Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro

My friend heard Robert Caro, the author of several volumes on Lyndon Johnson, interviewed on the radio. She wondered what could possibly be so interesting about Johnson that would require FOUR very long volumes. So she read the first and was hooked. She urged me to read it as well. I did and summarized it here. Caro manages to make a corrupt, narcissistic, power-hungry man interesting as he takes us almost day by day through Johnson's life. This second book, Means of Ascent, deals almost exclusively with his Senate campaign in 1948.

He begins with an introduction to LBJ highlighting his accomplishments as president, most notably the Civil Rights legislation. Yet for all he accomplished throughout his lifetime, his peers did not trust him. He lied. He lied constantly and about all matters big and small. Nothing was beneath his quest for power. Usually he used the power to enrich himself and his backers, but as president, he did accomplish some long hoped for achievements on behalf of the dispossessed. "Those noble ends, however, would not have been possible were it not for the means, far from noble, which brought Lyndon Johnson to power. Their attainment would hot have been possible without that 1948 campaign. And what are the implications of that fact? To what extent are ends inseparable from means?" (p. xxxiv)

This book focuses on the seven years between Johnson's initial bid for the Senate, in which he lost, and the later bid when he won in 1948. "These seven years are years in which Johnson was all but totally consumed by his need for power, and by his efforts to obtain it." (p. xxviii) In addition, he maps out the genesis of Johnson's fortune and the "service" rendered by LBJ during WWII. He finds the 1948 campaign as particularly instructive in revealing Johnson's genius at mastering political power. It is a clear vision of the old style of retail politics vs. Johnson's new tactics to mobilize voters (or at least the names of voters). "As a result, we can observe the impact of these techniques with a clarity that illustrates the full force of their destructive effect on the concept of free choice by an informed electorate." (p. xxxiii)

The first chapter reviews Johnson's loss for the Senate in 1941 during a special election to replace a man who had died in office. It was his first loss ever. He worked as hard as he ever had, but he messed up when he announced the count on his bought votes too early. "As usual, [he] had been unable to refrain from boasting about what he was doing. As always, he not only outsmarted opponents but displayed a deep need to make sure they — and the public — knew he had outsmarted them. But this time, at the last minute, he had been outsmarted. He who had stolen elections, who had been confident he had stolen this election, had had the election stolen from him instead." (p. 9) His cockiness allowed his opponent to raise the bid and steal the votes Johnson had already stolen. When he returned to Washington DC as a lowly House member on a path to the Presidency he called, "too slow," his powerful friends urged him to run again for Senate in the following regular election cycle. 

As war loomed during his campaign, Johnson had repeatedly promised to enlist and serve in a combat role on the front lines. Of course as the war became a reality, he did all he could to fulfill the promise by obtaining a cushy, safe position in the navy. He finally finagled a job inspecting military shipyards and partying on the west coast. The boys he promised to follow into war were being decimated in the Pacific. At the same time, he agonized over the upcoming election filing deadline. Could he fulfill his promise to "serve" while at the same time run for Senate or even his current House position.  He could not do all three. At the last minute, he and his people decided he should run for reelection to the House.

Of course running for Congress meant the press would be asking about his "combat" experience. He knew he had to do something out in the military theater that he could offer up as his own personal war story. "For five months, he [had ]delayed and stalled, making no serious attempt to get into combat while having what his sidekick John Connally was to call 'a lot of fun.' And when, after six months of the war had passed, he finally did enter a combat zone — when he no longer had any choice, when, 'for the sake of political future' he had to get into combat zone, and get there fast — he went not to fight (in the trenches or anywhere else), but to observe." (p. 46) He flew into Australia, accompanied a single mission, and then flew out. The mission he needlessly accompanied was dangerous. The first plane that he should have been on was shot down and all lost. His own plane came under heavy fire. Because he had acted "selflessly" by getting on the plane in the first place, he was awarded the Silver Star. Afterward, he became violently ill and spent weeks in the hospital. He combined all of this into a fantastical tale of life in the trenches, complete with the boys he had grown to know and love only to lose to the enemy. His lies became so big and took on a life of their own until he believed them himself. He even lorded his Silver Star over veterans who had legitimately earned one!

Johnson married his wife for the same reason he did everything, political power. She had money and her father had connections. He wooed her with false promises and once got, treated her very poorly. "[Other's] attitude toward Lady Bird Johnson was influenced by her husband's attitude toward her. She never tried to talk very much, of course, and when she did, she wasn't listened to very much. She was jus a drab little woman whom nobody noticed." (p. 60) But when Johnson left to gain his "combat experience",  it was up to Lady Bird to run his congressional office. She surprised everyone, including herself when she did a brilliant job. She did it with grace  and gratefulness, the exact opposite of the way Lyndon had run things. It didn't matter. When he returned, he treated her with as much contempt as he had before. In one of his first discussions upon his return, he shattered any dreams she might have had of being included with a brisk, "We'll see you later, Bird."

