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The Big Guy

By the time he arrived in Washington as a twenty-eight-year-old congressman, he had already come to seem something of a political prodigy—a tall gangling youth with a certain dark gloss about him, wearing ties as wide as a shovel blade, which were illustrated with scenes of Texas ranchland and oil derricks. But he had a thin-eyed simmering look that betrayed immense interior hankerings. He instructed one aide to simply use his initials in press releases: “FDR– LBJ—do you get it?” He abhorred being just one of the herd in the House—even at dinner parties, if the center of discussion slipped from him to someone else around the table, he would shortly nod off. He moaned to one confidant about the likely pace of any unfolding of his own advent in the House, “Too slow. Too slow.”

After having allowed himself to be out-stolen in the vote count in his first campaign for the Senate, Johnson in 1948 succeeded in conjuring sufficiently more imaginary votes than Coke Stevenson—a final statewide margin of eighty-seven—to deliver himself at last into the Senate. Entering that marbled, soft-lit sanctum for the first time during a recess, he paused for a long look around and then, as an aide with him later recalled, murmured that it was just “the right size.” It was as if he instantly recognized it as the sort of theater, compact and insular and discreet, with its small cast of individual players, that was perfectly proportioned for the exercise of his particular personal powers.

But the Senate also happened to be an institution self-fortified against anyone exerting command over its individual members. The important authority over its proceedings was apportioned by Senate rules to the elders presiding as chairmen of its fifteen major committees, an arrangement like that of so many independent sultanates. Moreover, the leadership of those committees was decided, not through appointment or election or collegial considerations of ability, but through the Senate’s long-sacrosanct canon of seniority.

Nonetheless, Johnson had always prospered by a nimbly diligent cultivation of older men who had already arrived at positions of eminence vital to his own fortunes—earlier including Roosevelt himself, then Daddy figures like, in the House, its dour speaker, fellow Texan Sam Rayburn. Behind Rayburn’s crustily authoritarian deportment dwelled, Johnson quickly sensed, a deeply shy soul, a man who had been married once long ago for three weeks and had been ever since a self-enclosed figure, childless, solitary, lonely. Johnson thus began inviting Rayburn to his small apartment for dinners cooked by Lady Bird, and at sessions in Rayburn’s office he would sometimes lean over and kiss Rayburn atop his glassily bald dome, occasionally muttering, “How are you, my beloved?” Rayburn, while he was heard once grumping, “I don’t know anyone who is as vain or more selfish than Lyndon Johnson,” nevertheless came to cherish him. Listening to him enthusing to others about how Mr. Sam had become like a father to him, Rayburn would sometimes brim with tears.

Now in the Senate, Johnson found his Sam Rayburn in the person of Richard Russell of Georgia, one of that chamber’s preeminent grandees—a taciturn, scrupulously reserved Dixie brahmin with the look and carriage, his long slack pharaonic-nosed face lifted high, of an aristocratic hound. In particular, Russell happened to head that inner conclave of power within the Senate in which, through the genteel workings of the seniority system, it was as if the South, having lost on the battlefield, had then proceeded patiently to reverse that verdict with its senators and congressmen abiding through the years, through the folk loyalties of the tribal politics back home, to ultimately appropriate the Capitol. And in the Senate, with Southerners holding the chairmanships of most principal committees, Russell served more or less as the chairman of chairmen.

Like Rayburn, though, Russell was an aging, solitary sort, a bachelor, withdrawn and resolutely private; and Johnson set about a gentle siege of blandishments and sentimental overtures so florid, an aide would later remark, that if Russell had been a woman, “he would have married him.” Taking to addressing Russell as “The Old Master,” Johnson began ambling by his office late in the afternoon, where up to now Russell had retired after a day’s session to sit alone with a glass of bourbon listening to the radio news. Before long Johnson was accompanying him to baseball games, though “I doubt that Lyndon Johnson had been to a baseball game in his life,” an aide would say. Soon, instead of Russell’s usual evening meal sitting by himself at the counter of a seafood grill, Johnson began inviting him to dinners prepared by Lady Bird, albeit careful that these occasions never coincided with Rayburn’s continuing visits there. “Lyndon didn’t want his two daddies to see how he acted with the other one,” a confidant then told Caro.

For all Russell’s air of staunch rectitude, though, he shared with his fellow Southerners the moral glaucoma of an implacable segregationist dogmatism. And perhaps the tawdriest part of Johnson’s campaign of ingratiation began with his debut speech on the floor of the Senate, in which he strenuously denounced Truman’s civil rights bill to end lynchings and job and voting discrimination, announcing himself one of “We of the South”—though, in truth, Texas and the bare hill country of Johnson’s own origins had always amounted to a marginal outskirt of the culture of the Old South.

