This is a condensed version of Robert Caro’s four-volume biography. Lyndon Johnson exhibited a lifelong, obsessive drive to become President of the United States. Because his ancestors played a role in the founding of Texas, and his family had political connections from Austin to Washington, and because his family expected him to become at least a U.S. Senator, he became a bossy brat with an arrogant sense of entitlement. Classmates came to know him as a liar, conniver and cheater, as well as vain, vengeful, cruel and shameless. For these reasons, Lyndon Johnson’s political climb would not be based on popularity. Instead, he used underhanded, secretive machinations to take power in organizations he wanted to lead, and to neutralize people who stood in his way. Near the end of his life he gleefully called his nefarious methods, “Hitlerized Operations.” In getting ahead, he shamelessly bootlicked those who could help him, but guiltlessly bullied and abused those who could not.
Anna Itz was one of Lyndon Johnson’s grade school teachers. One day she brought her class outside to sit in the sun. Itz recalls: “All of a sudden, Lyndon looked up at the blue sky and said, ‘Someday I’m going to be President of the United States.’ We hadn’t been talking about politics or the Presidency or anything like that. He just came out with it.” The other children laughed, and said they would never vote for him, angering Johnson. Fritz Koeinger remembers, “He was always talking big.” Johnson was always talking big because his political lineage in Texas was deep. He once exclaimed, “Listen, goddamnit! My ancestors were teachers and lawyers and college presidents and governors when the Kennedy’s in this country were still tending bar!”
Johnson’s most illustrious ancestor was a war hero partly responsible for the existence of Texas. John Wheeler Bunton served on the staff of Sam Houston, signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, was a member of the committee to draft the constitution of Texas, was elected to the House of Representatives, and is credited for the bill that established the Texas Rangers, the bill providing postal service, and the bill outlining the judiciary system. On Texas Independence Day in 1932, his remains were moved to the State Cemetery in Austin under the auspices of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. His niece, Eliza Bunton, became the grandmother of Lyndon Johnson on his father’s side. Lyndon’s mother, Rebekah Baines, was the daughter of Joseph Wilson Baines, former Texas Secretary of State who, as a member of the House of Representatives, helped oversee construction of the Texas State Capitol Building. In addition, Baines men were notable Baptist preachers, especially Reverend George Baines, who became President of Baylor University, the first institution of higher learning in Texas.
Despite his outstanding public service, John Wheeler Bunton had a vanity streak. He wanted to be seen as an Old South aristocrat. He built a two-story plantation house surrounded by cotton fields, even though Texas never had a serious cotton culture, especially not in the hill country where he decided to build. He staffed his plantation house with Negro slaves dressed in black trousers and white waistcoats. He gave his property a fancy French name, Rancho Rambouillet, and raised “showy” crops and animals unsuited to the climate and soil. The breed of French sheep he chose did not produce enough wool or mutton to bring a profit, and his herd of the “finest Tennessee thoroughbreds” did not do well. But he made sure his plantation house was one of the largest in Texas.
Johnson’s mother Rebekah Baines had the biggest vanity streak of all. She told people she was born in a “large stone house of Southern graciousness,” and that her ancestry was “Southern aristocracy.” She was intent on maintain an upper-class image. When asked to write about Lyndon’s birth, she never mentioned Mrs. Christian Lindig, the midwife who delivered Lyndon long before the doctor arrived. Instead, Rebekah wrote, “The attending physician was Dr. John Blanton,” even though he arrived several hours after Lindig’s delivery. Sam Johnson’s sister Jessie explains, “I don’t think Rebekah would have ever wanted anyone to say that Lyndon came with a midwife instead of a real doctor.” Lyndon would always be similarly sensitive about his image, and far more apt than his mother to lie about it. Although Rebekah had a college degree, after getting married she quit working and stayed home, preferring to read poetry and literature. Lyndon would grow up, Robert Caro observes, “watching his mother make a ritual out of cultured habits like serving tea in very thin cups, while unwashed dishes lay stacked in the kitchen.”
Lyndon’s father, Sam Johnson Jr., made no pretense of Southern aristocracy, but he too had a vanity streak. When Sam Johnson Sr. and his brothers moved to Texas in 1846, they boasted they would become the richest men in Texas. Neighbors reported the Johnson brothers had “wild ambitions” about becoming great cattle barons, yet these neighbors also describe the Johnson boys as “soft.” Even when the Johnsons failed, they still “boasted, dressed to kill, and even strutted.” When Sam Johnson Jr. was elected to the Texas Congress in 1906, he immediately bought a Hudson Aerocar automobile, which sold for what was then the astronomical price of $2,800. No one knows where Sam got that kind of money. He even hired a 17-year old high school dropout named Guy Arrington to be his chauffer. He also started wearing the most expensive hand-stitched cowboy boots, and most expensive Stetson hats. He also found the money to hire a staff of servants so Rebekah didn’t have to get her hands dirty.
On the day in 1908 that Rebekah gave birth to Lyndon Baines Johnson, an aunt noted, “He has the Bunton strain.” The “Bunton strain,” Robert Caro explains, was a unique set of genes resulting in tall height, magnolia white skin, coal-black wavy hair, large nose, extremely large ears, heavy black eyebrows, and “eyes so dark a brown that they seemed black, so bright that they glittered, so piercing that they often seemed glaring.” On that day, boastful grandfather Sam Johnson Sr. rode a horse from farm to farm shouting, “A United States Senator was born this morning!” A family friend said, “I expect him to be a United States Senator before he is forty.” This child would be constantly reminded of his family’s illustrious political past, and his duty to do even more. Grandmother Eliza Bunton Johnson told young Lyndon that the Bunton family motto was “get ahead, stay ahead, and keep on advancing.” Rebekah was known to say, “Some children are born to follow. My children were born to lead.” Rebekah admonished her children to be “worthy of their glorious heritage,” and she pushed Lyndon “to be in the forefront.”
Family vanity and pressure led to a sense of entitlement. Caro says, “His mother dressed him in red Buster Brown suits or white sailor suits or in a cowboy outfit, complete with a Stetson hat, and Lyndon not only didn’t object to being dressed differently from the other boys, who wore farm clothes -- he insisted on it.” Cousin Ava Johnson says, “He wanted to stand out.” For instance, when a pupil left the schoolroom to use the outhouse, they printed their name in small letters in the corner of the blackboard, but Lyndon always wrote his name in letters so large that “they took up the space on both blackboards.” Sam often took young Lyndon to the capitol building in Austin. A neighbor says, “I don’t remember Lyndon ever fishing or swimming.” What others do remember is a 12-year old boy reading the newspaper in the local barber shop, talking politics with older men.
Both Sam and Rebekah were indulgent, believing their oldest child could do no wrong. For example, when people said Lyndon was a liar, which was often, Rebekah naively answered, “My boy never tells a lie.” Although Rebekah had a college degree and taught Lyndon to read better than most of his classmates, he defiantly refused to read in school, and no one did anything about it. On one occasion Sam made Lyndon stop shining shoes because, he said, “That kind of work is below a Johnson.” When Lyndon splashed water on a girl and was spanked by a male teacher, Sam raced to the school for an angry confrontation with the teacher. Spoiled by his parents, and entitled by his parents and other family, youthful acquaintances called Lyndon Johnson, “bossy.” Ben Crider says, “If he couldn’t lead, he didn’t care much about playing.” Bob Edwards says Johnson was “overpowering if he didn’t get his way.” For example, “He had a baseball, and the rest of us didn’t have one. We were all very poor. None of us had a ball but him. Well, Lyndon wanted to pitch. He wasn’t worth a darn as a pitcher, but if we didn’t let him pitch, he’d take his ball and go home. So, yeah, we let him pitch.”
Spoiled, entitled and defiant, at age 18 Lyndon Johnson was hanging around with the local “wild bunch.” These included Ben Crider, whose father had said, “I ain’t gonna have no educated sonofabitch in my family.” They bought moonshine from bootleggers. They “seized on pathetic opportunities for mischief.” They stole their father’s cars at night and used them to drag race. They put Eugene Stevenson’s buggy on the roof of his barn. They broke into henhouses and stole hens, which they sold for money. They showed up at weekend dances rowdy and “liquored-up.” When they stole Christian Digg’s fifty-five gallon barrel of wine, which was worth a lot of money, Diggs had to be convinced not to go to the sheriff.
Their antics became truly felonious when they broke into the State Highway storage shed and stole dynamite. They tied the dynamite to trees in Johnson City, exploding it to “scare the townspeople.” A few nights later they stole more dynamite and shattered a landmark mulberry tree in front of the local high school. The sheriff put a watchman at the shed, but when he fell asleep, they stole more dynamite, hung it from a telephone line near the Courthouse Square, and the ensuing explosion knocked out the windows in the Johnson City Bank. Incredibly, even after dynamite was stolen three times from a state government building, and even after this dynamite was exploded in residential and business areas on three different occasions, the only thing the sheriff said was, “Next time I’m going to make arrests.” Lyndon Johnson was bullet-proof because his father was an ex-Congressman.
However, after the third dynamite incident, Sam Johnson warned his son, “You are one step away from the penitentiary.” Lyndon listened to his father only because he knew an arrest record would have killed his political career before it started. He also now realized, even though he hated school, that a college degree would enhance his long-term political goals. San Marcos State Teacher’s College was newly accredited and easy to get into, but because he had been a poor student in a non-accredited high school, Lyndon needed his father’s political connections to get in. Because Congressman Sam Johnson had fought for increased appropriations for teacher’s colleges, the president of San Marcos State, Cecil Evans, owed Sam Johnson a favor. Sam went to Cecil and said, “Help my boy.” Evans did, and Lyndon enrolled in the Summer of 1927.
Cecil Evans also gave Lyndon free lodging, and the most influential student job, the one that dispensed student jobs to other students. The assistant registrar, Ethel Davis, recalls Johnson’s “effrontery,” and wondered how Evans could “have approved of his attitude.” In fact, Johnson never acted with effrontery in front of Evans, just Davis. Lyndon Johnson was both a bootlicker and a bully. To inferiors and those who could not help him, like Ethel Davis, he was a bully, but to older people, especially men who could open doors, like Cecil Evans, Johnson was the consummate bootlicker. As a child he gained what he wanted from older people through excessive flattery and deference. At San Marcos he displayed such a striking humbleness and obsequiousness to President Evans and the entire faculty that one alumni says, if he described it fully, “no one would believe it.” Johnson favorite line to older men he could get something from was, “You’re just like a daddy to me,” and to older women, “You remind me of my mother.” For his habit of buttering-up older people to gain favors, Johnson’s fellow students contemptuously called him “The Professional Son.”
While effective with older people, Johnson struck out wildly with people his own age. For example, he organized a Blanco County Student Club for students from his home county, but they knew him too well. He wanted to be president of the organization he created, but the students voted against him. Instead, he ended up reporting the club’s meetings for the college newspaper, the Campus Star. Here he exhibited a talent that would characterize the rest of his political life, in that he became “his own best public relations man.” He used his articles to promote himself, implying he was the most important member of the Club. For example, the first line of his first article read, “The students of Blanco County were called together by Lyndon Johnson Thursday afternoon.” In subsequent articles he also always mentioned himself first. When the Campus Star staff went home for the summer, he volunteered to run the student newspaper by himself. He increased the size of the headlines, used blaring full-page streamers for ordinary events, and added, “Lyndon B. Johnson, Editor in Chief,” even though he was not. He had to have the number one spot.
When the real Editor-in-Chief returned in the Fall, Johnson was demoted to editorial writer. He used this position to enhance his standing with the faculty and staff by writing positive articles about them they usually did not deserve. For example, although Dean of Women Mary Brogdon was prudish, unsmiling, and mean, Johnson obsequiously wrote, “After the meeting, the group had the best time of all, when Miss Brogdon invited the members down to the Cafeteria, where she had refreshments, lemonade and cakes, waiting for them. The refreshments idea of Miss Brodgon proved to be the best part of the whole evening and the boys think she is one of the best sports on the Hill.” Johnson describes Dean of Faculty Alfred Nolle as, “alert, experienced, specially trained, just, capable, interested, strong, and vital.” Another article starts, “Great as an educator and as an executive, Dr. Evans is greatest as a man.” When Evans delivered a particularly boring speech, Johnson wrote the opposite, that the speech was “very interesting” because “he made his talk bristle with interesting facts.” Mylton Kennedy remembers, “Words won’t come close to describe how Lyndon acted toward the faculty, how kowtowing he was, how brown-nosing he was.” Classmates noticed Johnson never disagreed with the staff or faculty Johnson could gain favors from.
Even though he had been a freshman and therefore on campus for only one year, the 1928 San Marcos State College yearbook lampooned Lyndon Johnson. Instead of a photograph, the editors used a jackass, with the caption, “As he looks to us on campus everyday, from far away, and we sincerely trust he is going back. He is a member of the Sophistry Club, a master of the gentle art of spoofing the general public.” The humor column in the campus newspaper wrote, “Bull is a Greek philosophy in which Lyndon Johnson has an M.B. degree.” Classmate Henry Kyle said, “Master of Bullshit, that’s what M.B. means. He was known as the biggest liar on campus.” Edward Puls remembers, “That’s what we called him to his face. That was what he was generally called. Because of this constant braggadocio. Because he was so full of bullshit, manure, people just didn’t believe him. Because he was a man who just could not tell the truth.”
A former student says, “Lyndon’s bragging and boasting were to an extent that was ridiculous. Nobody believed him.” Caro adds, “To some of his fellow students, in fact, it began to seem unwise to believe Lyndon Johnson on any subject. In their opinion, he seemed almost unable to tell unvarnished truth about even the most innocuous subject.” Some began setting him up, asking questions so they could laugh at his answers. For example, one student noticed Johnson was wearing a new tie and socks, and this student knew they came from Woolworth’s. When the student asked Johnson where he had bought them, Johnson said, “I got them over at Scarborough’s in Austin. I paid a dollar for the tie and a dollar for the socks.” Scarborough’s was the fanciest store in Austin, and a dollar was a lot of money during the Depression. So the student said, “Lyndon, you’re just lying. You were never in Scarborough’s yesterday. Besides, I saw them in Woolworth’s window yesterday. The socks were ten cents and the tie was ten cents.” Clayton Stribling adds, “You could catch him in a lie about something, and it was like he didn’t care. The next day he’d be back lying about the same thing again. He never seemed to resent being found out. He just didn’t care. He wouldn’t get mad. He’d be back the next day talking the same as ever.”
