Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lyndon Johnson's Path to Power

No one expected much of this boy from the Hill Country, because of his family's troubles and his personal foibles, but he rose high and fast. Always ambitious, Lyndon Johnson worked his way up the ladder of power by hook or by crook and devoted all of his energies to fulfill these ambitions.  In this first volume, Robert Caro tells us the story of how Lyndon Johnson came from the desolate hills of a poor farming community and gained both wealth and power.

The Hill Country played a significant role in Johnson's career. As the Texas frontier expanded, settlers happened across the inviting, grassy hills west of Austin TX. If you drive out west of Austin today, you'll see more cedar brakes than grassy hilltops, and as Caro explains, this is the result of the settlers farming and ranching practices, which ruined the soil, leading to erosion and drying up of springs (pp. 8-14). With the land playing out, poverty - back breaking poverty - became a way of life for most of the residents of the Hill country, who began to take to the populism of the People's Party. As the People's Party faded, their principles did not, and Lyndon's father - Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. - was an adherent of these principles, and as the people's representative in Austin, he worked with other committed populists to help the poor people of the Hill Country.

Lyndon would occassionally travel to Austin with his father, where he saw his father's work on behalf of the poor, but also saw the success of the politicians, who benefited personally from their political alliance with business interests, which provided a stark contrast with the perceived failure (both financially and politically). As Lyndon matured, he became more and more involved in politics, including the campus Southwest Texas State Teachers College - currently Texas State University at San Marcos - where he excelled in dominating the campus political establishment with the help of some creative vote getting strategies. It was during his time in college that Johnson helped Welly Hopkins with his Texas Senate campaign, and Hopkins credited his victory to Johnson's help. It was also Hopkins who recommended Johnson to Rep. Dick Kleberg for the job of private secretary to the Congressman. Johnson took the job and was on his way to Washington, D.C.

Lyndon had great ambitions, and national political success was perhaps the overriding ambition, so the job with Dick Kleberg provided Johnson with the opportunity he so desired, i.e., to get to Washington and become a successful politician. Kleberg was not an attentive Congressman and left most of the work of his office to Johnson, who soon began to learn the ways of Washington, as well as the needs of Kleberg's district. His attentiveness to the district and knowledge of Washington eventually allowed him to be of great benefits to the constituents of the 14th district as Johnson took advantage of New Deal programs to benefit the people of South Texas. He was able to remove the red tape that might hinder other offices and get things done. He was also beginning to get noticed.

One way Lyndon got noticed was by turning the Little Congress, an organization for Congressional staffers, into a personal fiefdom, again with the help of some creative vote getting. The other way he got noticed was by helping powerful lobbyists and businessmen, especially friends of Dick Kleberg navigate the bureaucratic halls of Washington and help them get access to New Deal programs. He was also helping run another campaign; this time for Maury Maverick, a liberal representative from San Antonio, who was a good deal the opposite of Kleberg and his associates with whom Johnson was quite close. No one was quite sure of Lyndon's politics; he was liberal when he needed to be liberal and conservative when he needed to be conservative, as he cultivated relationships with powerful men who could help him advance. This paid off as he cultivated legendary Texas Congressman Sam Rayburn, who repaid Johnson's attentions early by securing Lyndon's appointment as Texas National Youth Administration director from which Johnson sought to create a statewide organization for himself, as well as getting in view of the most influential men in Texas from his office in Austin.

After about a year of directing the NYA and managing campaigns for various candidates, Lyndon Johnson was presented with this first opportunity to run for elected office with the death of James P Buchanan, Congressman from Texas' 10th District. It was during this campaign that Johnson's building of personal relationships and knowledge of Washington's bureaucratic maze paid off, because Herman and George Brown (founders of Brown & Root - now Kellogg Brown and Root) needed help in Congress to build a dam in Austin, and State Senator Alvin Wirtz put them in contact with Lyndon Johnson, and the Browns would help raise money for Johnson for many years, and Johnson would repay them. Johnson had the funding, but he also had the drive to win. As Caro relates in Chapter 21, Johnson out worked his opponents and talked with every voter in the vast Central Texas district. In the end, Johnson had defeated several veteran Texas politicians with a margin of 3,000 votes. He was now a Congressman, but he had no intention of stopping there.

Arriving in Washington as a newly elected Congressman, Johnson continued to make new relationships, as well as maintain existing one, such as his relationship with Sam Rayburn and the Browns. As he had as Rep. Kleberg's secretary, Lyndon Johnson helped his constituents receive as many of the benefits of the New Deal as they could get, but he remained a ideological cipher. Few people in the House knew where Lyndon Johnson actually stood, because he did not take many stands. However, during this same time, Johnson began to cultivate a new ally in President Roosevelt and his aides. These relationships paid off as Johnson sought to expand his influence and power by raising and distributing money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Johnson knew where he could raise the money (from oil men in Texas, among others), and he knew how to distribute it effectively. As the campaign season came to a close, Johnson had raised more money for the DCCC than ever before, and several Congressmen owed their elections to his help.

With these new sources of funds and new allies, Johnson was ready for the next opportunity when it came with the death of United States Senator Morris Sheppard. The Senate campaign would in many ways resemble to 10th District campaign. Johnson was not well known statewide, and many of his opponents were, such as Governor Pappy O'Daniel, General Gerald Mann and Rep. Martin Dies. And like his 10th District campaign, Johnson attached himself to President Franklin Roosevelt. There was also no shortage of funds for Johnson's Senate campaign, with the Browns giving large sums to Lyndon. However, this time Johnson was running against a popular Texas Governor - William Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel - and O'Daniel knew how to win just as much as Johnson did. Johnson had begun his campaign trying to appear very senatorial, but as Pappy and his merry band demonstrated they were beating Johnson, Lyndon's campaign began to copy the circus like elements of the O'Daniel's campaign. There was no shortage of cheating by both sides. Much of the money raised by Johnson was spent to buy votes in various precincts, particularly in the Valley and San Antonio, where the local bosses controlled entire boxes. By election day, Johnson had overcome his lack of name recognition, etc. and appeared headed for a victory, but he made a serious error. 

The error Johnson made was telling the South Texas counties to report their votes as soon as possible without waiting to find out how many he needed. On election night, Johnson was solidly in the lead. The next morning, Johnson was essentially declared the winner with a margin of 5152 votes, but not all the votes had been counted. Pappy O'Daniel was holding back his boxes in East Texas until he knew how many votes he needed to win. By the time all the counties had reported O'Daniel beat Johnson by 1,311 votes. Johnson would never forget the lesson learned in this defeat, and when he ran for Senate again in 1948, he made sure he didn't lose. By the time that election came around, much had changed for Johnson: he was no longer a Roosevelt man as he had been in his campaigns for House and Senate. Indeed, he was now an anti-New Dealer and avowed conservative.

The portrait Robert Caro paints is of Lyndon Johnson as a mercurial politician. He seemed to hold no particular ideology and take no strong stands on any issue. Johnson was guided by the north star that was his ambition, and that ambition carried him from the poor hills of Central Texas, to Congress, to the Senate and eventually to the Presidency (his ultimate ambition). Hopefully, this has been an adequate summary of Caro's first volume. If you would like to read further, related posts are linked below.

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment