by Robert Westbrook
Robert Westbrook’s book John Dewey and American Democracy is published by Cornell University Press. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 22-29, 1990 pp.766-770, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
When I was a kid, in the early 1960s, my friends and I took a great deal of interest in presidential election campaigns. We regarded them as something like a third pennant race, overlapping as they did with the baseball season. We picked favorites, exchanged preferences, made wagers and attempted to root our candidate home to victory. I often found myself taking lonely positions in these contests, for my father was a Democrat, while most of my friends were the sons of the all-too-many reactionary Republicans in our small western Colorado city, and in this respect if in no other we hewed closely to paternal values. I remember most of all the abuse I suffered for my support of Lyndon Johnson in 1960 and 1964, for Johnson was widely regarded in my circle as a southern buffoon.
It was, I think, precisely because Johnson was a southerner that I liked him so much, for he seemed to embody the southern New Deal liberalism that was for my father the good side of his own southern upbringing. Indeed, several years ago as I read Robert Caro’s vivid descriptions of Johnson’s campaign treks across the Texas Hill Country in the 1930s in the first volume of his monumental Years of Lyndon Johnson, I was reminded of the stories my father had told me of riding in the rumble seat of a Model A as he accompanied my grandfather on his travels around Arkansas in that same decade as a campaign manager for some of that states Democratic politicians. I hoped that LBJ would fulfill the promise of southern liberalism with which my father identified, a liberal promise that had till then waged a losing battle with the racism and reaction that often rendered him bitter and defensive about his homeland.
Well. Lyndon Johnson had me fooled: my hopes. which were widely shared, were never fully realized. The Great Society was lost at the Gulf of Tonkin, and, as Johnson tried to manipulate the public into supporting the war in Vietnam, many came to hate him. In the final years of his presidency, there were few places in the U.S. he could travel without being met by a chorus singing, "Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?"
Now, thanks to Caro, we know how masterfully Johnson had been manipulating people well before he became a politician of national prominence. He fooled his parents; he fooled his classmates, in school and in college; he fooled his wife and he fooled his mistress. He used those he worked for and those who worked for him; he used congressmen and senators, state politicians and federal administrators; he used liberals and conservatives, poor men and millionaires. By the time he was 32 he had successfully manipulated such fearsome figures as Sam Rayburn, and he had even manipulated the Great Manipulator himself, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even before he was elected to public office, Caro contended, his character was "formed, shaped -- into a shape so hard it would never change." The betrayal many felt in the wake of Johnson’s presidency was felt over the whole course of his career by those men and women who discovered that Johnson was never what he seemed to be. There were, however, many who never knew they had been deceived, and for them Caro’s massive biography will be a revelation.
In the most eye-opening chapters of his first volume, Caro detailed Johnson’s work on the 1940 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In this election, in which many Democratic congressional candidates seemed doomed to defeat for lack of money, Johnson assumed personal control of campaign finance, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars from his financial backers -- such as the construction firm of Brown and Root -- to Democrats throughout the country. This effort, which secured a surprising Democratic victory, earned Johnson a measure of power on Capital Hill vastly disproportionate to his young years and marked a new stage in the development of the ever-increasing influence of money on American electoral politics. This was apparent in the spectacular and enormously expensive campaign Johnson waged in 1941 for the Senate seat left vacant with the death of Morris Sheppard. He lost this election, however, when in an uncharacteristic moment of overconfidence he allowed the official returns from the Mexican-American precincts he had bought in San Antonio and South Texas to be reported early on election day. This allowed the Texas liquor interests, who wanted to elect his prohibitionist opponent Governor Pappy O’Daniel in order to get him out of the state, to overcome Johnson’s lead with the late-reporting figures from the rural precincts they had bought in East Texas.