Lyndon Johnson was also extraordinarily vengeful. For example, Frank Arnold was athletic, easy-going, and honest. Arnold was admired for continuing to play football after a series of painful injuries. His teammates called him Old Reliable, and elected him captain. A friend says, “He was the kind of boy who always had something nice to say to everyone. He was the kind of boy that everyone liked, except Lyndon.” When Arnold complained that Johnson was using his influence with President Evans to give good student jobs to undeserving friends, Johnson had to get revenge.
Arnold was beloved by one of the brightest girls on campus, Helen Hofheinz, so Johnson devised a scheme to break up. Johnson contacted Vernon Whiteside, a fast-talking, handsome ladies man. Whiteside recalls: “Lyndon had a Model A Ford. He’d say, ‘Call her up and take her out, take my car, just to aggravate him.’ He got a real kick out of that.” Helen recalls: “I had been going out with Frank Arnold for years. I was in love with him. And then, all of a sudden, Vernon Whiteside just gave me a frantic rush. For two weeks. Meeting me after class and sitting under the trees. I was so naive I never thought Lyndon was back of it.” Even after she accepted Arnold’s ring, Johnson continued to push Whiteside into breaking them up, saying, “Why don’t you call her, and get a date tonight, and make her take ol Frank’s ring off?” Whiteside says, “I stopped when I finally got ashamed of myself.” Lyndon Johnson had no shame. Edward Puls says, “He was just the type of character who was snaky all the time.”
Lyndon Johnson was also cruel, even in the absence of a revenge motive. Caro discovered, “A Bohemian immigrant farm boy, slow with the English language and unaccustomed to American ways, was generally immune from practical jokes because, in their healthy shame, the students knew he was a defenseless target.” But Johnson had to get his kicks. According to Whiteside, Johnson told this naïve foreign student that cow manure was a cure for his acne. Johnson convinced him to rub cow manure on his face by saying things like, “Didn’t you ever turn over a cow pile and see how white the grass was underneath, how the manure bleached the grass?” Johnson and Whiteside drove out to a field where the boy put cow manure in a shoe box. Returning to the campus dormitory, Johnson encouraged the boy to rub more and more of the manure on his face, saying, “You don’t have enough on to do any good.” Moreover, the following day Johnson proudly broadcast his cruelty around campus. Whiteside says, “I tell you, it was the worst thing I ever took part in.”
Lampooned as a jackass in the college yearbook after his freshman year, Johnson dropped out of college. He had not received the respect he thought he deserved. So he sought a compliant group he could demand loyalty from. He spent the next year teaching poor Mexican-American children at a small border school in Cotulla, Texas. Fifty years later Caro interviewed some of these students, finding, “Johnson displayed scant respect for their culture. His highly dramatic lectures on Texas history, of which his ancestors played a role, indicated he had apparently forgotten that his swarthy charges were related by blood to those on the losing side. He depicted Santa Anna, a hero to Mexicans, as a treacherous and cold-blooded murderer.” In a pathetic yearn for loyalty, Johnson forced these students to start the day by singing a popular tune with lyrics he had substituted: “How do you do, Mr. Johnson, How do you do? How do you do Mr. Johnson, How are you? We’ll do it if we can, We’ll stand by you to a man, How do you do, Mr. Johnson, How are you?” He was demanding loyalty, but even these backward children mocked him. For example, one day Johnson caught Danny Garcia imitating his awkward walk. Garcia recalls, “He turned me over his knee and whacked me a dozen times.” An angry Johnson then turned to the hushed classroom and said something that the students, when interviewed as adults by Robert Caro, considered “quite striking.” Amanda Garcia recalls a distraught Lyndon Johnson exclaiming, “How can you make fun of me?! Don’t you know you’re looking at the future President of the United States?!”
Realizing a President of the United States needs at least an undergraduate degree, Johnson left Cotulla after one year and returned to San Marcos State Teacher’s College. As a sophomore he made his last attempt to be accepted by the status quo. The Black Stars were the student group that dominated campus life, and ruled campus politics by regularly winning student elections. But the Black Stars were dominated by athletes, cheerleaders, beauty queens, and other popular students, the kind of crowd Lyndon Johnson had never been a part of. Despite’s Johnson repeated attempts to join the Black Stars, they continuously refused him. This rejection was the last straw. Hereafter and for the rest of his life Lyndon Johnson would gain power by underhanded, secretive means. He now determined not only to take student power from the Black Stars, but in the process, make the Black Stars suffer. Johnson’s deviousness, cruelty and vengefulness had no limits.
Johnson started by secretly organizing the campus “outsiders,” students with dependent personalities, low egos, and other personal problems. He called his organization, the White Stars. He knew he had to operate in secret because if the Black Stars got wind of his machinations, they would stop him. So whereas college organizations usually met in dorm rooms or in some other building on campus, Johnson held his meetings in the Hofheinz Hotel, far from campus, out of sight and sound of other students. He also created secrecy rules. One secrecy rule was that no three White Stars should be seen talking together on campus, and meaningful glances indicated which one should leave. Another was that if a White Star was simply asked the question, “Are you a White Star,” the member was automatically expelled at that moment, by the mere question, thereby allowing the member to answer, “No,” then the member would be automatically readmitted at the next meeting. Johnson even created a candle-lit ceremony where members swore to his secretive rules. This ceremony was taken so seriously that forty years later, Willard Deason would not go into detail, “in order not to violate certain oaths I have taken.” Caro found that other members of the White Stars declined to talk at all. According to Caro, “So successful was Johnson in his insistence on secrecy that even after White Stars had won many campus elections, the campus did not know that there were White Stars.” Deason says, “The Black Stars didn’t know we were organized. Nobody knew. They didn’t know this was an organization working on them.”
“Johnson was planning,” Caro explains, “to take a small group of outsiders and snatch student power.” Traditional campus elections had been an informal and not very serious affair. Voting took place in four small meetings, one for each class level, with hasty nominations, hasty verbal “ayes” instead of written ballots, and quick adjournments. Moreover, Caro explains, “Because elections had been conducted honestly in the past, no one was prepared for something different.” Lyndon Johnson was something different. Johnson had prepared “goon squads” to crash each of the four election meetings. The first order of business was to select a chairman, who then controlled and adjourned the meeting. At each meeting, Johnson’s man won because his White Stars yelled louder than the other students. Vernon Whiteside remembers, “We’d all yell louder for our candidate so that we sounded like more than we were.” When the shocked students caught on and out-yelled the White Stars, Johnson had told his men to lie. For example, at one election meeting Horace Richards was picked as chairman. Vernon Whiteside recalls, “No matter who sounded louder, Horace would say our candidate won. Then we’d go to the next election, and pull the same thing.” In this manner Johnson stacked the student council with “his people.” In turn, they ultimately got Lyndon Johnson elected President of the student body, a seemingly impossible outcome.
The Black Stars and others were stunned because Lyndon Johnson was the most unpopular person on campus. Henry Kyle says, “A lot of people in San Marcos didn’t just dislike Lyndon Johnson; they despised Lyndon Johnson.” How could someone so hated for his lying and boasting and cruelty and brown-nosing, be elected President of the student body? In an interview before his death, Horace Richards said, “You know, later on, when everyone got so excited about the 1948 election for United States Senator from Texas that Lyndon Johnson stole, I felt that I had been in on the beginning of history. Because I was in on the first election that Lyndon Johnson stole. Everybody felt it wasn’t straight, and everybody felt that if it wasn’t straight, it was Lyndon Johnson who wasn’t straight.”
Lyndon Johnson was also thankless. He had in fact won the election to president of the student body by only one vote, and that bothered him. Horace Richards didn’t realize Johnson was so touchy. So when Richards wrote in the Campus Star that Johnson had won “by a neck’s lead,” Johnson became furious over what he considered a “slur on his victory.” Richards recalls, “That boy was angry at me. We sat in a car and talked for an hour about that. He said, ‘Horace, it just looks to me like you try to dig me every time you get a chance.’”
The backlash after his shocking election to president of the student body resulted in the Black Stars campaigning, even though they had never had to before. This meant Johnson had to find new voters, even though he was already scraping the bottom of the barrel. What he realized is that the smartest students were the least likely to vote. To discover the smartest students, Johnson broke into the registrar’s office. One of his White Star members, Archie Wiles, had a student job as a night watchman, which meant Wiles had keys to buildings, and one night Wiles let Johnson into the registrar’s office. Wiles recalls, “We took the keys and went in there, and I got those little yellow grade cards, and I got the names of everyone who had a B average.” Now Johnson had the names of individuals to approach. For the general campaign he came up with the slogan, “Brains Are As Important As Brawn,” a slogan meant to slam the athletes-dominated Black Stars.
Johnson then concocted a plan to satisfy his twin streaks of cruelty and vengefulness. The Gaillardians were the seven most popular girls on campus. Because they were annually voted for with written ballots under strict supervision, Johnson could not fix the voting. The only thing he could do is manipulate the candidate list. Ruth Lewis was a Black Star, and considered a shoe-in to be a Gaillardian. San Marcos was thirty miles from the University of Texas, and many San Marcos students felt inferior by comparison. Lewis and two girl friends once had a flat tire fixed by two University of Texas male students, and when asked where they went to college, out of embarrassment or defensiveness Lewis had said, “The University of Texas.” As Caro says, “A more trivial incident can hardly be imagined,” but not to Lyndon Johnson. When Johnson found out, he blackmailed Lewis that unless she withdraw as a candidate for The Gaillardians, he would write an editorial in the Campus Star that “any woman who was ashamed to say she went to San Marcos was not a representative San Marcos coed.” In tears, Lewis told friend Ella So Relle, “I’m going to withdraw from the election.”
In retirement, Johnson admitted his conspiracy to undermine the Black Stars: “It was a pretty vicious operation for awhile. They lost everything I could have them lose. It was my first real big Hitlerized operation, and I broke their back good. And it stayed broke for a long time.” Johnson’s first Hitlerized operation, the takeover of San Marcos College politics and the undermining of the Black Stars, was so secret that Caro remarks, “If anyone on campus, even his allies, realized his purposes, he would not be able to accomplish them. If anyone saw what he was doing, he would not be able to do it. And no one saw.” As former San Marcos student Joe Berry says, “Lyndon was always the string-puller behind the scenes. He found those he could use, and used them, and those he couldn’t, he worked behind the scenes to put them down. He was just anathema to me.” Caro adds, “The most striking aspect of Lyndon Johnson’s secrecy was not the success with which he imposed it on others, but the success with which he imposed it on himself.”
Johnson’s boot-licking left him in control of key members of the faculty, beginning with President Cecil Evans himself. For example, when in his senior year an editorial satirizing his “relationships with the faculty” was to appear in the Campus Star, Evans ordered the staff to confiscate the few copies that had been printed. Another student newspaper, The Pedagog, used two entire pages lampooning Johnson for sucking up to faculty, his loutishness, and his blatant desire to marry money, and further ridiculed his dishonesty and duplicity. One drawing shows him hiding behind one his candidates, and a second shows the White Stars standing before a “nigger in a woodpile,” with the line, “What makes half your face black and the other half white, Mr. Johnson?” When President Evans found out, he ordered the staff to cut out the negative Johnson references, and this censorship occurred to “several hundred copies.” Blind to the monster they had created, at Lyndon Johnson’s college graduation ceremony in August 1930, Sam Johnson turned to his teary-eyed wife Rebekah and said, “We shall never forget what President Evans has done for our boy.”
Johnson was a big brat with lots of political and family connections. Although this was the Depression, with good jobs hard to come by, two months after graduation, in October 1930, he started teaching at Sam Houston High School. He got hired because the Chairman of the History Department was his uncle, George Johnson. Cecil Evans had given Johnson free board and the best student job, and now Uncle George gave Lyndon, in addition to the job, free room and board in a two-story white frame house along a tree-shaded avenue. Johnson’s only interest was politics, so he had Uncle George create a “Debate Teacher” position. Always his own best publicity man, Johnson scheduled his debate club to appear everywhere in his Congressional district, where he advertised himself more than his students. They appeared at Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, and other high schools and junior high schools. At his own school, Sam Houston High, Johnson turned school assemblies into “Lyndon Johnson pep rallies.” One alumni recalls, “I don’t think there was one assembly at which Mr. Johnson’s boys or girls weren’t speaking.”
In November 1931, Johnson received a call from Texas millionaire Richard Kleberg. Kleberg had just won a special election as Congressman to the Fourteenth District of Texas, and needed an assistant in Washington. Johnson had been recommended by Welly Hopkins, a political crony of Johnson’s father, Sam Johnson. On December 1, 1931, at age 22, Lyndon Johnson was in Washington’s Capitol office building. Kleberg was a right-wing reactionary who urged Congress to “whittle down government interference in business and society and the expenses of maintaining these interfering agencies.” Kleberg’s campaign had been orchestrated by fellow millionaire Roy Miller, chief lobbyist for Texas Gulf Sulphur Corporation. The Saturday Evening Post described Miller as a “quasi-public figure.”
Because Kleberg was a playboy and seldom in Washington, Johnson was left alone most of the time to run Kleberg’s office. When the Campus Star left Johnson alone for the summer, he styled himself, “Editor-in-Chief.” Now, Johnson styled himself, “Acting Congressman.” He wrote letters to Kleberg’s constituents beginning with, “In the Congressman’s absence, I am advising you,” and he would go on to give his opinion, not Kleberg’s opinion. One of Johnson’s hires, Estelle Harbin, observed, “He couldn’t stand not being somebody, just couldn’t stand it.” Caro observes, “Lyndon Johnson could not endure being only one of a crowd; he needed, with a compelling need, to lead, and not merely to lead but to dominate, to bend others to his will.” When once introduced as Kleberg’s “assistant,” Johnson became unnerved, frantically exclaiming, “I’m not the assistant type! I’m the executive type!”
Executive types must be on top. The Little Congress was a group of Congressional assistants that met once a month, and was dominated by older assistants with many years in Washington. When Johnson asked to be elected Speaker, he was told that was impossible. Officer positions were based on tenure, older assistants outnumbered newer ones, and older assistants always voted for other older assistants. Johnson was being denied power, just as the Black Stars had done to him. Johnson concluded that in order to seize power in the Little Congress, he needed another White Stars-type coup, another “Hitlerized operation.”
