What We Can Learn About Politics From the Life of LBJ

1982 was a watershed year for many reasons. The Lebanese civil war was raging. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% in November, the bottom of the recession that was taking place in the early 1980s. The Falklands war began (and ended) in 1982. Michael Jackson released his album Thriller, which would go on to become the best selling album of all time. Perhaps political junkies should remember that year for another reason: it was the year in which the first volume of Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson was published.

At the risk of sounding gushy, I will say from the outset that The Path to Power is without a doubt the best biography I’ve ever read. Every aspect of the subject’s life is covered in such detail that it leaves me wondering how much better informed the public could be if all our leaders had a biographer as painstaking as Caro. Every aspect of LBJ’s mastery of the political game is portrayed — his early talent for pulling older, more powerful men under his sway, his uncanny ability to read other men and find their weakness, his penchant for creating a political organization out of social clubs and acquaintances. A great deal of the book focuses on how Johnson built his power base, whether as a student in campus clubs, as a congressional secretary, as Texas National Youth Administration director, or as a Congressman.

The author does not shy away from demolishing the assumptions that other LBJ biographers have operated on, usually as a direct result of LBJ’s compulsive lying. For example his vaunted trip to California as a youth, where he claimed “…up and down the coast I tramped, washing dishes, waiting on tables, doing farm work when it was available, and always growing thinner.” In reality, as Caro unveils, Johnson had worked in an office for a cousin who ran a legal practice. When the practice failed, however, Johnson returned home.

More importantly, it is when the themes of the book are generalized that the true value of the story manifests itself. In the author’s own words: “…understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century…knowledge of the broad outlines of his life illuminates…a panorama vast in scope.” To know the life of Lyndon Johnson, therefore, is to know the history of the twentieth century. Further, throughout Johnson’s life was an ever-present “hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them…” So, in addition to the historical value of studying Johnson’s life, there is a practical value: studying naked ambition in one of its purest historical manifestations. Knowing such a concentrated form of ambition helps us to understand that quality in today’s politicians that much better.

At first glance (and if we are to accept the narrative that LBJ created for himself) the story of Lyndon Johnson’s early life is one of rising from abject poverty in the Texas hill country to a life of service as a congressional secretary, Texas director of the NYA and finally as a Congressman. But every step of the journey was taken with a keen political instinct. Extremely hard worker though he was, the story of Johnson’s life shows that in politics it’s all about who you know. Though despised by many of his peers growing up, he had a great ability to befriend those who could help him, and to pique the paternal instincts of older men. Whether it was the President of San Marcos College (who gave Lyndon the power to disburse jobs on campus) or Congressman Sam Rayburn (who recommended the then-congressional secretary for the NYA director post), older men loved Lyndon Johnson. As a secretary, Johnson also was able to make contacts in every federal agency, getting things done for his boss (Texas Congressman Richard Kleberg) that few other Capitol Hill operators could achieve.

He also had power over those who worked for him. He demanded much out of his employees and became a sort of psychological master over them, finding out their weaknesses and using verbal abuse to get them to do his bidding.

He ran his employees in Congressman Kleberg’s office nearly ragged — 12 hours a day, six days a week (sometimes seven) typing letters to constituents, working the bureaucracy to carry out the requests of friends of the Congressman, etc. His two employees, Gene Lattimer and L.E. Jones were each subjected to their own personalized torture at the hands of Johnson. For Lattimer (who was engaged to be married) it was the humiliation of quitting his job when he had a new family to provide for: Lattimer once threatened to quit the job, and to dissuade him, Johnson, “Towering over the little Irish Boy, said, ‘How are you going to get back [to Texas]? How are you going to get a job? How are you going to provide for Marjorie?’” Sobbing with frustration, Lattimer decided that he had to stay. For Jones, a somewhat more proud and ambitious man, Johnson’s punishment was a bit more subtle. He would force Jones to take dictation while he sat on the toilet. It was Johnson’s way of forcing a public acknowledgement of submission.

Aside from the massive personality that made Johnson who he was, Caro’s book also provides us a glimpse of the practical things that Johnson did, particularly as a Congressman that put him on the “path to power.” It is the identification of these opportunities, so earnestly cultivated that made Johnson the powerful man he later became.

As a freshman congressman, Johnson knew that he would need the financial backing of some rich patron. He found it in Herman Brown of Brown & Root Construction. This company had won a federal contract to build a dam on the Colorado River in Texas, but the project had become snarled in legal problems. Essentially, the dam was technically unauthorized due to an issue with who owned the dam (the federal government or the Texas state government) and thus who was going to pay for the dam to be built (and for what purpose). Johnson immediately saw his chance: he would cultivate friendships with important new dealers close to President Roosevelt and then have them use their influence to make sure the dam was approved and the funds appropriated. Powerful lawyers like Tommy Corcoran and Abe Fortas, befriended by Johnson, saw to it that the dam was passed and that appropriations for the dam grew even larger than Brown & Root had originally anticipated. Johnson used some extremely shrewd men to win the unconditional backing of (soon to be) extremely rich men.

The other turning point was Johnson’s service as a part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That moribund committee had, up to that point, played a very small role in financing political campaigns. But Johnson saw his opportunity to turn it around in the 1940 congressional campaign. With Brown & Root providing the foundation of his fundraising efforts, Johnson opportunistically cultivated the new “oil money” that had been gushing forth in Texas. With this money, Johnson engineered a dramatic turnaround in what was supposed to be a landslide Republican victory in the election. When it was all said and done, the Democrats actually gained seats. And many Congressmen, safe in their seats due to Johnson’s money and inside information on each election, owed him a huge debt of gratitude. Johnson was well on his way to power. It was not to be a steady rise, however.

The book foreshadows the tone of the second volume of the series by ending Johnson’s loss in the 1941 special election for Texas Senator. Johnson lost the election only because he failed to steal as many votes as his adversary did. It was common practice in Texas politics in the first half of the 20th century to simply pay off neighborhood leaders in the poorer parts of southern and eastern Texas to round up citizens and pay them to vote a certain way. Both Johnson and allies of his opponent, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel did so, it just so happened that O’Daniel’s friends were better at it.

The tools that Johnson had at his disposal are illustrative of everything we hate about politicians. He has indeed become almost a caricature of the archetypical politician. But to simply define Johnson’s life as one dedicated only to the pursuit of power, is to miss what I think may be the single most important lesson this book teaches us about politics and the game that it is. For not only did Johnson partake in the shady dealings described above, but a major section of the book describes his monumental effort to provide electricity for the rural areas of his district (which was nearly all of it), ending generations of unimaginable hardship which Caro spends an entire chapter describing. Without him, it may have taken another generation or more for the people in his district to receive the electrical power they needed, a service that the utilities claimed wasn’t profitable for them to provide.

That capricious element of altruism in Johnson’s early life would manifest itself in later years as well. This was the Congressman who would later as President utter the words “we shall overcome,” adopting the rallying cry of the civil rights movement; who declared a “war on poverty,”; who brought to an end voting discrimination in the South. Though the means he chose to solve these problems were often misguided and poorly executed, there is little doubt that his career helped to further define what government ought to be doing. But this is also the President who gave us the war in Vietnam and drastically increased the role that big-donor contributions play in elections. His was a life that shows us that politics always has been and always will be a game of means and ends. And that is the most valuable lesson that this life has to teach us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s