The Master of Power

How does one study power? How does one accumulate power? How does one wield power? Few have been more deliberate in considering these questions than Lyndon Johnson. He transformed the fabric of the institutions he touched  to accomplish what he wanted, be it in the interest of the country or otherwise. In this essay I look at Johnson from the view of Robert Caro’s third book in his epic series, Master of the Senate, to get a glimpse of how the 36th president, and youngest leader of the Senate, answered these questions.

This essay is laid out in four parts; first we take a brief look at the institution Johnson became the master of, the Senate, then we look at each of the three questions in the opening line of the essay. This essay is partly illustrative and partly biographical. In all of the sections I look at specific things Johnson did that propelled him towards his goals, mainly more power, but I believe it is also worth pausing every now and then to see what these actions look like in practice. The best way I have come up with doing this was to look at five ‘legislative battles’. These look at situations ranging from preventing a curb on presidential powers without seeming to support such an act, to using his influence with the South, support for proposed Dam in Hells Canyon and a coal miners union to pass the first civil rights bill in decades. These are much more biographical and some are quite lengthy. One doesn’t need to read them all by any means but they are there to add some historical context to Johnson’s journey.

Johnson managed to enter one of the most opaque systems in politics and in a remarkably short time engineer it to suit his needs. I think it is important to see how he did this, not just for historical intrigue but as I feel it is useful for people to see the effects one individual can have on a system regardless of how complicated it may seem. 

Arena of power

The study of power begins by looking at the arena in which one wields power. In this case that arena is the Senate, so important does Caro see our understanding of the history and protocols of the Senate that we do not come into contact with Lyndon Johnson for over 100 pages.

The Senate is a peculiar institution. When it was being created James Madison called for the erection of ‘a necessary fence against the majority will’ so the lower house (the House of Representatives) would be designed to reflect the popular will and the upper house (the Senate) to temper it. It was to “protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led”. As such it was designed to prevent the “impulse of sudden and violent passions” which come from numerous assemblies and so was kept small, not just this, but to protect the smaller states a “great compromise” would be enacted whereby each state, regardless of population, would have the same representation in the Senate. Senators were to hold 6 year terms (3 times the length of the house of Representatives) in order to try to increase their independence from short term pressures. There would also be elections for Senators every 2 years but only for 1/3 of senators. The Senate was designed to be a bastion of moderation and thoughtfulness and for a long time things seemed to be working that way.

1819-59 would become known as the golden years of the Senate. It was described as a place that “cooled passions and tried to reconcile the irreconcilable”, where battles were waged by the greatest orators of the age to stave off civil war and maintain the union. This was a time where the Senate won international praise as  “the only thoroughly successful institution which has been established since the tide of modern democracy began to run” and “the most remarkable of all the inventions in modern politics”. The framers had seemingly done what almost no other civilisation had done before, out of nothing but their creativity, ingenuity and dedication they had crafted an institution of historical renown and importance. It was not to last. 1845 saw the introduction of a procedure that was to have effects beyond what anyone could foresee at the time. Committee chairman and members would no longer be chosen by a secret ballot of the whole Senate but would be nominated in party conferences. Here began the road of power for the party leadership that took until Lyndon Johnson to realise its full potential. In the period after 1859 up until the 1900’s we moved from the golden to the Gilded age of the senate, where it was at the height of its power but also the height of its inactivity. 

The Gilded age of the senate, as with all Gilded ages did not last. Their kingdom in the sky took only 100 days to fall back down to earth. These were not just any 100 days, they were ‘the Hundred days’, the first 100 days of FDR’s presidency where he pushed through bill after bill through the Senate with a rapidity that had not been seen before. Many came to see the Senate as potentially superfluous, a weight buckled around Americas leg that was dragging it down. After all, how could one even hope it to perform its duties well, congressional procedure was largely unchanged from the structure of committee and staff that had been established in 1890 yet in the intervening decades up to 1945 the national budget had risen 300 times in size. It was not just its lack of change but its seeming lack of alliance with the will of the people that was causing issues. At one point Roosevelt was so worried about the isolationist section of the Senate during WWII that the only way he could see being able to give the British the destroyers they needed was through a swap for the leases on a number of British naval bases, he felt that simply gifting them to them would have been blocked.