He discovered that electing older assistants was a practice, not a rule, so Johnson sought a way to undermine the practice. First, he quietly solicited votes from all new Congressional assistants using Kleberg’s office telephone. He now had a solid voting block of secret supporters. But he needed more votes. His key discovery was that although only Congressional assistants were members of Little Congress, the organization’s bylaws allowed membership to any person on the “legislative payroll.” Armed with this knowledge, Johnson contacted mailmen, policemen, and elevator operators, and paid their $2 annual dues. Having kept all this secret, on April 27, 1933, the Little Congress met to elect new officers. Just before the meeting started, a Johnson group stormed the room and elected Lyndon Johnson Speaker of the Little Congress. Just as he created a loyal, secret network of White Stars to bring himself to campus power, he did the same with the Little Congress. Furthermore, he was soon known as, “Boss of the Little Congress.”
Lyndon Johnson had been the brains behind the delinquent wild bunch in high school. In college he was the brains behind the White Stars who took over student politics. Now he was the brains behind the takeover of the Little Congress. Johnson was creating an ever-growing network of super loyal, super secretive supporters who benefited by his power. According to Robert Caro, the network “was not a political organization. Its members were far too few to justify that title. It was, however, what Lyndon Johnson said it was: the nucleus of a political organization. As a far-seeing and determined explorer caches hidden supplies along a route he knows he will follow in years to come, so that they will be waiting for him when he needs them, Lyndon Johnson had cached along his route the resources indispensable to his plans: men. These men were hidden now, low-level aides in nooks and crannies of large bureaucracies. But they were ready to march at his command; when he needed them, he would be able to call them, and they would come.”
The national Democratic Party was schizophrenic, and made for strange bedfellows. Southern Democrats were racists and pro-business, Northern Democrats were liberal and pro-labor. Occasionally a Southern Democrat was progressive, which in the South meant liberal, and Lyndon Johnson’s father, ex-Congressman Sam Johnson Jr., had been a progressive Southern Democrat. Through Richard Kleberg and Roy Miller, Lyndon Johnson was already in cahoots with conservative, racist Southern Democrats and their pro-business Texas oil money, but he was perceived to be liberal because his father had been progressive. Sam Johnson had contacts with national Democratic leaders, and one of them was Sam Rayburn, the powerful Democratic Speaker of the House, who was especially close because he was a fellow Texan. Sam Johnson had gotten his son into college, Sam’s brother gave him his first job, Sam’s political crony got him into Kleberg’s office, and now, on July 26, 1935, Sam Johnson convinced Sam Rayburn to appoint Lyndon Johnson as the Texas State Director of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration.
Johnson was in his glory. He could pontificate from Austin, the Texas capital, and he was the number one “executive type” in charge of a large organization. He was given statewide NYA authority in Texas, a multi-million dollar budget, and was allowed to pick a nine-member State Advisory Board. And he showed his true colors. NYA was as liberal an idea as the New Deal itself. The Washington bureaucrats who went along with Sam Rayburn’s recommendation to appoint Sam Johnson’s son assumed that because Sam Johnson was progressive, his son was too. That was not the case. For the Chairman of his advisory board, Johnson selected not a liberal, but rather an ultra-conservative Austin attorney named Alvin Wirtz, “the crafty political string-puller who was the single most powerful figure in Johnson’s congressional district.” Wirtz’s law office catered to the interests of right-wing Texas businessmen, especially those in oil, natural gas, and utilities. Johnson set up the Texas NYA headquarters on the sixth floor of Austin’s Littlefield Building, one floor below Alvin Wirtz’s office.
Johnson was already in the pocket of Texas conservatives. Although civil rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt had been the moving force behind the NYA, Wirtz’s racism was “so virulent” that when Virginia Durr suggested at a Georgetown dinner party that Negros should be given the right to vote, Wirtz exclaimed, “Look, I like mules, but you don’t bring mules into the parlor.” Having picked Wirtz as his NYA chairman, it is not surprising that Johnson refused to give power to Negros in the Texas NYA. National NYA directors Aubrey Williams and John Corson reminded Johnson that since Texas had a large Negro population, he should appoint at least one Negro to the nine-member Texas NYA Advisory Board. Instead, Johnson created a separate, segregated, five-member all-Negro board which “reported” to the larger, all-white advisory board. Incredibly, of all of the former Confederate states, only Texas did not have a Negro on their NYA Advisory Board. Furthermore, while Johnson gave all the white NYA advisors salaries, the five Negro NYA advisors on their segregated board were not given salaries, and had to keep other full-time jobs.
At every turn Lyndon Johnson increased segregation more than any other NYA state director. For instance, although Johnson used NYA funds to create the Freshman College Centers for the Negro population, the top two administrators he picked were white. At the NYA Junior Employment Center in Fort Worth, which dealt with a large population of Negro youths, the entire counseling staff was white. In November, 1936, NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs reported that while in most states Negros shared NYA assistance at least to the extent of their proportion of the total population, the biggest exception was Texas. For example, instead of having NYA administrators directly select deserving high school students for job training grants, which would have awarded a fair share of Negros, Johnson chose to leave that authority in the hands of local school officials, who were overwhelmingly white. Julie Pycior observes, “Thus the same people who enforced the segregation selected the trainees.”
Yet Johnson created the illusion he was liberal. He made telephone calls to administrators of Negro colleges to make them think he was stretching the limits of his authority for their benefit. “Y’all need some money? I’ll see what I can do.” He made Negro leaders believe he was not only giving them their fair share, but more than their fair share. For example, O.H. Elliot, bursar of all-Negro Sam Houston College in Huntsville, remembers, “He’d send us our quota of money, then, off the record, he’d say, ‘I’ve got a little extra change here. Can you find a place for it?’” Johnson made the Negro administrators at Prairie View Normal and Industrial College believe he was breaking NYA regulations in order to help them build a needed dormitory. NYA’s allocation for supplies and equipment, he said, was suppose to be spent on “equipment and shovels,” not “fancy things like dormitories,” but “Y’all go right ahead and build it.”
Johnson was a master actor. While he regularly used the word “nigger” in private, when a staffer used that word at a meeting with NYA administrators from Washington, Johnson self-righteously interjected, “You can’t use that term here!” This was a manifestation of the two-faced “professional son” tactic he had used at San Marcos State. Such timely theatrics led NYA Assistant Director Richard Brown to erroneously conclude, “I felt that he was very tolerant, a very broad-minded young man.” Even larger than the Negro population in Texas was the Mexican-American population, but of the 37 top Texas NYA officials appointed by Lyndon Johnson, not one was Mexican-American. Even work crews that were entirely Mexican-American had a white supervisor because, as Johnson said more than once, “I don’t think Mexicans do much work unless there’s a white man with them.”
Johnson had used his role as a high school debate teacher to spread his name around his congressional district. Now he used the statewide reach he had as Texas NYA director to spread his name around the state. His was using the NYA for his own political advancement. He needed the money and support of rich white Texans more than the admiration of Blacks and Hispanics. However, he made minorities think he was on their side because conservative racists could get to the top in Texas politics, but not in the national scene. Johnson was carefully sowing just enough liberal seed to gain the future support of the Northern liberals who controlled the national Democratic Party. In truth, Robert Caro observes, “Johnson’s rise was financed by men so bigoted that to talk to them when their guard was down was to encounter a racism whose viciousness had no limits.” Johnson would fool Northern liberals for the rest of his life.
The National Youth Administration provided youth labor for Federal projects, and it was as Texas NYA director that Lyndon Johnson first became connected to Dealey Plaza. New Deal public works projects were constructed by the Works Project Administration(WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps(CCC), and Public Works Administration(PWA). Resources for Researching Federal Relief Programs in Dallas, 1932-1939, recorded in the Dallas Municipal Archives, notes that the New Deal funded 32 public works projects in the City of Dallas. Twenty-seven of these projects were funded and constructed exclusively by the WPA. Two of them, Bachman Lake and Cedar Crest Golf Course, were funded and constructed exclusively by the CCC. The White Rock Lake project employed both the WPA and the CCC, and the Fair Park project used the WPA, CCC and the PWA. Of the 32 New Deal projects in the city, the Dallas Municipal Archives lists “NYA labor” only once, in the construction of Dealey Plaza.
In 1935 a green space project bordering Main, Elm and Houston streets in Dallas was first considered. One month after Johnson was named Texas NYA director, in August 1935, Jim Dan Sullivan, president of the Dallas Park Board, proposed the name, Dealey Plaza, in honor of George Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News. Johnson’s NYA workers were so little used on other New Deal public works projects in Dallas that they are not even listed in official records as having contributed labor. The original construction and subsequent alterations of Dealey Plaza is the sole exception. For example, on February 18, 1937, the Dallas Morning News announced, “The National Youth Administration beautification project, drafted by Texas Centennial Exposition chief architect George Dahl, will go ahead at a cost of $10,000. Plans include construction of two 25 foot high vertical shafts on either side of Main Street along with two identical 20 foot x 130 foot reflecting pools alongside Houston Street. Work to be completed by July 1, 1937.” In her manuscript, “Notes on Dallas Parks, 1930-1965,” E. Beulah Cauley observes, “The bronze markers on the reflecting pools in Dealey Plaza give credit to the NYA for the work. It is ironic that Lyndon B. Johnson, NYA administrator, was riding in a parade, thirty years later, past Dealey Plaza when President Kennedy was assassinated.”
The Texas Railroad Commission regulated the Texas oil industry, making the leader of the TRC, Ernest O. Thompson, one of the most powerful men in the state. In 1936 Thompson asked Lyndon Johnson to be a manager of the TRC. For two reasons Johnson refused. First, he would have been just one of many managers, not the head honcho, and he couldn’t stand that. As he had angrily expressed years earlier, “I’m not the assistant type! I’m the executive type!” Second, the TRC was a Texas organization, not a national organization. In his mind, any state job, not matter how important in Texas, was not on the road to the White House. Robert Caro explains, “Thompson thought he was doing Johnson a great favor, by offering him, at such an early age, statewide power, but Johnson refused. Not state, but national power was what he had always wanted. He had known for so long what he wanted to be, and what ‘route’ would take him to his far-off goal. A state job, no matter how good, was not on that road. State politics was, he had said, ‘a dead end.’” This is why in 1932 Johnson had accepted Kleberg’s job offer, because Kleberg was a U.S. Congressman in Washington. Similarly, in 1935 Johnson agreed to head the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration because NYA was a Federal organization headquartered in Washington.
For many decades after the Civil War, a Southerner had no chance of becoming President. The center of national wealth stayed in the Northeast, and Yankees owned and controlled much of the oil business in Texas, and other major extraction businesses. For example, the Gulf Sulphur Company was formed in 1909 by Texas investors to exploit a newly discovered sulfur deposit near Matagorda, Texas, but in 1916, New Yorkers Bernard Baruch and J.P. Morgan took control of the company. In 1918 the company was renamed the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company. Hard-pressed Texas oil men remained relatively poor, and had to go “hat in hand” to detested Yankees for both business loans and technical assistance. Then, in 1930, the East Texas Oil Field was discovered, at the time and for many years after, the largest oil reserve in the world. Thousands of “poor boy” Texans became overnight millionaires, and because oil was the most important national commodity, Texas politicians instantly gained national influence. For this reason, in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was forced to name John Garner of Texas as his vice presidential running mate.
Alvin Wirtz was “the most powerful figure in Johnson’s congressional district,” and chairman of Johnson’s Texas NYA advisory board. On February 27, 1937, Wirtz walked down one flight of stairs in the Littlefield Building to Johnson’s office. Wirtz asked Johnson if he wanted to be a U.S. Congressman from the Tenth Congressional District of Texas. Johnson jumped at the opportunity and immediately resigned from the NYA. Previous Congressman James Buchanan had just died of a heart attack, and as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, Buchanan had been steering millions of Federal dollars for distribution to Wirtz’s business clients. Two of them were brothers Herman and George Brown. Their commercial construction company, Brown & Root, was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Buchanan had been about to approve for them a multi-million dollars appropriation for the Mansfield Dam project. Only a huge injection of money could win the special election set for April 10, 1937, just six weeks away, but Johnson need not worry. Wirtz had connections to Texas oil millionaires.
Although this was the height of the Depression, in the heart of dirt-poor central Texas, 28-year-old Lyndon Johnson suddenly came up with unlimited funds for a professional campaign staff, newspaper releases, mimeograph machines, cars, gas, railroad fares, airplane tickets, taxicabs, telephones, advertising posters, calling cards, mailing lists, and postage. Wirtz also gave Johnson unlimited funds for the most expensive but important item of all, radio time. Throughout the campaign Johnson had more radio time than any other candidate, and during the last ten days Johnson purchased more radio time than the other seven candidates combined. When charges flew that he was a liar and was on the take, Johnson pulled his professional son routine, saying, “I’m just a poor boy.” Robert Caro wryly notes, “His opponents’ charges about Johnson’s unprecedented expenditures were buried under Johnson’s denials, broadcast on the radio thanks to Johnson’s unprecedented expenditures.”
Johnson won the election, and his first act as a new Congressman was to approve the multi-million dollars appropriation to Brown & Root so the Brown bothers could build the Mansfield Dam. Oblivious to Johnson’s racist policies as NYA director, and to his ultra-right money backers, President Franklin Roosevelt had helped clear the authorization and funding for the appropriation, saying, “I am doing it for Congressman Johnson.” The Brown brothers were saved from bankruptcy, but they wanted more. They wanted another $17 million to make the dam higher, and they were in cahoots with exactly the right character. As NYA director, Johnson had been introduced to the “change order.” Robert Caro explains the change order as, “that magical device by which favored contractors are permitted, once they have been awarded a contract, to quietly change its details to increase their profits.” By hook and crook, Johnson got all $17 million of change order contracts approved. Then there were more dam projects, and other commercial projects. “Out of the subsequent contracts,” writes Caro, “they piled, upon that first million, million upon million more. The base for a huge financial empire was being created in that deserted Texas gorge. These dam contracts led to dozens of others, and made the Browns believe in Johnson. Herman Brown let Johnson know that he would never have to worry about campaign finances, that the money would be there, as much as was needed, when it was needed.”
The national Democratic Party, represented by President Franklin Roosevelt, stood for labor rights and human rights, but the Democratic congressman from Texas was in cahoots with the opposite side. Johnson had been the most racist of all NYA state directors. His hand-picked chairman, Alvin Wirtz, believed Negros were equivalent to mules, and Johnson’s newest crony from Brown & Root was just as racist. Herman Brown, Caro points out, “was a hater. He hated Negros and he hated unions. He believed Negros were lazy and he believed unions encouraged laziness in white men. After World War II, he would, with the assistance of Alvin Wirtz and Ed Clark, ‘The Secret Boss of Texas,’ ram through the Texas legislature some of the most vicious anti-labor laws in America. Brown coined his own word for New Deal programs: ‘gimmies.’” Herman Brown, like all the other Texas conservatives, railed against the liberal Federal government, yet they clamored for more Federal contracts. They saw no contradiction that a “gimmie” Federal contract had just saved Brown & Root from bankruptcy, and subsequent Federal projects made them and many others rich. Herman Brown would remain Lyndon Johnson’s number one campaign contributor and most secret friend throughout his political career. The headquarters of Brown & Root was on Calhoun Road in Houston, significant because the road is named after John C. Calhoun, the philosophical leader of the ante bellum South.
