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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson is remembered as the 36th president of the United States, but before he entered the executive branch as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, LBJ was a Democratic congressman (1937-49) and senator (1949-61) from Texas. He rose quickly in the Senate. Within two years of entering the chamber, he had become the majority whip. Two years after that, when Republicans won Senate control, Johnson became the minority leader. After Democrats again captured a Senate majority during the 1954 elections, LBJ became majority leader. It was a remarkable ascent. Few senators ever rise to become majority leader by the end of their first term.

As I discuss in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions, Johnson became arguably the most powerful Senate majority leader in history through hard work and sheer force of personality. He possessed an uncanny knack for understanding what motivated his peers, and he worked tirelessly to give them what they needed in exchange for their support. Working with his mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Johnson pushed through legislative initiatives by flattering, cajoling, and even bullying fellow legislators. Perhaps his greatest legislative achievement during his tenure as majority leader was pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1957 when many observers predicted that southern conservatives would block its passage. By 1958, he realized that his power was waning and he needed another outlet for his restless ambition. Johnson set his sights on the presidency. He settled for a spot as Kennedy’s vice president, but rose to the heights of political power when JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

He was a poor-boy-made-good, a genuine American rags-to-riches protagonist reared in an impoverished rural community from the Lone Star state. Born on August 27, 1908, in the hill country near Stonewall, Texas, he was the oldest of five children. His father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., was a cattle farmer and member of the Texas state legislature. The boy’s mother, Rebekah, instilled in her son the desire for educational achievements and recognition while his father, Sam, urged Lyndon to act “manly” and eschew effete intellectualism. As the Harvard-trained Doris Kearns (Goodwin), who knew Johnson personally, observed, “His parents, most significantly his mother, seemed to bestow or withdraw approval on the basis of his behavior at home and, later, his accomplishments at school. All her expressions of satisfaction and love were related to something her son had done, just as his implied appeals for approval were accompanied by descriptions of all the good deeds he had accomplished.”

He was always ambitious and driven to succeed. At Johnson City High School, he was active in debate and played baseball. He was elected president of his eleventh grade class. Later, following a brief adventure in far-off California, Johnson attended Southwest State Teachers College in San Marcos.

After teaching at several Texas high schools, Johnson became legislative secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg. His work with Kleberg was the start of a pattern that recurred throughout his public life. Johnson snagged a position that initially appeared to be nothing special, simply another nook or cranny along a narrow career path. Yet LBJ recognized an opportunity for advancement that few others could see. To Johnson’s good fortune, Kleberg was not remotely interested in the day-to-day drudgery of drafting and negotiating legislation, preferring to delegate such mundane matters to his assistant. Left to his own devices, Johnson rose to the occasion, proving that he understood how to make the most of his position. From his desk in Washington, D.C., he became the de facto congressman, drafting measures, handling constituent services, directing office staff, and acting as Kleberg’s alter ego. In time, he became speaker of the “Little Congress,” a group of congressional aides who met to debate bills and shape the work of their respective legislators. For a time, he derived enormous satisfaction from his role as a legislative secretary, but Lyndon Johnson would not settle for reflected glory indefinitely.

It was clear to anyone who encountered him during those years that Lyndon Johnson was a young man in a hurry. In 1934, after a whirlwind romance, he married a woman he had proposed to on their first date, Claudia Alta (Lady Bird) Taylor. A year later, he had won an appointment as head of the Texas National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal program designed to provide educational and job opportunities for Americans aged 16 to 25.

The young dynamo handled his NYA duties with the same dispatch that he applied to all his pursuits, but he longed to enter the political arena. His chance came when Congressman James Paul “Buck” Buchanan of the Texas 10th congressional district died in office on February 22, 1937. The deeply conservative Buchanan had been an anti-New Deal Democrat, but Johnson would not follow that path. He reversed course and campaigned as a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the devastating effects of the Great Depression still visible in the hill country, Johnson’s support for the president’s initiatives appealed to many voters. He won the special election and served in the House until 1949.

In 1941, Johnson thought he recognized another opportunity for advancement. He sought a U.S. Senate seat in a special election against a powerful opponent, populist Governor W. Lee O’Daniel, nicknamed “pappy.” Pappy O’Daniel had risen to prominence as the host of a radio show that was widely heard throughout the state. His signature phrase—“pass the biscuits, pappy”—had made O’Daniel a household name. Johnson knew it would be a tough, up-hill battle, but he believed he could win. At the conclusion of an arduous campaign, however, the governor barely eked out a victory. Except for the primary fight for the 1960 presidential campaign, O’Daniel was the only politician to ever defeat Lyndon Johnson in an election.