Moving from the role of the Senate to the roles within the Senate, in 1945 no committee chairman had been removed in over a quarter of a century, the chairmans were barons of their own empires answering to no one, and not even infirmity was enough of a reason to force an abdication. You became a baron by patience, nothing else would help you ascend the ranks of a committee, nothing else would quicken your rise and no group seemed to grasp this like the Southerners. When Johnson came to the Senate in 1949 the three most powerful committees were Appropriations, Foreign Relations and Finance, and Southerners were the chairmen of all three. A Southern Senator once elected was very rarely changed, the Senators knew that this gave them the most chance to one day become a chairman and they made sure their constituents knew this too. Caro takes great pains to ensure we are aware of the level of ability the South has as playing the game of the Senate. He tells us how the Southerners studied the rules and precedents of the Senate with the concentration of men who knew these were the rules of the game they would be living with and bending to suit their needs for the rest of their lives. Even Johnson who was so proud of how little he read became an astute student of these rules. 

We are then introduced to the most powerful weapon the South had, the filibuster. Since 1806 no Senator could be made to stop talking except by unanimous consent, something that was an obvious impossibility should the Senator want to stay talking. This led to extended debates so frequently that they got termed filibuster coming from the dutch word for pirate. Moreover in 1872 this device was strengthened by a rule that meant you couldn’t be called to order for the irrelevance of what you discussed. If you have ever wished a Senator would read the recipes his mother cooked when he was a child, or wonder what names populated the phone books of the South, this rule would have been the rule for you as all these and more became devices Senators would use to waste time forcing an issue to die. After 1917 President Wilson, so fed up with this rule, got another rule (Rule 22) passed that stated that debate on a pending issue could be closed off if presented by 16 Senators and supported by a further two thirds. There was a mistake though, while effective against pending measures Senators had to vote in order to make a measure pending. In one of  my favourite passages from the book, Caro says how “the loophole in Rule 22 allowed any motion to bring a bill to the floor to be filibustered, bringing a civil rights bill to the floor would require a change to Rule 22. And changing Rule 22 would require a motion to change it – which could be filibustered. This was perhaps the ultimate legislative Catch-22.”

Studying power

He started attending the Senate floor just to watch Senators like Lister Hill, so that he could see how they talked, how they acted, how they interacted with others. He was looking to see which Senators stayed at their desks and let others come to them and which went to others. He found out quickly who the ‘big bulls’ of the Senate were and then listened, listened so intensely that people would say that he didn’t just listen to them he listened at them, got them talking and talking until he had found what motivated them, what their views were, what they feared. So much did he rely on his listening that he had a plaque placed above the mantelpiece in his office that read ‘you ain’t learning nothin’ when you’re talking’. And it worked, he found the fears of these big old bulls. He came to realise that many of these Senate giants were worried their age was catching up with them and so loved to reminisce about the old days, their glory days. With this in mind when he was first talking to them it was not about the business of the day but it was asking them about moments from their past he knew they were proud of and he knew they would be all too keen to share with him. It was his ability to work a man one on one better than almost anyone coupled with the smallness of the institution he now found himself in that led to him remarking on his first day that the Senate was ‘the right size’.

While Johnson may have listened he rarely spoke his own true feelings. Partially that may be because he could make his true feelings whatever they needed to be for the person he was talking to, but he also had a caution in his speech. He would be witty and tell stories but he would always be aware that what he said might be remembered or repeated and so would rarely take a direct stance on issues in public. He was not just worried about what might say sober but also what might come out when he was drunk and so he would intentionally have all his drinks made weak, weaker than anyone else he was drinking with and would fly into a rage if there was ever more than an ounce of liquor in it. His opinions morphed like the colours of a chameleon, all through his life liberals believed he was for them, conservatives believed he was for them, older powerful men, whatever they believed, always believed he held the same opinions.

He looked for power using sources few, if any, had used before. He found Bobby Baker, a 21 year old Senate page, who knew all the dynamics of what happened. Despite his youth and position Johnson invited him to his private office and invested two hours peppering him with questions as to where the real power of the Senate was. He was not to be disappointed in this investment. He discovered that Richard Russel of Georgia, one of the elder statesmen and the committee chair of the Armed services committee, a man who few outside government or Georgia would have heard of, was the man with the real power. And so as Caro writes so beautifully “school children in mid century America learned their so-called three R’s ‘readin’ , ‘ritin’, ‘rithmetic. Lyndon Johnson who had already learned two R’s so well [Sam Rayburn and Roosevelt] set out now to learn his third”. As soon as Johnson discovered that Russel was the seat of power for the South he set about cultivating him. He stopped asking for committee seats on the most prestigious committees and instead asked to be on Russel’s Armed Services committee so that he could have virtually daily contact, and daily contact he made sure he had. Dropping by to talk about committee business, constantly inviting him around to his apartment until he gave in, becoming, seemingly overnight, a fan of baseball, delivering his maiden speech, a thirty-five page document entitled ‘We of the south’ which was a ringing endorsement of almost everything Russell believed in. These were the measures Johnson went to to ingratiate himself with this bastion of power.