Despite this disappointing defeat, Johnson’s political future looked bright in late 1941. Another senatorial election was upcoming in 1942, and his impressive run against the popular O’Daniel and his close ties to President Roosevelt made him a leading contender for the Democratic nomination (which in Texas, as elsewhere in the South, was tantamount to election) Unfortunately for Johnson, World War II intervened, and he was tripped up by a campaign pledge to enlist in the event of war and "be in the front line, in the trenches, in the mud and blood with your boys, helping to do that fighting." On December 8 Johnson, who was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, signed on for active duty. Though he postponed as long as he could fulfilling his pledge to go to the front, Johnson finally left for the Pacific in May 1942 and reluctantly abandoned the Senate race in favor of former Governor James Allred, who had won Roosevelt’s endorsement. This doomed Johnson to six years of waiting for another shot at the Senate -- six years of frustration and declining influence as a congressman, a job that never held any intrinsic interest for him. Means of Ascent chronicles these relatively powerless years in Johnson’s path to the presidency and examines in intricate detail the election that he stole in 1948 from former Governor Coke Stevenson -- a make-or-break contest that put him back on course to the White House.
Johnson regarded his seat in the House as but a stepping-stone to greater things, and as his drive for higher office stalled in the mid-1940s he devoted even less attention to the duties of a congressman than he had in his first two terms on Capitol Hill. But Johnson’s enormous energy did not dissipate in the mid-1940s. It was redirected toward making himself a rich man (perhaps the wealthiest to be elected president). During the war, the foundations of the Johnson fortune were laid with the purchase of Austin radio station KTBC. Later Johnson would insist that the station and the radio and TV empire built upon it belonged to Lady Bird and that he had nothing to do with its affairs. But Caro has amassed compelling evidence that, though the station was purchased in his wife’s name, it was Johnson’s influence that greased the wheels with an ordinarily slow-moving and cautious FCC, enabling Lady Bird not only to win quick approval for the purchase but also to secure changes in the operating conditions of the station that made it a much more valuable property. Furthermore, much of the rapidly rising advertising revenue that made Johnson a millionaire by 1948 came from sponsors interested less in selling their products in central Texas than in securing the good will of a U. S. congressman.
But it was not money but power that Johnson desired most. "The hunger that gnawed at him most deeply," Caro says, "was a hunger not for riches but for power in its most naked form; to bend others to his will." The radio business, at best, allowed for reciprocity, not domination. As one of Johnson’s closest political associates put it: "He wanted people to kiss his ass. He didn’t want to have to kiss people’s asses. And selling [radio] time -- you have to kiss people’s asses sometimes. In business you have to. He liked power, and so he was unhappy in business." Believing that like many other men in his family he would die young, Johnson felt he had to get out of the House and into the fast lane to power, and thus he risked his political career on one more run for the Senate in 1948. Unlike the special election of 1941, this was a regular election in which Johnson could not run for senator and retain his congressional seat, and he told his closest advisers that, if he lost, he would abandon politics.
Johnson was a longshot in the race. O’Daniel, who had been re-elected in 1942, remained popular, Johnson had lost much of the statewide reputation he had won in 1941; and he no longer had the White House on his side. His hopes brightened when O’Daniel decided to withdraw amid reports of his profiteering in Washington real estate, but they then plummeted when the most popular governor in Texas history, Coke Stevenson, decided to enter the contest. Stevenson, a Hill Country rancher widely regarded as "Mr. Texas" and the "living personification of frontier individualism," had rolled up 85 percent of the vote in his previous campaign for governor in 1944 and was thought to be unbeatable. The bulk of Means of Ascent is devoted to a detailed account of the fierce and controversial battle between Johnson and Stevenson in the initial primary and the subsequent runoff, in the governing bodies of the Texas Democratic Party, and in the courtroom.
Employing huge sums of cash, radio spots, sophisticated polling, misleading negative campaigning, and a couple of helicopters, Johnson waged a modern, commercialized campaign against Stevenson, who continued to ply the old-fashioned politics of courthouse meetings and cowboy parades. This enabled Johnson to make substantial inroads into the huge lead Stevenson held at the outset of the race, but a week before the election he still trailed by a considerable margin. Johnson’s supporters then turned to more traditional Texas political methods and bought out the Mexican vote of San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, giving Johnson a 35,000-vote plurality in these areas. Johnson won the election by 87 votes, with the margin of victory provided by George Parr, the "Valley’s Boss of Bosses," whose enforcer, Luis Salas, cast 200 ballots for Johnson on behalf of nonvoters in the 13th precinct of Alice, Texas, several days after the polls had closed. Stevenson fought back against this fraud, taking his case both to the executive committee of the state party and the federal courts. But he was defeated by a single vote in the former forum and outwitted by the clever legal maneuvers of Johnson’s friend Abe Fortas in the latter. Stevenson retired to his ranch, and "Landslide Lyndon," as he became known, assumed a place in the U.S. Senate, a body he would come to dominate in less than a decade.
