Just Had To

R.W. Johnson

  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Vol III: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
    Cape, 1102 pp, £30.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 394 52836 0

The French prefer an allusive style in biography, with as little as possible of the scaffolding of scholarship showing. Jean Lacouture’s magisterial De Gaulle is virtually unfootnoted, has only a small bibliography and contains many verbatim conversations or remarks by De Gaulle that we have to take on trust, as well as many ironic thrusts and tight logical turns which can nearly knock you off your chair. The result is an impressionistic Life in which little is settled beyond dispute. The British style is more careful and thorough, with the foundation work in sources revealed as proudly as any part of the superstructure. The aim is completeness and to settle things beyond doubt, but there is reticence even so. It’s not just that literary flourishes are avoided and psychobiography shunned, but that key debates can be carried on almost unseen in long afternotes. Even such an authoritative work as Philip Williams’s Gaitskell, with its unrivalled picture of postwar Labour politics, wholly omits Gaitskell’s colourful sex life. ‘I decided at the outset I wasn’t going into all that,’ he told me.

American biography, as Robert Caro’s vast Life of LBJ reminds one, is something else again. Whereas British political biography, with the (white) elephantine exception of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill is, almost as a matter of professional pride, a one-volume affair, there is a well established American tradition of monumentalism, based, it seems, on the assumption that a blockbusting person requires a blockbuster book. Caro seems intent on breaking all records with LBJ. This third volume takes us only as far as 1960, with the whole of Johnson’s Vice-Presidency and Presidency still stretching ahead, yet this volume on its own contains 645,000 words and the first two, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, were each of similar size.

Mainly this is justified, for LBJ’s career, from the young New Dealer and confidant of FDR to the wartime Congressman to the man who ruled the Senate, can be seen as epitomising the century – or at any rate its middle years. Johnson was also the architect of the space age: Tom Wolfe correctly makes him a central figure in The Right Stuff and it’s no accident that mission control is anchored in Houston. With the Great Society programme he forced a torrent of social and economic reforms through Congress – only FDR did anything comparable – and, above all, he was the man who completed the work of black emancipation with the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Finally, he launched America’s full weight into the Vietnam War – and was crucified for it.

Yet Caro also seems to delight in providing mounds of essentially irrelevant detail. For example, at one point Johnson’s backers in the oil and power industries very much wanted to get rid of Leland Olds, the progressive chairman of the Federal Power Commission, whose determination to put consumers first threatened to cut company profits. LBJ obliged, with a cynical and unjustified McCarthyite witch-hunt which destroyed Olds for ever. This was ugly work without a doubt and Caro devotes 71 pages to it, including a lengthy biography of Olds complete with details of his parents and a painstaking analysis of his prodigious journalistic output in the 1920s.

Because travelling with Caro through LBJ’s life is like a slow walk across the Great Plains, periodic emotional highs have to be manufactured to add a few landscape features, and what he has said in earlier pages or volumes has to be recapitulated since it may now lie so far back along the trail. Both purposes are served by repeated perorations about LBJ forcing through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally gave all blacks the vote, and about the canniness with which he foresaw Southern resistance in Congress – and grimly adopted the civil rights movement anthem, ‘We shall overcome’. The bitterness of those who had supported him all their lives up until that moment and could never forgive this treason to the Old South didn’t deflect him. Caro is not exaggerating when he says that LBJ stands next to Lincoln in the history of black emancipation: the problem is that he says it so often.

These faults are outweighed by three great virtues. First, Caro’s canvas allows him to use LBJ’s life as a lens through which to examine a period and, in this case, the institution of the Senate; this doesn’t just enrich the narrative, it changes one’s view. Second, there is the fascination of watching a wholly amoral man – LBJ bullied, lied, cheated, betrayed and stole elections – succeed against the odds and do a great deal of good. And third, there is the tremendously detailed and hugely enjoyable depiction of a master politician time and again winning legislative battles which were not there to win.