Gaining power

At the beginning of his time in the Senate, Johnson would go into the offices of other Senators and open by saying ‘Senator I need to speak to you’. This behaviour abruptly stopped as he realised any credentials he had brought with from being a Congressman counted for nothing and so he started to write regularly to older Senators saying how he ‘wanted their sage advice on a problem’, he would no longer open a conversation with talk on policy but rather on a Senators family or other personal matters. Many of these conversations, little known by the other party, were scripted. One of Johnson’s assistants mentions how he would create mental scripts for conversations with someone he wanted to convince of something, going through points and counterpoints but in a way that was designed to seem wholly spontaneous, the meeting itself may seem like a chance encounter in a corridor but he was not the type of man to leave things to chance.

To cement his relationship with the Southern barons he needed to show he was effective in pushing their causes, and he proved himself, in the most damning way, to be effective. Leland Olds was up for reelection for the chairman of the federal power commission. He was a man at home pouring over statistics with his side rule or practicing his cello, not the typical bureaucrat one meets. He was however, very effective in his push towards more consumer focused energy policy and this was something many titans of Southern power were against. Johnson, seeing a chance to push a cause close to the South, chaired his reelection committee; really though what he did was chair a witch hunt. He stacked the committee with anti communist Senators and then out of 1,800 articles Olds had authored over 25 years selected fewer than 57 to have excerpts read that had the most similarities to communistic thinking. 57 documents were brought into record against Leland Olds from his past, records that would take him hours to find and days to reacquaint himself with. Johnson didn’t give him this though, he gave him less than 24 hours to respond to these claims that had shot a bolt through his career. Johnson’s tactics of painting Olds as a communist sympathiser using these writings were so effective that of the subcommittee members some felt that ‘ [Olds] is a radical and that he switches position and policy with rapid facility’ while others were angered by his refusal to switch, ‘he had plenty of chances to renounce his inflammatory writings…but he declined to do so’. He not only inflamed the views of the Senators but made sure the press were fed soundbites worthy of the front pages, a skill he was particularly deft at. In one speech he asked, ‘shall we have a commissioner or a commissar’ and this line duly appeared on the front pages the next day. So effectively had he done his job that he was almost alone in being responsible for the 53-15 defeat on Olds’ reelection. To get a sense, but only a sense, of the injustice and duplicity of Johnson’s actions two quotes serve to elucidate. On one occasion after a vicious hearing Johnson saw Olds outside in the hallway, put an arm around him and said he hoped he didn’t take any of this personally, ‘it was just politics’. Meanwhile Senator Paul Douglas, a supporter of Olds, years later was to say that he ‘did not think  [Olds] and his family ever recovered from the blow’.

Support within the Senate was only one side of the coin, the other was support from the public. He needed an opening to rise above his seniority and into the spotlight and with the treads of North Korean tanks moving across the border into South Korea, he got his opening. Johnson, faster than anyone else, saw this as his chance to form a Preparedness Committee like the Truman Committee from 1941 that turned a little known ‘Senator from Predagast’, into a vice presidential candidate for FDR. He was successful in getting the president to grant the task to the Armed Services committee but realised that he still had to get a report out quickly. A mere three weeks after the subcommittee staff started work he had a report ready, really though this was just a recycling of a previously complete report but that didn’t matter to him, he made it gleam with newly imbued importance. He won over the press in the next few reports with phrases like ‘siesta psychology’ or ‘the chair corps’ and he won President Truman over by drafting a ‘statement of policies and procedures’ that was almost identical, even in wording, to the President’s own Committee years before. The content of his statements was often lacking in depth however. The acting secretary of defence had to write to him saying he was confusing two different schedules for NATO deliveries in one of his reports and so the whole thing was baseless. His committee while bolstering his national reputation did little substantive and once he realised that its ability to propel him forward had dwindled so did his interest in it.

