The Great Societizer

The Great Societizer


Reading Robert Caro to learn about Lyndon Johnson is like going to an elaborate buffet in order to get the four basic food groups; they both give you what you need along with much, much more. In fact, we’re only at the appetizers, since Caro’s third and latest volume, Master of the Senate, comes in at over1,000 pages and still doesn’t take the story up through the 1960 election! Nonetheless, both are experiences to be savored. Caro is a gifted and passionate writer, and his all-encompassing approach to understanding LBJ provides readers with a panoramic history of twentieth-century American politics as well as a compelling discourse on the nature and uses of political power.

Moreover, in the midst of the plagiarism contretemps over Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is refreshing to read a popular history that is original and well written. There is clearly no “Caro Inc.” with an army of researchers cutting and pasting books together as fast as the printing presses can take them. Aided only by his wife, Ina, Caro’s project is now in its third decade. This slow pace results from a methodical and exhaustive research process. One might well disagree with Caro’s analysis and interpretations, but no one can accuse him of overlooking an important piece of evidence.

In reality, Master of the Senate is not one book but several. Caro sets the stage with a history of the United States Senate. The Senate is virtually unique among legislative bodies in any modern democracy. With its six-year terms, equal representation for each state regardless of population and its tradition of unlimited debate, the Senate is an institution designed for inaction. Individual senators have little or no incentive to yoke themselves together to advance the national interest. By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1949, the body was increasingly seen as too inefficient to meet the demands of modern government. Since the turn of the century, the President had increasingly usurped its power in foreign policy, and many observers predicted that the Senate would eventually have to go the way of most legislative upper chambers and become, in effect, an American House of Lords.

That the Senate did not wither away and the reasons for this fact form the basis for another of Caro’s books within a book, Lyndon Johnson’s ascent to “Master of the Senate.” Possessed of ambition that can only be described as obsessive, Johnson campaigned to increase his own power and influence with a relentlessness and ruthlessness that would have made Machiavelli blush.

Before Johnson could amass power in the Senate, however, he first had to shore up his political base in Texas. Having only narrowly “won” (stolen is the more appropriate word, as Caro vividly and convincingly demonstrated in his previous volume) election to the Senate in 1948, Johnson now had to prove his fealty to the Lone Star State’s reactionary and powerful oil and gas titans. To do so, Johnson organized a behind-the-scenes campaign to block President Truman’s reappointment of Leland Olds as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. A staunch New Dealer and a committed public servant, Olds had used his position at the FPC to make sure that electric and natural gas companies did not gouge their customers. As a result, he was anathema to the Texas natural gas companies, who saw even the smallest and most reasonable limitation of their already vast profits as socialist tyranny.

In earlier days, Johnson had fought the same fight as Olds, working as a freshman Congressman to provide cheap electricity to rural farmers. Doing so had secured Johnson a place in the hearts of his poor Texas Hill Country constituents, but that counted for little against the political power of the state’s oil and gas industry. Ambition now required Johnson to destroy Leland Olds. Unable to attack him on the substance of his work at the FPC, Johnson instead distorted Olds’s writings as a journalist in the 1920s to portray him as a Communist. Using a phrase that Joe McCarthy would have appreciated, Johnson denounced Olds on the floor of the Senate, asking, “Shall we have a commissioner or a commissar?” The choice of the Senate was clear; the Olds reappointment failed by a vote of 53 to 15.

The Olds fight secured Johnson’s political base and brought him into the warm embrace of the Texas establishment. After his victory over Olds, Johnson flew back to Texas on the private plane of Brown & Root, the giant Texas construction company. “When the Brown & Root plane delivered him to Texas, it delivered him first to Houston, where a Brown & Root limousine met him and took him to the Brown & Root suite in the Lamar Hotel. Waiting for him there, in Suite 8-F, were men who really mattered in Texas: Herman and George Brown, of course, and oilman Jim Abercrombie and insurance magnate Gus Wortham. And during the two months he spent in Texas thereafter, the Senator spent time at Brown & Root’s hunting camp at Falfurrias, and in oilman Sid Richardson’s suite in the Fort Worth Club.”

