BOOK REVIEW: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Accent to Power, Means of Assent, and The Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
Trying to define Lyndon B. Johnson in one phrase is about as difficult as trying to insult a lawyer. On one hand, he did do good things for the poor people of Texas hill country. He made sure they had paved roads and electrical power. He was instrumental in placing himself in positions to award jobs to the jobless during the Great Depression. On the other hand, he embodies the worst of human behavior. The hard scrabble upbringing forged a man that would do anything (literally) to be successful in life and avoid the failures of his father, Sam Johnson, a former State legislator who went on to become a failed businessman whom the younger Johnson resented. Growing up the laughing stock because your daddy owed everybody money in town with a do-nothing mother altered a mind that was ripe for the picking. Or so they say, as one can never really know what made Lyndon Johnson that ogre that he become.
I got into reading Robert Caro’s three volume biography (a fourth being written) on LBJ because I wanted a closer look at the man that benefited the most from John Kennedy’s death. And, who has often been viewed as a suspect in the crime. A study of Johnson’s life and character is decent into darkness but also political genius. An astuteness that let him anticipate situations and deftly work around them or deflect an oncoming blow. He laid down a course of action and never veered from it. A man that knew no shame in anything he did from stabbing his friends in the back to cheating on his wife (sometimes in their own home, with her there). And underneath it all was that drive to be the top dog because from an early age he wanted the top job–the Presidency of the United States. Then he wouldn’t be like that man, his father. The man that went from wearing suits and ties to the dirty clothes of a road crew foreman. The man that lost the family farm and dishonored the family name.
As I read through these volumes I was left with the dread that maybe monsters really do exist. After reading these books I felt dirty–as if I had spent too long playing the mud. It’s amazing how long he kept up so much criminal activity for so long with nobody finding out out about it.
Johnson’s treatment of people was two-fold. First, he brown-nosed his career path with those in power; flattery and sweet words for older men whose power was on the wain and only had their memories of past victories to comfort them as they slowly faded into background noise. It served Johnson well on his climb as it was something nobody else would venture to do. He did it everywhere from the college dean, past Sam Rayburn in the Congress, to Richard Russell in the Senate, to Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval office.
Secondly, his treatment of people below him was beyond the pale and showed a sadistic streak. Fundamentally, a man with no empathy for his subordinates. In his early days he drove those that worked under like slaves, working them long hours till late a night, day after day, 7 days a week, with only allowing short breaks. Once a Johnson man, you belonged to him for life. His ability to dominate even the strongest opponent and make him submit to his will was his most remarkable trait. The trait of turning people into obedient, mind numbed slaves. A psychic vampire. Those that worked for him lived in fear of his wrath. Though as Robert Caro points out, an intelligent, independent person would not last long with Johnson and would move on. A farmer wouldn’t treat his cows this badly and expect them to produce milk, but LBJ did and got the milk too. And this abusive nature never changed from the time he was a Congressional aide, to NYA director, to Congressman, to Senate Majority Leader.
Nettie Connally, wife of John and who would one day be in the crosshairs at Dealey Plaza, was Johnson’s secretary for a few years. Once, when she didn’t answer the phone quickly enough he threw a book at her. She got off easy. Another secretary accidentally handed Johnson the wrong decanter of whisky. He accused her of poisoning him and threw it across the room shattering it. She had to clean up the mess. If somebody had an insecurity, Johnson took cruel pleasure in exploiting it. Once, when a newly divorced secretary delivered coffee he didn’t like, he told her it was no wonder she couldn’t keep a husband making such lousy coffee.
His wife, Lady Bird (Claudia Taylor) probably had the worse burden to bear and did so with a great deal grace and charm. She was the the number one slave, making sure master had breakfast in bed, his pen and wallet in his pockets and his clothes properly laid out in the morning. She would be required to have meals ready to eat at anytime of the day or night as Johnson was always bringing people over. And she would, graciously greeting all who entered their home with a warm smile. And, of course, there were all of her husband’s infidelities to deal with which somehow she ignored through that brain-dead love of hers for him. The man would not only grope women in front of her, but carry on with them in their own house at night, with her there. Robert Caro said he never understood her and one can see why. She is an interesting character in regards to how much abuse she endured and still remained faithful and loving to the end.