The Senate which LBJ entered in 1949 was a national laughing stock. Its archaic procedures, low attendance, short sittings, obstructive attitudes and the prevalence in it of lazy old men – by 1940, the average age of senators was 60 and 13 were in their seventies or eighties – led to bitter remarks about the ‘senility system’; several all-powerful committee chairmen were indeed either gravely ill or mentally impaired. Although only 22 of the 96 senators were from the Deep South, they provided the chairmen of the three most powerful committees – Appropriations, Foreign Relations and Finance – while of the 13 other major committees only one was not chaired by a Southerner or a firm ally of the South. On the most powerful committee of all, Appropriations, over half the Democrats were Southerners, who also provided the chairmen of six of the ten sub-committees. This, together with their ruthless use of the filibuster not only ensured that no civil rights legislation would ever be passed but allowed some Southern senators to be quite open and arrogant about their prejudices. Senator Bilbo (Mississippi) thought it fun to begin a letter to a woman with an Italian name ‘Dear Dago’, while the state’s other senator, James Eastland, would not only glare at New York’s Jewish senator, Jacob Javits, and say things like ‘I don’t like you or your kind’ but actually proposed that Congress limit the number of Jews conducting interstate businesses because ten thousand Jewish drygoods merchants represented ‘discrimination against the Anglo-Saxon branch of the white race’. The young LBJ, anxious to understand what was going on, watched in silence for hours on end. The son of a poor man whose life had ended in failure, LBJ had first worshipped his father and then sworn that whatever happened he himself would not be a failure. He had to be somebody: ‘just had to’ was the phrase his intimates whispered to one another, in awe at the force of nature they served.

He was struck by the fact that the pinnacles of power in Washington were occupied by old and often lonely men: the single, childless House Speaker, Sam Rayburn (Texas); many of the old Southern bulls who ruled the Senate, especially Richard Russell (Georgia), their unchallenged chief; even the President. Eleanor Roosevelt was often away and FDR sometimes rang LBJ and they would dine together. LBJ used to claim that FDR was ‘just like a daddy to me’. He cultivated the same relationship with both Rayburn and Russell, playing the dutiful son, fawning on them, literally kissing Rayburn’s bald head, endlessly inviting them round so that his wife, Lady Bird, could give them good ole Southern cooking and rescue them from the loneliness they dreaded. ‘Loneliness breaks the heart,’ Rayburn used to say, ‘loneliness consumes people.’ With Rayburn and Russell as a base, LBJ built up his position in the Southern bloc, though he was always careful to be of the South but not its champion – he knew that would wreck his Presidential hopes as it had wrecked Russell’s.

Until LBJ took the job, the Democratic Leader in the Senate was a figure of fun, the butt of jokes about impotence and irrelevance. The Leader had no way of making senators vote the way he wanted and nobody was keen to have the job. To do it properly you had to spend more time away from home than other senators and reluctance to do that resulted in almost immediate electoral defeat for LBJ’s two predecessors. But no sooner had he become Minority Leader in 1953 (and Majority Leader in 1955) than it became clear that this was now a position of substance. With a solid Southern bloc to rely on, he reached out to Northern liberals like Hubert Humphrey and Jack Kennedy, pointing out that only by sticking together could the Democrats weather Eisenhower’s huge popularity. With Taft’s supporters wanting to lead the Republicans way to the right, the Democrats might even make themselves the core of a moderate ruling coalition.

To this end, Johnson charmed, bullied and cajoled. Never satisfied with anything less than unanimity, he worked tirelessly, driving his growing staff beyond the point of exhaustion. Conniving to gain control of committee assignments, he then made brutal use of them to whip doubters into line. He told his backers, the Texas oil barons, that he could increase their power and in return they gave him money, lots of it. Envelopes containing thousands of dollars were passed on by LBJ to help colleagues, sometimes even to buy favour with useful Republicans; by 1952 he was helping to finance the campaigns of Democratic senators all round the country: Stuart Symington (Missouri) seems to have been particularly dependent on his largesse. Had the press known what was going on they would doubtless have said, not quite openly, that LBJ was bribing and buying the Senate but no one had a greater interest in keeping the secret than the money’s recipients. LBJ’s huge physical presence was almost enough in itself to command assent: he pinioned senators by their lapels, button-holed them, strong-armed them, forced them to listen to the reasons they should vote the way he wanted.

