Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lyndon Johnson

I have just finished listening to two massive volumes of Robert Caro's astonishing biography of Lyndon Johnson. Four volumes of this have been published so far, a total of 3388 pages, with a fifth volume planned. It is absolutely the best-researched book of any sort I have ever read. One example: during the 1948 senate race in Texas, Johnson had the support of the corrupt border bosses who ran the Mexican-majority counties in the Rio Grande Valley and sold their constituents' votes to the highest bidder. A reform group sent observers to those counties to monitor the vote, and in one county they were kept from seeing the ballots by the bosses' goons in a dramatic confrontation. Caro has tracked down and interviewed, not just the observer who tried to see the ballots, but also the enforcer who kept him out, a sinister pistolero known as el Indio.

Johnson comes across as one of the worst people in history, a bully, a sadist, a compulsive liar, unbelievably abusive to his underlings and unbelievably fawning to anyone with power over him, motivated solely by his own lifelong quest to be president. He was, one of his presidential aides said, incapable of calling out the best in men, but he knew how to find every man's weakness and exploit it. Except that, he had a raging anger against injustice and poverty, and for a Texan of his time he was remarkably blind to color. Plus, he was one of history's greatest geniuses in the art of politics. A few random observations about Johnson:

When he was a student at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, he got himself elected president of the student body, by stuffing the ballot box. People were shocked, not so much by the corruption as because nobody had ever cared enough about the office before even to campaign for it. But once he had the job he convinced the college president to give him a say in which students got on-campus jobs, giving him power that he abused by forcing anyone who wanted a job to beg him for it and then become one of his group, following him around and laughing at his jokes.

Johnson's first job out of college was teaching at a tiny high school where all the students were poor Mexicans. Johnson was determined both to educate them and to convince them that they could better their lives, and some of them were so impressed by his passion and his belief in them that they became his lifelong followers.

When he was a Congressional page in Washington, Johnson got himself elected president of the Congressional pages' club, by stuffing the ballot box. This was another position nobody had ever wanted enough to campaign very hard for. But once Johnson had the job he organized a speaker's series and got Congressmen and senior bureaucrats to come talk to the pages. This was such a hit that soon important Congressmen were approaching Johnson to ask him about speaking to the club, giving him an in with powerful people that he parlayed into a job running a New Deal youth agency back in Texas.

Johnson was first elected to Congress in 1937, after an election in which he stumped every day for at least 16 hours, personally speaking to just about everyone who ended up voting for him; "I didn't know it was possible for anyone to work that hard," said one acquaintance.

In 1941 Johnson ran for the Senate in a special election. He tried to steal it, but his opponent, Pappy O'Daniel -- a former governor who always campaigned with a country band that was the model for the one in O Brother Where Art Thou -- stole even more votes and ended up winning.

In 1948, Johnson stole the senate election, buying tens of thousands of votes from corrupt border bosses, using money from construction firms that he had been able to help get lucrative government contracts.

Around that time Johnson acquired the property that would be the basis of his private fortune, an Austin radio station that the FCC had limited to part-time broadcasting at low power on a bad frequency. The owners had been trying to get a more favorable license for years but finally gave up and sold the station for a song. Johnson immediately used his influence in Washington to get much more favorable terms, making the station instantly worth several times what he had paid for it. Johnson then let it be known that any businessman who wanted favors from him had better buy advertising on the station; this worked so well that the station ended up the most profitable in Texas and became the base of an expanding media empire. The station was in Lady Bird's name and Johnson insisted throughout his career that he had nothing to do with running it, but actually he spoke on the phone with the manager almost every day, issuing detailed orders. He kept running the media empire even while he was president, installing a special phone in the White House that he could use to call the people running his "blind trust" without the calls showing up on the White House phone logs.

Shortly after he became President, Johnson discovered that the publisher of the Houston Chronicle, the largest newspaper in Texas, was also chairman of a bank that wanted to merge with another Texas bank. The Justice Department and the Federal Reserve disagreed about whether to allow the merger, which effectively left the decision to the president. Johnson called the publisher and told him that he would disallow the merger unless the Chronicle changed its editorial policy, stopped attacking him and began to support his administration, "for as long as I am here." "You don't know me," he said (the call was taped), "so why don't you call some of your friends who do. They'll tell you that when I say I want something, I mean it." The publisher accepted, the merger was approved, and the Chronicle supported Johnson for the rest of his time in office.

At the same time, right after Kennedy was killed, Johnson went to work to pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, which had been stuck in a Congressional committee for months. To this day Kennedy's people insist that he would have gotten the bill passed if only he had had a little more time, but I don't believe it. Passing the bill required outmaneuvering the southern Senators who ran all the key Senate committees, and over the whole period from Reconstruction to the post-Watergate reforms only one man was able to do that, and that was Lyndon Johnson. So it was Johnson, much more than any other single person, who was responsible for the full legal equality of black people in America.

During his early conversations on Vietnam (I've only made it through early 1964) Johnson speaks only in terms of domestic politics; he keeps saying that if he loses Vietnam they'll do to him what they did to the men who "lost China," and he'll never get the Democratic nomination. He never once mentions casualties or the national interest or the fate of Vietnam.


