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The Prospero of the Senate

1.

From his political beginnings as an eager young populist New Dealer out of the scrubby hill country of south Texas, Lyndon Johnson had carried his already huge presidential hankerings through successive, sometimes desperate campaigns to deliver himself finally, after a restless tenure in the House, into the Senate in 1949. A towering 6‘4”, lusty Gulliver of a figure with matchingly oversized political powers, he had only five years later become that chamber’s majority leader. And for the next six years, as described in staggering detail in the third volume of Robert Caro’s huge biographical project, he was to preside as the Prospero of the Senate, with a virtuoso sweep of command that would make all the Trent Lotts and Tom Daschles to come after him seem mere head clerks.

Soon taking over from committee chairmen the negotiation of bills to passage, Johnson shifted most of the decisive deliberations from the floor to discreet sessions he conducted in his inner office—a setting that progressively expanded in imperial, chandeliered opulence, and that struck one visitor as suggestive of “some high-toned riverboat bordello.” He would lounge far back in his chair while talking in a low, husky voice thick with power, his enormous hands gesturing as if playing some invisible accordion, and repeatedly reaching out toward an assistant, waggling his glass with a clatter of ice cubes for another refill of Cutty Sark and soda—his drinks though, unlike those of everyone else, always carefully thinned. With Johnson devising most agreements on legislation in these off-floor confabulations, Illinois’s liberal Democrat Paul Douglas complained that the Senate had come to operate like a Greek tragedy: “All the action takes place offstage, before the play begins.”

On the floor then, from his desk right below the dais, he would orchestrate the chamber’s proceedings by lifting high one long arm and twirling his hand to accelerate the tempo of a roll-call vote, or pushing his hands downward in a tamping gesture to slow it if the outcome was still uncertain, then snapping his fingers like “a firecracker,” one reporter wrote, to signal an aide to fetch a senator whose vote was suddenly crucial. “My God—running the world!” Time‘s Hugh Sidey would observe in wonder. Now and then, with a luxuriously proprietorial leisureliness, he sprawled his long frame out at his desk and leaned back until he was virtually horizontal, tilting his head up to the ceiling to partake with noisy snufflings from a nasal inhaler. When prowling about the chamber with his swooping stalk of a stride—holding one of the long tally sheets listing all senators, his eyeglasses lodged on the end of his nose to keep a running check on the developing direction of a vote—he would, if the count was turning out closer than he had reckoned on, hail a senator across the chamber in a bellow more customary to calling hogs, “Change your vote, Allen!” All the while, he carried a never-flagging alertness for the surprise pounce: once noticing that the floor happened to be empty of both liberal and conservative opponents of a compromise minimum wage bill he had laboriously worked out, he swiftly called for a vote, and the measure was law a moment later.

In all this, as Robert Caro relates, Johnson was obsessed with unanimity to the point of mania, almost rabidly impatient with dissent or divergence. To expedite the final business of a bill’s consideration on the floor, he reactivated an 1845 Senate rule to provide for a “unanimous consent” vote, which radically contracted the time for debate and the number of amendments that could be proposed. Any contrary invocations of issues at stake by senatorial “red hots,” as he called them, seemed to fill him with nothing but derisive alarm; he saw such interventions as a mischievously sanctimonious, potentially disastrous self-indulgence. He fumed once to Russell Baker,

I can get somebody to make any kind of speech you want to hear. You want to hear a speech about suffering humanity? I’ve got Hubert Humphrey back in the cloakroom…. You want to hear about government waste? I can give you Harry Byrd.

But he bluffly asserted, “It’s the politician’s task to pass legislation, not to sit around saying principled things.” If a member presumed to speak anyway on a matter whose passage had already been settled, Johnson would lumber around him as he was delivering his remarks, fiercely whispering to him to “knock it off.”

None of this, however—his obsession with efficiency and disdain for debate in running the Senate, as well as his chameleon-like adaptability to the attitudes of whomever he was straining to persuade—necessarily meant, as Caro would have it, that Johnson was empty of conviction. Rather, one might propose, those proclivities had become the almost instinctive psychic aptitudes he had acquired not only for surviving but for prospering on his way up through the harsh political weathers of his time and place, whatever the costs to the New Deal passions of the raw young populist prodigy he had seemed in his beginnings.

The result, though, was that he had wound up doubly constricted. For one thing, in his ultimate hope of magnifying himself from parochial to national significance, his alliance with Richard Russell’s Southern enclave of power had trapped him in a treacherous dilemma. As Caro puts it, “Being linked with the South would keep him from rising beyond the Senate. Yet being linked with the South was the only way in which he could rise within the Senate.” In addition, he had now become captive to the feudal world in Texas it had been his bleak lot to ascend from—its financial autocracy of oil, gas, and construction potentates, all crustacean conservatives who, assured by Johnson that his New Deal excitements were behind him, had begun to copiously subsidize his political progress.

