The Prospero of the Senate

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine


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…

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