Caro shows how, having won over the men who really mattered in Texas, Johnson set out to win over the men who really mattered in the Senate, the “Old Bulls.” As a result of the Solid South and the seniority rule, nearly all of these men were the Southern barons who controlled the powerful Senate committees. In many ways, currying favor with the Texas establishment had been relatively easy; all it had required was destroying the naïve and principled Leland Olds. But the Old Bulls, men like Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia, Walter George of Georgia and Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, were a much tougher crowd, not easily deceived and viciously protective of their power and prerogatives. Traditionally, one did not attain power by winning over such men; rather, power came by becoming one of them. But this required the time and patience necessary to accumulate enough seniority to land a choice committee assignment and then more time and patience to ascend to the chairmanship.

But, as Caro points out, Johnson had a very short supply of time and patience. Indeed, he had risked everything to run for the Senate in 1948 in order to avoid the seniority trap of the House. Now he found himself in the same bind. Even before he was sworn in, Johnson tried to persuade the venerable Carl Hayden, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which was in charge of office space, to give him an extra room. When Johnson pressed his case too zealously, the usually courteous Hayden shut him down, saying, “The trouble with you, Senator, is that you don’t have the seniority of a jackrabbit.”

If Johnson didn’t have the seniority to become one of the Old Bulls, he would surely do everything he could to gain their favor. The usual method was obsequiousness, telling these men how powerful and important they were, and how much he had learned from them. According to Caro, Johnson’s behavior “proved the adage that no excess was possible.”

One device, also favored by a more recent Texas politician, was to bestow nicknames. Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson of Colorado was dubbed “Mr. Wisdom,” while Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts became “Old Oil on Troubled Waters.” Johnson resented having to use such tactics, telling aide John Connally after fawning over a senior senator, “Christ, I’ve been kissing asses all my life”; but ass-kissing worked. As Caro writes, “In December, Hayden had refused to give Johnson that extra room in the basement that he had asked for; in February Hayden found that an extra room was, indeed, available.”

While Hayden had the power to provide extra office space, real power in the Senate rested with the acknowledged leader of the Old Bulls, Richard Russell of Georgia. Just as Johnson in his earlier career had gained power by making himself a protégé of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and President Franklin Roosevelt, he now set out to cultivate Russell. Though different in temperament and politics, all three men shared a common element that Johnson used to ingratiate himself: As Caro points out, all three men were lonely. Both Rayburn and Russell were childless bachelors, while Roosevelt was largely estranged from his children and wife. This provided the perfect opportunity for Johnson to be the dutiful son and companion.

Mere companionship and filial piety, however, were not enough to win over Russell. According to Caro, “It wasn’t a son that Richard Russell wanted, it was a soldier–a soldier for the Cause.” And that cause was white supremacy. In describing Russell’s views on this issue, Caro shows that while they were almost always cast as a reasoned, nonracist defense of states’ rights, racism was at their core, and such moderation was merely tactical. “His charm,” writes Caro, “was more effective than chains in keeping blacks shackled to their terrible past.” Caro’s description of Russell is not just of historical interest. With calls for states’ rights gaining renewed popularity and legitimacy, it is important to remember that while not every states’ rights advocate is a closet racist, nearly every advocate of racial inequality has used states’ rights to cloak his real aims and beliefs.

Johnson was willing to take up arms for Russell’s cause. In his maiden speech in the Senate, Johnson denounced President Truman’s call for civil rights legislation in the same reasoned tones used by Russell. When Johnson finished, Russell was the first to shake his hand, telling him that his speech was “one of the ablest I have ever heard on the subject.”

