The Making of a President

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Whatever William S. White lacks as a biographer he more than makes up as a plastic surgeon. His most striking operation occurs in his chapter on civil rights. There he says that “as early as March of 1949, as the very new and junior Senator from Texas with a plurality of less than a hundred votes in his pocket,” Johnson went on record against racial discrimination. “Perhaps no prejudice,” he quotes Johnson as saying, “is so contagious or so unreasoning as the unreasoning prejudice against men because of their birth, the color of their skin or their ancestral background…” White does not tell the reader that the quotation is taken from a speech against civil rights legislation, and in defense of the filibuster. “I say frankly,” Johnson had declared in the same speech, “that the Negro…has more to lose by the adoption of any resolution outlawing free debate in the Senate than he stands to gain by the enactment of the civil rights bills.” He had pictured Fair Employment Practices legislation as if it would repeal the Emancipation Proclamation. “If the law can compel me to employ a Negro,” Johnson then argued, “it can compel that Negro to work for me.”

Another example of White’s face-lifting occurs when he tries to explain Johnson’s vote for the Taft-Hartley Act. White says Johnson had become convinced that labor had moved “from a place of too great weakness to a place of too great power.” So “in 1935 he had voted, without a qualm for the Wagner Act, Labor’s ‘Magna Charta.’ In 1946, while his career in the House was drawing to a close, he voted, again without a qualm, for the Taft-Hartley Act—sometimes called, though most unfairly so, ‘the slave labor bill.’ ” Johnson never voted for the Wagner Act. If the reader turns back from this glowing portrait of the perfect moderate on page 155 to page 136, he will see that Johnson was not elected to Congress until 1937, two years after the Wagner Act was passed.

Marx once wrote that history is a form of politics; White seems to be taking this maxim literally. He rearranges even the dates. The fact is that though elected in 1937 as a 100 per cent New Dealer, Johnson soon joined forces with the anti-labor Southerners. When they finally achieved their objective in the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, Johnson voted to override FDR’s veto as four years later he voted to override Truman’s veto of Taft-Hartley. This anti-labor record was so pronounced that when Johnson first ran for the Senate in 1948, Texas labor for the first time in a half-century endorsed a candidate for the Democratic nomination, picking his right-wing opponent, “Coke” Stevenson. White pictures his hero as the aggrieved victim of what White calls an “Orwellian” plot to represent Johnson “as the tool of reactionary employers.” He does not mention that Johnson by…

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