There had been a Southern backlash against Roosevelt from the beginning. In 1932 FDR made John Garner of Texas his Vice Presidential running mate only because politics had forced him to. Garner knew this. Garner had accepted only because it gave the South its first Vice President since the Civil War. FDR knew this. They never saw eye to eye. The South’s open revolt began in 1938 when Roosevelt visited Texas and Garner refused to meet him. Back in Washington Garner started to insult Roosevelt in Cabinet meetings, causing Harold Ickes to observe, “I have never heard anyone talk like this to the President.” Garner led the conservative Texas assault against FDR. Garner and his supporters started to say, “Roosevelt will never leave the White House except in defeat or death.” Time Magazine spoke of “Garner’s gang of conservative congressional barons.” The South wanted a Southern President, and by 1940, Garner himself was gunning for the 1940 Democratic nomination. Roosevelt’s advisors concluded they had to destroy Garner’s support in his own state of Texas. A key would be that Garner’s money sources in Texas were “old money.” FDR’s problem was that he was running out of money.
Lyndon Johnson knew where to get new money, and there was more new money than old. Old Texas money was in cattle and cotton and timber. New Texas money was in oil. Siding with Garner would have made Johnson a conservative hero in Texas, but would have killed him politically at the national level in his only long-term goal, that of becoming President of the United States. So Johnson made a deal with Roosevelt. Johnson assured FDR of unlimited campaign contributions, in exchange for three favors. First, FDR needed to appoint Alvin Wirtz ass Undersecretary of the Interior. Second, FDR needed to appoint Edward Looney, Wirtz’s law partner in the Littlefield Building, as Assistant Attorney General of the United States. Second, Roosevelt needed to channel all or most of one billion dollars worth of Navy defense contracts to Johnson cronies in Texas, especially Brown & Root. Third, FDR needed to give Johnson carte blanche power over Federal Navy contracts in Texas.
Roosevelt agreed. He immediately appointed Wirtz and Looney their respective positions. Then he signed a memorandum stating, “Congressman Lyndon Johnson is to be consulted and his advice taken on the awarding of Navy contracts in Texas.” With this power, Congressman Johnson started rewarding his friends. For example, a naval air station at Corpus Christi had been low on the list of priorities, but in February 1940, Johnson moved this project to the preferred list of Navy contracts with “highest priority.” The Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi became the largest Navy contract in American history, and not surprisingly, Johnson awarded the project to Brown & Root, his main financial backer. In addition to the Brown brothers, many other Texas companies profited. Within three years of his first term, Congressman Lyndon Johnson had become so adept at steering Federal projects to his home state that commercial contractors in Texas started calling them, “Johnson Contracts.”
Johnson had already undermined Sam Rayburn’s standing with Roosevelt by funneling more new Texas money to Roosevelt than Rayburn had with old Texas money. In order to seal his standing as Roosevelt’s man in Texas, Johnson had to deliver a coup de grâce. This would have been uncomfortable for anyone other than Lyndon Johnson because Rayburn had been his most important “political daddy,” and one of his father’s closest friends. But Johnson had zero compassion for anyone who stood in his way. In this latest “Hitlerized operation,” Johnson paid researchers to dig up every anti-Roosevelt utterance that Rayburn had ever made. Johnson used his intelligence network and editorial skills to craft unsigned telegrams that cast Rayburn preferring Texan John Garner for the Democratic nominee for President instead of Roosevelt. One telegram claimed the Garner organization in Texas had been “engaged in a very unwise, cruel and ruthless effort to politically assassinate Roosevelt.” Rayburn came to be seen as part of the Stop Roosevelt movement. The result, Caro says, was that Rayburn “had been tarred beyond cleansing by a brush wielded by Lyndon Johnson.” By June 1940 Rayburn was out, and Lyndon Johnson was Roosevelt’s man in Texas. Washington columnist Jay Franklin reported, “A virtual freshman Representative is now the acknowledged New Deal spokesman in the Lone Star State.”
Congressman Lyndon Johnson made himself the nexus connecting conservative Texas oil millionaires with liberal President Franklin Roosevelt. The rich Texans hated Roosevelt, but through Johnson they funded Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign because Johnson assured them of preferential treatment in Federal contracts if Roosevelt was elected for a third term. On October 4, 1940, just one month before the election, Roosevelt officially attached Johnson to the Democratic fund raising committee. Calling on his Texas millionaire cronies, Johnson single-handedly help the Democrats outspend the Republicans during the critical final weeks of the campaign, and Roosevelt was re-elected. Johnson’s ability to raise huge sums of money from Texas oil millionaires gave him the new status in Washington. In Texas, Federal contracts were called “Johnson Contracts,” and now in Washington, they were saying, “All Texas money goes through Lyndon Johnson.” After the 1940 election, Congressman Lyndon Johnson became a regular invitee to private breakfast meetings with Roosevelt, a favoritism showed to few other insiders, let alone a first-term Congressman.
Roosevelt personally signed the appropriation for the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi that went to Brown & Root. The original Corpus Christi contract award in 1940 had been $23 million. By the end of 1940, through Johnson-led change orders, the amount had risen to $45 million, and by end of 1941, to $100 million. In addition to Corpus Christi, Johnson secured many additional military contracts for the Brown brothers. Brown & Root started out as a road paving company, but now the Brown brothers were using an array of subcontractors. Johnson gave these millionaire brothers contracts to build Navy destroyers, airports, dams, pipelines and other military bases. By the end of World War II, Johnson had directed $357,000,000 worth of military contracts to his primary political benefactors, Herman and George Brown. A later biography of Lyndon Johnson would be aptly titled, The Candidate From Brown & Root.
In 1944, Johnson told John Hicks, “I’m going to need someone here at the station, and I’m going to need someone to represent me in Austin. I’m going to lend you ten thousand dollars. And I want you to take it and buy yourself a Cadillac car. And I want you to move into better apartment. I want you to be somebody. Furnish the apartment. Get Regina a fur coat.” When Hicks said he would need to go home and sleep on it, Johnson ended his pitch by saying, “I want you to know that I’m going to be President of this country someday, and you can come along with me. I want you on my team.” The White House was always on Lyndon Johnson’s mind, and governed every decision he made.
Describing Lyndon Johnson, George Brown said, “He had the knack of always appealing to a fellow about someone he didn’t like. If he was talking to Joe and Joe didn’t like Jim, he’d say he didn’t like Jim either. That was his leadership, that was his knack.” Brave New World coined the term “doublethink,” the ability to believe in contradictory ideas with equal conviction, and Johnson was a master of doublethink. He told people, “You have to believe in what your selling.” When Johnson had to convince himself to believe in something, he retreated, like an actor preparing for a role, to a private place for what he called, “a working up.” Johnson was talkative in informal settings such as the cloakroom and the hallway, but, “His colleagues on Capital Hill observed what his classmates on Campus Hill had observed: that while Johnson was likely to dominate a conversation on a controversial issue, at the end of it none of his listeners would know his position on that issue. He would avoid saying anything substantive; if pinned down, he would say what the other person wanted to hear.” Helen Gahagan Douglas thought that Johnson’s talkativeness, “was a method of concealment.”
His actions, or lack thereof, were also a method of concealment. For example, the leader of liberal Texas congressmen was Maury Maverick, and he was surprised when Congressman Lyndon Johnson kept finding excuses to avoid meetings. “Soon they realized that while he professed to hold their views,” which he did to get elected, “he would not argue for them.” Congressman Edouard Izac says, “He just simply was not that interested in general legislation that came to the floor of the House. Some of us were on the floor all the time, fighting for liberal causes. But he stayed away from the floor, and while he was there, he was very, very silent.” Caro points out that Johnson’s participation “in House discussions and debates is almost non-existent. Entire years passed without Johnson rising even once to make a point of order. Lyndon Johnson would later be called a ‘legislative genius,’ but a legislator is a maker of laws. During the eleven years that Lyndon Johnson served in the law-making body that is the House of Representatives, few of its 435 members had less to do with the making of laws than he.” George Brown’s wife noted, “How could anyone be a Congressman with so little knowledge of history?”
Texas Congressman Ovie Clark Fisher said, “Johnson had a way of getting along with the leaders, and he didn’t bother much with the small fry. And let me tell you, the small fry didn’t mind. They didn’t want much to do with him either.” James Van Zandt said, “He was too ambitious, too forceful, too pushy.” In the crowded Capitol hallways Johnson rudely elbowed people out of his way, gobbled down food in the cafeteria, constantly combed his hair, and urinated in the Capitol parking lot. When stuck in traffic jams during his early years in Washington, Congressman Johnson was known to drive his Cadillac up over the curb onto the sidewalk and pass cars on the right, often banging his hand on driver’s door, for no other reason than to startle motorists.
Robert Caro writes, “Almost half of the members of the House, having been raised on farms, were accustomed to earthiness. But even some of these men were startled at Lyndon Johnson’s earthiness.” Congressman Wingate Lucas said, “He would piss in the parking lot of the House Office Building. Well, a lot of fellows did that. I did that. But the rest of us would try to hide behind a car or something. Lyndon wouldn’t. He just didn’t care if someone noticed him, and he seemed to want to be noticed.” In a hideaway office on the top floor of the House Office Building there was a washbasin and no toilet, and, Caro says, “While entertaining guests in the hideaway or dictating to a secretary, he would pull the screen aside and urinate in the washbasin. Sometimes he would put the screen back before he did so, and sometimes he wouldn’t.” Caro continues, “He was constantly pulling his trousers lower, either in front or back, while complaining about his tailor’s failure to provide him with sufficient ‘ball room,’ and he was continually, openly and at length, scratching his rear end, quite deeply sometimes.” Representative Richard Bolling of Missouri says, “Crude. Barnyard. Always scratching his crotch and picking his nose in mixed company.” Two of Johnson’s assistants, Gene Latimer and Luther Jones, both interpreted Johnson’s crudeness as a “method of control.”
The Bunton’s, Baine’s and Johnson’s were all vain, and Lyndon outdid them. His $10,000 a year Congressional salary came no where near covering his taste for luxury. His suits were custom tailored by Lentz & Linden in San Antonio, and at $195 each were the most expensive they sold, and he bought several at a time. Even his Navy uniform, which he wore for only a few months, was also custom-tailored. His monogrammed custom-tailored shirts arrived at his apartment in box loads. All of his watches, rings, and cuff links were solid gold. His shoes were custom made out of the softest leather, as were his boots, which were also hand-tooled. He had not only maids, but also a masseuse. He liked to give expensive gifts and pick up checks in expensive night clubs. His untraceable spending cash came from the Texas millionaires that Johnson provided with fat Federal contracts.
Harold Withers was the kid who always had money because his father owned a store. “Popping an ear” meant yanking an earlobe as hard as you could. Withers often said to Johnson, “I’ll give you five cents to pop your ears five times.” Even though Johnson cried from the pain, he always agreed if Withers offered five more cents for five more pulls. Payne Roundtree remembers, “You would give him a nickel, and he’d stand there, and tears would come into his eyes, and he’d still stand there. Because he wanted that nickel.” As a young adult at an Austin party, Johnson was casually introduced to two businessmen. When later one bought real estate from the other, Johnson asked the seller for a “finder’s fee.” Because Johnson had played no role in the transaction, the seller was “startled,” and refused. Considering the matter closed, the seller was “astonished” when he opened his front door early the next morning to see Johnson sitting on the curb, waiting to again ask him for a “finder’s fee.” When the seller again refused, he says, “Lyndon started, well, really, to beg me for it.”
Lyndon Johnson had two, lifelong pathological needs: money, and the White House, but when they conflicted, he always chose the White House. No offer of money, no matter how large, would he accept if it interfered with his singular goal of becoming President of the United States. Thus, when Texas newspaper magnate Charles Marsh offered Johnson a partnership with Texas oil multi-millionaire Sid Richardson, a deal that would have made Johnson an instant millionaire, Johnson declined, because “it would kill me politically.” Caro discovered that, “At first Marsh was mystified,” not just because of Johnson’s well-known love of money, but because being an oil millionaire Congressman from Texas would have helped Johnson politically, but only in Texas. Johnson was in fact tied to conservative, racist Texas oil money, but he couldn’t advertise that fact. He had to keep the liberal, national Democratic Party happy if he was ever going to get in the White House.
Secrecy was Johnson’s forte, and secrecy demands silence. He told people under him the most important thing he wanted was loyalty. “I want real loyalty,” he told one staff member, “I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window, and say it smells like roses.” When Johnson told Jack Gwyn, “You know, I admire loyalty above everything else,” and Gwyn answered, “You’re right. If you hire a man eight hours a day, he owes you eight hours,” Johnson disagreed, saying, “I mean more than that. I don’t mean just that kind of loyalty, I mean real loyalty. Look at John Connally. I can call John Connally at midnight, and if I told him to come over and shine my shoes, he’d come running.” Connally, former student body president at the University of Texas, was one of Johnson’s first staff hires. Robert Caro observes, “Johnson didn’t demand great ability. He demanded loyalty, and what he meant by loyalty was total submission. If you worked for Lyndon Johnson, you sold your soul to him.”
No Hollywood script writer has ever invented a more shocking office tyrant than Congressman Lyndon Johnson. If an assistant’s desk was cluttered, Johnson was known to snarl, “Clean up your fucking desk.” If a desk was clean, he might say, “I hope your mind isn’t as empty as that desk.” Moving from desk to desk, he would sometimes yank a paper out of a typewriter looking for errors. When he found an error, typical responses were, “God, you’re stupid,” or, “You couldn’t find your ass if you used both hands,” or, “You couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel.” If he suddenly realized he needed to make a phone call, he would yank the phone out of an assistant’s hands in the middle of a conversation, cut off their conversation, and dial the number he wanted.