Of course we are familiar with Johnson’s habit of discussing policy with Senators, talking to reporters, and giving dictation while sitting on the toilet. Once again, another trait started early in his career. But it was far worse than that. This is man that would proudly display his penis to other men in public restrooms and ask the question, “Ever seen anything this big before?” Not easily embarrassed, Johnson had no qualms about public urination in the House parking lot. While other men may hide behind a car or bush, not so with LBJ. He didn’t mind if the secretaries walking by witnessed him watering the lawn or not. Just as he didn’t care if people saw him walking around Capital Hill hand-in-hand with Congresswoman Helen Douglass when he was having an affair with her.
The Assassination of Leland Olds
In all three books some truly awful deeds are recorded on Lyndon Johnson. Nothing really top his maneuvers to nix the reappointment of Leland Olds, the chairman of the Federal Power Commission. Olds had been an effective Chairman but his regulation ran afoul of the Texas Oilmen who hated the restraints and Johnson saw a way to ally with them as he would need their financial help in the years ahead (and to gain their trust). Like all things LBJ this take-down was over the top and beyond the pale in viciousness. Poor, Leland, he never saw the ambush coming.
Johnson started by delaying the reappointment hearings for months. That gave his associates time to dig up dirt, in this case, articles Olds had published years earlier in liberal publications. For the hearing itself they brought him people to attack Olds’ character, calling him such names as, punk, jackass, traitor, and other baseless charges. These people were given as long as they wanted to trash Old’s character while the witnesses for him were given short shift, and rushed along with Johnson displaying a huge watch to time them. The Senators, including Johnson, badgered Olds in testimony, constantly interrupting him, with accusations against him and his work as FPC chief and questions about articles he had written that he had little memory of.
If Clarence Thomas thought that he had experienced a “hi-tech lynching” in front of a Senate committee, that was mild in comparison to the vicious character assassination that befell Leland Olds. The ugliness on display probably wouldn’t be shown in front of TV cameras today. Politicians, ever careful about appearance, would shy away from these tactics as they had to when they sought to rake Oliver North over the coals at the Iran-Contra hearings. A huge public backlash forced them to retreat.
As usual, after the smoke cleared, Lyndon Johnson got his way and another free, first class ticket to Hell–as if he needed another one. Leland Olds was destroyed and his life and career in public service never recovered. His replacement, a do-nothing crony let regulations lapse, much to the delight of the Oilmen.
In an ironic moment, typically Johnsonian, during a recess in the hearing, LBJ walked passed Leland Olds in the hall and remarked to him how it all was nothing personal, just politics, and...could we still be friends? Obviously, the words of a man that had no thought, no inkling, living in total oblivion of the pain of others.
Nobody Likes Cheaters
Once again, all of Johnson’s early character traits he exhibited early on. The stealing of the 1948 Senate election from Coke Stephenson wasn’t the first time he did that. In college, his group the White Stars (the Black Stars didn’t like him and wouldn’t let him join) so he rigged the student council elections to get his people into the choice spots. The Black Stars never knew what hit them as Johnson got himself and his people in charge of student government. Later, when a Congressional aide, he took the Little Congress, a social club of aides and turned it into a political organization to benefit himself. Stuffing the ballot boxes worked till he was called on it.
Means of Accent, the second book of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro documents in great detail the corrupting of the voting process that allowed to stealing of the 1948 election. For Johnson, it was his last chance to advance his political career towards his final goal as President, and it was hang fire or nothing. As Caro points out, Johnson’s crookedness shocked even the old-timers in how brazen and blatant it was, as if he had no higher authority to answer to.
It’s my favorite of the three books. Its’s a great contrast between the personalities. Coke, former Texas Governor and a man of honor and ethics from the old school, where a man’s word was his bond. And Lyndon, a man with no scruples about anything, whose word was whatever it meant to whomever he was talking to at the time. Robert Caro does a great job in chronicling the event, probably the best ever, in rich detail. One remarkable scene is when he places the reader in the dusty streets of Alice, Texas just after the election as Coke and former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer go to investigate the ballot boxes. Hamer, who legendary career included gunfights killing 53 men and sported the 17 scars of those gun battles. (His most famous case was the ambush on Bonny and Clyde after a 102 day hunt.) A dangerous scene ensued with armed goons blocking the way to the bank were the election records were being kept. Marching straight ahead, Frank Hamer never broke his stride and they fell away in his wake. The goons attempted to enter after Coke, but big Frank stood in the doorway eyeing them down with his hand resting on his holstered gun, keeping them at bay, while Coke and his attorneys viewed the voter’s tally sheet and poll list. They found the evidence of fraud but were never able to deliver on it in court. Johnson’s attorneys delayed the release of the afore mentioned voter records and contents of ballot box 13, just long enough for Supreme Court Justice Black to pull the plug, fearing a violation of state’s rights issues. (Those records have since long disappeared as has ballot box 13; but not the photograph of it.) Johnson walks away with a steal.