Even before the United States entered World War II, Johnson became a lieutenant commander in the United States Naval Reserve. Eighteen months later, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was called to active duty. Realizing that he would have to serve with distinction if he wished to remain politically viable, he requested a combat assignment. Johnson was a sitting member of Congress, however, and military leaders were wary of sending influential legislators off to become cannon fodder in remote corners of the world. Instead of dodging bullets in an active war zone, Congressman Johnson was assigned to complete an inspection trip far away from the fighting.

He could not return to Texas without amassing a distinguished war record, and so he constantly lobbied for something more. Eventually shipped to the Southwest Pacific, he volunteered to serve as an observer on a B-26 bomber mission flying over New Guinea. The facts of what happened on that mission have never been crystal clear. Johnson claimed that his aircraft came under fire, although other observers insisted that his airplane turned around owing to a technical malfunction and never encountered the enemy. Whatever happened that day, the congressman reaped the benefits of his wartime experience. General Douglas MacArthur awarded the LBJ a Silver Star for gallantry in action, the only crewman on the flight to receive the award.

After the war ended, he remained stuck in the House of Representatives, but he was constantly on the lookout for a path forward. It came in 1948. Lyndon Johnson was no longer the 32-year-old wunderkind he had been when the faced Pappy O’Daniel. He was now a seasoned legislator and campaigner. He felt ready for a second Senate race. This time around, he resolved to leave nothing to chance. He rented a helicopter—a novel means of transportation for political candidates at the time—and commenced a whirlwind tour of the state. Johnson was determined to meet as many people, shake as many hands, and kiss as many babies as he could before election day. It was an exhausting schedule, and his breakneck pace imperiled his health.

The results were impossibly close. In a three-man primary field, he was forced into a run-off. “Landslide Lyndon,” as he was derisively called, squeezed out a narrow victory of 87 votes from 988,295 ballots cast in a fiercely combative race. Numerous reports of widespread voter fraud and ballot tampering led to allegations that dogged Johnson for the rest of his life. His opponent, Coke Stevenson, a former Texas governor, filed a lawsuit to challenge the certification of Johnson as the winner, but to no avail. When the legal challenges ended, LBJ’s victory stood. At the age of 40, he had arrived in the United States Senate.

As he had done and would continue to do throughout his life, Johnson wasted no time gravitating toward power. Some men, having eked out a win in a fiercely contested election that many citizens viewed as illegitimate, might step gingerly into a new institution, getting a feel for the place and avoiding even a hint of negative publicity. Exercising caution was not LBJ’s modus operandi.

The Senate, it turned out, was an institution well-suited for Johnson’s skills. It was large enough to allow groups of senators to form effective coalitions, but small enough so that an individual senator could wield significant power if he knew how to use the rules to his advantage. One of his first efforts was to gain an appointment to the Senate Armed Services Committee. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Johnson recognized that his stature could increase if he led a Senate inquiry into the impending military buildup. He pushed the leadership to create the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, and even persuaded the committee chair to name him as the subcommittee chairman, an extraordinary feat for a freshman who had not completed half of his first term in office. Modeling his work on Harry Truman’s earlier investigations into military planning during World War II, Johnson established himself as the watchdog on military spending. To forestall criticism, he scrupulously consulted the White House, when necessary, but also criticized the Truman administration when he believed it was warranted. Moreover, he insisted that subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle sign off on investigative reports.

He rapidly rose through the leadership ranks, becoming majority whip in 1951, and minority leader two years later. Following the 1954 elections, Johnson became the majority leader, a remarkable feat for a first-term senator. From this position, he revealed the full extent of his legislative acumen. Johnson’s genius was his ability to discern every possible source of power and use it to his advantage. As majority leader, he could offer his colleagues choice office space. He also could secure votes by offering (or withholding) congressional junkets, campaign money, and committee assignments. He did not hesitate to use his authority to control the flow of legislation to good effect. A member who supported Johnson would find his bill containing a pet project shepherded through the legislative process in record time. An opponent soon found his measure sidelined in committee, seldom, if ever, receiving a vote.

