Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Means of Ascent

I've always regarded Lyndon Baines Johnson as a real-life Greek tragic hero: as president he accomplished so much domestically, with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and his War on Poverty, but that his pride led him into the escalation of Vietnam, until that conflict, rather than his domestic programs, became his legacy. My opinion of Johnson is limited by living in a time after Johnson's presidency, and by the failure of school systems to teach history past World War II. Such failure is understandable given that Vietnam had only ended a decade before I graduated high school, and historical perspective had not necessarily been attained. I have learned in the years since high school -- I took a course in college on U.S. history 1945-1985, and a number of years ago I read The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam's account of the buildup in Vietnam under Johnson. Given my interest in Johnson, I suppose it's no surprise that I would want to read some or all of Robert A. Caro's four-volume biography, considered the definitive account of Johnson's life. I have not read the first volume, but I have now finished the second, Means of Ascent, winner of the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

What follows is less a book review (though there is some of that) and more a book report. While I do not wish to spoil what is an excellent read (I found myself reading fascinating passages to Kathy many times during my read -- I probably would have done so more if she had been present more often during my reading), I feel the history is worth discussing even if you don't read the book. If you feel that this post will prevent you from enjoying the book, by all means get the book right now and come back to my post later. (Rating: 10/10).

Means of Ascent looks at the years 1941-1948, a period that begins with Johnson's loss in a special election for a senate seat, and ends with the 1948 Senate election, which Johnson won by a mere 87 votes. The introduction briefly discusses both the Civil Rights Act and Vietnam, to illustrate that two threads ran through Johnson's life, a light thread and a dark one. We are told, ominously, that the period covered in the book is a time where the dark thread is in control. In 1937, when a 32-year-old Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, it was the latest step in a meteoric rise. And when he ran in 1941 for the Senate seat, he felt that it was the next logical step in his ascent. His loss in that race, however, caused frustration at being stuck in a place he was ready to leave. And so the seven years the book covers constitute a period of despondency.

Truthfully though, only one-third of the book is devoted to the seven years. The remainder is focused on the 1948 election, one whose paper-thin margin surely changed the course of history. The campaign was against Coke Stevenson, a legend in Texas politics, who was then the only person to serve as Speaker of the Texas House twice. After that he was Lieutenant Governor, then Governor, winning his second election with a record 85 percent of the vote. Stevenson was a man of honor, who in many ways considered campaigning beneath him. He had no desire to make campaign promises, instead stating that his record spoke for him. Importantly, his conservative view that advocated a limited role for government was one that appealed to Texans.

Caro documents how Johnson stole the election. To get in a position to steal the election, however, Johnson had to get close. Here's how he did that:
  1. Got and spent lots of money. Johnson had what seemed to be a bottomless pit of money, his primary source being familiar even today -- a government contractor, Brown & Root, now a subsidiary of Halliburton that has been accused of overcharging in Iraq.
  2. Repeated his message over and over in the media. To his credit, Johnson was one of the first politicians to realize how important the electronic media is, and flooded the radiowaves with his ads and speeches.
  3. Worked like crazy. Johnson risked his health, pushing himself beyond any sane levels.
  4. Lied. Johnson hardly wasted time with exaggerations, and repeated lies incessantly about his opponent's stances. Further, he told any given audience exactly what they wanted to hear -- no one bothered to compare the contradictions in what he told his different audiences.
  5. Bought votes. A few counties in Mexican-American regions were dominated by bosses who basically filled in the precinct reports regardless of the actual results, or even the actual number of votes.
  6. Conducted a modern campaign/used a gimmick. Johnson became the first politician to use a helicopter, which served to get him to many small that were too far apart to merit visiting in previous elections (not enough votes and too remote). At the same time, few people had seen a helicopter, and its presence was a crowd generator and crowd pleaser.
To be sure, Stevenson contributed to his own defeat by refusing to dignify Johnson's attacks on his character, and insinuations about Stevenson positions that were blatantly false, with a response. He felt it was beneath him, that the people would see through Johnson's shenanigans, and that his record as an elected official spoke for itself. By the time Stevenson realized that he did need to respond, it was too late in the campaign to have an impact.

