The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power
Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir
Edmund Wilson observed that the works of Theodore Dreiser are like a newspaper full of “commonplace scandals and crimes and obituaries of millionaires, in which the reporter astonishes the readers by being rash enough to try to tell the truth.” Robert Caro is the most Dreiserian of our chroniclers. He proceeds in the same plodding, laborious, heroic way, which makes The Path to Power’s arrival at fashion something of an astonishment. For Dreiser seems fated always to be the least fashionable of great novelists, because he too much oppresses us with the weight of how capital is accrued and careers made.
Any catalogue of rascalities so enormous presents us, and perhaps even its compiler, with the danger that its scandals will be too great a distraction from its more consequential import as testament to the immutability of our social history. Caro’s Johnson, like Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood, is a creature liberated from moral prejudices; and, unless we set aside our own, we will miss each one’s lesson.
Once we suspend ethical judgments of the personal sort, we begin to recognize that, in all affection and piety, Caro has thrown a dead cat into the garden of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s centennial. The Path to Power’s truly resonant message is that the richest rewards of social reform are reserved for the enterpriser with the wit and detachment to find his main chance in the spirit of his age.
In The Titan, Frank Cowperwood creates a barony of short-term Chicago street railway franchises and aspires to make it an empire with a $200 million stock issue. He is balked when the investment bankers refuse the uncertainties of a venture dependent upon the purchased kindness of Chicago aldermen, who could, at their corrupt will, peddle Cowperwood’s franchise to another tenant when his lease expires at the end of a bare seven years.
Cowperwood scents rescue from these perplexities when Joel Avery, one of his lawyers, reminds him that the New York State legislature has thought to temper the greed of the utilities by mandating a Public Service Commission, which will “fix the rate of compensation to be paid to the state or the city… [and] regulate transfers, stock issues, and all that sort of thing.” But such prospects are minor vexations when set next to the grander comforts for men of vision offered by a Public Service Commission’s power to extend the terms of franchises.
“I was thinking,” Avery says, “if at any time we find this business of renewing the franchises too uncertain here we might go into the state legislature and see what can be done about introducing a public service commission of that kind into this state.” Cowperwood at once detects the blessing that a lesser enterpriser would have mistaken for the curse of public regulation. Here was not the seed of destruction but “the germ of a solutionâ€”the possibility of extending his franchises for fifty or even a hundred years.”1 In the rope that the reformers had devised to tether him, Cowperwood had divined the knife that could cut his leash; and with that recognition, Dreiser brought populist dreams and progressive self-deceptions together to dust.
Caro has performed the same cruel office upon our delusions about the New Deal. His Lyndon Johnson climbs toward the heights on pitons driven for him by the Austin lawyer Alvin Wirtz and the building contractor Herman Brown, who had eyes as keen as Cowperwood’s for discerning the useful servant beneath the disguise of the apparent enemy.
Wirtz had left his seat in the Texas State Senate to become lobbyist for Humble Oil and Magnolia Petroleum, an infinitesimal shift in career directions, since he had been their steadfast retainer as a legislator. His scope widened when he attached himself to the expeditionary force sent to Texas by Samuel Insull, the Chicago utility magnifico, and demonstrated his value by bilking his former constitutents, the farmers, out of the acreage Insull coveted for a hydroelectric dam.
Then came Insull’s crash and the mid-construction halt of his Texas dam project. Its unfleshed bones remained the focus of Wirtz’s ambitions for power and patronage, and he managed to realize them by his quick understanding of the great change the Depression had brought, which was that government would henceforth be the prime, and in those days the only, capital resource.
With cool dispatch and no alteration of his retrograde social outlook, Wirtz transformed himself from Insull’s man in Texas to Roosevelt’s. What had been conceived as a private utility’s dam was reborn as the Lower Colorado River Authority and completed with funds from the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Public Works Administration. Wirtz solemnized his new commitment to common cause with that stern foe of private rapacity, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, by soaking the PWA for $85,000 in legal fees, an even larger score than he made in his simultaneous performance as receiver in bankruptcy for the Insull properties.
Wirtz’s first taste of government as universal provider was so savory that he went on to be Ickes’s undersecretary of the interior. The New Deal did not need to command his fervent belief to earn his approbation as a commercial instrument.
Herman Brown built the Marshall Ford Dam on the Lower Colorado outside Austin. His company, Brown and Root, had scrabbled up to a measure of affluence from the meager contracts at the disposal of Texas towns and counties; but his arrival at comparative comfort had in no way abated its founder’s possession by visions of statelier and more gainful monuments. The benevolence of an activist Washington made all those dreams realer than even he could have imagined; Brown and Root ascended from the Lower Colorado dam, to the rural electrification of Lyndon Johnson’s “Hill Country,” to the great naval station at Corpus Christi; and through every upward step, Herman Brown went on railing against the union, the blacks, and Franklin D. Roosevelt for coddling them even while he was Texas’s most sedulously coddled citizen.