Beyond that, he was enormous fun, an expert mimic and a fount of funny stories and political gossip which left seasoned politicians marvelling at his shrewdness and insight. The party began as soon as he entered the room. Ungainly and in many ways physically repellent, he snorted inhalers with a sound audible across a county and often insisted on making lesser folk attend on him as he sat on the lavatory. Yet he managed to be endlessly unfaithful to the long-suffering Lady Bird. He also had a wonderful way with words, sometimes grave, dignified and sonorous but more often homey. An interest group was ‘no stronger than a popcorn fart’; a joint committee was ‘as useless as tits on a bull’; one man was ‘as wise as a tree full of owls’, another ‘as busy as a man with one hoe and two rattlesnakes’. He had little time for senatorial oratory: ‘Making a speech on economics is like pissing down your leg. It may seem hot to you but it never does to anyone else.’

LBJ accumulated power ruthlessly (he wanted to be known by his initials because it would signify that, like FDR, he had – or would – become a household name). He took over the Democratic Policy Committee, recruited more staff, made it clear that they worked for him personally, had his men and women all over Capitol Hill, had every standing committee Democratic staffer reporting back to him weekly, moved into palatial offices, became a boss such as the Senate had never seen. He disliked issues. Unanimity would maximise his power and that of the Senate Democrats, so why have divisive discussions, why have a Northern liberal like Humphrey make speeches just to exercise his lungs and upset the South? Best to smoothe issues away and stop the Democratic caucus (an opportunity for debate and thus division) from meeting. Before LBJ it had met at least five times a year; soon it was down to once and then it didn’t meet at all. Humphrey, who might have led the opposition to him, was overpowered by LBJ’s personality and admiration for his skills. LBJ regarded Humphrey’s liberal oratory as a joke: a real politician didn’t talk, he did things. ‘The way Hubert prepares himself for a major speech,’ LBJ drawled, ‘is to take a deep breath.’

His own skills first became evident when he rode out the right-wing storm of the early 1950s. While Richard Russell was quietly destroying Douglas MacArthur with elaborate courtesy and serpentine procedure in the Armed Services Committee, LBJ dealt with Joe McCarthy. Knowing that many Democratic voters and senators might take McCarthy’s side if his hysteria was confronted, LBJ warned liberals like Humphrey not to tear into him. Better to let the hysteria run its course and then settle McCarthy’s hash with a formal Senate censure. In the end, LBJ lined up 44 out of 47 Democrats (and one Independent) to vote for censure while the GOP split 22-22, so McCarthy went down 67-22.

A far tougher call was the Bricker Amendment put up by Taft Republicans, which called for all foreign commitments to require the consent of Congress and even of state legislatures. LBJ, rightly seeing it as a retrospective censure of FDR as well as an attempt to force isolationism on Eisenhower, determined to defeat the Amendment. This looked impossible for it was wildly popular, among the Texas oil barons especially. So LBJ persuaded one of the old Southern bulls, Senator Walter George (Georgia) to put up his own constitutional amendment, still strongly conservative but not quite conservative enough to keep the Republicans united, thus ensuring that a Democratic initiative took centre stage and knocked Bricker out. His next move was to arrange for the George Amendment he had himself inspired to fail to get the necessary two-thirds support. George must not be humiliated, his Amendment must get a clear majority but just fail to get two-thirds. In the end the Amendment passed by 60-31, with LBJ voting for it, and thereby failed to reach two-thirds by one vote. Both amendments fell away, the Eisenhower Administration was saved and Ike owed it all to LBJ, the master of the coalition which now ruled America.

Yet about his own ambition LBJ could be surprisingly naive. He convinced himself he could win the 1956 Democratic Presidential nomination, intending to make himself the inevitable choice for 1960 when Ike stepped down. Befuddled perhaps by his mastery of the Senate, he failed to realise that nominations were controlled by patronage, by the mayors and governors, not by senators, and kidded himself that he had done enough to win Northern liberal support by voting for the provision of public housing when only support for civil rights counted. Bruised by his inevitable rebuff, he determined to achieve the truly impossible, and get the South to allow through the first civil rights act since Reconstruction. How he managed this takes up the last third of this volume.

