A Hunger for Power in Its Most Naked Form

Title: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power
Author: Robert A. Caro
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 1983
Pages: 882 including 107 of notes, bibliography and index plus 23 of contents and introduction
Title: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent
Author: Robert A. Caro
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: 1990
Pages: 506 including 88 of notes, bibliography and index plus 34 of contents and introduction

Path to Power and Means of Ascent are the first two books of a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, thirty-sixth President of the United States. Johnson is known for assuming the presidency after the Kennedy assassination. During his five year tenure he initiated a War on Poverty and used his legendary persuasive powers with Congress to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1965. He also used the notorious Gulf of Tonkin incident as pretext to escalate the war in Vietnam, increasing US troops there from 16,000 to 536,000. Because of Johnson's success in enacting liberal legislation, many academics and court historians have portrayed him as a well-intentioned man, who made a few mistakes, such as plunging the country into the Vietnam quagmire.

Robert Caro, a non-academic historian who authored these two books, doesn't see it that way. He portrays Lyndon Johnson as a man without morals, principles or honor and without any coherent legislative agenda during his many years in the Congress and Senate. Johnson's life was consumed with only one issue: ambition. He writes:

The more one thus follows his life, the more apparent it becomes that alongside the thread of achievement running through it runs another thread, as dark as the other is bright, and as fraught with consequences for history: a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.... this hunger was a constant throughout his life but that it was a hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself--or to anyone else--could stand before it.

Caro's interpretation is consistent with my own contemporaneous observations of Johnson's presidency. I and many others saw Johnson's efforts on behalf of the poor and African-Americans as purely political moves to outflank and neutralize his chief rival for power: JFK's brother Bobby Kennedy. Initially Johnson's Vietnam policy, as we now know from recorded phone conversations, was based entirely on domestic political considerations, specifically the wish to avoid the Republican accusation of being soft on Communism and the desire for gaining approbation for continuing what the public thought was his martyred predecessor's agenda. Having retained JFK's foreign policy and defense advisers, he unwisely relied on their advice. The results were disastrous.

Path to Power covers the years from Johnson's birth in western Texas in 1908 to 1941, when he was a U.S. Congressman. The son of a Texas state representative, Johnson grew up in a region and era where hardship was nearly universal. He was a precocious youth, exceptionally bright and energetic. But he applied his gifts not to the mastery of a particular body of knowledge or the acquisition of intellectual skills, but to the manipulation of other people. His contemporaries remarked on the extremes he went to in sucking up to those of authority, such as administrators at his college in Texas.

At age 23 Johnson became secretary to newly elected U.S. Congressman Richard Kleberg. In this job, with the help of several assistants, he ran the office, taking care of the Congressman's correspondence and satisfying constituent requests. Exposure to the workings of Washington inflamed his ambitions to become a national legislator. He labored long hours, not only in performing his duties as secretary, but in learning the ways of Washington and networking to advance his own career. Among the many people he cultivated was Sam Rayburn, then Majority Leader of the House. He recognized that Rayburn, who presented a "fearsome mien" to nearly everyone around him, was actually a lonely, friendless bachelor who hungered for human interaction. Johnson invited the legendary future Speaker of the House into his home and treated him as a member of his own family.

In 1935 Rayburn used his influence with Roosevelt to get Johnson a job as Texas director of the National Youth Administration, a newly formed New Deal bureaucracy. Johnson moved from Washington to Austin and fulfilled the requirements of that job in his usual energetic style while continuing to expand his range of connections among the rich and influential. Two years later, because of the unexpected death of the Congressman from his home district, Johnson entered the race to become his successor. In his campaign Johnson pledged absolute support for the policies of FDR. As a result of tireless campaigning in the outer reaches of the district, he won the election and took office in May 1937.

Johnson already had a deep understanding of how Washington worked when he entered Congress at the age of 28, as one of the youngest Representatives ever. His mentor, Sam Rayburn, was soon to be Speaker. Not only this, his pro-New Deal campaign had caught the eye of Roosevelt, who used his influence to get Johnson a seat on the Naval Affairs Committee.

