“The way to have power is to take it.”
When on January 3, 1949, Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas was sworn in as a United States senator, an era in the politics of his state had come to an end, a period that had begun when Reconstruction concluded. Similar events occurred in other Southern states, as when Harry Flood Byrd retired in Virginia and Walter George no longer filled his seat from Georgia. In retrospect, the process, though it took thirty years, seems to have been inexorable. Certainly there are those who would have us think so. But such was not the experience of thoughtful men who stood in the midst of the tornado when the modern style of campaigning came to Southern politics; and nowhere was the storm greater or the destruction of the familiar political landmarks more widespread than when Lyndon Johnson ran against former governor Coke Stevenson in 1948—when the largest of the Southern states put aside the kind of leadership to which it had been attached since the time of its separate existence as an independent republic, sold its soul for a mess of pottage, and embraced as its hero a man whose chief distinction was not character but a capacity “to get things done.” Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent is the second volume of what will eventually be a four-part study. When finished, his biography will, I suspect, turn out to be the most important work of its kind to be written in this decade. That the biography is by stages filling out the image of LBJ as a special kind of monster, the absolutely political creature, is already producing howls from amongst those politicians who have an investment in the myth of the reformed Southern conservative who took advantage of the martyrdom of his predecessor in using the capacity of government to promote “good causes.” But the reduction of that myth comes in a later volume and is only foreshadowed in these pages, chapters that tell instead of the middle years of Johnson’s life following his 1941 defeat by Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and his return to the House of Representatives. The opportunism and ambition of this Lyndon Johnson corroborate the impression that readers of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982) almost inevitably derived from that narrative of antecedents, boyhood, and early career.
The heart of Caro’s second volume is not just the race between LBJ and the old-fashioned governor from the Hill Country. Nor is it about how Johnson and his friends unquestionably stole this election—with the assistance of Justice Hugo Black and the tacit support of a majority in the United States Supreme Court. Instead, Caro’s focus is on the dramatic transformation of Johnson in that race from protege of Franklin D. Roosevelt into pragmatic conservative and leader of the Southern bloc in the Congress. I have a friend here in Texas who, when Lyndon Johnson, once again a “national” Democrat, campaigned to be Vice-President or President of the United States, simply distributed to black clergymen, journalists, and honest liberal intellectuals copies of the candidate’s early segregationist speeches and of the anti-Union and Redbaiting oratory that Johnson had employed to discredit one of the most genuine conservatives ever to be part of the public life in the Lone Star State. Caro begins his book with the anomaly of President Johnson’s actions in behalf of civil rights, and with the singing of an anti-war version of “We Shall Overcome” outside the White House while Johnson suffered within. His point in this early material is that the President toward whom these lyrics were directed was never either a liberal or a conservative, but rather a man always hungry for power and interested in what might be done with it. As President of the United States, he misunderstood both of these enterprises, and discovered instead that power not connected firmly to an unshakable set of purposes and a traditional political rectitude, a Constitutional morality, provides only empty triumphs. There are never enough votes to shore up the self-respect of the politician who at bottom despises himself—which seems much of the time to have been the case with Lyndon Johnson.
But before rehearsing the 1948 Senate contest of Box 13 and the Duke of Duval, legendary moments in Texas and American history, Robert Caro tells us about Lyndon Johnson as a nondescript Democratic Congressman who introduced no legislation and made only ten recorded speeches during 11 years in the House of Representatives. Here we read of Johnson’s impatience with the slow process of advancement under the old regime of seniority domination—a system that gave to elderly Southern Democrats almost absolute legislative control of the business of the Republic. This Lyndon Johnson had made an early record in bringing electricity to his rural constituents. He had for a time raised money for the party and had courted the favor of President Roosevelt. He was the acknowledged disciple of Speaker Rayburn and, with the outbreak of World War II, became an ostensible “war hero,” winning the Silver Star by observing, under fire, an air raid over New Guinea. During these six terms Johnson introduced seven bills and arranged for the passage of two—both affecting only his district. Caro informs us that all of his evidence from those who could remember Representative Johnson from the Tenth Congressional District of Texas indicates that he was cautious about taking sides in real controversies and reluctant to make enemies on either side of a question. Instead, he studied how to use his influence within the government and at the White House.