The Path to Power portrayed young Lyndon Johnson as one of the most unsavory figures in the history of American politics, and in Means of Ascent this portrait darkens even further. In his first volume, Caro acknowledged that Johnson’s story was not without its "bright thread." When Johnson’s personal ambitions coincided with the needs of the poor and dispossessed, his immense energy and skill as a political technician could work wonders. As the leader of the Texas National Youth Administration he developed imaginative programs for youth employment and proved extraordinarily successful in circumventing the red tape that blocked the efforts of so many other administrators. As a congressman he used federal money to rescue the property and salvage the dignity of the most destitute residents of his district. Most impressively, he bucked the powerful utility companies to bring electricity to the poor farmers on forks of the creeks. Rural electrification brought these people out of conditions that were virtually medieval, and, after the lights went on in November 19, one woman recalled that "all over the Hill Country people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson."
The tragedy of these accomplishments, Caro argued, was that Johnson viewed them not as important goals of liberal reform but as undertakings purely instrumental to the attainment of greater power for himself. This argument was not convincing, for Caro seemed so determined to reduce Johnson’s motives to a singular lust for power that he slighted evidence he himself provided that LBJ was a more complex man. He did admit that Johnson’s secret love affair with Alice Glass, the beautiful mistress of one of his wealthiest supporters, Charles Marsh, was inexplicable in terms of the pattern of Johnsonian motives he had drawn, but the same could be said of Johnson’s devotion to the outcast Mexican children he taught at Cotulla as a young man or the extraordinary efforts he made as a congressman on behalf of his poorest (often nonvoting) constituents. These suggested that Johnson was not without some populist sentiments and that these sentiments, at least for a time, coexisted uneasily with the practicalities of power politics -- even if, when push-came-to-shove, it was populist sentiments that gave way.
In Means of Ascent, Caro offers us an even more one-dimensional Johnson. Not only is he not credited with liberal principles, he is even denied credit for any liberal accomplishments. If Caro makes a good case for the submersion of any liberal convictions in Johnson himself in these years, it seems to me he decidedly underplays an achievement of Johnson’s that had significant consequences for the course of modern American liberalism: he beat Coke Stevenson. This is not an argument Caro entertains, for he builds Stevenson into a mirror image of Johnson’s amorality. In a parallel biography of Stevenson that is as wide-eyed as that of Johnson is skeptical, he invests the taciturn cowboy with the honesty, integrity and courage that he finds lacking in Johnson, and largely ignores the interests and ideology that Stevenson served as a politician. He portrays the contest between Stevenson and Johnson as a legendary Hollywood showdown, a confrontation between the white-hatted ex-governor and the black-clad congressman, a clash of outsized personalities in which the larger political context of the campaign is subordinated to a confrontation between Johnson’s "extreme pragmatism" and Stevenson’s "extreme idealism." In the movies, of course, the bad guy would have ended up face down in the dust outside the saloon, but here he rides into the sunrise toward Washington, leaving the reader no doubt that the better man lost and glad only that the widowed Stevenson eventually finds true happiness in the love of a good woman, his second wife, "Teeney," whom he married in 1954.
Structuring the narrative in this fashion makes for high drama, and Means of Ascent is as absorbing as Caro’s other books. Yet it distorts a history that calls for a more complex story. By the time they reach the mawkish tale of "the love between Coke and Teeney" at the end of the book, many readers will no doubt feel that Stevenson is too good to be true and will have noted the manner in which Caro’s indefatigable energies as an investigative reporter seem to have flagged when it comes to the career of his hero. Stevenson, Caro asserts, was a politician who could not be bought, and it is Stevenson’s honesty and integrity that contrast most sharply in the book with Johnson’s utter indifference to truth and principle. But other students of Texas politics are not as sure that Stevenson was as clean as Caro claims, noting especially his alleged involvement with phony oil leases on his land.