When a secretary once made the mistake of pouring Lyndon Johnson a sherry instead of a Scotch, Johnson shattered the glass against the wall. Congressman Richard Bolling says, “His rages were terrible. I mean almost literally, if he’d had a whip in his hand, I’m sure he would have given them a couple of lashes with it.” John Connally’s wife Nellie recalls, “When I didn’t get a telephone number fast enough, he threw a book at me. I was a little afraid of him after that.” When a recently divorced secretary brought him coffee that was not quite hot enough, he said, “No wonder you couldn’t keep your husband. You can’t even make coffee.” Johnson found sadistic glee in abusing his staff, even purposefully firing staff members just short of qualifying for higher pensions.
And he controlled their appearance. Even though Johnson was developing an outrageous paunch, Secretary Yolanda Boozer recalls if he said, “I see we’re putting on a few pounds,” that meant “you’d better go on a diet.” Johnson told assistant Horace Busby, “I don’t see the front of my secretaries, I don’t see them until they’ve put something on my desk and are walking away. I don’t want to look at an Aunt Minnie. I want to look at a good trim back end.” Secretary Ashton Gonella recalls, “I had long hair, which was the style at the time. One morning, he said, ‘You’re going to the beauty shop today, and you’re going to have ten pounds cut off that.’” Another secretary adds, “He was adamant about not having a run in your stocking. It was best to have an extra pair in your drawer.”
And he worked “his team” to exhaustion. For example, he demanded that each assistant write 100 letters per day to constituents. If the box on the previous day’s tally sheet read only 55, Johnson would shout, “That’s 45 good Texans who didn’t get the service they deserved yesterday.” When Gene Latimer once spent the day drawing a map of Texas’s 254 counties, each neatly labeled with the name of its county chairman, Johnson angrily said, “I don’t pay you to draw maps. The next time you do something like that I’ll rip the fucking thing right off the wall.” Caro adds, “Nor did the workday end when they went home. If Johnson had a thought during the night that he wanted to communicate to a member of his staff, he simply picked up the telephone and called him or her at home, no matter what the hour.” Furthermore, “There wasn’t even a hello, or this is Congressman Johnson. You were woken up at two or three in the morning and there was a voice in your ear giving you an order.” For example, when millionaire Texas businessman Billie Sol Estes was slow in “donating” a bag load of money, LBJ called him before dawn, demanding, “Where’s the donation?” When Estes dared to ask, “Do you know what time it is?” Johnson bellowed, “Hell, I didn’t call you to find out what time it is! I called to find where the cash is! I want you to get out to the fucking airport and get the goddamn cash on its way, now!” Bryce Harlow says, “To work for Lyndon Johnson, you had to be willing to accept the whip.”
Because Congressman Lyndon Johnson was Franklin Roosevelt’s conduit to Texas oil money, Roosevelt wanted to keep Johnson safe by keeping him out of the war. But Johnson, planning on being President himself someday, knew that after the war, a viable Presidential candidate needed wartime military service. Roosevelt agreed, but arranged to limit Johnson’s active duty to inspecting shipyards on the West Coast, with the rank of Naval lieutenant commander. This sweet deal caused the Houston Post to sarcastically print, “He must be in line for action against the Japs, because if Mr. Johnson should be merely getting himself a safe, warm Naval berth for use as a pre-campaign headquarters and to cash in on his patriotism, the purpose of his entering the service would become obvious, and the voters would be certain to act accordingly.” Houston was near Johnson’s congressional district, so now he realized he needed to add “combat” to his military service. To this end, Roosevelt sent him on a meaningless “inspection tour” that placed Johnson near a combat zone in the Pacific as an observer, and for a very short time. Nonetheless, at the end of this brief tour, General Douglas MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star, the Army’s third highest decoration. Then Johnson immediately left for home, and the same week he arrived back in the States, President Roosevelt ordered all congressman off active duty, and to return to Congress. After just a few months in uniform, and having merely been near a combat zone as an observer, Lyndon Johnson’s future political campaigns would now include that he was a “decorated, wartime combat veteran.”
On April 9, 1941, Texas Senator Morris Sheppard died of a stroke. A special election would be held, and Herman and George Brown were determined to use their money to get Congressman Johnson elected to the Senate. Because campaign contributions were not a deductible business expense, Brown & Root distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to company executives as “bonuses,” and hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers as “attorneys fees.” These bonuses and attorney’s fees were then used in the Johnson campaign without being directly tied to Brown & Root. Johnson lost the election, but only because his side cheated less effectively than the other side. Roosevelt, who said he had a “special feeling” for Johnson, told him, “Lyndon, apparently you Texans haven’t learned one of the first things we learned up in New York State, and that is that when the election is over, you have to sit on the ballot boxes.” Even though he lost, the IRS launched a post-campaign investigation of Johnson’s money sources, especially Brown & Root, whose Houston headquarters was raided by Federal agents. Although the IRS determined Johnson had cheated “on an unprecedented scale, even in the freewheeling world of Texas politics,” the investigation was called off by the direct intervention of President Roosevelt. Johnson owned FDR, because FDR’s own campaign chest needed the millions in contributions provided by Johnson’s Texas oil cronies.
By 1948, Congressman Johnson had steered enough Federal contracts to make Herman and George Brown two of the richest men in Texas. When they again determined to make Johnson a Senator in the 1948 Senate election, millions of dollars appeared. Although the old Texas establishment was against him, Johnson was able to create his own instant establishment simply because of money, and mainly because of Brown & Root money. According to Caro, “Hundred dollar bills were given to his aides in stacks so large that sometimes letter-size envelopes couldn’t hold them.” According to Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, “You can create a new structure fast if you have unlimited money. And they did. They were spending money like mad. They were spending money like Texas had never seen. And they did it not only so big but so openly. Nothing had ever been seen in Texas on such a scale, and they were utterly brash. They spent a lot of money. And they were brash about how they spent it, and they were utterly ruthless. Brown & Root would do anything.” John Connally remembers delivering tens of thousands of dollars to Johnson in a “brown paper sack like you buy groceries in.”
Determined to become a Senator, Lyndon Johnson left no despicable act undone. One aide had the specific task of transferring Johnson’s undeserved Navy decoration, the Silver Star, to the lapel of his daily jacket. Johnson also directed that he be introduced by a combat veteran, and particularly, for dramatic effect, by one who had lost a limb. Caro says, “So successful was the Johnson campaign in locating pro-Johnson amputees for this task that the percentage of men introducing Johnson who still possessed all their limbs was surprisingly small.” Without shame Johnson told the simple people of Texas the exact opposite of what he had been doing and would do in the future, “I’d rather save lives than money. It’s either your boy’s lives or tax rebates for millionaires.”
Labor unions were liberal and a Yankee phenomenon, two reasons they were anathema in Texas. But Johnson secretly received campaign money from Yankee labor unions not because he needed the money or believed in labor unions, but because he was sowing Yankee connections for his future run at the White House. The American Federation of Labor helped Johnson by endorsing his opponent, Coke Stevenson, because a labor endorsement in Texas hurt more than it helped. That AFL endorsement, a negative for Stevenson, was magnified in the Texas media by the many newspapers and radio stations that Johnson controlled or influenced with “cold, hard cash.” So powerful was Johnson with Texas publishers “that reporters whose coverage of the campaign displeased him were transferred off the campaign or fired.” In a typical case, Johnson contacted former NYA associate Tony Ziegler to get in touch with Judge Pat Corrigan of Mineral Wells to see if one particular “nuisance” reporter could be stopped. Corrigan shortly informed Zeigler “that Mr. Brown, who is with the Palo Pinto Star, is no longer with them.”
His personal behavior was a “frenzy that came close to hysteria.” One reporter remembers the scene in a hotel room: “And as he moved restlessly from chair to chair, he puffed cigarettes, lighting one from the end of another; he rubbed gobs of purple salve into his hands; he tilted back his head and sprayed his throat with a vaporizer and his nose with an inhaler; he gulped pills from a variety of bottles on the dresser; he stuck lozenges in his mouth and in his nervousness chewed instead of sucked them, so that he had to keep putting new ones in his mouth.” Caro says, “The prospect of victory always made his conduct as overbearing as the prospect of defeat made it humble to the point of obsequiousness,” and because of his “well-known violence to bad news, no one wanted to be the one to give him such news, and as a result, he did not receive much of it.” If hotel registration was delayed or a bellboy was slow, “Johnson would shriek at the desk clerk or bellboy, while other patrons stared in astonishment.” Horace Busby, still with Johnson since the White Star days, recalls, “He never got a meal that he didn’t find fault with. I couldn’t stand it, the way he’d beat up on the waiter or waitress.”
Texas elections were infamously corrupt, and a key figure was the precinct boss. Controlling the lock and key to the precinct’s ballot box, precinct bosses were suppose to insure the integrity of the vote. However, corrupt precinct bosses knew they would be rewarded with hush money for “delivering a precinct” the party bosses wanted. They stayed in touch by telephone. They either stuffed the ballot box with phony votes, or unlocked the box and counted the votes, and if their candidate was behind, they threw out some of their opponent’s votes. In a close race, the trick was to hold back some of your precinct’s official reports until the other side had reported all of their precinct’s official vote totals, so you could “adjust” your ballot boxes before turning them in.
Democrats so regularly won general elections in Texas that the bigger challenge was the primary, so here is where most of the cheating took place. Late reporting of precinct ballot boxes meant minutes or hours, but in the 1948 Texas Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Congressman Lyndon Johnson’s side took one week. Johnson had apparently lost the primary by a few votes, but six days after the election, a “tardy” precinct suddenly produced their ballot box, showing 202 new votes for Johnson, but only 1 new vote for opponent Coke Stevenson, giving Johnson the victory by a few votes. Johnson had so many political cronies that both the Texas Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States concluded that the ballot box in question did not need to be opened and the ballots counted. Instead, both courts accepted the voter sign-in sheet from that precinct, even though the last 203 voter names were written in a different color ink, were in alphabetical order, and the handwriting was identical. Forty years later precinct boss Luis Salas admitted he had cheated. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a crony of Johnson, flew to Texas and personally supervised a half-hearted investigation. Although some of the names on Salas’ voter list were deceased, and although some testified that they did not vote at all, the FBI investigation “disappeared without a trace.” In this way, Congressman Johnson became Senator Johnson.
Robert Caro became the first and last investigator to find and interview Luis Salas. People in Texas told Caro that Salas was dead, and that Caro should leave well enough alone, but Caro eventually found Salas living in a mobile home in the Houston suburbs, in the backyard of his daughter’s house. When Salas first opened his door, Caro recalls, “It was just like he was expecting me.” Caro said, “Mr. Salas, my name is Robert Caro. I’m doing a book on Lyndon Johnson.” Now 84 years old and frail, Salas replied, “Oh, then you want to know about Box 13.” Then Salas startled Caro by saying, “I have written it all down,” at which point he produced a battered manuscript, both handwritten and typed, in which Salas describes exactly how he fixed the vote. “Everyone is dead except me,” Salas remarked. “And I’m not going to live long. But Box 13 is history. No one can erase that.” Scott Sherman observes, “By obtaining the firsthand recollections of the man who actually stole the crucial votes in the 1948 Texas Senate race, and thereby set Lyndon Johnson on the road to the Presidency, Caro achieved a stunning journalistic feat. For years, Johnson’s partisans had worked to create an obfuscating haze around LBJ’s chicanery in that election; but the Salas manuscript is the closest thing we have to a smoking gun.”
Johnson was now a “Southern Senator,” and would act like one. Thanks to Southern Caucus in the Senate, not one civil rights bill had passed Congress since the Civil War. The House of Representatives had passed a number of civil rights bills, but each had been killed by the Senate’s Southern Caucus. The Southern Caucus was the 22 Senators from the 11 states that had made up the Confederate States of America. For all these years the Southern Caucus killed civil rights bills in two ways. First, although they might differ on other legislation, all 22 Southern Caucus Senators always voted as a block against civil rights legislation, giving rise to the term, “The Solid South.” In fact, most civil rights bills never made it to a vote on the Senate floor, because many of these same Southerners dominated the chairmanships of the committees which prevented bills from ever reaching the floor. The second method was the filibuster, in which a Senator had the right to speak as long as he wanted to, on any subject. Southerners considered the filibuster their most cherished parliamentary tool. Northern liberals pushed for “cloture” to end filibusters, with little success. Cloture meant ending debate and forcing a vote.
On March 9, 1949 Johnson made his maiden speech as a Senator. He said, “We of the South who speak here are accused of prejudice. We are labeled in the folklore of American tradition as a prejudiced minority. But prejudice is not a minority affliction. Prejudice is most wicked and most harmful as a majority aliment, directed against minority groups. Prejudice, I think, had inflamed a majority outside the Senate against those of us who speak now, exaggerating the evil and intent of the filibuster. Until we are free of prejudice there will be a place in our system for the filibuster, for the filibuster is the last defense of reason, the sole defense of minorities(white Southern racists) who might be victimized by prejudice. When we of the South rise here to speak against civil rights proposals, we are not speaking against the Negro race. We are not attempting to keep alive the old flames of hate and bigotry. We are, instead, trying to prevent those flames from being rekindled. We are trying to tell the rest of the Nation that this is not the way to accomplish what so many want to do for the Negro.”
Because Johnson intended to become President, that speech was the closest he ever came to sounding like a racist in public, and he never again made such a speech in public. But his Southern Caucus cronies had no such aspirations. Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo addressed a letter to a New York woman of Italian descent, “Dear Dago.” Considering a bill that would have opened up markets, Mississippi’s other Senator, James Eastland, stared coldly at Senator Jacob Javits of New York,” and said, “I don’t like you -- or your kind,” because, “ten thousand Jewish dry goods merchants represent a discrimination against the Anglo-Saxon branch of the white race,” and therefore Congress should “limit the number of Jews in interstate commerce.” Caro says, “And it wasn’t only ‘Nigras’ and Italians and Jews that Southerners wanted to keep in their place.” When Jim Dombrowski testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Eastland repeatedly sneered at his Polish name. These public comments were made on Capitol Hill right after World War II, causing I. F. Stone to write in The Nation, “This is the spectacle presented by the United States in the wake of a war against fascism and racism.”
To conceal a growing paunch, Senator Johnson wore outsized suits, and a girdle. His suits did not look like those of other senators. So rich and shimmering were their fabric that others joked about Johnson’s “silver suits.” He often wore a “Texas Fat Max,” a short, wide tie, garishly hand-painted with grazing horses, bucking broncos, or cowgirls astride oil derricks. Gold glinted from his wrists. His usual cuff links were shaped like Texas with a diamond for the location of Austin. His second favorite cuff links said “LBJ” in gold. His gold watch was so heavy that he had to remove it when being weighed in a doctor’s office. His belt buckle was gold and large. Everything was monogrammed, belt buckle, shirt pockets, shirt cuffs, and handkerchief.