That dependence on the grim likes of Sid Richardson, George and Herman Brown, and Clint Murchison was to produce some of his dingiest machinations in the Senate. After an immense lobbying offensive, abetted by Johnson, succeeded in the passage of a bill exempting natural gas producers from federal regulation, there emerged disclosures of bribery so rank that then President Eisenhower vetoed the legislation. A clamor arose for an investigation of the intrusion of oil money into the Senate’s deliberations—an investigation that would have implicated Johnson himself and that he industriously fell to muffling, delaying, and finally extinguishing. But perhaps no service to his Texas patrons would prove more squalid than his demolition of Leland Olds, chairman since 1940 of the Federal Power Commission.

A scholarly, bespectacled, earnest New Deal veteran, devoted to poetry and playing the cello, Olds had been a minister, a mathematician, then a radical social journalist and activist in the Twenties, who finally came to believe that Roosevelt’s policies could actually secure, through government regulation, “economic democracy” within America’s existing capitalist order. But his commission’s temperate restraints of oil and gas prices had long given insufferable vexation to the energy boyars of Texas.

When Olds in 1949 was scheduled to appear before the Senate for what ordinarily would have been his perfunctory reconfirmation as commission chairman, the newly elected Lyndon Johnson requested the chairmanship of the subcommittee that would consider the reappointment—and he proceeded through the several days of hearings, with promptings by phone from his patrons in Texas, to savage a startled and incredulous Olds in a fashion soon to become drearily familiar with the advent of Joe McCarthy. He impatiently hectored Olds, using random citations from past writings, to impute that he had in the Twenties sympathized with communism and the Soviet Union. It was a hallucinatory allegation, but Olds’s reconfirmation was nonetheless rejected by the Senate. Olds was left permanently wrecked in spirit, and never worked in government again. As for the Federal Power Commission, it then went about methodically reversing the regulations Olds had used to moderate the cupidity of the private power industry; a boom in gas profits soon resulted.

The mugging of Olds by Johnson’s subcommittee appalled many Washington liberals, Joseph Rauh, one of the most respected of them, calling it “really vicious…one of the dirtiest pieces of work ever done,” and The New Republic describing it as a grotesque betrayal by “a onetime liberal Senator…born into the family of a poor farmer, brought forward by the New Deal, and carried into office by liberal and labor support.” But Johnson’s longtime intimate and adviser James Rowe would afterward explain the simple reason for Johnson’s attack: “He wanted to solidify himself with the oil crowd in Texas. You could not be a senator from Texas without making your peace with them.”

For much the same reason, Johnson a short time later, facing a reelection campaign in 1954, would hesitate to address the vandalism of the McCarthy inquisition—the enthusiasm for McCarthy in Texas was nowhere more hearty than among his baronial oil benefactors. Even when Democratic leader, he contended to his party’s liberals that with the great Red Fear then loose over the land, taking any action against McCarthy could in fact backfire against Democrats; he insisted that they wait until McCarthy made some move against a conservative figure or institution, as was inherent in the nature of his rampancy, and then strike at him when they could be certain of dispatching him. Startling Hubert Humphrey with a sudden violent downward chop of his huge hands, he admonished him that “to kill a snake” you “have to get it with one blow.” When McCarthy did eventually lurch into an attack on the US Army, Johnson quickly made sure that the hearings would be televised. McCarthy’s popular collapse rapidly followed, and Johnson, having won his primary contest for reelection, at last arranged McCarthy’s bipartisan censure by the Senate, effectively finishing him off.

Nevertheless, there had developed by now a decided leeriness of Johnson among liberals, and in response Johnson’s simple reflex, as in his presidency to come, was to assume that he was merely the subject of some personal animus. “Why do the liberals hate me?” he lamented to one confidant. “Ah can’t understand why.” But it was more their angry disappointment, during that cold war period of a seeming steady decay of the party of Roosevelt’s New Deal, that Johnson had not acted, as his populist beginnings had seemed to portend, as a forceful liberal leader to help mobilize a revival of the Democrats’ social conscience. But as Johnson reckoned it, separating himself now from his Texas oil patrons would have meant quickly burning himself out of any future at all: as his protégé and close aide John Connally put it, “He never wanted to be a dead hero.”