Having gained Russell’s and the Old Bulls’ trust, Johnson now began to build his own power. In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, he convinced Russell to allow him to chair a special committee on preparedness. Caro’s description of Johnson’s committee is a textbook example of the Washington version of stone soup, in which, with the right skills and connections, one can turn nothing into something. For the most part, the committee did very little original research or investigation, instead recycling work done by other committees and agencies. The difference, however, was that Johnson had a gift for working the media. In this pretelevision era, the term “soundbite” had yet to be coined, but Johnson was a master of it nonetheless. The committee’s first report was really an earlier, prewar report on the nation’s rubber supply. In the hands of Johnson and his staffer Horace Busby, the report became a major story. “Phrases like ‘darkest days,’ ‘business as usual,’ ‘too little and too late’ leapt out of the final report,” writes Caro. Newspapers were particularly enamored of Johnson’s description of Defense Department desuetude as “siesta psychology.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of substance, the preparedness committee gave Johnson his first national attention. But the favor of the Old Bulls and a handful of headlines were not nearly enough to secure Johnson’s ultimate prize, the presidency. Recognizing that the traditional path to power in the Senate, and ultimately to the White House, was still largely closed to a junior senator, Johnson decided to create his own path. Here was where Johnson’s cunning as a political entrepreneur came into play. As Caro writes:

Lyndon Johnson’s political genius was creative not merely in the lower, technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his career, most impressive, it was his capacity to look at an institution that possessed only limited political power–an institution that no one else thought of having the potential for any more than limited political power–and to see in that institution the potential for such substantial political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such power, and in the process of transforming it, to reap from that transformation substantial personal power for himself.

Johnson aide Bobby Baker put it more succinctly: “He knows what makes the mules plow.”

The institution that Johnson chose was the party leadership of the Senate. Almost utterly lacking in formal power, party leadership was more often the graveyard of political careers than the launching pad. No Senate Democratic leader had possessed any influence to speak of since Joseph Robinson in the 1930s. The Democratic leaders immediately preceding Johnson, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of Arizona, had been disasters, utterly incapable of bridging the differences between the party’s liberal Northern and conservative Southern wings. In fact, the demands of the job had contributed to the election defeats of both men, Lucas in 1950 and McFarland in 1952. Now, following the Republican sweep of 1952, the position of minority leader stood open. Since no else wanted the position, Johnson, with Russell’s blessing, ascended to the post. Only four years into his first term, Lyndon Johnson was now at least the nominal leader of the Senate Democrats.

And Johnson soon converted nominal leadership in their power, explaining that they needed to put their best people forward to defend against the Republicans. But that would require handing out committee positions on the basis of ability, not seniority. Using a combination of persuasion and horse-trading, Johnson managed to make enough room to place every Democrat on at least one major committee. In doing so, he transformed the Senate, imbuing its committees, at least on the Democratic side, with fresh blood. More important for Johnson, his own power had been enhanced greatly. Dozens of members, liberals and conservatives, Northerners and Southerners, now owed their committee assignments to him, and that meant power.

Revamping the seniority system was but the first way Johnson became master of the Senate. While much has been written about the famous Johnson “treatment,” LBJ’s in-your-face style of persuasion, Caro demonstrates that these skills, effective though they were, were not the only ones at his disposal. Deploying a skilled staff, he soon knew more about what was happening in the Senate than any other member, making him the “go-to guy” for information. He managed to negotiate unanimous consent agreements to limit debate, so that minor bills of importance to individual senators could be passed with dispatch. Johnson was also a skilled parliamentarian, using his knowledge of Senate rules and procedures to outwit the majority Republicans. Finally, Johnson had an astute grasp of national politics, demonstrated most effectively in the battle over the Bricker Amendment. Advanced by Republican isolationists, the constitutional amendment would have severely restricted presidential power in foreign policy by requiring treaties to be approved by the state legislatures as well as the Senate. Johnson not only managed to defeat the amendment but to do so in a way that aligned the Democrats with the popular Eisenhower against Congressional Republicans.

No method was beneath Johnson. He was just as willing to destroy the careers of his Senate colleagues as he had been with Leland Olds. Perhaps more than any other senator, Kentucky’s Earle Clements had been loyal to Johnson, “dog loyal,” in Caro’s words. But after a bill supported by Johnson failed to pass on a tie vote, Johnson forced Clements to switch his vote, although he knew it would destroy Clements’s re-election hopes. In the case of Virgil Chapman, also of Kentucky, Johnson helped to destroy not only his career but his life. Even though Johnson knew Chapman was falling further and further into the depths of alcoholism, his response was not compassion but manipulation. He would bring Chapman to his office after the Senate recessed and ply him with drinks until the inebriated Kentuckian would agree to anything Johnson wanted. Chapman eventually died in a drunk driving accident.