In 1949, Johnson as a senator could now make more money for Brown & Root than he could as a congressman. For example, natural gas had been a by-product of the oil business. During World War II the Federal government laid more than a thousand miles of pipeline from East Texas oil fields to defense plants in the Northeast and Midwest. The two major pipelines were called “Big Inch” and “Little Inch.” After the war these pipelines were available to supply huge, growing industrial urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest, and as demand increased, so did prices and profits. To capitalize, Brown & Root created the Texas Eastern Transmission Company. Thanks to Johnson’s intervention, the Brown brothers were allowed to buy both Big Inch and Little Inch for only $143 million, a fraction of their present and future worth.
But they had a problem. Leland Olds was Chairman of the Federal Power Commission and Olds would not deregulate the natural gas industry. Although Brown & Root’s new Big Inch and Little Inch pipelines were selling 118 million cubic feet of natural gas per year at a government-regulated 10 cents per thousand feet, deregulation would allow them to charge 40 cents per thousand feet. Furthermore, their Texas Eastern Transmission Company had just built a pipeline capable of delivering an additional 200 million cubic feet. In 1949 Old’s position as FPC Chairman was up for Senate reconfirmation. If he was confirmed, Brown & Root and the entire Texas utilities industry stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars because natural gas would stay regulated. Brown & Root lawyer Charles Francis declared, “There is nothing more important to the welfare of the natural gas industry in Texas than that Olds confirmation be defeated.”
Time for another Hitlerized operation. Senator Johnson approached the Interstate Commerce Committee Chairman and asked for the chairmanship of the subcommittee that would investigate Old’s re-nomination. Thinking Johnson was still a liberal New Deal Democrat, Johnson got the job. Enter the Texas oil and natural gas lobby. Alvin Wirtz paid for a team of professional experts to gather and read all 1,800 newspaper and magazine articles Olds had ever written, plus all of his formal FPC reports, drafts of reports, and even internal memorandum during his ten years as FPC Chairman. They selectively looked for any evidence of anti-industry bias, instances in which Olds may have gone beyond the intent of Congress, and evidence of “communist sympathies.” The material assembled in Washington was flown to Austin in a Brown & Root DC-3. Wirtz used his lawyer experience to distill and create the most damaging case possible, and he coached Johnson by telephone. Johnson meanwhile picked for his subcommittee and witnesses the most rabid communist-haters and anti-New Dealers, and he coached his witnesses. As Chairman of the Committee, Johnson let Old’s detractors speak uninterrupted, but constantly cut-off both Olds and his defenders. Needless to say, Olds was not re-nominated. The natural gas industry was soon deregulated, and Brown & Root made hundreds of millions more.
All of the Texas oil millionaires liked hunting big game with telescopic sights mounted to high-power rifles. Now trusted by these ultra-conservatives after so publicly humiliating liberal hero Leland Olds, Johnson was invited to St. Joseph Island, the “inner sanctum” of the conservative, racist Texas oil millionaires. St. Joe was a 21-mile-long island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas. The island had been bought by Texas millionaire oilman Sid Richardson. Richardson turned the island into his own private kingdom, with a hunting lodge so luxurious that “he himself was embarrassed by the cost.” St. Joe’s Island was the playground of the biggest names in the Texas oil business, including Clint Murchison, Amon Carter, Myron Blalock, George Brown and Herman Brown. The only politician invited besides Johnson was right-wing Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, godfather of the Southern Caucus.
The St. Joe group hated Negros, Jews, Dagos, Mexicans, unions, all college professors, “One Worlders,” foreigners, Catholics, and so on. To reinforce their white supremacist views, Richardson had the island full of “deferential black retainers,” like an Old South plantation. Russell’s grandparents had owned such a plantation in Georgia until it was burned to the ground during Sherman’s March. When they weren’t eating meals prepared by a chef flown in from New Orleans, they were hunting. Johnson was also invited to Herman Brown’s private hunting preserve in Virginia, “Huntlands,” and George Brown’s private hunting preserve, “Falfurrias.” Lyndon Johnson and his racist Texas millionaires cronies were hooked not on golf, but rather hunting with high-powered rifles equipped with telescopic sights.
Eight days after being sworn in as a Senator in January, 1949, Johnson became embroiled in the Felix Longoria incident. This Mexican-American had died a war hero, but was still buried in a military cemetery in the Philippines, and now his family wanted his body buried in the United States. When Johnson suggested Longoria be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, conservative Texas Anglos started a whispering campaign that Johnson was “a wild-eyed liberal like his father.” Leading this group was Dale Miller, the son of Roy Miller whom Johnson had shared Congressman Richard Kleberg’s office with in the mid-1930’s, making his first conservative financial contacts. In Caro’s words, “Dale Miller, son of Roy, had succeeded not only to his father’s sprawling Mayflower Hotel suite but also to his mantle as Texas’ preeminent lobbyist, Washington representative of Texas Gulf Sulphur Corporation, an impressive array of oil and natural gas companies, and of business associations, including the Dallas Chamber of Commerce. Influential and popular, host for eighteen years of Sam Rayburn’s annual birthday party, Miller was the very heart of the conservative Texas establishment.” Standing to lose this support, Johnson backed away from the liberal Longoria cause. Never again would Johnson stick his neck out for any minority cause without white, conservative Texas approval.
For example, the Texas bracero system was called “rent a slave.” In this system, legal Mexican immigrants or illegal Mexican “wet backs” were worked beyond endurance for little or no pay. To avoid paying wages, the most abusive white growers waited until the harvest was in, then called the Border Patrol so that their workers were arrested or deported as “illegal aliens,” just to avoid paying them. A bill sustaining the bracero system was introduced to Congress in 1950. Since the bracero system benefited the Anglo growers who supported Johnson, Johnson secretly led the lobbying effort on their behalf. When the bill passed on May 28, 1951, Johnson wrote a letter to 33 Texas growers saying, “Delighted to inform you that the Senate and the House conferees have agreed on the Mexican labor bill.” J.C. Looney, an attorney who both represented the growers and had handled illegal payoffs in Johnson’s 1941 and 1948 senate campaigns, wrote back that “influential people are grateful, but will keep their thanks quiet without publicity that could backfire.” Mexican-American leaders later pleaded with Johnson to support a bill intensifying border patrols because migrant workers were taking jobs from Mexican-American citizens. But the Anglos wanted the migrants because they could work them harder and pay them less, or not at all. When Hispanic leaders Hector Garcia and Manuel Bravo found out Johnson had opposed the bill, Johnson’s lame excuse was that his vote had been due to the “lateness and excessiveness of the bill’s budget request.”
When Russia exploded its first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, and the Korean War started ten months later, on June 25, 1950, Johnson saw an opportunity to get his name in the national headlines. Although he was only in his third year as a freshman Senator, he thought publicity as a guardian of national defense would help him get the Democratic nomination for President in 1952. So he went to Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who already had him a member of that committee. Playing upon the public’s fear of communism and American military weakness, Johnson convinced Russell to let him create the “Defense Preparedness Subcommittee,” and be the chairman. Russell agreed because this would strengthen the national image of a Southerner before the 1952 Democratic convention.
Using a payroll funded by Texas oil millionaires of the military-industrial complex, Johnson’s subcommittee staff became the largest in Washington history, churning out superlative reports that were more about advertising Lyndon Johnson than defending the country. His “patriotic subcommittee work” was described in major newspapers, and popular magazines including Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Time and Business Week. Johnson stirred up fear that the United States did not have enough armaments. This was good news for the military-industrial complex, the capital of which was in Texas. The Washington Post said Johnson was pressuring the country to have “military equipment running out of its ears.” Caro writes, “The subcommittee’s work as a whole amounted to a demand for greatly expanded mobilization, a placing of the nation on an all-out war footing almost as if it were engaged in a global conflict.”
However, by the end of 1951, the press had caught on. Time reporter Clay Blair said Johnson’s work was “much ado about nothing.” Other newsmen called Johnson’s “patriotic work” mere “publicity seeking.”
They revealed that Johnson’s subcommittee reports “were masterful con jobs, old investigation reports craftily re-cycled by his expensive staff, rhetorical bait to get his name and picture in the media.” Once the media was on to him, Johnson’s subcommittee reports stopped. But he had gained the national exposure he wanted. By the end of 1951 he was nationally known as, “Johnson of the Watchdog Committee.” The December 3, 1951 Newsweek cover includes a full-page photo of a grave and hard-working Senator, with the caption, “Lyndon Johnson: Watchdog-in-Chief,” a deliberate play on, “Commander-in-Chief.”
Although it was impossible in 1952, the South wanted a Southern President, so Time reported, “Russell has soberly predicted that Lyndon Johnson could be President, and would make a good one.” Because of Johnson’s new status as Watchdog-in-Chief, Alfred Steinberg of Nation’s Business interviewed him. Steinberg recalls Johnson becoming “outraged” when he learned he would be only one of four men in the article. Johnson beseeched Steinberg, “Why don’t you do a whole big article on me alone?” Startled, Steinberg asked, “What would the pitch be? That you might be a Vice Presidential candidate in 1952?” Johnson boomed, “Vice President, Hell! Who wants that? President! That’s the angle you want to write about me! You can build up to it by saying how I run both Houses right now!” Steinberg considered Johnson’s remarks “extraordinary.” Time reported, “Despite his Southern origins, Johnson is interested in the Number One spot.”
Lyndon Johnson planned to be President, and not Vice President, and being a megalomaniac, he also wanted the President to have as much power as possible. Thus he was troubled in 1953 when Senator John Bricker introduced a constitutional amendment to restrict the President’s power in foreign affairs, but Johnson wasn’t thinking about President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Incredibly, even though Johnson was in his first senate term, he was worried that this amendment would restrict HIS power in foreign affairs when HE became President, because he told his secretary, Bobby Baker, “If passed, this amendment ties the President’s hands. And I’m not talking about Ike.” He was talking about himself. Johnson’s pathological obsession with becoming President manifested itself in other ways. For example, that summer, in between Senate sessions, John H. Richardson rented Johnson’s house in Virginia. Richardson remembers, “The rooms were full of pictures of Johnson,” and at the top of the stairs Johnson had placed a photograph of his childhood home in Texas, with the caption, CHILDHOOD HOME OF THE FUTURE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
Time for another secretive, Hitlerized operation. Johnson’s problem was that Bricker Amendment appealed to his conservative Texas millionaire backers, so he could not publicly argue against the amendment. Caro points out that Johnson had to deal with a “knot of tangled political implications that the Bricker Amendment posed for him. It was a knot of almost incredible complexity,” but the conniving mind of Lyndon Johnson “was equal to them.” Johnson had to get the Bricker Amendment to fail, while keeping his Texas millionaire supporters from finding out that he was the cause. Working secretly behind the scenes, which he always did, Johnson brought the amendment down. As usual, no one knew who was undermining support for the amendment. William Jenner notes, “a secret revolutionary corps” was working against the Bricker Amendment, but no one could figure out who. College classmate Horace Whiteside had noted, “Everybody felt that if it wasn’t straight, it was Lyndon Johnson who wasn’t straight.” When the amendment failed, Caro observes, “The icing on his triumphal cake was Johnson’s success in achieving his objectives without awareness of what he had done from supporters who disapproved of those objectives.”
Johnson’s near failure to keep his duplicity secret once almost knocked him off the road to the White house. In 1955 liberals introduced a bill to weaken the Immigration Act. Johnson told his racist Texas supporters he would work to prevent the bill from passing, but he told liberal northern Democrats he would work to get it passed. At a very public news conference, when John Chadwick of the Associated Press asked him about the bill’s status, Johnson dismissed him with, “It’s still in committee.” When Chadwick asked a second time, an irritated Johnson snapped, “I told you I don’t know anything about that! It’s still in committee.” Then Chadwick asked, “Well, what’s difference between that bill and all of the other bills you’ve been telling us about? They’re still in committee too?” Johnson then exploded, “Goddamn you, don’t you ever tell me how to answer questions! Now you can get the hell out of here!” William Theis of International News said Johnson’s violent outburst was shocking, “I’d never seen him lose his cool in public in a way like that.” The only thing that made Lyndon Johnson lose his cool in public was a threat to his becoming President of the United States. Chadwick was close to exposing not only that Johnson was keeping the latest liberal bill stalled in committee, but also “all of the other bills.” An expert propagandist himself, Johnson was acutely aware of the power of newspaper reporters. A single negative headline could be permanently damaging.
The next day Johnson had a massive heart attack. He was at George Brown’s Huntlands to shoot deer with a high-powered rifle. This incident is significant in explaining Johnson’s lack of patience, his franticness is trying to be President as quickly s possible. Because fatal heart attacks at an early age ran in his family, he held a life-long, absolute belief that he was going to die young of a heart attack, and his three-packs a day cigarette habit didn‘t help. In fact, his father died at 60 of heart failure after being debilitated for many years before that with heart problems. On the other hand, his favorite uncle, who had no prior medical problems, dropped dead suddenly at the age of 57 of a massive heart attack. Johnson told people, “I’ll be dead at 60,” or, “Dead pipe cinch I’ll be dead at 60.” So, Caro writes, “throughout his life he had this terrible rush to accomplish what wanted.” In Johnson’s mind, since his first heart attack happened in 1955 when he was 49 years old, he had 11 years to go before he turned 60. In his mind, he had to President before 1966.
While recuperating for his 1955 heart attack at Bethesda Naval Hospital, he was visited by Vice President Richard Nixon. Caro says, “Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson fell into a serious conversation, one that was to mark the beginning of a close relationship between the two future Presidents which is only now beginning to be glimpsed by historians.” Johnson and Nixon had much in common. Both came from small towns, graduated from small Western colleges, detested Eastern liberals, and Nixon was also backed by conservative oil money, in his case, from Long Beach and Signal Hill, California. Moreover, neither had the looks or personality to make a positive impression on television, which was just beginning to be a factor in politics.