Johnson cultivated two patrons who were not known to the general public. One was the enormously wealthy Charles Marsh, owner of many businesses, including the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. Johnson was a frequent visitor at Marsh's magnificent country estate in Virginia. The other was Herman Brown, partner in the Brown and Root construction company. Johnson's first act of business as Congressman was gaining authorization for the $27 million Marshfield Dam for which Brown's company was the prime contractor. Two years later Johnson got Brown another contract to build the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, a $100 million project. In gratitude, Brown supplied Johnson with money throughout most of Johnson's legislative career.

In the 1940 elections the Democrat majority in Congress seemed endangered. With Sam Rayburn's support Johnson joined the Democrat's Congressional Campaign Committee, where he set about to get as many Democratic Congressmen reelected as possible. He was well suited for the job, since, as a Democrat in the one-party South, he had no contest in his own district in the general election. His role on the committee was to determine what endangered Democratic candidates needed to win and to assist them. In nearly all cases, they wanted money and he was in position to dole it out to them. The funds were obtained partly from the Democratic National Committee, but mostly from his Texas financial backers such as Charles Marsh, Herman Brown and oilmen Sid Richardson and C. W. Murchison. Ironically, Johnson used the money contributed by many southern Roosevelt haters to elect mostly Roosevelt supporters from northern and western states. The campaign was a big success: the Democrats actually gained five seats and Johnson's career got a boost. Roosevelt was favorably impressed. More important, the newly elected Democrat Congressmen were in his debt.

Texas's senior Senator, Morris Sheppard, died unexpectedly in 1941, necessitating a special election to fill the vacancy. Johnson entered the race, facing three serious opponents: Gerald Mann, a crusading state attorney general; Martin Dies, whose only issue was the "Communist threat;" and Pappy O'Daniel, a political buffoon who happened to be Governor of Texas. When 96% of the votes were counted, Johnson had 167,471; O'Daniel, 162,910; Mann, 132,915; and Dies, 76,714. Lopsided counts in some Mexican and Negro slums suggested corruption and "bought" votes by both Johnson and O'Daniel. However, as the last 18,000 votes came in, the tide turned sharply in favor of O'Daniel. Not only this, but precincts that had reported large margins for Johnson unofficially, now submitted official counts showing O'Daniel with more votes and Johnson fewer than reported earlier. In the final tally O'Daniel had 175,590 votes to Johnson's 174,279.

Means of Ascent takes up the story after Johnson's unsuccessful Senate run against Pappy O'Daniel and covers the years 1941 - 1948, when Johnson was in the House of Representatives. About half the book is about the 1948 Senate race between Johnson and Coke Stevenson, a popular governor of Texas. Coke Stevenson, if he is ever mentioned today, is generally dismissed as a disgusting segregationist, but Caro recognizes that all prominent Texas politicians, including Johnson, were segregationists in 1948 and that segregation wasn't an issue in the election. Stevenson, in Caro's eyes, was a rare individual of honor and integrity, in clear contrast with Johnson.

Probably many of my generation--those who remember Johnson's presidency--harbor lingering unanswered questions about the man. Caro's research for Means of Ascent answers three such questions for me.

1. How did Johnson win the Silver Star in WWII?

Two years before Pearl Harbor, Johnson had enrolled in the Naval Reserve as Lieutenant Commander. After the attack he went on active duty even though he had no naval training or experience. His first assignment was inspecting training programs at West Coast shipyards, a boondoggle that allowed him to continue his work as Congressman. In April 1942 Roosevelt picked a three-man team--Johnson and two Lieutenant Colonels--to survey the war effort in the Southwest Pacific. The team flew to Melbourne, Australia, where they met with Douglas MacArthur, and then to Garbutt Field in northern Australia. On June 9 Johnson joined a pilot and six crew members on board the B-26 Marauder Heckling Hare. His job was to observe the bombing mission. Before the Heckling Hare reached its target, it was set upon by seven Japanese Zeros. The pilot jettisoned bombs to gain maneuverability and the tail gunner, waist gunner, and nose gunner opened up on the attacking planes. Johnson watched the action, but didn't participate as the pilot dodged the attacking aircraft and gunners tried to shoot them down. The Heckling Hare managed to get back to Garbutt Field intact, as did ten other B-26's in the mission. One bomber in the mission was shot down and crashed into the ocean, killing all on board, including one of the three observers.