Johnson’s success as minority leader helped the Democrats regain control of the Senate after the 1954 elections. Now the majority leader, Johnson further extended his power. As a consequence, the Senate began to act with new efficiency and effectiveness. And even though Johnson never strayed too far from Russell and the other conservative senators upon whom he relied, he still managed to help Democratic liberals to achieve at least some of their legislative goals. By the mid-1950s, the changes wrought by Johnson had dispelled much of the criticism leveled against the Senate.

Caro, however, suggests that Johnson might have destroyed the Senate in order to save it, since these changes came at the cost of diminishing deliberations, where individual senators could educate and inform the public on the great issues of the day. He quotes Paul Douglas, liberal Democratic senator from Illinois during the 1950s and oftentimes a foe of Johnson, who charged, “Under Johnson, the Senate functions like a Greek tragedy. All the action takes place offstage, before the play begins. Nothing is left to open and spontaneous debate, nothing is left to the participants but the enactment of their prescribed roles.” Caro goes further, suggesting that by limiting debate, Johnson was making the Senate an expression of his own mania for control and aversion to debate and dissent.

Regardless of Johnson’s real motivations for limiting debate, this is an overly romantic view of Senate proceedings, in which debate consists more of partisan bickering and mundane bloviating than reasoned and informed discourse. Furthermore, unlimited debate is tailor-made for defenders of the status quo, allowing them great power to block any measure to which they object. Caro even seems to acknowledge this in a footnote, where he quotes Johnson aide Harry McPherson, “Complaints about limiting debates…often turned out to be based on a plaintiff’s annoyance that he must either miss a vote or forgo a speaking engagement back home. And besides, who knew better than liberals the enervating consequences of unlimited debate.”

Caro may be right that Johnson saved the Senate, but he doesn’t consider whether it was worth saving in the first place. Yes, Johnson did reform the chamber so that it could legislate more effectively, but the institution remained and remains a throwback to a predemocratic era. Not only does the Senate’s equal representation of states grossly distort the one-person, one-vote principle, but the ability to filibuster means that forty-one senators, even if they represent the twenty-one smallest states (with only 11 percent of the total population), can veto any piece of legislation. And since Republicans predominate in small states, the institution serves only to magnify their power. For example, even though Democrats have a 50-49 edge in the current Senate (the remaining member is Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont), sixty senators represent states won by George W. Bush in the 2000 election. By saving the Senate, one might argue, Johnson only succeeded in maintaining an institution that has traditionally served to reinforce conservatives and the status quo.

In 1956, Johnson thought the time was right to make his move for the Democratic nomination. But this effort was doomed before it even began. First, he refused to be an active candidate, thus much of the support from the South and West that might have been his if he wanted it went to other candidates. Even if Johnson had run a more active and skillful campaign, it was clear that he never had enough liberal support to win the nomination. For all that he had accomplished in the Senate, Johnson was still viewed as suspect by Democratic liberals. In some ways, as Caro suggests, the liberals’ criticism was unfair. Johnson was no Hubert Humphrey, to be sure, but he was also no Richard Russell or James Eastland. During his twelve years in the Senate, Johnson’s Americans for Democratic Action liberal-voting score was fifty-six, just about average for the party and essentially splitting the difference between the Southern Democratic average of thirty-seven and the Northern Democratic average of seventy-five. Moreover, during his tenure as majority leader from 1955 to 1960, Johnson’s average score was sixty-five.

But Johnson recognized that his overall ADA score was not the real issue. By the mid-1950s, Democratic liberals increasingly used civil rights as a litmus test for support. According to Caro, Johnson would tell friends privately, “I want to run the Senate. I want to pass the bills that need to be passed. I want my party to do right. But all I ever hear from the liberals is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra.” (During the 1964 campaign, Johnson would use the same refrain in a very different context, telling a New Orleans audience of a dying Southern senator who wanted to give one more speech, a good Democratic speech, because the only speeches the people of his state ever heard were “Nigra, Nigra, Nigra.”) Caro goes on to add that the conclusion for Johnson was clear:

He knew now that the only way to realize his great ambition was to fight–really fight, fight aggressively and effectively–for civil rights; in fact, it was probably necessary for him not only to fight but to fight and win: given their conviction that he controlled the Senate, the only way the liberals would be satisfied of his good intentions would be if that body passed a civil rights bill. But therein lay a seemingly insoluble dilemma: that way–the only way–did not seem a possible way. Because while he couldn’t win his party’s presidential nomination with only southern support, he couldn’t win it with only northern support either. Scrubbing off the southern taint thoroughly enough within the next four years to become so overwhelmingly a liberal favorite that he could win the nomination with northern votes alone was obviously out of the question, so dispensing with southern support was not feasible: he had to keep the states of the Old Confederacy on his side. And yet a public official who fought for civil rights invariably lost those states.

This dilemma sets up another book within a book and the dramatic climax of Master of the Senate, the battle over the 1957 Civil Rights Act. This is where Caro’s gifts as a storyteller really come alive, and his account provides what is surely one of the best analyses of the legislative process ever written. Moreover, Caro is right to label Johnson’s role in the passage of this legislation as an exercise of “genius.” But Caro goes too far in suggesting that the 1957 Civil Rights Act marked a turning point at which Johnson’s “compassion, and the ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last.”

Caro does recognize that the practical impact of the 1957 legislation was inconsequential and far less significant than the later Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while the bill’s proponents described it as half a loaf, Caro agrees with Humphrey, who described it as a “crumb.” Nonetheless, Caro claims that as the first civil rights measure to pass the Senate and to be enacted into law since 1875, the legislation was of immense symbolic importance and the harbinger of things to come. “The Civil Rights Act of 1957,” according to Caro, “was hope.” Caro has a point, but a debatable one. The law did raise hopes, but by accomplishing so little, many of those hopes ended up dashed. Furthermore, while the 1957 act was a first step toward more effective legislation, it would take another eight years to complete the journey, eight more years of Jim Crow and disfranchisement, of oppression and violence. Hope was better than nothing, but help is what was really needed.

And help would have been provided then, if not for Lyndon Johnson. Help was contained in the civil rights bill proposed by the Eisenhower Administration and passed by the House, with strong provisions against discrimination in public accommodations and voting, along with effective enforcement mechanisms. But Johnson knew that such a bill was utterly unacceptable to his Southern colleagues. Thus, while Johnson recognized that he had to fight for a civil rights bill, it couldn’t be this civil rights bill.

Consequently, Johnson’s first maneuver was to help defeat an effort by Republicans and liberal Democrats to rewrite Senate Rule 22 in order to short-circuit the expected Southern filibuster. At the opening of the 1957 session, pro-civil rights senators sought a ruling from Vice President Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as the Senate’s presiding officer, that the Senate was not a continuing body and therefore was not bound by previous rules. That would mean that a majority of senators could establish a new rule allowing debate to be shut off with only a simple majority, not the usual and nearly unobtainable sixty-four votes. Indeed, Nixon, hoping to swing black votes to the GOP, would have issued such a decision. But before he could do so, Johnson used his prerogative as majority leader to move to table the proposed rules change. Using all the skill and power he had amassed as majority leader, Johnson managed to get a majority for his motion. But it was a 55-38 tally. If only seven votes had gone the other way (the three absentees having announced against Johnson’s motion), the motion would have lost, Nixon would have issued his decision, the filibuster would have been broken and an effective civil rights bill would have been passed in 1957, not 1964. As a result of the defeat on Rule 22, the bill that ultimately did pass was only a very weak voting rights measure.

If ever one needs evidence of the contingency of history, imagine, if you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson. From there, one can spin off any number of plausible scenarios that result in a very different history of the past forty years.

But none of these scenarios were acceptable to the Lyndon Johnson of 1957, since they would have conflicted with his ambition; and at that point, despite Caro’s claim, his ambition was still more important than his compassion. Switching sides on Rule 22 would have destroyed his Southern support and with it any chance he had of becoming President. Johnson’s compassion would eventually shine through, and as a result, civil rights would eventually come to black America. But they would not come until Lyndon Johnson’s ambition would allow them to come.

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