Richard Jernigan -> RE: Vive la France (Nov. 28 2015 1:50:39)
Johnson's first Senate election affords a cameo of Texas politics in the 1940s. His subsequent career illustrates the complexity of character that can accompany great power.
Robert Caro's detailed biography is a masterpiece in three volumes, so far. Acquaintances at the LBJ Library here in Austin tell me Caro is diligently at work on the final volume.
Johnson's father was a small town/rural politician. He was popular during his early career, but later failed both politically and financially. During Lyndon's childhood his family often depended upon relatives and friends for food and for financial assistance to keep from losing their house. In the small town where they lived, Johnson's father was denied credit by the local merchants, a public disgrace in such a small place where everyone knew everybody else's business.
Caro went so far as to find and interview people who went to elementary school with Johnson. They reported that at an early age he announced his intention to be president. He was one of the few boys in town who owned a baseball. If Johnson was not allowed to be pitcher he would take his ball and go home, keeping anybody else from playing.
Johnson studied at the teacher's college in San Marcos just south of Austin, unable to afford even the cheap tuition and living expenses of the University at Austin. In the summer he worked on a gang building and maintaining the gravel roads near his home town, desperately hot and fatiguing work.
Johnson's first political coup was to get elected president of the student body at San Marcos. Until that time the post had been held by popular young men who were athletes or could afford to belong to one of the fraternities. Johnson quietly put together an organization among the poorer, less popular students.
He used his office to befriend and become an openly devoted admirer of the college president. Johnson followed this pattern of attaching himself to older and more powerful men throughout his career. Soon the college president relied upon Johnson to parcel out the low paying jobs available to the poorer students. If you wanted a job in the cafeteria or as a janitor, you had to see Lyndon, and you had to support him politically.
Before finishing his studies, Johnson took a year off, teaching at a segregated Mexican-American school in the impoverished south Texas town of Cotulla. Later he said this was a formative experience. The children were far poorer than he had ever been. Many had no shoes to wear to school, even in winter. They were utterly blocked from any escape from poverty by the racism of south Texas.
After finishing his studies and further teaching jobs in Pearsall and Houston, Johnson entered politics, campaigning for a Texas congressman. This earned him a recommendation to Richard Kleberg of the King Ranch family, who was a congressman from south Texas. The wealthy Kleberg was more interested in Washington social life than politics. Johnson was soon running his office as surrogate congressman, fielding requests from constituents and negotiating with other congressmen.
The Little Congress was a club of congressional aides. Johnson was soon elected Speaker, the presiding officer. Many said his election was fraudulent, with his supporters stuffing the ballot box. Johnson was soon friends with influential young men in Washington including aides to president Franklin Roosevelt. He also attached himself to Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Many said he became a surrogate son to the bachelor Rayburn.
Rayburn was one of the most powerful men in the USA. He was widely famous for unbending honesty and rectitude. Despite Johnson's notorious moral flexibility, the bond persisted throughout Rayburn's long life, and was a considerable source of Johnson's power.
Caro wrote, "Johnson's ambition was uncommon—in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs."
Johnson was elected to Congress, and used his position to benefit his rural Texas constituency. The first paved road was built to his home town, and electricity was brought to the countryside. But he did little else of legislative note during his 12-year term in the House.
Except for one thing, that is. During Franklin Roosevelt's presidency many public works projects were funded by the government in an effort to ameliorate the Great Depression. These provided not only employment for workers, but also profits for construction companies. The owners of the Houston firm which became Brown and Root approached Johnson for assistance in obtaining the contract to build a large dam just west of Austin. There were also legal obstacles to be cleared away.
Johnson served Brown and Root well, using his contacts in the Administration, and the power in Congress of Sam Rayburn. Brown and Root received the contract, built the dam, made a lot of money, and went on to become one of the largest international contracting firms in the world. They remained faithful supporters of Johnson, and he saw to it that they were rewarded throughout the rest of his political career.
But during 12 years of apparent legislative torpor Johnson was building relationships and contacts in Washington and among the wealthy. This included an affair with the beautiful and sophisticated wife of an older millionaire, apparently unknown to the husband, though it was obvious to practically everybody else. Lyndon's wife Lady Bird bore the affair with patience, though it was a public humiliation to her.