On June 18, back in Melbourne, MacArthur awarded the killed observer the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Army's second highest decoration. He awarded Johnson and the other observer the Silver Star, the third highest decoration. No one else involved in the mission received medals.

On July 9 Roosevelt ordered all congressmen in the armed forces to return to Congress and Lyndon Johnson complied.

From Caro's account one gets the impression that Roosevelt had instructed MacArthur to award a career-enhancing medal to Johnson, who had already demonstrated his political loyalty and usefulness to the president. So MacArthur put Johnson on a plane that was guaranteed to see action. Johnson survived the dangerous mission and returned to the US as a decorated veteran, indebted to FDR for the medal, and better able to serve his party's leader as a legislator in the House.

2. How did Johnson get so rich from that radio station?

In 1942 businessman James G. Ulmer, who had a financial interest in the KTBC radio station in Austin, sought the services of attorney Alvin Wirtz. Ulmer wanted Wirtz to help him get FCC approval for changing the operating hours and frequency of his station. Without the changes, the station could never make money and Ulmer would not be able to sell it. Ulmer thought he had arranged to pay Wirtz for thousands of dollars worth of services over several months, but he never saw Wirtz again. Unknown to Ulmer, Wirtz was in league with Lyndon Johnson, who Wirtz knew was seeking a money-making venture appropriate for a U.S. Congressman.

Wirtz told Johnson he could buy KTBC cheaply since it was in distress. Johnson acted immediately, but put the station in Lady Bird's name. Using his power as a Congressman, he quickly got the FCC approvals that the previous owners had spent years trying to get. Once KTBC could operate from an uncluttered part of the dial, at night, and with increased power, Johnson was able to obtain CBS network affiliation, which was crucial for profitability.

The station's value to Johnson, however, was that individuals and businesses knew they could pay Johnson for legislative services rendered by buying advertising on KTBC. Johnson was always actively involved in management and decision-making at KTBC but he maintained publicly that Lady Bird was running the station. The business thrived and by 1948 Johnson's net worth was over a million dollars with the radio station making up a large part of that.

In Path to Power Caro points out that in 1940 Charles Marsh offered Johnson a partnership with oil man Sid Richardson. Marsh had acquired the partnership, worth about $750,000 in 1940, by guaranteeing a risky bank loan made to Richardson. Johnson would not have to pay Marsh anything up front, but could pay for the partnership over many years from the income it produced. Johnson rejected this extraordinarily generous offer, saying it would hurt him politically to be known as an oil man. As much as Johnson wanted to be rich, he put his political career first.

3. How did Johnson win the 1948 Senate election against Coke Stevenson?

The short answer is, he stole it. Johnson won the statewide Democratic primary election by 87 votes and was thereafter known as "Landslide Lyndon." The margin of victory was provided by 202 clearly illegal votes from Precinct 13 of Jim Wells county. The last 200 voters at the polling station were listed in alphabetical order, in a different color ink. Many of the names were of dead people and the living people listed claimed they had not voted.

When Stevenson sued to recount the votes in the contested precinct, Johnson's lawyers opposed the action and it appeared the issue would be tied up in court so long that neither candidate would be able to meet the October 3 deadline for getting on the ballot for the general election. Johnson, surrounded by squabbling lawyers unable to decide how to proceed, called on Abe Fortas for advice. Fortas came up with a novel but risky strategy involving appealing a jurisdictional issue to a circuit court judge who would rule against them and then appealing that ruling to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who would rule in their favor. The strategy was successful. When Johnson was President, he appointed Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court.

Robert Caro, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a brilliant writer and indefatigable researcher. His research into the lives of Johnson's grandparents and parents and into the nature of farm life in West Texas at the time of Lyndon Johnson's childhood is exceptional. His descriptions of the daily routines and economic realities of West Texas life ring true to me, based on stories my grandparents told me of life in the the rural South of that era. By interviewing numerous people who had known the youthful Johnson in Texas, Caro tells us that the colorful tales Johnson repeated endlessly in Washington--tales other historians accepted as true--were mostly false.

The Path to Power and Means of Ascent should be on the required reading list of every political science student in America. They give us a case study of a politician for whom egotism and a lust to control and manipulate others trumped all idealistic inclinations, such as a desire for peace or justice. Was Joseph Stalin any different? Or Bill Clinton?