Johnson spent the rest of the summer recuperating on his ranch, where Mexican laborers kept his lawn “as smooth and lush as a carpet.” George Reedy explains that Johnson’s swimming pool was “equipped with every technological innovation, including a huge, elaborate heater, kept constantly at full blast, telephone outlets, piped-in music from speakers placed in trees, with secretaries and assistants scurrying about the pool, obeying an endless stream of instructions.” Some of his pool-side instructions concerned his purchase of radio station KANG in Waco, “bargaining with the owners for a favorable price while gently obtaining from compliant FCC Chairman Bartley advance knowledge of upcoming FCC decisions that would make KANG much more profitable for him than it would ever have been for them, and keeping that knowledge secret so that they would sell to him at a lower price.” Arthur Stehling says, “He made a lot of money that summer.” Johnson was lining up money and support for his 1956 Presidential campaign. Dozens of times that summer a Brown & Root DC-3 flown by Reg Robbins picked up Johnson at a secluded Austin airport where he left for quiet conferences with millionaires in Houston, Fort Worth, Fort Clark, and at St. Joe’s “inner sanctum.” One trip took him to Las Vegas where he told Howard Hughes, with whom he was already on a “hard cash, adult basis,” that “real money” was going to be needed.
Johnson again revealed his sole desire to be President when a major newspaper headline read, “Heart Attack Drops Johnson From White House Hopefuls.” Anything threatening his Presidential plans had to be dealt with, so counter articles had to be written. He paid his staff and reporters to spread the word that his health was perfect, and he very much in the running for the nomination in 1956. Furthermore, he told his younger brother to write the specific phrase, “I know there is only one office you aspire to,” meaning the Presidency, not the Vice Presidency.
Holmes Alexander of the Austin-American Statesman was one of the many reporters being paid to write what Johnson wanted to see in the newspapers. On September 1, 1955, an article appeared in the Austin-American Statesman attributed to Alexander, but in content and style the article sounds like Lyndon Johnson: “The Senator is now almost restored to health. He is a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination, either in 1956 or 1960, depending on which is more propitious. It’s hard to see how the party so united in praising him when he was ill, can divide against him now that he’s bushy-tailed and ambitious once more. This may be the first time in history that a man was virtually nominated by his press clippings.” Lyndon Johnson was his own best public relations man, and the words and tone of this article sound like the pieces Johnson wrote for the Campus Star back in college.
George Brown owned a large hunting preserve stocked with deer. Herman Brown owned a large hunting preserve stocked with deer. St. Joe’s Island, the getaway for conservative Texas millionaires, had a large hunting preserve stocked with deer. Following the money, Senator Lyndon Johnson stocked the woods around his LBJ ranch with deer. In the summer of 1955 Senator Estes Kefauver visited Johnson. Kefauver later told colleagues in Washington he had shot a ten-point buck “right through the heart” at 300 yards, using a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight provided by Lyndon Johnson. In fact, Caro discovered, “There was an invariable insistence” by Johnson that every guest to the LBJ ranch shoot a deer, “whether the guest wanted to or not.” One reluctant guest was Austin newspaper magnate Phil Graham. His wife said, “Phil loved hunting birds, in part because they are hard to shoot, which meant he mostly missed them, but he couldn’t stand the idea of killing a deer.” When Johnson ordered, “Shoot, Phil!” Graham answered, “I can’t shoot him in the ass, Lyndon!” Graham had purposefully hesitated until deer got away. When another deer was spotted, Johnson again ordered Graham to shoot. When Graham said, “I can’t,” Johnson became angry, so angry that “an overbearing Johnson” forced Graham to pull the trigger. Then Johnson laughed.
When in January 1956 Johnson became Senate Majority Leader, he launched a reign of terror against Senators he deemed “troublesome.” For example, as a life-long resident of immigrant-rich New York City, Democratic Senator Herbert Lehman wanted a seat on the Judiciary Committee, which oversaw immigration laws. Although the appointment was a natural match, Johnson refused, his excuse being that Lehman “was not a lawyer,” yet Judiciary Committee member Earle Clements was not even a college graduate, and no Senate rule required a lawyer. In another example, Johnson hated intellectuals, and Senator Paul Douglas was a former college professor. Instead of using Douglas’s expertise and assigning him to the powerful Finance Committee, Johnson told Bobby Baker, “I’m gonna name him Chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. It can’t do a damn thing. It’s as useless as tits on a bull. But it’ll give ‘Professor’ Douglas some papers to shuffle.”
The Judiciary Committee was also the one Senate committee which could most affect the civil rights movement. That committee was chaired by Harley Kilgore, a liberal Northern Democrat. On February 28, Kilgore died of a stroke. This was a major blow to civil rights, because the Senate seniority system dictated the next Chairman would be Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, the most outspoken racist in the Senate. The previous year Eastland had led an anti-integration rally in Mississippi, where his comments included, “In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives. All men are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead niggers.” The New Republic pointed out that the Chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee was the one seat of power where a dedicated opponent of civil rights can do his greatest damage, and to give that seat to Eastland was “unthinkable.”
As Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson was the one Senator who could have blocked Eastland’s appointment. Instead, he secretly arranged the appointment, then blamed others. Johnson claimed the Democratic Steering Committee made these appointments, and he was but one member of the Steering Committee. Johnson went out of his way to avoid a floor fight on Eastland’s nomination, or even a roll-call vote which would have produced many votes against him. Johnson himself made the motion which secured Eastland’s appointment through an unrecorded voice vote, which also prevented a recording of individual views. In fact, Johnson arranged for two conservative Senators to make sham speeches against Eastland, each of them entrusted not to ask for a roll call vote. In an interview many years later Eastland recalled, “I had Lyndon’s support all the way.” After Eastland was appointed, the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell said, “A mad dog is loose in the streets of justice.” Lyndon Johnson had put him there, secretly, always secretly.
Yet incredibly, Johnson wanted the 1956 Democratic nomination for President, meaning he had to appease national liberals. But he also had to publicly distance himself from his racist Texas oil millionaires, while still secretly working for them. Not surprisingly, immediately after becoming Senate majority leader, a Senate bill was introduced to end Federal price controls over natural gas, a product of the oil industry, meaning Texas oil millionaires would profit most. The bill passed, but President Eisenhower vetoed the bill on grounds of immoral lobbying. Eisenhower confided in his diary that this had been “the most flagrant kind of lobbying that has been brought to my attention.” He added that there was a “great stench around the passing of this bill” and the people involved were “so arrogant and so much in defiance of acceptable standards of propriety as to risk creating doubt among the American people concerning the integrity of governmental processes.” Senators called for an investigation into the lobbying of the oil industry by Thomas Hennings, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections. Johnson was unwilling to allow a Senator not under his control to look into the matter. Instead he set up a “select committee” chaired by Walter George of Georgia, a Southern crony.
Then Drew Pearson of The Washington Post wrote a series of articles about Johnson and the oil industry. Pearson explored Johnson’s relationship with George Brown and Herman Brown. He reported on the large sums of money that had been flowing from Brown & Root to Johnson. He also referred to the huge government contracts the company received during the Second World War, via Congressman Johnson. Pearson also quoted a Senate report that pointed out there was “no room for a general contractor like Brown & Root on Federal projects.” Johnson had to stop Pearson. He offered a deal. If Pearson dropped the investigation, he would support Estes Kefauver, in the forthcoming primaries. Pearson accepted the deal, writing in his diary, “I figured I might do that much for Estes. This is the first time I’ve ever made a deal like this, and I feel unhappy about it. With the Presidency of the United States at stake, maybe it’s justified, maybe not, I don’t know.”
The Northern liberals who controlled the national Democratic Party also demanded their Presidential candidate have a strong civil rights record, which Lyndon Johnson absolutely did not. To create favorable press in this regard, Johnson came up with a sham proposal he called, “Program with a Heart.” In fact, every item but one were already on the agendas of both major parties. The Baltimore Sun pointed out, “on a good many of the issues,” even “the Republicans have already been there.” The ever wily Johnson submitted his program in the following order: poll tax elimination, immigration reform, disaster insurance, aid to depressed areas, tax reduction for the poor, water conservation, natural gas, aid for medical research, hospital construction, school construction, housing construction, Interstate Highway construction, and Social Security reform. Only “natural gas” was original with Johnson, and this happened to be the only item that appealed to his conservative millionaire friends in Texas, not liberals. Johnson had buried “natural gas” in the middle of the list so as not to draw attention. He allowed the first five liberal items to “die a quiet death.” Similarly, he allowed other items to pass in the Senate, but in “amounts so small or forms so diluted as to make them insignificant.” Only “natural gas” passed with maximum benefits to the Texas oil industry, and no benefits to the consumer. As always, Johnson had duped the unwary. He had appeased Northern liberals by proposing “Program With A Heart,” but then secretly worked against every single liberal item, while secretly supporting the single conservative item in the program. Yet another “masterful con job.”
Two of the items threatened his liberal façade, which he needed intact to win the Democratic nomination for President. Workers on the “Interstate Highway construction” were protected by the Davis-Bacon Labor Act, which said that construction workers building this national highway would not be paid the local prevailing wage, which was always lower, but rather a higher standard national wage set by the Secretary of Labor. The conservative Texas millionaires hated unions and government regulation, and ordered Johnson to remove the Davis-Bacon requirement. However, any Johnson attempt in this direction would have alienated the liberal labor union movement, which he needed on his side to win the Democratic nomination for President. So he moved a scheduled checkup at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to the day of the vote for the Interstate Highway item in Washington, thereby missing the vote by having to be one thousand miles away. A journalist wrote, “Johnson’s absence saved him from another attack from the unions, but it scarcely won him their praise.”
The Social Security item presented a unique opportunity. This item would vastly liberalize Social Security, especially by adding disability benefits. If there is one thing all conservatives hate, it is Social Security. Voting against the Social Security item would have been lethal to Johnson’s Presidential nomination aspirations. Luckily for Johnson, the ultra-conservative Solid South, including his Texas money backers, wanted a Southerner in the White House more than they wanted to limit Social Security. To improve his image in the eyes of the liberal wing of the national Democratic Party, Johnson was “given permission” to vote for an expanded Social Security program. For maximum political gain, Johnson had to be seen as not only voting for Social Security, but being the principal reason it passed at all.
Most Senators were going to vote against Social Security. This meant Lyndon Johnson, “master of the Senate,” had to change some votes, by any means necessary. In one case, Nevada Senator George Malone wanted a bill passed that guaranteed $70 million in Federal purchases from Nevada’s tungsten mines. Passage of this bill would enrich a group of conservative Western Senators who planned on opposing the Social Security item in Johnson’s “Program With A Heart.” This would be, in Caro’s words, “a blatantly unjustified giveaway of the public’s money to a wealthy special interest group,” but Lyndon Johnson had no scruples at all. Operating behind the scenes, Johnson got enough Senators to support the Nevada tungsten bill, but only in exchange for their support of the Social Security item. Evans and Novak reported, “Few if any Democrats connected tungsten with the Social Security bill,” and, “they were frankly puzzled.”
One vote came from Senator Earl Clements of Kentucky. The powerful American Medical Association in Kentucky, which had supported Clements in the past, was adamantly opposed to expanding Social Security, and assumed Clements would vote against it. But Clements desperately needed cash for his reelection campaign. Johnson gave him the cash he needed, and in turn Clements went against his own best interests and voted for the Social Security item. Infuriated doctors in Kentucky then organized against Clements, and in spite of Johnson’s money, Clements was defeated for reelection. Clements commitment to Johnson “destroyed him politically.” Bobby Baker observed, “Of all the votes that I’ve ever seen that was mean and cruel and defeated a man, it was that vote by Senator Clements.”
Johnson Secretary Nadine Brammer notes that by 1956, “He had made up his mind to be President, and he was demonic in his drive.”A newspaperman wrote that Johnson’s moves to win the 1956 Democratic nomination for President almost “looked like a coup by Johnson in the making.” Early on Joseph Kennedy sent Tommy Corcoran to Johnson to make a deal. If Johnson promised to pick his son Jack Kennedy as a running mate, Joe Kennedy would foot Johnson’s entire Presidential campaign bill. But Johnson didn’t need Joe Kennedy’s money, and Johnson knew if a Johnson-Kennedy ticket lost in 1956, his chances of a nomination in 1960 would be nil, but Kennedy’s would be heightened. Johnson would be labeled the loser, not Kennedy, and so from Johnson’s point of view, Joe Kennedy was setting him up.
Johnson was already resentful of John Kennedy’s television appeal, and took every opportunity to denigrate him in private, never in public. For example, Johnson often referred to him as “Sonny Boy.” To one intimate Johnson said, “Kennedy never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing.” To another, “Kennedy is a little scrawny fellow with rickets. He’s malaria ridden, and yellah, sickly, sickly.” To Bobby Baker, Johnson said, “Kennedy never learned how things operate around here. All those Boston’s and Harvard’s don’t know any more about Capitol Hill than an old maid does about fuckin.” The worst thing Kennedy ever said about Johnson was the same conclusion reached by the student body at San Marcos State Teachers College. Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger, “Johnson is a man who just cannot tell the truth. He lies all the time. I’m telling you, he just lies continually, about everything.”
Johnson refused to accept the reality that he no chance of gaining the nomination. While he was backed by Texas oil, and was “master of the Senate,” he had little support outside Texas or Washington, or within the national Democratic Party. Furthermore, Richard Rovere observed, “The big men at conventions are governors and municipal leaders,” not Senators. In the Democratic Party of 1956, the big men were liberal Northern mayors and governors, but Johnson, Robert Caro points out, was “incapable of seeing a crucial reality, the true depth of the antipathy toward him of northern liberals.” Justifiably, Americans for Democratic Action(ADA) issued a report accusing Senator Lyndon Johnson of “bringing the Democratic Party to its lowest point in twenty-five years,” and their main complaint was that Johnson did not support civil rights. Jim Rowe says, “He was ambivalent. On one side, deep down, he understood the realities, but he wanted to be President so much.” Tommy Corcoran says, “On most things, you could talk sense to Lyndon, but there was no talking to him about this.”
Thus, on an airplane trip to the Democratic Convention, Johnson took a seat next to Sam Rayburn. Johnson had secretly destroyed Rayburn’s standing with FDR in 1941, but now Rayburn had an important role in the Convention. In that seat, as discovered by Caro, Johnson “spilled out his delusions and desperation” during the entire flight. Others on the plane were “astonished at his pleading and whining.” House Democratic Whip Carl Albert sat across the isle, saying, “He told Mr. Rayburn, ‘I have supported you all these years, and I need your help. I have a chance here,’” but Rayburn sat silent. One of Rayburn’s biographers says, “It was an embarrassing ride for everyone on the plane,” having to listen to Johnson “acting like a spoiled child.” Evans and Novak relate that Johnson begged Rayburn, “Please, please come out with me anyway. Come with me and sit with me in my headquarters and talk to me and eat with me and be with me. The tone was beseeching, pleading.” To a friend Rayburn said, “I hate to see Lyndon get bit so hard by the Presidential bug at this stage of the game. I told Lyndon I thought he had lost his head.”
