Rules Committee, and since three members of the Committee were from the South, it wasn’t going to move. Unless enough people would sign a “discharge petition” to relieve the Rules Committee of its responsibility, and take the bill to the floor.
Johnson’s first step was to call the civil rights leaders and ask them to work at lobbying for the bill. He explained to them that he had asked black people who worked for him to bring his dog to Washington from Texas, and how they hadn’t wanted to do it, because driving through the South meant they could rarely stop to use the restroom or get food, and that he hadn’t realized before how difficult things were for black people in the South. He told them how he had taught Mexican children one year in southern Texas, and how he had determined to help them in the future if he could. The leaders believed him, and vowed to help him.
Then he met with George Meany (who wanted to be seen helping the President) and enlisted labor into the fight. He had the Democratic whips talk to each member to find out how each was going to voe, and put pressure on them. He made a deal with Albert Thomas, a Texas Representative, assuring him that he would retain final say over his business in his appropriations subcommittees and that Brown and Root projects would continue to be funded. In return, Thomas got him six votes from Texas. He also put pressure on Republicans by pointing out that the party of Lincoln ought to support civil rights, and not voting for it was the same as not supporting it.
Clarence Brown, of Ohio, meeting with Judge Smith, of Virginia, who had been keeping the bill bottled up in committee, told him that Republicans were being put in an untenable position. Smith was in an untenable position of his own: two Republicans on his committee could overrule him, which would be embarrassing. He issued a statement that the committee would take up the bill early in January, and wouldn’t spend too much time on it before releasing it to the floor. Just to be sure, though, Johnson kept the discharge petition active on the floor. Next he had to get the tax bill passed before the civil rights bill would be considered, or the tax bill would be held hostage. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Judge Smith tried to renege on his promise, and some intervention by Johnson was necessary to resurrect the discharge petition, and force Smith to let the bill out of his committee.
Meanwhile he was also working on an anti-poverty bill, and had managed to get as much as a billion dollars together to make it work. He did this at least partly by insisting on military cutbacks. With that money he planned to put together a program that could only be compared with Roosevelt’s New Deal. Many people supported that.
Once the tax bill had been finished, the civil rights bill came next, and since Johnson had gotten
the tax bill, as well as various appropriation bills, the South had no bills to hold hostage, and Johnson was determined not to bring any more legislation to the floor until the civil rights bill was dealt with. And Johnson was refusing to compromise about the substance of the bill: he wanted to pass it exactly as it was.
To do this, he asked Hubert Humphrey to take responsibility. Johnson had become friends with Humphrey after Humphrey became a Senator in the early 1950s. He could use Humphrey because Humphrey was a liberal, and Johnson needed liberal votes in the North if he was going to become president. He told Humphrey that liberals would never succeed in passing civil rights bills because they didn’t know the rules of the Senate and would go off to make speeches when they ought to be on the floor. Humphrey realized Johnson was right, and learned the rules, and was able to lead the Senate effort to pass the bill. He had the gift of oratory, and he was always friendly, which kept the fight from getting vicious.
One of the more difficult things he had to do was organize the liberals to keep 51 of them on the floor at all times. This was necessary because they had to always have a quorum to conduct business, since if they didn’t (even in the middle of the night) the Senate would automatically adjourn, Southern senators who had already spoken twice would be able to speak again, and the filibuster would get longer. Only once during that time were liberals caught without a quorum, helping them to defeat the filibuster. Humphrey organized the liberals so there were always people ready to defend parts of the bill, and the liberals enjoyed fighting as a team for it.
Everett Dirksen of Illinois became the key to beating the filibuster. He was a Republican, and the question of whether the party of Lincoln would support civil rights or not resonated with him. And Johnson made sure he got credit for what he did. The vote for cloture (ending debate and the filibuster) was 71-29, with 27 Republicans voting for it. Since 23 of the 67 Democrats in the Senate were Southern or from border states, Democrats had only 44 votes they could count on, so the Republican vote was necessary. Finally, in June, the bill passed. It had to go back to the House because amendments had been added, but Republicans managed to get it through the House quickly.
Johnson had gone from being nothing in the Kennedy administration to being the next president, and had been masterful in taking over in very difficult circumstances and passing the legislation that had been left pending after Kennedy’s death.
The period between Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s presidential campaign in 1964 showed Johnson at his best. Unfortunately, his decision to stay in Vietnam (Kennedy had been planning to pull American troops out) and escalate the war overshadowed all the good things he’d done, and made his domestic legislation less effective than it might have been.
Still, he had accomplished important things that few others could have.
Robert Caro is still working on the volume telling about Johnson’s own presidency, so other than reflecting on Johnson’s life and times, this account will stop here.