After serving so valiantly in the war, (he thought), Johnson felt he deserved the honored position of Secretary of War. This was never seriously considered. Then he hoped to regain his powerful position distributing DNC money in House and Senate races. This too was denied. Seeing the House as a too slow waystop on the path to the Presidency, he soon lost any interest in even doing that job. He had only ever used the job as a path to power, legislation was never an interest of his, but now even that got pushed aside by a new goal, making a lot of money. Power was still his ultimate goal, but money became a necessary means to that power.

LBJ began manipulating his access to the highly endangered FCC. By making himself its champion and working to protect their funding, the FCC allowed him to buy a fledgling radio station that had been caught up in a regulatory hell. He bought it in his wife's name which allowed him some plausible deniability when he repeatedly lied and claimed he had nothing to do with it. Once it became the Johnson's, the red tape immediately fell and the station became situated to provide exactly what LBJ wanted, money and power. He used the station as a personal slush fund. If you wanted something done at the congressional level, buy an ad on the station. Apparently he is the inspiration for the Clinton Foundation.

But the money pouring in did not solve all of LBJ's troubles. Power was his ultimate desire. "Although he wanted money, had always wanted it, money was not what he wanted most — needed most... The hunger that gnawed at him most deeply was a hunger not for riches but for power in its most naked form; to bend others to his will. At every stage of his life, this hunger was evident: what he always sought was not merely power but the acknowledgement by others — the deferential, face-to-face, subservient acknowledgement — that he possessed it." (p. 119) With the death of his patron, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Johnson was pushed outside of any influence whatsoever. Truman had seen his manipulation of powerful men and would have nothing to do with him. Desperate for power and cognizant of the fact that he weilded none, he decided to gamble everything. Win or bust.  Johnson decided to run for Senate for the second time in 1948. However, his opponent in the upcoming primary, Coke Stevenson, would prove a very formidable obstacle.

Coke Stevenson was an anti-politician. He never wanted to run for office in the first place, his heart was out on his ranch. But his integrity and character led other men to encourage him to run for various offices. He ended up having one of the most successful political careers in all of Texas history. He won by landslides. The self-taught, strict Constitutionalist was given the nickname "Mr. Texas." He was beloved by all. He felt no need to make campaign promises or defend himself against attacks. He figured the people of Texas knew who he was and of his honest reputation. His character was enough to persuade the voter. He had actually retired to his beloved ranch after the death of his wife and his time as the governor. But swayed by an urgent call to go to Washington to represent Texas, he threw his hat into the ring.

Johnson knew that in order to defeat Stevenson, he would have to run the kind of campaign that had never been run. He would use the power of his radio station to raise money and keep his words constantly before the public's hearing. He would use the new political tool of polling. He would spend more money, by far, than had ever been spent on a political campaign of any kind in Texas. He knew he'd have to spend a lot to buy the votes needed to win, but he wanted to put even more money into play in such a way that an old-fashioned, honest politician like Coke Stevenson couldn't compete. Johnson's ally, Connally, believed that "Coke Stevenson 'didn't know how to raise money.' And Stevenson wouldn't want to; he had been campaigning the old way for so long, and so successfully, that he wouldn't realize the power of the new politics — until it was too late." (p. 193)

As often happened to Johnson when he was stressed and working very hard, he got sick. He had a kidney stone that was causing him unbearable pain. There was a treatment, but he would have to be hospitalized. This meant he would lose precious time campaigning. Finally he passed the breaking point and went to a hospital for an experimental treatment. It worked on the kidney stone, but it cost him more than two precious weeks of campaign time. Meanwhile, Stevenson kept driving around from small town to small town, shaking hands and drumming up support. Again typical of LBJ, he became desperately depressed and unglued knowing he had bet everything on this campaign and he was losing.