Nevertheless, after having read this book, I realize that all the nasty things that Karl Rove has done in elections had already been done before him. Particularly Rovian was Johnson's determination to attack what was perceived as Stevenson's strength, his character, incessantly tying him to secret deals and the like.

Still, all these things only brought Johnson close. The thing that pushed him into victory was adding to his total after the election was finished. He did so by getting the bosses where he'd already bought the election to scour the voter books and register additional votes on behalf of voters who hadn't voted. At the last minute (actually, well after the last minute -- a whopping six days after the election), 200 votes came in from one of the notoriously crooked precincts, and that finally put Johnson on top. Stevenson fought the results, and a number of times came close to getting the case considered on the merits. But the state court action was delayed by Johnson's people until after the Democratic party had certified the vote (the race was actually in the Democratic primary, which was all that mattered in the one-party state that was Texas at the time). Once the Democratic Party certified the results, Stevenson took it to federal court, alleging that voting fraud for a federal office was a violation of his civil rights. Hearings were begun to look into the Stevenson allegations (supported by affidavits of individuals who allegedly voted according to the bosses but who had not), but there was enough delay to prevent any definitive findings, which would ruin Johnson politically even if he were allowed to serve, until such time that the Supreme Court Justice in charge of overseeing the particular circuit dissolved the restraining order that prevented Johnson from going on the ballot as the Democratic primary winner. The Justice, Hugo Black, concluded that state elections are a state matter, and so could not be reviewed in federal court.

Caro addresses an important issue that I had thought very little about -- what motivated Johnson? Caro discusses a number of characteristics to explain many of his actions, but as for why he wanted to be a representative and later a senator, in Caro's mind, the only possible answer is power. Johnson didn't appear to have much interest in serving in a legislature, given his record in the House of Representatives -- in 11 years, he only introduced a handful of bills, and of those, only a couple were of national scope. He was very good at telling people what they wanted to hear -- liberals thought he was one of them, and conservatives thought he was theirs. Caro suggests that this was because he really had no agenda other than to say or do whatever was necessary to get ahead. Caro contends that Johnson thought of his seat in the House as a stepping stone. He also points to a couple of conversations to conclude that Johnson similarly thought of a Senate seat as the next step toward his ultimate goal, the Presidency.

Caro warns in his introduction that this period would be a dark one in Johnson's life, and it certainly was. In addition to what I've discussed above, there were examinations of his verbal abusiveness to his wife and his staff, and of shady dealings related to the acquisition of the initial radio station in what would someday become a media empire for the Johnsons. The book suggests, however, that brighter days were ahead, and I will need to read the next volume to learn more. As it stands, however, my image of Johnson as a Greek tragic hero lies in tatters.

One of the most interesting things about the book is a Note added after the first edition had been published, in which Caro essentially defended his analysis of Stevenson and the 1948 election against challenges that had been published in response to the book. According to Caro, the details of the story had been altered with time, with Johnson being the beneficiary -- the victors get to write the history books, and besides, he and his supporters had outlived most of Stevenson's contemporaries, given that Stevenson was 20 years Johnson's senior. Caro states that those he interviewed initially said that it was "common knowledge" that Stevenson was just another reactionary and corrupt Texas politician, that Johnson won on the issues, and that any questionable activity that may have been done on Johnson's behalf was performed in at least equal measure on behalf of Stevenson. Caro indicates that he had been ready to accept this version at face value, and hadn't planned on focusing on the election, until he was well underway in his research. Only when a former congressman that he interviewed on an unrelated subject indicated how much he hated throwing his support against Stevenson in 1948, because he was such a good man, did it dawn on Caro that maybe there was more to the story. Had Caro or any other historian attempted to write such a book for the first time now, it is possible that the truth would not have been discernible, and the myths perpetuated by Johnson supporters would have been taken for fact.

One last tidbit that I learned by reading this book is that what I had taken to be fiction is fact. The man who preceded Johnson in the Senate and Stevenson in the governor's chair was Pappy O'Daniel, an individual I had assumed was a fictional character when I first ran across the Charles Durning portrayal of the man in "O Brother, Where Art Thou."