Susi said...

A saying in the South: He's a Son of a Bitch, but he's Our SOB. For all the crooked dealings he did an enormous good. It would have been more generations and many more bodies if he hadn't hated the injustices of his youth. He paid them back in spades, and did the whole society a favor. Sometimes it takes a rotten SOB to correct the wrongs.

David said...

I've also listened to two volumes of Caro, and it sounds like the same ones, 2 and 4. The level of research truly is amazing, and the books are a monumental achievement. I too was astonished at the tracking down of that pistolero (and, having grown up in Houston, I could just imagine the kind of house where he would find him).

Caro has some faults. He's way too impressed with the straight-backed cowboy image of Coke Stevenson, LBJ's opponent in the 1948 election. Stevenson was a Jim Crow enforcer of the patrician, keep-his-hands-clean type. And when I asked my Dad about Stevenson, he said simply, "he was for keeping the Jews out of the country club."

I think your account of Caro on LBJ on Vietnam is a little unfair to LBJ. Caro's volume 4 is self-consciously not about Vietnam, which Caro is saving for the much-awaited volume 5. It's about domestic politics, hence the domestic focus. Johnson is famous for the way he agonized over the intervention and the resulting casualties; there was absolutely nothing lighthearted or casual about his approach to to the war. And I think he deserves credit for having absolutely no personal desire to be a war leader (unlike, say, Nixon, W, or most of the current presidential field). Yes, his domestic political calculus was cynical, but absolutely accurate it seems to me, and I think the onus there should fall on American hawks, whose role in our national life since we "lost" China has been an unalloyed disaster, and is ongoing (they seem now to want simultaneous wars with Russia and Iran).

Susi said...

More musing: If you're in a crooked game, do you play by the crooked 'rules'? Clean playing will lose. Johnson played by the rules of the time... and more skilfully than the others. He would have lost playing 'fair'. Others could see what needed to be done, as well as he, but they were either less willing to play rough or less skilled than he was.

John said...

Susi: a big part of Caro's argument is that although Texas politics was corrupt, Johnson went beyond even the lax standards of the time, doing things that even old hands found shocking. But the disturbing parts of the portrait of Johnson are about how he related to people: the sick bullying of subordinates, psychological abuse of his wife, grotesque flattery old powerful men, etc. He enjoyed making the men who worked for him cry.

John said...

David: yes, 2 and 4. I was also a little put off by the portrait of Coke Stevenson. Caro doesn't get into the way "Constitutional conservatism" was used by southerners for generations to keep the Feds out of their oppression of blacks, and fiscal conservatism as a way to make sure they never have to help black people.

But I am always intrigued by these characters who seem like good and noble men, with so many impressive accomplishments, except for their scorn or even hatred for other races. Stevenson comes across as genuinely fair and upright in his dealings with other white men, but completely indifferent to blacks. It's a combination that always seems strange to me no matter how many times I encounter it.

Thomas said...

Ah, the first book has some great stuff on rural electrification. Johnson went from ranch to ranch trying to convince people to allow electric lines into their land, and the ranchers did not trust any forms that granted any part of their land to the "special interests."

Book 2 is grim, because it is a period where "good" Johnson rarely comes out. The introduction, if I remember correctly, is about Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech before congress, precisely to remind you that this is a man who did some good.

G. Verloren said...

I think the nicest thing I've ever been able to say about LBJ is that he was slightly less horrible than J. Edgar Hoover - but not by much.

From the sounds of it, these books would reinforce that notion quite solidly.

Michael said...

I read and very much enjoyed all four volumes. Previously the only things I know of LJB come from snippets of speeches and videotapes.

His capacity for work, doing good or doing bad, was amazing. His tactics were successful, if measured in terms of his own goals. Of course, that was his only measuring stick.

I am left wondering how many others in politics played the game by the same rules. Or how many do now...

G. Verloren said...

Plenty of the world's worst people had massive capacities for work and employed effective tactics to reach their ends.

Successful dictators, for example, go to great lengths and employ rather clever and even brilliant techniques to control people. And they even do relative good, from time to time - Saddam Hussein, despite his brutal regime, astounding corruption, and genocidal actions like using chemical weapons against the Kurds, managed to stabilize a region that in his absence has gone to pieces, spilling violence across almost the entire middle east. Napoleon was a charismatic leader and brilliant tactician (if ultimately a poor strategist) who despite all manner of attrocities against both his enemies and the French themselves, still managed to lead the country out from the chaos of the Revolution, built critical modern infrastructure and pushed through modern civil reforms, placed all but the final nail in the coffin of French monarchy, broke down the Church's position of dominance over Europe, and even went about freeing the Jews.

Ambition and work ethic can be good qualities, but they tend to go hand in hand with ego, cruelty, powermongering, and immorality. The people who achieve the utmost in terms of sheer impact or effect tend to be those with the fewest inhibitions or qualms, and the greatest willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve their ends, no matter how unsavory. A willingness to hurt people to get what you want isn't the only factor in being "great", but it certainly makes things easier for you if you are so willing.