In a stroke of genius, LBJ emerged from his funk with the most unorthodox campaigning method yet. He would commandeer a helicopter to take him throughout the rural, far-flung towns and hamlets of Texas. He knew this would definitely win him some publicity as well as gin up the crowds. He worked like a dog darting from location to location with his team on the ground struggling to keep up. He took great risks in the machine, and for someone extremely physically risk adverse, this is saying something. Meanwhile he began to slander Coke Stevenson with repeated attacks on his integrity and took to mocking his slow, deliberative speaking style. He knew that Stevenson wouldn't respond and that gave Johnson a wide open opportunity to say anything and see what stuck. He finally settled on claiming that Stevenson had made a secret deal to repeal the popular Taft-Hartley Act. In town after town, Johnson demanded that Stevenson "tell the truth" and reveal his secret pact with Labor. As expected, Stevenson refused to respond, relying on the people's knowledge of him, his previous actions, and his personal integrity. What Stevenson didn't understand was that this was a campaign unlike anything he or anyone else had ever run up against before. "Never before had attacks against Stevenson been repeated day after day, week after week, not only on the radio, that powerful medium, now, for the first time in Texas, being exploited to its fullest, but in weekly newspapers, daily newspapers, in campaign mailings, so that voters heard and saw the charges against him, it seemed, every time they turned on the  radio, read a newspaper, opened their mail." (p. 227) Despite Johnson's increasingly desperate rantings and out-of-control temper tantrums, and despite the lies and the unheard of publicity blitz, Stevenson still managed to garner 71,000 more votes than Johnson in the primary. Not enough to secure the nomination however. There would be a runoff, but the all signs pointed to the other candidates' votes going to Stevenson.

As they went into the runoff, LBJ and his backers became desperate. They were simply in it too far to lose. If someone other than Johnson won, they would lose their lucrative government contracts, and their corrupt methods would certainly come to light. They would likely end up in jail. They had infuriated people in prominent positions that loved Stevenson, and they were sure those people would come after them. Therefore, no punches, legal, ethical, or moral were pulled. They began a "whisper campaign" in which citizens and government workers were paid to talk up Johnson in their daily lives. The benefit was that the listener would have no idea he was speaking to a paid campaigner. They employed friendly journalists to ask questions the Johnson campaign designed to impugn Stevenson's character, and write articles disparaging him based on false information. They sowed mistrust among Stevenson's financial supporters so that they would pull their backing. They tapped Stevenson's phones or paid operators to listen in, in order to spy on his campaign. They spent highly extravagant amounts of money much of that going into straight cash payments for votes. And they continued the campaign of straight-up lies about Stevenson and his positions. When major labor unions endorsed LBJ, despite his lies that it was Stevenson in the pocket of Labor, LBJ made sure that information was buried. Then Johnson went even further below the belt. He ran on the "wife card" knowing that Stevenson's wife had died and therefore he could use Ladybird to shore up the women's vote.

"From the earliest beginnings of Lyndon Johnson's political life — from his days at college when he had captured control of campus politics — his tactics had consistently revealed a pragmatism and a cynicism that had no discernible limits. His morality was the morality of the ballot box, a morality in which nothing matters but victory and any maneuver that leads to victory is justified, a morality that was amorality." (p. 287) Even ideological principles did not constrain him. He had none. When asked to give an rabidly anti-Labor speech copied from his previous Senatorial opponent saying he believed the exact opposite of what he had always claimed, he did it with a vengeance. His aids were amazed that he probably convinced even himself that he was speaking of his true opinion. Stevenson had a devastating response when he stated that Johnson, for all his supposed passion on various issues,  had not pushed forward a single bill in all his 11 1/2 years in Congress, but he didn't have the money to get out his message. This irrefutable information rarely reached voters.

Even with all the corrupt dealing and thousands of purchased votes by the Johnson campaign, Stevenson still managed to win by more than 850 votes. "Lyndon Johnson had tried to buy a state, and, although he had paid the highest price in Texas history, he had failed." (p. 312) But the Johnson campaign kicked into high gear doing everything they could to "find" more votes. "'Campaigning was no good any more,' [campaign official] Ed Clark says. 'We had to pick up some votes.' Votes in the numbers needed could't be picked up by conventional methods, he says. 'We needed blocs. Ethnic groups — that was the place to go... That meant going into the Mexican country: the Rio Grande River, the border...'" (p. 304) When Jim Wells County called in to say they had accidentally reported 765 votes for Johnson when it was actually 965 votes, that put Johnson over the top by 87 votes. Later testimony said that a loop had clearly been added to the "7" to make it a "9." Johnson had managed to steal the election by every means available.