In 1948 Johnson ran against Coke Stevenson for the Senate. Stevenson was the most popular governor ever elected in Texas. In one election he carried all 254 counties in the huge state. Stevenson began as a poor cowboy, ran a tiny freight business with a wagon and a mule, camping out en route, established his own ranch, entered the State Legislature, was soon elected Speaker, then Governor. Stevenson was admired by the whole of the state for his honesty, integrity and "pulling himself up by his own bootstraps" Like most Texas politicians at the time he was racist and economically conservative.
Johnson had previously run as a supporter of the New Deal welfare state policies instituted by Franklin Roosevelt. This was popular among the small farmers of his congressional district. In the Senate Democrat primary race he tacked rightward. Stevenson came in first but did not poll a majority, due to a third candidate. A runoff resulted.
At first the runoff was too close to call. Almost all of the border counties (my father's home county the only exception I know of) and some east Texas counties held off reporting their vote counts until the other returns were in, so they could know how many votes they needed to report to elect their candidate. Johnson had secured promises for the votes of the gangster controlled border counties, prominent among them the empire of George Parr.
After days of suspense and a further trip to the border by John Conally, Johnson was declared the winner. He was put over the top by a margin of 87 votes after 202 votes were reported for him from ballot box 13 in Jim Wells county, controlled by George Parr and his gang. The last 42 names on the voter signature roll were in alphabetical order, all in the same handwriting, with the time shown after all others, when the poll was closing. Some of the voters were buried in the cemetery at the time of the election.
Winning the Democrat primary was tantamount to winning the election in Texas in 1948. No Republican had held statewide office since the end of the military occupation after the Civil War.
By a vote of 29-28, the party committee certified Johnson as the winner.
Stevenson sued in Federal court, alleging fraud. Johnson's lawyers countered that Federal courts had no jurisdiction over state elections. Despite this, the Federal judge ordered Johnson's name removed from the ballot for the general election and appointed special masters with the power of subpoena to investigate.
Time was short before the general election. If he was going to get his name back on the ballot Johnson had to act fast. The fraudulent ballot boxes, impounded by the Federal judge but not opened yet, were a ticking time bomb. He convened a meeting in Dallas of ten of the top lawyers in Texas to devise a legal strategy. The meeting went long into the night with no consensus. Johnson got on the phone to Washington, trying to track down Abe Fortas, a young lawyer in the group Johnson socialized with in his early days in Washington. It turned out that Fortas was in Dallas, visiting the wealthy merchant Stanley Marcus, founder of the Neiman-Marcus department store empire.
Johnson called Marcus's house and told Fortas of the situation. Fortas arrived at the meeting of the lawyers as soon as possible. After listening to the other lawyers for half an hour Fortas said, "Here's what we'll do. We'll go to the Fifth Circuit"-- the federal appeals court in New Orleans.
"But we will lose in the Fifth Circuit!" the lawyers objected. "Precisely, replied Fortas. And we'll lose right away. We'll take our petition to the Fifth circuit judge most likely to dismiss it out of hand. Then we'll appeal to the Supreme Court, where we will win."
"But how will we win? Any case in the Supreme Court takes months!"
"A single Supreme Court justice can vacate a lower court order on the grounds the Federal courts have no jurisdiction in the case. Hugo Black will do that in a day's time."
So it was done. One of the special masters appointed by the judge in Texas had the key in his hand to open the first of the fraudulent ballot boxes in Jim Wells county when the telephone call came rescinding his authority. The fraudulent boxes remained in state custody, but when they were opened years later the ballots had disappeared.
During the remainder of Johnson's political career until January 1969, George Parr was indicted more than 650 times for crimes ranging from embezzlement to murder, but he was never convicted, and remained in power in Duval and Jim Webb counties. Shortly before Johnson died in 1973 Parr was convicted of income tax evasion. Rather than go to jail, he committed suicide.
Abe Fortas, after a brilliant and successful law career, was appointed to the Supreme Court by Johnson while he was president.
Hugo Black became one of the longest serving justices on the Supreme Court and played a pivotal role in many important decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education which overturned racial segregation in public schools throughout the USA. Early in his political career Black had joined the Ku Klux Klan, by then a violent racist hate group. After he retired Black was questioned whether he thought his Klan membership, many long years before, was a mistake. Black answered, "At the time I probably would have joined anything I thought would get me votes."