A tragic story as the bad guys wins. But there is a happy ending. Coke Stephenson retires to a quiet life of a Texas rancher, marries a lovely woman he loves dearly, and she gives him the delight of his life, a daughter. Lyndon Johnson gets his comeuppance in the 1960s as his Presidency is bogged down in an unpopular war, sapping the life out of his blood. He gets to the mountain top and finds it a lonely destination. The lapel grabbing, chest pointing, space invader can’t do a damn thing. Meanwhile, the 1948 theft is never far behind and follows him wherever he goes adding to the public’s distrust of the man. It stares him in the face on the mountain top. He dies a crazy loon, the respect he so craved departed far from him.
Robert Caro’s Hot Potatoes
Probably the most ironic thing about this series of excellently written throughly researched books is what is missing. Apparently, there are areas of investigation that are too seedy even for Caro to venture into. Over two-thousand pages and he cannot mention Madeline Brown one time though he has no problem mentioning Johnson’s other lovers. And it was in known in Texas that she was Johnson's favorite with an affair that is supposed to have lasted 21 years and produced one child, a son. Mac Wallace, another character widely known to have worked for Johnson as a thug, a man with a murderous past, makes no appearance either. Even a pivotal figure, such as Edward Clark, Johnson’s personal attorney for many years, is portrayed as a minor player in Johnson’s life. In fact, I don’t recall Caro ever mentioning that Clark was Johnson’s attorney or took care of so much of his business. Yet according to Bar McClellan, who started working in Clark’s law firm in 1966 (author, Blood, Money, And Power), it was Clark that helped Johnson cover up his many crimes, which includes the stealing of the 1948 senate election. Clark and Johnson according to McClellan, made good foils for one another, the corrupt lawyer paired with corrupt politician. Caro interviewed Clark but was cut off after Means of Accent was published. I think Caro, wanting to be taken seriously by his fellow peers and the mainstream media, decided to leave these sleeping dogs to snooze. He seems far more interested in the intricacies of Johnson’s political maneuvering, which is well explained and fascinating to learn, rather than traversing even greater conspiracies such as the wasteland that lies on the horizon of the JFK assassination.
Unfortunately, we get two histories out of this business. The “official” one from the likes of Caro, Dallek, Goodman, Manchester, and so on. And then there is what actually happened which lives on the Internet and is investigated by that other tier of writers–those souls toiling away who will never win the Pulitzer Prize for their efforts, but add much to the total picture of what happened. Anyway, the official history gives us the official characters of the narrative–the other stuff that went on you are not supposed to know. It’s all strained through a political filter. This is why we need Net Neutrality to stand so the other side of the story gets told. Because people like Caro just don’t have the spine for it. He’s Hero-Lite.
The End Game
The final book in the series, The Master of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson is positioned for his final drive to the presidency. All that work and years of scheming; he had the path clear by 1958-59. He made a stab at the 1956 convention just to be beaten out of by another man he hated, Adlai Stevenson. And then that charming Kennedy boy comes along and takes it away from him in 1960. Did it anger him enough to have JFK taken out? We need more evidence of Lyndon Johnson’s murderous intent, if there was one, to resolve that. He wasn’t happy, we know that for certain. As Caro says of his character: “...the utter inability to comprehend the questions of morality or ethics raised by his actions, an utter inability to tell that there was even a possibly that he had violated accepted standards of conduct and might be punished for that violation.”
And that was just it–he was never punished for his violations of the accepted standards of conduct. He didn’t lose his wife by cheating on her, even when he did it in her face. He had political operatives stuff a ballot box and write up phony voter tally sheets. There was nobody there to indict him of fraud, conspiracy, and bribery that it took to get that done. He wasn’t ever reprimanded for anything he did that was wrong. It only ended when he achieved his goal. The payback was a bitch on wheels.
Never the less, a great read for what it is. If you think LBJ had JFK murdered there is a great deal of back-story here detailing with Johnson’s amoral personality and his criminal, conspiratorial life that will add fuel to the fire. I think Robert Caro will have a hard time with the next book. He’ll have to decide what he leaves out of the events surrounding JFK’s death. And that could be quite a bit.