While screaming that he had won the election "fair and square," Johnson called in every favor he could to keep the original ballots and ballot count from the city of Alice from ever seeing the light of day. A restraining order keeping anyone from reviewing the ballots was issued by a judge friendly to Johnson. Despite this, Stevenson and some law-enforcement officers were allowed to view the tally sheet and the recording of the ballots, kept in a box referred to as "Box 13," for a few minutes. This is when they noticed the "7" that had been obviously changed to a "9." They also noticed that the last several hundred ballots were recorded in a different color and the voters names were in alphabetical order! For a state long used to ballot buying, this was a whole new level. Never before had this kind of corruption had a significant effect on a state-wide election. Coke Stevenson declared "This is the first instance in recorded history that those bloc voting counties have determined the result of a statewide election." He further stated, "This is the first time that the manipulators of the voting in these counties were not content with all-out bloc voting, but re-opened the boxes in secret long after the election had closed and stuffed them with a directed number of ballots." Apparently, even in the world of ballot buying, there were still lines that weren't crossed. Johnson crossed them.

Johnson had a strong card to play when trying to convince Texas Democrats to look away from the fraud obviously perpetuated. Because of political concerns, a Johnson win would provide more delegates friendly to Truman. While Truman was no fan of Johnson, it was in his best interest to let the vote stand. After Stevenson was repeatedly blocked by judicial rulings favorable to Johnson, there was a chance he could get the Texas Democratic Executive Committee to investigate the fraud and declare Stevenson their nominee. Therefore Johnson's people kicked into gear buying or manipulating votes on the executive committee. The committee members were bribed, heckled, threatened and cajoled to no end. Finally Johnson's efforts paid off. In a dramatic vote, he won the nomination by one vote 29-28. Since Texas was effectively a one-party state, the Democratic nomination meant a win statewide.

Coke's sense of justice could simply not let the theft stand. Stevenson settled on the idea that a wrong committed must have a way to right it. Therefore he sued under federal civil rights laws, saying his civil right to stand for election had been violated. A federal judge agreed and opened an investigation. Time was a pressing concern. The ballots would be printed in a matter of a few days. One judge had offered a compromise of both names on the ballot as the Democratic nominee or there would be no Democratic nominee if the court case was undecided. Johnson was fighting to get his name alone on the ballot. His only recourse was to get the case thrown out before the investigation was done. In a complicated legal maneuver he managed to get the Supreme Court involved to stay the investigation. Johnson's name alone appeared on the ballot, and he went on to win the general election and was seated in the Senate.

Johnson's tainted win forever tarnished his image. The author was able to locate the strongman, Indio Salas, responsible for making sure that no one saw "Box 13." It was he who testified that the box and all copies of the ballots had disappeared. But decades later, he confessed to the author the whole fraudulent scheme. Asked why he had decided to admit what he had help perpetuate, Salas said "he had been unable to forget the look in the eyes of that strong, silent man, and ever since, 'The only remorse I feel is... for what we did to Coke Stevenson.'"Johnson, himself, did not even bother to pretend he had not stolen the election. In fact, "for some years the memory was kept vivid by the very man who had allegedly done the stealing. People hearing him reminisce about the campaign, or watching the grins and winks with which he joked and talked, could hardly escape getting the impression that the election had been stolen, and that he was not ashamed of that fact. Far from it. The impression he conveyed was of a politician who had outsmarted an opponent, done something illegal, and hadn't been caught. The impression he conveyed was of a man who not only was unashamed of what he had done, but who was proud of it — who boasted about it." (p. 400) Several years later, while president, Johnson showed a hostile reporter a picture of himself with the notorious and "missing" Box 13. Caro states, "For him to display the photograph to a hostile journalist is evidence of a psychological need so deep that its demands could not be resisted."

In spite of all this, Coke Stevenson might have gotten the last laugh. While he never forgave Lyndon for the theft, he went on to live a wonderful life. He got remarried to a wonderful woman and had a beloved daughter. He got the ultimate revenge. He was happy. No deep psychological need for affirmation here. He was just deeply content, healthy, and whole. He died at 87, mentally and physically fit almost until the end.

The whole purpose of the Caro books on Lyndon Johnson are to show him as a man motivated simply by the will to power. He uses this particular book to show the lengths the man will go to achieve his dream. It is not pretty. I believe Caro more than makes his case of LBJ as a power-hungry, amoral man who was deeply bent and unhappy. His research is impeccable. While his story definitely has forward motion, we know it is progressing towards the Presidency ultimately, it is not a positive story. It's like watching a train-wreck. We know how it ends, but are powerless to stop it. I think Caro seeks to reveal an injustice. Maybe he wishes to prevent future charlatans, but probably he is just telling us that they exist. They are willing to cross lines they should not. But in this story, since he ends with a beautiful postscript detailing Coke Stevenson's ultimate happiness, perhaps Caro is saying that while injustice exists, it does not ultimately "win." Good men, full of integrity like Coke Stevenson, cannot be defeated. Living well is the best revenge.

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