Yet Johnson persisted in making approaches to the disaffected liberal part of the party that was nevertheless crucial to his national hopes—and his eye had early fallen on Hubert Humphrey, the ebullient freshman senator from Minnesota, as one possible bridge to them. As the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of Minneapolis, Humphrey had galvanized the 1948 Democratic convention with a blazingly eloquent oration that, against uproarious Southern protests, succeeded in installing a vigorous civil rights plank into the party’s platform. Having spectacularly prevailed in that instance against all demands to compromise, Humphrey, when he brought his combative liberal zests into the Senate, shortly found himself shunned by its establishment, consigned to the most negligible and obscure committees. This chill collective dismissal left Humphrey, a compulsively convivial spirit, sometimes driving home at the end of the day in tears. Johnson, meanwhile, with his fearsome psychic radar, had not failed to detect in Humphrey the need for appreciation and camaraderie, along with “a fundamental sweetness,” as Caro describes it, but also Humphrey’s own swelling hunger for the presidency, all of which signaled to Johnson a singular susceptibility to the Treatment.

Over drinks in late afternoon sessions in Johnson’s office, Caro recounts, Humphrey was indeed swept up in Johnson’s outsized, enveloping presence, with Johnson additionally tantalizing him with the prospect that, while he himself would likely never reach the presidency, owing to the Southern odor on him, he could bring to Humphrey, if they struck a working symbiosis, unimaginable strengths. But such an accord would require in Humphrey a readiness for a modulation of his liberal exuberances, a recognition of the efficacy of compromise: “Otherwise,” Johnson said, “you’ll suffer the fate of those crazies…like Paul Douglas, Wayne Morse…. You’ll be ignored.”

Humphrey speedily concurred, in what was the beginning of, to some, his eventual forlorn corruption; he shortly confided to the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, “Roy, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics, it’s never to turn your back on a crumb.” Johnson further instructed Humphrey that he would communicate with the Senate’s liberal contingent only through him, and Humphrey, elated at this first real assignment of consequence in the Senate, accepted the arrangement—the first instance of what would become in the years ahead his serial co-optations by Johnson. As Caro concludes, from the first Johnson knew that if “two men were trying to use the other, the tougher one would win—and he, Lyndon Johnson, was the tougher.”

2.

But to what effect, in the end, were all these Merlin-like wizardries of Johnson in the Senate? In fact, they had largely been employed to divert and undo progressive initiatives that would affront his Texas and Southern sponsors. Yet now and then, craftily and often invisibly maneuvering past their resistance, he passed such legislation as an expansion of the federal housing program and a raising of the minimum wage. Some liberals in the Senate, following Humphrey, began drifting tentatively toward him. But Johnson realized that the more general perception by now held him to be an essentially conservative, Southern-accented figure, and he determined that the only way to exorcise that perception, blighting to any presidential prospects, was to deliver forth in the Senate a civil rights bill for the first time since Reconstruction.

Starting with Martin Luther King’s bus boycott campaign in Montgomery, there had begun expanding across the South tides of demonstrations and tumults, quickening the entire nation’s conscience on its abiding malaise of racial schism. Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell, had submitted in 1956 a civil rights bill that Johnson had promptly succeeded in balking. A year later, though, Johnson had resigned himself to the undodgeable imperative of some civil rights legislation, a conclusion that Caro describes, perhaps necessarily for the climax he makes of it, in tones of a momentous and pivotal commitment: “What crystallized his feelings is not known,” but “a difference in his attitude was becoming apparent to those who saw him behind closed doors.” Caro writes, “The empathy and compassion for black Americans had always been there…. Now it was unleashed.”

What was produced, however, turned out to be something less than momentous. The bill presented to the Senate was virtually the same one smothered by Johnson the year before: it contained a crucial provision, Part III, outlawing segregation in schools and most public services, from parks to hotels to restaurants; and another provision, Part IV, ensuring for the South’s blacks the right to vote. Johnson, through a series of sleights of hand, trade-offs, and cross-calculations, along with his voluminously varied exhortations, engineered the bill through to passage. Only it was now devoid of its Part III on public accommodations, save for a last paragraph of declarations of benign intent; and to the enforcement provisions of Part IV had been attached an amendment whereby alleged transgressions would be pronounced upon by Southern juries.

While achieving even such a mangled version of the original bill may, as Caro says, have been one of Johnson’s most masterful performances as majority leader, the 1957 Civil Rights Act nevertheless amounted, despite all the dramatic narrative Caro expends on it, to a phantom triumph. Even its voting rights provision, Caro admits, “proved to be all but useless,” with subsequent surveys finding that black registration remained at its same microscopic fraction in the South, if it had not in fact actually dwindled.