Johnson knew that he would need the support of liberals as well as Southerners and so looked for someone who could be the bridge between the two worlds for him.  He found just such a man, Hubert Humphrey, and so he started courting him. Humphrey was disliked by many of the senior Southern Senators and as they had much of the power in the Senate was being denied the roles he wanted. Johnson, being close to these very men convinced them to go easier on Humphrey and was able to get him roles on committees like the Agricultural Committee that he so desired. He did this as he needed someone who could argue for him in the liberal camp that they would trust. But for Humphrey to really be his ally he needed to believe that strengthening Johnson would be to his own benefit, he had to believe Johnson was no threat to his presidential dreams and that supporting him would in fact help in his dreams. How could Johnson achieve this? He convinced Humphrey that he wanted the presidency but that he knew he would never get it and so it would be beneficial to Humphrey to build Johnson up into a strong candidate so that the support that would be his could end up going to Humphrey. Johnson was truly able to make it so those he wanted to act a certain way would find reason why it would be in their interests to do so. Humphrey was slowly accepted in from the wilderness he had found himself in since joining the Senate and he knew who to thank, but more importantly who could take it all away. After Johnson became leader he told Humphrey, ‘tell your liberal friends that you’re the one to talk to me and that if they’ll talk through you as their leader we can get some things done’. Yet again he was offering a carrot but with a very large stick behind his back.

One of Johnson’s true skills was finding organisations that were under developed and transforming them into organisations that propelled his purposes. He had done it with the White Star organisation at school, which turned a group of outcasts to a secret society to take over school politics. He had done it with the little Congress when he was an assistant to Congressman Kleberg which he turned from a sleepy gathering to one of the most active political microphones for Senators and Congressmen to give talks on their policies and reporters to cover the events. Now he saw the opportunity again with the party leadership. Historically a role that one had to be drafted into rather than desired, the party leader was a figurehead, scorned by the press and public for any failings of the party of slowness of the Senate but at the same time powerless within the party to actually achieve anything, they were still subordinate to the Senatorial barons of the committees. There were some powers though, it was custom for the leader to be the only Senator who made motions to call bills off the calendar, however this was largely ceremonial as it was exercised only on behalf of the leaders parties policy committee. As hopeless a position as it seemed it was the only one where absolute years of experience were not a prerequisite, and so it was the only one available to Johnson. He started as the whip but with the then party leader not particularly effective he started checking with chairmen of committees on the status of the bills before them so that when a Senator asked him about a certain bill he would be able to tell them what they needed to know or be able to find out. He drafted in the help of Bobby Baker, making sure he knew at all times where every Democratic Senator was and how to reach them, whether they were at the office, with their wife, or with their mistress. He also started to read like a Southerner, that is to become deeply acquainted with the procedures and powers of the Senate and the party leadership. This study led to an early win for him where he found a way to use the practice of ‘pairing’ votes, where you get a present Senator who would vote the opposite way to an absent Senator to abstain instead. Pairing votes wasn’t out of the ordinary, what was was the centralised planning by party leadership to pair people off. His tactics worked and once again he had shown he could be depended on to pull through for the party. He started cultivating other avenues as well. Passing a bill in the Senate was only half the battle, it still had to be passed in the House, and in the House Sam Rayburn ruled. Johnson therefore started making an effort to go see his old mentor more and made it known to other Senators that he was close enough with Rayburn to ask for favours. He pursued other strategies, marshalling his considerable Texas fundraising machine to send money to Senators he liked to help them win reelection. Now for the first time someone in party leadership had something to offer, something to threaten with.

While working to become leader he saw what his main problem would be; his only chance of obtaining power was if the Southerners gave it to him, the only way to use that power to further his presidential aims was to use it in aid of causes that would gain him liberal support, the only way to gain liberal support was to support causes the Southerners would be ardently against. Before getting to the problem of Southern and liberal support for the presidency, he had to unite the party around their leader, otherwise he would be destined to go the ways of his predecessors (the two leaders before him both lost reelection immediately after assuming the role). His first roadblock was the seniority system. To break through this block he played on fear, the one fear a Committee Chairman had, that of not being a Committee Chairman. At this time the Democrats were the minority party, the Senate barons of the Democrats were without their empires and were missing them, so he convinced them that their best hope to regain lost power was to crate a Democratic record so strong that the Republican gains at the next election were to be kept as small as possible and that this would require changes in how committee seats were given out.