But if Alvin Wirtz and Herman Brown could never love those who served them, they were men who paid the caterer. Wirtz had noticed Johnson when he was no more than congressional secretary to the hopelessly junior Rep. Richard Kleberg and had demonstrated a dexterity at wangling favors from the federal agencies remarkable for anyone in his low estate.
In the winter of 1937, Wirtz found himself pressed with an urgent need for the talents he had marked in Johnson. Until then, the Lower Colorado dam had been eating its way through the federal pork supplies thanks to the access afforded by Texas Congressman James Buchanan, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But then Buchanan was struck dead by a heart attack and all had horribly changed. Unless the dam could be salvaged by a new sponsor, Wirtz confronted the wreck of his ambitions and Brown the ruin of his fortunes.
Their only hope for salvation was to find a successor to Buchanan who could make up for the inescapable insufficiency of his stature if he were intimate enough with the federal warrens and determined enough about scouring them. Johnson was the only available candidate for his desperate job; and Wirtz gladly and even greedily hastened to support him. It was a dangerous speculation. Johnson was an unpromising challenger for a seat that several older and better-known stagers were tumbling to contest, in a district that included the poor Hill Country in which Johnson grew up. Wirtz found the means to remedy his chosen instrument’s defects by anointing him as the only administration loyalist in the race.
Shortly after his second inaugural, Roosevelt’s sense of proportion was overborne by the exuberance of an allbut-countrywide mandate and he introduced the Supreme Court reorganization bill that he hoped would cow the last lion in his path. Like Nixon at Watergate and Johnson at the Tonkin Gulf he had leaped at one of those chances to overreach that have so often tempted democratic politicians into converting the grandest electoral victories into triumphs for their enemies.
Every one of Johnson’s potential opponents was either opposed to or equivocal about the Roosevelt proposal; and Wirtz sensed at once that Johnson could only lift himself above the herd by seizing the president’s banner and turning this obscure by-election into a Texas referendum on the court plan.
L.E. Jones was Wirtz’s law clerk at the time and a witness to the strategy conference that sent Johnson on his road. “The discussion,” Jones said, “was that the court-packing plan might be a pretty lousy thing, but the hell with it, that’s the way to win. Wirtz said, ‘Now, Lyndon, of course it’s a bunch of bullshit, this plan; but if you flow with it, Roosevelt’s friends will support you.’ ” Johnson must, as Caro summarizes Wirtz’s teaching, base his campaign on “all-out, ‘one hundred percent,’ support for the President, for all the programs the President had instituted in the pastâ€”and for any program the President might decide to initiate in the future.”
Wirtz thereafter displayed his alacrity to adapt principle to convenience by composing speeches that pulsed with sentiments he disdained for delivery by a candidate who hardly half believed them. Thanks in part to Wirtz’s guile and to cash from oil companies, the contractors, and his father-in-law, but even more to his own demonic energies, Johnson was elected to Congress.
A few days later he traveled to Galveston for a visit with the president, who seized his hand with all the warmth earned by a success that was a rare balm in what was becoming a winter of affliction. Roosevelt’s gratification and the news photographs that celebrated it earned a welcome for Johnson from the New Deal’s beleaguered garrisons immeasurably beyond his actual station as the freshest of freshmen congressmen.
Once installed he did even less for the Roosevelt program on the House floor than the little he could have if he had tried, and threw himself instead into prodigies for the Wirtz-Brown Lower Colorado project. Caro has swept our minds of a cluster of misapprehensions about Johnson; and of these none has been more persistent and proved easier to clear away than the general assumption that he came to the legislature already a master of its processes. He might indeed have deserved that reputation early if he had not neglected an indisputable talent as a legislator for his true genius, which was that of the lobbyist.
He brought to that huntsman’s calling a nose without rival, whether he was raising it to sniff the air or abasing it to scrape the shoe polish of the guardians of the washrooms of power. He was a courtier with those unique powers of discrimination that find the readiest objects of their blandishments not among the few who breathe the heights but in the many who stand athwart and control the gates to points of vantage. Abe Fortas was only general counsel to the Public Works Administration, and, as secretary to the president’s eldest son, James Rowe could be called a White House assistant only by persons given to hyperbolic excess. They were nonetheless the most accessible rungs for a climber too keen-eyed to overlook a rung on the ladder that held a tenant who might help Wirtz and Brown. He even reached as high as Thomas Corcoran, Roosevelt’s personal favorite among his auxiliaries, who carried Johnson’s petitions to the president and had them granted with familiar offhand grace. (“Give the kid the dam.”)
Theodore Dreiser, The Titan, New American Library Signet edition, p.433.↩
Theodore Dreiser, The Titan, New American Library Signet edition, p.433.↩