But even if Stevenson were the paragon of virtue Caro claims, the morality play of Means of Ascent would have to be judged wanting, for this good man was the servant of some very nasty ideas and interests, not the least of which was white supremacy. Caro’s treatment of Stevenson’s racism is extremely brief and unconvincing. "There were almost no Negroes in the Hill Country," he notes, "and Stevenson accepted all the Southern stereotypes about that race." Racism was a problem "to which his upbringing in that isolated country made it difficult to relate." But Johnson was also from the Hill Country, and, as George Brown said, "he was for the Niggers" even if he only worked on their behalf when it was politically expedient. Stevenson’s attitudes thus cannot so easily be explained away. Caro notes Stevenson’s pride in being named after Richard Coke, the governor who "redeemed" Texas from Reconstruction in 1873, but he fails to grasp that what, Stevenson inherited from Coke was not only a "distrust of all government" but a commitment to white supremacy. On more that one occasion Caro offers an interpretation of the "injustices of Reconstruction" long repudiated by historians, and he fails to observe that Coke’s administration, backed by the Ku Klux Klan, put Texas on the road to segregation and black disenfranchisement. This was the "lion-hearted Richard Coke" whose name Caro’s hero proudly bore.
Caro’s neglect of race is ironic since Means of Ascent begins with a moving account of Johnson’s finest hour as a proponent of black civil rights: his "We Shall Overcome" speech in March 1965 proposing the legislation that would become the Voting Rights Act. As Caro says, if Johnson had lost in 1948 he most likely would not have had the opportunity to make this speech. What he does not tell us is that not only Lyndon Johnson’s political career but the course of the struggle for racial justice would have suffered had Johnson gone down to defeat. The late 1940s were critical years in the development of the Democratic Party, years when race began to move from the periphery to the center of its concerns. And in 1948 Coke Stevenson was not only a racist, he was the senatorial candidate in Texas representing southern white resistance to any move toward racial equality, the candidate of Texas Dixiecrats who were determined to undermine the civil rights agenda of the Fair Deal even if it cost their party the White House. Johnson was allied with Democrats within and without Texas who were loyal to Harry Truman, and, for this reason, they supported him despite his own lackluster civil rights record, even when this meant winking at the corruption that secured his victory.
For Democratic liberals, Johnson was no prize, but he was no Dixiecrat and was the lesser evil. On matters of race, he may have shown himself to be an "extreme pragmatist," but, unlike Stevenson, he was at least no extreme ideologue. By these lights, Johnson’s election was yet another unintended victory for the "downtrodden" that accompanied his quest for power.
Once, we add this context to the story of the election of 1948, Caro’s moral showdown becomes suspect, even if we reserve our doubts about his claims for Stevenson’s pristine character. We find ourselves instead with a more unusual screenplay, a darkly ironic remake of Shane in which a strong, silent and principled Alan Ladd rides into town and helps the cattle barons, who share his principles, in their attempt to drive out the homesteaders, who in turn hire a sleazy Jack Palance to get rid of Shane in order to guarantee a more egalitarian frontier. This seems to me a more complex, more interesting story, and better history to boot.
It also restores to center stage what Caro himself says are the most important issues raised by Johnson’s life: those moral questions surrounding the relationship between means and ends in modern American politics. For it suggests that if Johnson had no "noble ends" in the late 1940s, he nonetheless served as their instrument, an instrument that left with dirty hands those just men and women who supported his corrupt politics.
In The Path to Power, Caro handled the questions about the use and abuse of power that Johnson’s life raises with the skill of a novelist; in Means of Ascent, he has turned cartoonist. Let us hope in the volumes to come that he regains the more knotty view of these questions and of Johnson’s career that he seems to have lost, and that no more heroes like Coke Stevenson intrude to obscure his vision. Let us hope, that is, that in this respect his extraordinary biography has not been ‘formed, shaped -- into a shape so hard it [can] never change."