LBJ shamelessly lobbied his fellow senators, and he would not rest until he got what he wanted. He could switch gears instantly, at one moment begging for assistance— “your leader needs you”—and suddenly changing to a threatening tone. Johnson was a workaholic’s ideal of what a workaholic should be. Because he pursued few outside hobbies and possessed restless energy, he seemed to be everywhere at once, meeting with members at all hours of the day and night. Even after suffering a massive heart attack in 1955, he refused to stand down. He was not interested in high-brow philosophical debate or the efficacy of public policy except insofar as it served his agenda. The details of provisions that could be negotiated or traded away to secure votes caught his attention. Appeals to the amorphous “public interest” or the “common good” seldom moved him. When a senator attempted to brief the majority leader on the specifics of a bill, Johnson interrupted him. “I don’t give a damn about that,” he said. “Just tell me how many votes you need.”

Yet he was not completely indifferent to substantive policy. During the 1956 Suez crisis, Johnson counseled the United States government to temper its criticism of Israel. A year later, Johnson was stunned, as were many Americans, by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik I satellite into space. In response, he strongly supported passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the civilian agency known as the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). Johnson also helped pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first such measure enacted by Congress since 1875, and repeated his efforts in a second civil rights measure three years later. Along the way, he assisted his colleagues in modifying the Senate filibuster rule that provides for virtually unlimited debate. He was criticized for compromising too quickly on the 1957 civil rights law, as well as other legislation, but Johnson developed a standard response. “I got the best bill I could get with the votes I had.” He also refused to sign the so-called Southern Manifesto, a policy statement adopted by southern members of Congress attacking the United States Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

For all of his many legislative successes, Johnson knew that his power could not last. He had ruffled too many feathers. After the 1958 elections, a new crop of senators, many of whom deeply resented the old guard, chafed at the leader’s dominance. William Proxmire, a junior senator from Wisconsin, challenged Johnson’s domineering personality and heavy-handed tactics. “There has never been a time when power has been so sharply concentrated as it is today in the Senate,” he charged. Proxmire was correct. Even in the days of the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, as recounted in Chapter 2) during the early to mid-1800s, or the “Big Four” Republican senators (Nelson W. Aldrich, Orville H. Platt, William B. Allison, and John Coit Spooner) later in that century, Senate leaders had not held such a stranglehold over rank-and-file members.

In 1960, Johnson decided it was time to move on to another challenge, tossing his hat in the ring for the Democratic presidential nomination. He hoped that his success in the legislative arena would translate into a victory in the presidential contest. It did not. Johnson waited far too long to enter the race, a hesitancy that was unusual in such a normally decisive man. He also misjudged the charismatic appeal of the party’s eventual nominee, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy had been a “backbencher” in the Senate, one of those nonentities that occasionally floats through Congress, satisfied to enjoy the perquisites of office, but never engaged in the thick of the legislative fight. He was a good-looking fellow who captured headlines, but he appeared to be all flash, and no substance. In the parlance of the day, Kennedy was a showhorse, not a workhorse. LBJ also knew a little about Kennedy’s massive health problems; he thought “the boy,” as he sometimes called Kennedy, could not endure the rigors of a long campaign. JFK might be a media darling for a time, but Johnson believed that he would not become the party’s presidential nominee.

Johnson misjudged his man. Kennedy and his machine triumphed at the Democratic National Convention. With the presidency out of his grasp, LBJ agreed to serve as Kennedy’s running mate in 1960. The story of how Lyndon Johnson, a man accustomed to giving orders rather than receiving them, agreed to serve as a vice presidential candidate has been told and retold many times. No one can quite agree on the reasons. Perhaps Johnson realized that he had taken the Senate majority leader position as far as he could, and his days as a powerful legislator were numbered. He might have hoped to turn the vice presidency into a position of strength, defying history as he pulled the strings of a weak president. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that Johnson agreed to serve as Kennedy’s second fiddle because he knew how to eliminate the top man in due course. Talk of Johnson as the mastermind behind nefarious plots to assassinate JFK are far-fetched and difficult to credit, but paranoid cranks insist that Johnson was not above such machinations.

The story of Lyndon Johnson’s triumphs and tragedies as vice president and, following Kennedy’s assassination, president are beyond the scope of my book. They are the subjects of numerous works. Not surprisingly, LBJ’s legacy is wrapped up in his performance as president, but his role as the most powerful Senate majority leader in history should never be forgotten. If ever there was a congressional lion, Johnson was the man who arguably roared the loudest.

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