For a time Johnson considered the possibility of launching his career toward new and greater heights by way of a major military appointment. Once he was certain that President Roosevelt had no such plans for him, he turned his attention to making money through his contacts in the Federal Communication Commission. The owners of a small radio station in Austin, KTBC, wished to sell it or get a better license. The FCC would let them do neither until Mrs. Lyndon Johnson made an offer. At that point the application for transfer, a better place on the dial, and a proper license were swiftly approved. Lady Bird worked hard on this station, but it was Lyndon’s ability to trade power for contacts and advertising that converted it into a gold mine, a business that made Lyndon Johnson a millionaire by 1948.
There is much personal detail and psychologically revealing information in Means of Ascent. What we learn about the operations of Congressman Johnson’s office, about his vanity and misconduct, about his support for the Taft-Hartley Act, his opposition to FEPC, the anti-lynching bill, and every other proposal for improvements in civil rights demonstrates that he had not changed inwardly from what Caro showed us in the first volume of the biography, not even while he was turning his political coat in a conservative direction. His passionate oratory as an old-time segregationist should be required reading for the mythologizers who wish him to be remembered as Southern liberal, a man of deep, progressive commitments. Said Johnson in 1947, “The proposed civil rights legislation is a farce and a sham—an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.” In 1949, in his first important speech as a U.S. senator, he spoke to the same effect, arguing for an hour and a half in defense of the filibuster as a way of protecting Southern interests in perverting a civil rights law—interests that he identified as his own. As for lynching, it was the duty of the states to prosecute murderers. And if “a man can tell you whom you must hire, he can tell you whom you cannot employ.” Throughout this portion of his career, in every vote and every public statement that he made concerning black hopes for a federally enforced uplifting of their race, the response of LBJ was, in effect, “They shall not overcome.”
Means of Ascent is full of interesting characters, rich in resources from the public record and the testimony of political figures, many of whom are still living. The narrative of the stealing of the 1948 election is complete and detailed and should close that question for all but the most fanatical partisans. And the story of how Texas’ big business conservatives—oil men, contractors, developers, and manufacturers—turned at the last minute to support Congressman Johnson against his independent and incorruptible adversary is as instructive to thoughtful conservatives now as it was to Texas politicians more than forty years ago. There is “conservatism”—and then, conservatism. Men like Johnson, with a reputation for being “practical,” often get the support of big business and big money. Not all the venality in public life comes from the politicians.
But the heart of this book is the contrast between LBJ and Coke Robert Stevenson, the rancher from Junction, the classic Texas cattleman/lawyer who by dint of hard work, intellect, and honesty had by 1946 become the most respected and admired public figure in the state. Caro has done well to rest the drama of his study in the contrast between the rectitude of Governor Stevenson, “Mr. Texas,” and Lyndon Johnson’s absolute opportunism, his seemingly bottomless “capacity for deceit, deception, and betrayal.”
With symbolic propriety, Stevenson was named after Richard Coke, the “Redeemer” governor of Texas who, starting in 1873, had led his people out from underneath the shadow of occupation and Yankee despotism and into the bright light of reconstituted self-government. Throughout his adult life, Stevenson was an admirer and defender of the Texas Constitution written by the Confederate veterans who, once they regained control of their state, had had enough of being “reformed” by the federal power, enough of lawlessness, black militia, progressive rhetoric, and wasteful spending. As county judge and member of the state legislature, speaker of the house and lieutenant governor, his political life was continuous with the example of those heroic forebears. And from 1941-1946 Stevenson was the most successful of all Texas governors, a summary figure for all the virtues once honored by his people: a man who brought improvements to the state while leaving a $35,000,000 surplus in the treasury; a man who was never bought or sold. Liberal reviewers of this biography have objected to Caro’s focus on Stevenson either because they know too little of Texas history or because they know too much. Down here Stevenson is still remembered, not in a vast library devoted to the protection of his reputation, but in the continuing conservatism of his people.
The contrast between Johnson and Stevenson is most directly visible in their styles of campaigning. Apart from the outright theft which brought him final victory, Johnson was the “packaged” candidate, sold by radio, newspapers, billboards, and mass mailings—by endless repetition and a bottomless purse; while Governor Stevenson offered himself in a series of public appearances where he spoke on the issues and, until outraged by calumny, was quiet about his opponent. Endorsements and an overwhelming statewide popularity were Stevenson’s assets, with a record of having tripled old-age pensions, increased care for mental patients, instituted prison reform, and augmented support for public welfare. Johnson on the other hand depended on the bloc vote, on San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and other communities that were for sale. When Stevenson spoke about Lyndon Johnson he told the truth, whereas Johnson described the Hill Country reactionary as a “communist” and a “tool of the labor unions.”