But Johnson seemed to have a peculiar chameleon-like quality about him—not only a mutability of pronunciation, ranging from “nigger” to “nigra” to “negra” depending on the company, but a capacity for seeming to assume the attitudes of whomever he might be appealing to at any given point. The effect was to leave Russell and the other Southern senators with the warm impression that he was wholly of their moss-hung mind, while liberal senators felt assured that he remained in his soul a populist New Dealer. Actually, this was probably not so much a premeditated dissembling as his habit of transmuting himself into one character or another, according to the moment. Aides would even hear him behind the door of his inner office rehearsing for a contentious meeting by voicing out not only his own arguments but the rejoinders of the others, actually conducting the whole expected exchange by himself.

In any case, it was mutability that was central to Johnson. Among the fascinations of Caro’s third volume on Johnson are the intimations that flicker throughout of the calamity to come with Vietnam, not the least of them Johnson’s propensity to convince himself about an uncomfortably uncertain but unavoidable matter through exhorting others about it. In urging a legislative initiative deeply dubious to Southern conservatives or Northern liberals as well as to himself, he “could start talking,” an old friend would remember, “and convince himself it was right, and get…all worked up and emotional” about this just-dawning conviction. It was a kind of self-sorcery that Johnson would carry on into his presidency when, his assistant Joseph Califano recalled, he “would quickly come to believe what he was saying even if it was clearly not true.”

With these arts, Johnson while still a freshman senator managed, with Russell’s complicity, to get himself elected the Democrats’ assistant leader, or whip—a post heretofore regarded as rather innocuous and incidental. But gaining that first, minimal footing, Johnson swiftly went about establishing himself, in the Senate’s arabesque system of diffused power, as the central source of information on the status of all developing legislation, the likely vote counts, and possible amendments. And he soon moved from providing that omnibus information service to actually coordinating the parliamentary processes himself. In this, so wily were his devices that he contrived to rescue one of Truman’s foreign-aid bills from what seemed certain ravaging by Senate reactionaries. Of immense assistance in this ascent as a Senate impresario was his closeness still to Sam Rayburn, whose House had also to pass most Senate legislation, a circumstance investing Johnson with the additional heft of being able to intercede with Rayburn for special attention to a senator’s bill.

Before long, Johnson had in effect displaced the Democrats’ amiably muzzy leader, Arizona’s Robert McFarland, and was soon announcing to one journalist,

I run both houses of Congress right now…. Here in the Senate I have to do all of Boob McFarland’s work…. And then every afternoon I go over to Sam Rayburn’s place. He tells me all about his problems he’s facing in the House, and I tell him how to handle them…. I’m running everything here in the Capitol.

3.

With his spare, taut mouth and tight, earnest squint in his sharp-billed face, there still lurked in Johnson’s voice the plain cornbread-and-buttermilk textures of his South Texas origins. He incessantly smoked cigarettes in jittery snatches, and lighting another he would bow far over in the old countryman’s way, facing his shoes, for a first long pull. But with those lingering traces of his hill-country genesis, his rangy figure, now lent an extra sleekness by a corset, was garbed with a studied swankiness in shimmering, voluminous suits, with glints of gold and diamond accessories. Ceaselessly hurrying about the marbled spaces of the Capitol at a headlong, hectic lope, vaulting up steps two at a time, it was as if he had come to feel some furious urgency of time constantly harrying him. When driving, he would blare his horn at slower cars in front of him and, passing on the right, whack his huge hand on the outside of his door while baying imprecations at the other driver. He even seemed somehow to be rushing when simply standing on the Senate floor, dipping back and forth while one hand jingled the change in his pocket, repeatedly rising rooster-like on his toes to glare about him.

And in due time, with Bob McFarland’s defeat for reelection in Arizona opening up the leader’s position itself, Johnson, again with Russell’s help, was elected by his party’s senators to that post. Up to then, the leader’s authority had actually been fairly meager and ceremonial against the powers of the committee chairmen. But Johnson in short order consolidated in the leadership increasing supervisory responsibilities, through myriad ploys and stratagems recounted by Caro in all their nuanced intricacy—improvisations on Senate rules, shuffling promises and counterpromises like poker hands, alternating baleful and tender persuasions, discreet understandings with Democratic liberals allowed by the grand vizier Russell, who was already beginning to entertain his own wistful speculations that Johnson might just turn out to be the first Southern-seasoned president since the Civil War.

Finally, after the Republicans’ electoral sweep under Eisenhower in 1952, Johnson warned his party colleagues that they could lapse into a perpetual inconsequence unless they performed more impressively in the Senate by installing their ablest members on major committees irrespective of seniority. He thus largely accomplished the dissolution of that ancient protocol governing Senate leadership, transferring much of that leadership into his hands instead. At the same time, he cannily attached himself and the Senate’s Democrats to Eisenhower’s overwhelming popularity in the country, and Ike was surprised to find that Johnson worked with him far more readily than the fractious reactionaries in his own Republican party.

When the Democrats regained control of Congress in the 1954 elections, Johnson at last ascended to Senate majority leader—at forty-six, the youngest in the history of the Republic. He was now to assimilate the Senate’s operations almost entirely into his own person, assuming a power over the chamber never seen before or since. And while grappling with the increasingly fretful complications and liabilities entailed in gaining that power, he would nevertheless begin his reach in earnest for the presidency itself.

—This is the first of two articles on Lyndon B. Johnson.

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