Realising that the black vote would be crucial in 1960, Eisenhower and even more Nixon, who gradually took over the Republican campaign in the Senate, determined to ram through a civil rights bill or, at least, get the Southern Democrats to alienate black voters by killing it. The White House believed that it had to go early to get the Bill onto the Senate floor in April but LBJ, who wanted to turn it into his Bill, took the opposite tack. First, the heart of the Bill – the crucial Part III desegregating schools and other public institutions – had to be struck out: the South would never accept it. Then the South had somehow to be bullied into not filibustering on the grounds that the Bill would help LBJ to become President and thus strengthen the South’s hand. Then it had to be delayed past any reasonable point so that all manner of other vital legislation was held up by it, ultimately forcing many reluctant senators to vote for it just to clear the decks.

LBJ realised that the South was ashamed of denying the vote to blacks: the Constitution was, after all, emphatic on the matter so he concentrated on that. He then had the brainwave of buying the votes of the nine mountain and North-Western states by getting the Southern bloc to support the proposal for a federal dam in Hell’s Canyon (while ensuring that this proposal would fail in the end – the private power companies wouldn’t like it). LBJ was far more than a match for the GOP Leader, Senator William Knowland (California), who called for a vote on Part III. LBJ agreed and both men sat there beaming, LBJ because he knew he’d won, Knowland because he didn’t realise he’d lost. The next step was to insert the right of jury trial for voting cases (typically, blacks were denied the vote by all manner of literacy tests, tricks and subterfuges and the few bolder ones would take the case to court), thus eviscerating the Bill, for no Southern jury would uphold a black’s right to vote. Braving liberal fury, including that of the AFL-CIO, LBJ managed to get the railway brotherhoods and even the mineworkers’ leader, John L. Lewis, to support the extension of jury trial, for they had suffered from the lack of it under the Taft-Hartley Act and then, by delaying all other legislation, even got the postal unions to lobby for the Bill in their desperation to get it out of the way so they could vote through postal increases. To the now disgusted liberals LBJ insisted that any civil rights bill was better than none and that once this one got through others would follow. And so on and on it went. At the outset LBJ had fewer than 30 votes out of 95; in the end his version of the Bill was pushed through by 51 to 42, with Nixon spitting fury and Knowland actually weeping. Eisenhower and Nixon were so angry there was talk of vetoing the Bill but LBJ’s logic won again: the Republicans could hardly be seen to oppose civil rights. Even the NAACP came round and on the final formal vote the majority was so big that LBJ could happily let the South vote against the Bill.

Extraordinarily, this master of realpolitik was again tricked by his own giant ego when he became Vice-President. He had had Texan law changed to allow him to run both as senator and as Vice-President in 1960, winning both races. He then had to resign from his beloved Senate but made a grotesquely misjudged bid to remain chairman of the Democratic caucus as Vice-President, even retaining his imperial office suite in the Senate. Warned on all sides that to try to run the Senate from the White House was a constitutional monstrosity, LBJ forced the issue to the point of his own humiliation. This amazing blunder is easily explained: a Vice-President has no power and LBJ could not imagine life without that.

His mastery of the Senate had not been enough and Jack Kennedy, whom he had regarded as an amiable lightweight, had beaten him to the Presidency: in the era of civil rights the stigma of coming from Texas was just too strong. The irony was that LBJ’s crowning achievements in civil rights put an end to this stigma once and for all. Since LBJ we’ve seen two Californians elected President, two Texans, a Georgian and an Arkansan; even the also-rans, like Gore, tend to come from the South.

LBJ was appalling, masterful, funny, gross and a racist; he had a real sympathy for the poor, did much good and much harm: he was in all things a giant. He loved compliments, his face would crinkle into a vast smile and he would say: ‘Why, I just wish my old daddy could be alive to hear you say that. He would just love that. And my mommy, why she’d believe it!’