Soon after election to the Senate, Johnson became Majority Whip, then Majority Leader. Johnson accumulated power. Southern Senators chaired the powerful committees, since chairmanships were awarded strictly on the basis of seniority, and southern Senators tended to be reelected numerous times. Johnson courted the leading southern Senator Richard Russell. In Johnson's well honed role as surrogate son, he learned the ways of the Senate, and became the most powerful leader of the Senate in its entire history, up to the present day. Along the way he engineered the demise of the seniority system and effectively placed the power of appointing committee chairmen in his own hands, via a committee he appointed and dominated.
Many southern Senators thought Johnson was on their side in the fight to preserve segregation, many northern Senators thought he was on their side to pass civil rights legislation. The rest were skeptical that Johnson had any principles whatsoever except the exercise of power, but they recognized his supremacy in that arena, and generally were persuaded to follow his "advice".
Johnson ran for the Democrat presidential candidacy in 1960, but lost to the much younger and less experienced John Kennedy. John Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate for Vice President. Kennedy's younger brother Robert opposed the choice, earning Johnson's enmity for the rest of his life.
In the Kennedy administration Johnson was shunted aside from power. The advice of the greatest-ever master of legislative strategy was ignored in his principal area of expertise. Perhaps just as galling, the Harvard educated Kennedy staffers ridiculed him behind his back (they thought) for his unpolished Texan manners and speech, and his education at a Texas teacher's college for poor boys.
The night after Johnson became president upon the assassination of Kennedy, he convened a meeting at his house. Kennedy's family remained in the White House for a week or two. Johnson quashed any suggestion that they be nudged to move out.
At the meeting Johnson announced that among his first priorities was the passage of the civil rights legislation that Kennedy had introduced, but which was blocked in both the House and the Senate by the usual southern tactics. Johnson's advisers told him it would cost him a huge sum of political capital.
Johnson replied, "We'll lose the South for the next 20 years, but what the hell is the Presidency for, anyhow?"
With his unmatched mastery of congressional politics and the judicious application of power, the Civil Rights Act was passed. More importantly, the next year the Voting Rights Act was passed, giving the Federal government the power to enforce minority voting rights in states where they had been disfranchised since 1870 by poll taxes, "literacy tests" and violent intimidation.
Johnson was elected by a record majority in 1964, reversing the meaning of the sarcastic nickname he earned by his 87 vote win in 1948, "Landslide Lyndon."
I met Johnson very briefly on three occasions. Without anyone ever whispering in his ear, he remembered my name, those of several of my relatives and their occupations. He knew thousands of Texans by name, face, connections, and political complexion.
Austin was Johnson's political home base. His political deals and financial shenanigans were the frequent topic of gossip. He died with a net worth estimated at $20-million, but the only jobs he had held for the previous 40 years were on the public payroll.
Not long after the 1964 election I was at Sunday dinner at my parents' house in San Antonio. Lyndon's uncle Huffman Baines and his wife were there. Everyone called him "Mr. Baines," even his wife in public. He owned a small rural telephone company in an area between Austin and Waco. He was known throughout the state as a man of absolute integrity and propriety.
Mr. Baines said, "You folks may not know this, but while Lyndon was deciding to run on his own in 1964, some of us from here in Texas went up to Washington to try and talk him out of it."
"Why was that, Mr. Baines?" my mother asked.
"Lyndon lies too much."
John Onion, a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals said, "Why Mr. Baines, isn't a politician practically obliged to color the truth a little, from time to time?"
Mr. Baines replied, "Some may think so. Lyndon lies because he enjoys it."
Johnson's next great project was the War on Poverty. He passed the legislation. But leading the country into the quagmire of the Vietnam war and his more and more transparent lies cost him his power, and tore the country apart.
Johnson declined to run in 1968, knowing that he had plunged the country into chaos by entering the war in Vietnam. He was smart enough to have figured out by then that the war could not be won, despite the optimistic predictions of the military. After leaving office he spent most of his time at his little ranch near the town of Stonewall. It was part of the much larger ranch that had driven his father into bankruptcy. He died of a heart attack in 1973 having been ill and more or less reclusive for months before.
Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon, the only president ever to be forced to resign. A French admiral once asked me, "Why did you people destroy Nixon? He ended the Vietnam war. He was the best president since WW II for foreign policy. He opened the door to China, after all."
I began my reply by saying, "The Constitution, with the division of powers potentially sets the President and Congress at odds. Nixon overstepped his bounds and ended up in opposition not just to Congress but to the courts as well. He flagrantly violated the law. But in the end, Nixon was crucified for our sins as well as his own."