Although Johnson had kept contending to dismayed Northern liberals, “Once you break the virginity, it’ll be easier next time,” Southern resistance to civil rights was to turn out to be implacably persevering. It would eventually take the convulsions of Birmingham and then the slaying of Kennedy to get a public accommodations law passed seven years later; then two years after that, it took the mayhem on Selma Bridge for Johnson to win a genuine voting rights act. Still, in 1957, simply the fact that any form of civil rights bill had at last passed through the Senate met with some celebration—from the The New York Times and The Washington Post, even from Eleanor Roosevelt, though with the accolade from one approving columnist that “Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson is now recognized as a modern Henry Clay, the great compromiser on the issue of slavery.” The bill produced outrage, though, among many liberal leaders, with A. Philip Randolph scorning it as “worse than no bill at all,” and Senator Paul Douglas citing a phrase of Lincoln’s in styling it “like a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death.”

Yet with all this, the true mystery of Lyndon Johnson is how, through all the base compromises of his sulfurous compact with the Senate’s Southern leaders and the feudal powers in Texas to win and keep his overwhelming power in the Senate, he also managed to retain within him as much of the original passions of his innermost political nature as he did, to be released when he finally arrived at the presidency. Even before that, there were moments when that deeply pent-up sensibility burst out. When he heard that a Texas funeral home had refused burial services for the recovered body of a Mexican-American private killed four years earlier in the Philippines, Johnson had roared, “By God, we’ll bury him in Arlington.” Only after this provoked a rancorous outcry in Texas did he start scrambling to minimize his part in the whole affair, though still attending the burial at Arlington.

Caro at one point writes, “What power always does is reveal.” And Johnson’s fatal fixation on Vietnam aside, it is against his largeness of spirit, which was at last freed by the power of the presidency, that all the craven expedients and debaucheries of principle chronicled by Caro in Master of the Senate take on an awful pathos, and become part of the wider tragic pattern of Johnson’s story.

3.

A race for the presidency in 1956 had begun to lure Johnson when, in the summer of 1955, he was felled by a heavy heart attack, compelling him to retreat for months of recovery at his ranch along the Pedernales in the Texas hill country, where he sank into a cavernous brooding over this doleful ambush. Then, that September, Eisenhower too suffered a heart attack, even more clobbering than Johnson’s, which posed the likelihood now of a great blank opened in the Republicans’ situation for 1956. That roused again stirrings in Johnson to go for the Democratic nomination that year, calculating that he might at least wind up the vice-presidential nominee, which would position him propitiously for 1960.

In a kind of desperate urgency now, after all he had paid to reach this point, Johnson allowed this presidential gamble to abduct him into the delusion that he could transfer his consequence within the Senate into the larger, entirely different, ruder and more unruly world of a national party convention. It would be a narrow game he would be playing anyway, maintaining that he was only a Texas-favorite-son candidate in order to avoid being seen as overtly pursuing the nomination and so sparing himself public humiliation if he failed. He tried covertly to cultivate the possibility of an impasse at the convention, which would then turn to him as its compromise candidate—a peculiarly equivocal, oblique, and torturously ambivalent enterprise, much like the approach he would resort to in dealing with the Vietnam War. At the convention in Chicago, a visitor bringing word of the inevitability of Adlai Stevenson’s renomination to Johnson’s suite early one morning would remember that “all of him looked asleep—he was in his pajamas and his rumpled hair was standing on end—all of him except his eyes,” which in his harrowed face were burning with a furious, frantic unbelief.

In this misbegotten venture, Johnson’s central folly had been, as James Reston would remark, to “persuade himself that he is really a national and not a regional figure.” Actually, in both this and his second direct quest for the presidency in 1960, Johnson was always operating as a kind of lumbering, faintly garish outsider, with the mustiness of only a folk importance acquired from his long dependence on the Senate’s gristled old Southern irreconcilables and the oil moguls of Texas. Having considered them critical to his rise, he was left now with a tawdry, soiled tinge it was too late for him to shed. Thus Caro’s three volumes of biography so far have recounted Johnson’s progress to what almost certainly, for all his prodigious strivings, would have come to a blank end, obscurity. At the most, he may have been remembered as indeed a modern Henry Clay, who had been as ravenous for the presidency as Johnson was. But as it perversely developed, it would be for his parochial appeal as a Texan with Southern inflections—precisely what had denied him plausibility as a Democratic presidential nominee—that he would be chosen by John Kennedy as his running mate in 1960. After Kennedy’s election, then, Johnson slumped off, morose and cumbersome, heavingly restless, into the void of the vice-presidency for the next three years.

Then came Dallas. The suspense now hanging over Caro’s monumental biographical undertaking is how—from the epically elaborated, grandly melodramatized, but finally megalithic character-cliché of his Johnson so far, which evokes one of those enormous effigies detached from the cliffs of the past to be transported amid much pageantry by barge along the Nile—he can go on to perform the thematic feat of translating his story into the full tragic culmination of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

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

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