Repeated often enough to a gullible audience, the big lies created confusion. Lyndon had money enough to be on the radio three times a day during the last few weeks of the campaign. Stevenson’s answers were given poor press coverage or completely ignored and his speeches on the radio were infrequent. Johnson stormed about, attacking the Truman civil rights bill, while Stevenson affirmed that the country was in need of a return to constitutional values. He offered himself as a servant of the people while Johnson was represented as a worker of miracles, an extension of the appetites of the electorate. Writes Caro, “In the context of the politics that was his life Lyndon Johnson would do whatever was necessary to win.” Later he adds of his subject that his was “a morality in which nothing matters but victory and any maneuver that leads to victory is justified.” Therefore, when his blitz of the Stevenson campaign was not completely successful, when Stevenson was elected, it is not at all surprising that Johnson seized what he could not earn rightfully, acting with an “utter inability to comprehend questions of morality or ethics raised by his actions, an utter inability to feel that there was even a possibility that he had violated accepted standards of conduct and might be punished for that violation.”
It is most interesting that the massive outcry of liberal reviewers against this fine study (so large as to be itself a part of our intellectual history) centers on a protest against Caro’s treatment of Coke Stevenson. This reaction has been so perfervid as to make the biographer and not his book the subject of angry interviews and obiter dicta from Johnson’s political allies, cronies, and admirers and of uneasy commentary from the custodians of New South mythology. Usually the complaint centers on the evidence that Stevenson failed to use the power of government while in office or on the charge that he was a segregationist. Such nonsense, of course, ignores the fact that conservatives do not agree to liberal assumptions about the value of “energy” in the governor of a state. Moreover, in 1948, any Texas politician who had hopes of being elected at least officially agreed to the inherited pattern of race relations in his state, the system of separation instituted to minimize tensions between whites and blacks. In 1948 Lyndon Johnson said more against plans for racial reform than Coke Stevenson. But the former candidate was attempting to establish for himself “a new, ultra-conservative image.” Stevenson (who had encouraged resolutions calling for better treatment of Mexican immigrants) had no such problem. The real trouble, however, that critics like Ronald Steel (writing March II, 1990, in the New York Times Book Review) have with the Texas Cincinnatus from the falls of the Llano is that he undermines the moral melodrama of their version of Southern history. As does also Caro’s book.
It is certainly instructive that Steel goes so far as to insist that it was for the best that the 1948 Texas election was stolen. If we have had any sentimental faith about the devotion of most liberal intellectuals to the regular operation of democratic institutions we should keep in mind Steel’s casual observation, following an admission that theft triumphed with LBJ, that “it is hard to believe that the nation would have been better served with broad-shouldered Coke Stevenson in the Senate.” What we hear in such language is the old proposition of Steel’s kind: that “where the Left is served, any means will do.” Caro’s sin is that he is “nostalgic about the old Texas,” has learned to appreciate its virtues—which is a mistake no liberal reviewer will make. But alas for Professor Steel. The deed is done, the book written and published. And the “parallel lives” of Johnson and Stevenson are in place, raising the even deeper question of what the great political changes, the statist onset of the 1960’s signified; how they may best, in retrospect, be perceived.
For if underneath the sleazy bombast of Lyndon Johnson’s campaigns there is nothing but corruption and more corruption, fathomless ambition, unattached to any recognizable principle of government or political morality; if it was all politics, just politics (a way of gaining and keeping power for its own sake), then how can the causes which Johnson promoted as they functioned within the patterns of his manipulation, self-projection, and opportunism escape the taint of their origin? And what if fair housing and the War on Poverty, the Job Corps, and the Public Accommodations law amount to no more than any of the rest of Johnson’s politics, can best be explained as strategies for restraining conflict within the Democratic Party? What if these measures differ from other Johnson maneuvers only in their artfulness, their after-the-fact usefulness in deceiving newsmen and opinion makers, politicians and historians who never see beyond a noisy enthusiasm for ostensibly good causes: a posture that never quite deceived the electorate? Why not maintain against them that, as the life of Lyndon Johnson demonstrates, the whole enterprise of liberal politics—effective liberal politics—tends in most instances to be poisoned at its source: tends to be about power and little else? No wonder Robert Caro has been in trouble with custodians of the received wisdom. His Lyndon Johnson is more the “wicked Machiavel” than the malevolent subject of J. Evetts Haley’s marvelous philippic, A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power. With so much laid down as a predicate, now let Caro give us the rest of the story, of the usurper legitimized and then enthroned.
[The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, by Robert A. Caw (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 506 pp., $24.95]