Caro says, “Men close to Johnson would puzzle for years over his actions at the 1956 convention.” John Connally would later say that Johnson’s actions, “made no sense to anyone, myself included,” that Johnson’s actions had to have been personal and not political, revolving around his single-minded drive to become President. Asked why Johnson had not withdrawn, Tommy Corcoran says, “Because he couldn’t bear to.” Caro concludes, “That vast prize that Lyndon Johnson sought, the prize that had always seemed so far off, had suddenly seemed so close, almost within his reach. It was too hard for him to consign it again to the future, to admit that, under the best of circumstances, four years would have to pass before he could try for it again.” As summarized in the Washington Post, “Senator Johnson, so his friends say, was carried away for a while with a vision of himself in the White House.”
Yet immediately thereafter, Johnson set his sights on the 1960 Presidential race. To this extent, Jim Rowe reminded him of his low standing with the liberals who controlled the national Democratic Party, and in particular, his nonexistent record on civil rights. “If you don’t pass a civil rights bill,” Rowe said, “you can just forget the 1960 nomination.” Johnson lamented, “All I ever hear from the liberals is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra,” but he realized Rowe was right. To gain the necessary support of Northern liberals, he had to pass a civil rights bill. However, to maintain the support of his racist Southern base, he had to make the bill weak. Since “perception is nine-tenths of reality,” he knew the mere passing of any civil rights bill while he was Senate Majority Leader was more important than what was in the bill. This would be like his toothless “Program With A Heart.”
And so on August 2, 1957, Senator Lyndon led the passage of the Brownell Civil Rights Bill. Duplicitous as always, the bill scored points with some Northern liberals, but by gutting the bill, kept him in good stead with Southern conservatives. For example, the section that “allowed direct Federal intervention to end segregation in all aspects of Southern life” was, because of Johnson‘s secret machinations, eliminated. To the section that “allowed Federal intervention specifically to insure Negros the right to vote,” Johnson added a clause allowing the guilt of white Southerners accused of violating a Negro’s voting rights to be determined by jury trial. Since Southern juries were predominately white, no white Southerner would ever be convicted. Johnson could point out that the bill “insured that Negros sit on juries,” but because Southern juries had to be unanimous, the result would be a “hung jury,” and again, no white would be convicted of civil rights violations. Senator Paul Douglas asked, “Can one picture a jury from the Deep South unanimously finding a white election official guilty for depriving a Negro the right to vote?” Asa Philip Randolph said, “It is worse than no bill at all.” Covering the Senate for the Chicago Defender, Ethel Payne recalled, “We all sat watching while Lyndon Johnson, the most astute maneuverer on the Hill, cracked his whip and marshaled his forces to cut the guts and heart out of the bill.”
Yet Johnson’s well-paid propaganda machine portrayed him as the hero behind the passage of the Brownell Civil Rights Bill, “the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction.” Others saw differently. Paul Douglas said, “The Federal government is still prevented from coming to aid of hard-pressed citizens whose civil rights to unsegregated schooling, transportation, and other public facilities are denied. These people, who are almost universally poor and weak must still fight their costly and protracted legal battles alone. It has been the advocates of segregation and white domination who have won a major triumph.” Senator Herbert Lehman confessed, “I am sorely disappointed. The bill in its present form will be merely a gesture and quite ineffective.” Thomas Stokes said, “The civil rights fiasco in the Senate was admittedly a triumph for the Southern wing, it was too, a compliment, if of a dubious character, for the ingenious and slick leadership of Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas. In this case, he virtually compromised the civil rights bill out of existence in the zeal of exercising his talents of maneuver and behind-the-scenes negotiations of which he is so proud. Looking back on it all, we might say that never was a strategy so brilliant to bring about so evil a result.”
Every move Johnson made after 1956 was with the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination in mind. He saw another public relations opportunity when on October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik. Georgia Senator Richard Russell was the godfather of the ultra-conservative Southern Caucus. Russell wanted a Southerner in the White house, and by now, Lyndon Johnson had convinced him that Lyndon Johnson was that man. Russell was also Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In order to improve Johnson’s chances at the 1960 Democratic Presidential Convention, Russell allowed Johnson to resurrect his “Defense Preparedness Subcommittee.” In 1950 Russell had allowed then-Congressman Johnson to create the committee to make the public think he was concerned about national defense. He wasn’t, and when the political dividends stopped, Johnson lost interest.
Johnson now milked the public relations opportunity to the maximum. He turned his newly risen Defense Preparedness Subcommittee hearings into a media show. Yet during the six weeks immediately following Sputnik, Johnson spent only six days in Washington, but during those six days he put on “quite a show.” He gravely warned the public, “The Space Age is an even greater challenge than Pearl Harbor.” At first buffaloed, newsmen wrote, “There seems to be a terrible sense of urgency.” In fact, while Russia had a more powerful missile than the United States, the United States had more missiles, and these missiles were more accurate and had more powerful nuclear warheads. Just as in 1951, Johnson scared the public with misleading information, for no other reason than to get his name in the headlines as Watchdog-in-Chief.
Also as in 1951, his 1957 subcommittee’s reports were exaggerated versions of old reports. The first one, issued January 23, 1958, said, “We have reached a state of history where defense involves the total effort of a nation.” As in 1951, Johnson again called for an “all-out war footing.” He said, “The forty-hour work week will not produce intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and therefore, he implied, the nation must go on a full, wartime mobilization schedule. When America’s first attempt to launch a satellite failed, Johnson’s rhetoric escalated. He said, “Control of space means control of the world. From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperate climates to frigid. Alfred Steinberg says Johnson’s speeches “painted a frightening picture of the horror that would overtake the United States if it did not treat Soviet leadership in missilery as a war.” George Reedy later admitted Johnson’s subcommittee hype created the non-existent “missile gap.”
Johnson was his own best public relations man. John Steele says that one afternoon while Johnson was “lapping up a creamed chicken dish in his ornate green and gold Senate office,” Defense Secretary McElroy phoned to say the Army’s General John Medaris was about to announce a top-priority solid fuel missile. Johnson immediately arranged to have Medaris make this announcement during his testimony before Johnson’s Preparedness Subcommittee, so that the headline would come not from the Pentagon, but from Johnson. Johnson also arranged to have television cameras catching him with Medaris as they walked out of the hearing. When this golden moment was lost because the television crew wasn’t ready, Johnson screamed at the newsmen.
As usual, an astute Eisenhower saw through Johnson’s charade, and during the same weeks that Johnson was creating a crisis atmosphere, President Eisenhower reassured a jittery America. During one press conference, Eisenhower said, “Sputnik does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I would rather have one good Redstone nuclear-armed missile than a rocket that could hit the moon.” Repeatedly Eisenhower explained that America had more than enough nuclear capacity, that the “massive emergency spending” Johnson was proposing was “unjustifiable.” Thanks to President Eisenhower, the public began to calm down. The new lack of public interest caused Johnson to lose interest. The Preparedness Subcommittee investigation was stopped, the results of which, Caro notes, were “virtually nonexistent.” The whole charade had been to get Johnson in front of the public as Watchdog-in-Chief.
George Reedy explains, “Johnson lost all interest. He saw the missile issue only in terms of newspaper space and public attention. Therefore, as column inches devoted to outer space dwindled and as polls registered a diminution of popular interest, he virtually abandoned the entire project. It did not bother him to abandon a program once he could no longer gain from it.” Staffer Jim Rowe’s memo reads, “I believe you have gained all you can on space and missiles. You have received a tremendous press, increased your national stature and gotten away scot-free without a scratch.”
Then the most astute members of Johnson’s propaganda machine recognized that suddenly dropping the supposedly urgent Preparedness Subcommittee investigation might result in bad press. For this reason they studied legislation of the Eisenhower Administration for some ideas. From this research they had Johnson create the Senate Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, which became known as the Space Council. Johnson appointed himself Chairman of the Space Council, even though he had no interest, calling meetings, Robert Divine relates, only on “rare occasions.” From the Space Council emerged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA), for which Johnson took credit, even though the bill was actually an amendment to legislation drafted not by Johnson, but by the Eisenhower Administration. Johnson’s public relations staff concealed from journalists his total lack of interest, and moreover, made Johnson look like “a major figure in the greatest of mankind’s adventures.”
Megalomania is “a psychopathological condition in which fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence predominate.” On January 1, 1956, the day Lyndon Johnson became Senate Majority Leader, the third floor of the Senate wing of the Capitol Building contained the office suite of the Joint Economics Committee. Robert Caro describes the suite as “elegant even by Senate standards, with a fireplace, high ceilings, chandeliers, and the corner office had a view right down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial.” On January 5, 1956, the Joint Economics Committee got a letter saying their office suite now belonged to new Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s staff already had three office suites on that end of the floor, making this the fourth, and Johnson still was not satisfied. The only space on that end Johnson did not occupy were the two suites of Commerce Committee. When he soon forced out these occupants, a reporter wrote, “Lyndon Johnson is occupying the entire northwest Senate wing on the third floor. He now has commandeered more office space than any Congressman, Senator, or President in U.S. History.” Political cartoonist Herblock lampooned “King Johnson” with the caption, “Methinks, milord, that the peasantry is getting restless.”
Although he now “owned” the northwest Senate wing on the third floor, he wanted more. For one thing, this area presented too long a walk to the Senate Chamber on the second floor, even with the elevator. So he set his sights on the District of Columbia Committee suite just outside the door of the Senate Chamber. No walking required. Moreover, the place was full of glitter. For example, its high ceilings were painted with frescos of a Roman emperor’s banquet. After kicking out this committee, Johnson took over and made some additions. For example, he concealed in the chandelier two spotlights shinning on his desk, casting on him what one reporter called “an impressive nimbus of golden light.” He also installed a well-lit, life-size portrait of himself which immediately confronted any visitor. Time Magazine wrote, “That huge picture of Lyndon looking squarely in the visitor’s eye sure is an irritant.” Reporters called Johnson’s new suite, “The Emperor’s Room.”
And he was still not happy. For example, when he came to a deserted Capitol on Sunday, he had to wait a minute or two for an elevator because only one elevator operator was on duty. So using his power as Senate Majority Leader, he eliminated any waiting time by ordering that three elevator operators be on duty at all times on Sunday, just to instantly gratify his impatience. Similarly, whereas operators of the subway between the Capitol and the Senate Office Building had always stopped working at six o’clock, Johnson now ordered that they stay on duty until he left the building. Johnson’s attitude toward his fellow Senators grew increasingly paternalistic and proprietary, referring to them as “his children,” and viewing the Senate as “his Senate.” Secure in his power and comfortable with his arrogance, his public estimates of his colleagues grew more unguarded as he let reporters know how cleverly he manipulated them. As Caro says, “What was important to Johnson was the acknowledgment, the deferential, face-to-face, acknowledgment, that he had the power.” For example, when members of the Senate complained that Johnson too often subverted Senate rules and procedures, Johnson unabashedly admitted, “The process itself requires a certain amount of deception. There’s no getting around it.”
In the Fall of 1960 Lyndon Johnson made another power move unprecedented in the history of the United States. He successfully pressured the Texas legislature to change a law allowing him to run for both an additional term as U.S. Senator from Texas, and as Vice President of the United States, at the same time, in the same election cycle! No one had ever done this. On November 5, 1960, Lyndon Johnson was elected as BOTH Senator from Texas, and Vice President of the United States. He did this because he never left anything to chance, and he would not let go of power. There was a one in a trillion chance that a technicality might arise denying him the Senate position, and a similar one in a trillion chance that a technicality might deny him the Vice Presidency. Johnson did not take chances. Should he be denied one of these two offices, he could fall back on the other. In spite of his lifelong aversion to playing second fiddle, he accepted the Vice Presidency only because he believed it put him in a position to become President.
The new Senate Majority Leader was the soft-spoken and accommodating Mike Mansfield, exactly the kind of pushover Johnson hired for his staffs. In yet another outrageous power move unprecedented in Senate history, Johnson convinced Mansfield to let him, Lyndon Johnson, the new Vice President, keep The Emperor’s Room next to the Senate Chamber. This had been Johnson’s suite as Senate Majority Leader, and now should be Mansfield’s, but Johnson forced Mansfield into a much smaller office across the hall. Johnson told Bobby Baker he wanted to keep The Emperor’s Room because, “Capitol Hill is the place I know best.” Both liberal and conservative Senators quickly realized that Johnson maintained the preposterous illusion that he could still act as an “unofficial Senate Majority Leader,” the controller of the Senate’s agenda, even though he was Vice President of the United States. And they were right. Cranking up his megalomania one more notch, Johnson convinced Mansfield to name him Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the group of Democratic Senators within the Senate. This too was an unbelievable idea because the official Senate Majority Leader is always the Chairman of his party’s Senate Caucus.
When the Democratic Caucus convened during the morning of January 3, 1961, Vice President Lyndon Johnson performed the traditional transfer of power ceremony, moving to elect Mike Mansfield as the new Majority Leader. However, for the first time in American history, and to everyone’s amazement, Johnson did not hand him the gavel, nor did Johnson vacate the Leader’s chair. The scene was unreal. Instead, Johnson forced Mansfield, now the new Senate Majority Leader, to sit in a side chair and continue to defer to Johnson, who was now not even a Senator! Moreover, the easy-going Mansfield, having been bullied and brainwashed by Johnson, shocked his colleagues by saying, “I move that the Vice President-elect preside over future conferences of this body.”
Every Democratic Senator in the room, whether liberal or conservative, was aghast that Johnson would attempt to breach the constitutional separation of powers between the Executive, of which he was now part as Vice President, and the Legislature, of which he was no longer a part because he was no longer a Senator. Albert Gore of Tennessee shot up and said, “We might as well ask Jack Kennedy to come back and take his turn presiding. I don’t know of any right for a Vice President to preside or even be here with Senators. This Caucus is not open to former Senators.” One by one the Democratic Senators, both liberal and conservative, objected. However, Johnson had such control over Mansfield that Mansfield threatened not to accept the Majority Leader position if the Democratic Senators did not let Johnson preside over future meetings of the Democratic Caucus. To momentarily appease Mansfield, the Senators agreed, but immediately after the meeting they moved to stop this latest Johnson coup. Only through the intercession of conservative Southern Caucus leader Richard Russell of Georgia was Johnson convinced to leave the Senate behind, and start acting like the Vice President of the United States. Hubert Humphrey said, “It was just too much for him to leave that center of power.”