The first area of the attack the Republicans had planned for the administration was Foreign Relations and so that was where, Johnson argued, defences had to be especially strong. He had two Senators who could fight against the Republicans on this front better than almost anyone else, the only problem was that one was in his first term, the other in his first week and both liberals. Johnson began trying to move committee assignments around like a finely crafted chess attack. One senior Senator, Magnuson, had applied to both Appropriations and Foreign Relations and it was unlikely he was to get Appropriations so he was adamant about Foreign Relations. The Republicans had a problem however, one of their men had bolted from them and was now an independent, to solve this they proposed to add a Republican to each Committee on which he was assigned. Johnson saw an opening and at the end of some delicate negotiations the number of committee seats had risen by six, the Democrats got half of the new seats, one of which was on Appropriations and Magnuson was duly moved there. An opening on agriculture came up which Johnson promised to another Senator but only if he gave up his seat on two other Committees. He needed a seat on the Armed Services Committee to be opened up so he promised Russell Long a seat on Finance, which he told him would make him the youngest member by a full 15 years, almost certain to end up with the chairman position. To Southerners who were initially against him he pointed out that since no Senator was being required to give up a Committee seat he already held the major Committees would still be stocked three-four deep with men from the South. At the end of all his moves the implications of what he had managed to pull off were sinking in. ‘If the coin of political gratitude is a currency subject to rapid devaluation, the political fear that is the coin’s reverse had more stability’, people knew who to thank but they knew also who to fear.

Next he turned his sights on the policy Committee, up until now a three person staff whose only role was recording Senators voting records. But to the eyes of Lyndon Johnson, the eyes of a man who had changed so many institutions before this to suit his plans, it was an opportunity no political scientist could have imagined. The mere reading of issues contentious within the party could only shine a spotlight on the gaping chasm between the liberal and the Southern members so unity was what was to be created. All drafts of legislation would be analysed and members of his newly assembled staff would solicit comments from other Senators on the subject. Senators who had objections would be called and it would be discovered what would quell their objections. Then came the changes, Johnson had bills redrafted over and over again until he could be sure there would be no internal disagreement about a bill that could spill out on the floor. This not only had the effect of removing attention grabbing party dissent but also started to centralise his web of information, where before Senators would speak to each other about issues now Johnson spoke for them all. He was also asking that some Senator on a committee or some minority staff member keep the Policy Committee apprised of their goings on. This set about a change monumental but gradual. Before, the baronies of the Committees had been isolated, dealing infrequently with each other and sometimes even offering legislation that was in contradiction to another Committee, now Johnson didn’t have to rely on the barons to get his information, he could rely on their subjects. Why did people allow him to concentrate power like this? Like with Humphrey he showed them that their goals were aligned so that it was not really his power increasing but the effectiveness of the party as a whole.

Legislative battle #1

At this time Dwight D Eisenhower, the current very popular Republican president, was a major source of concern. Would his popularity be able to lead to another 4 years of Republican Senate rule the next time he ran? Johnson saw opportunity however, since Eisenhower was so popular whoever was supporting him would be on the popular side. Democrats could be those people, and not only that, if things went right they could be supporting him against his own party.

How could they do this? The first issues that were going to be raised in Congress were going to be foreign policy and in this area the dominant Republicans were not Eisenhower allies but enemies. Despite being a Republican Eisenhower had in effect spent two or three decades in virtual support of the foreign policy of Democrats like Roosevelt or Truman. One of the first measures discussed was repudiating the Yalta accords, but the resolution proposed by the administration merely rejected “interpretations that have been perverted to bring about the subjugation of free peoples” the Republicans were outraged. Taft proposed an amendment saying “the adoption of this resolution does not constitute any determination by Congress as to the validity or invalidity of any of the provisions of the said agreements” Johnson had managed to get his party to look like it was rushing to the president’s defence against a disruptive and aggressive Republican party.

Legislative battle #2

His next challenge was the Bricker amendment. This was an amendment that called for a constitutional amendment to restrict the president’s power in foreign affairs, its gist was that no “international compact could be binding on the United States without the pass of positive legislation not only by Congress but by individual states”. This would tie the hands of every future president, which given that Johnson wanted to be president one day made him opposed to it. Stopping it would be tricky however as it was supported by most Texas constituents, his financial backers as well as his Senatorial allies like Russel. Defeating the amendment though would be a challenge in threading a needle. He needed to turn conservative Senators against the amendment, conservative Senators who were currently very much for it. He also wanted the public to see that it was the Democrats who were helping the president in this fight, and more than this that he personally was responsible. And yet he could not appear to be opposing limitations on the president’s power by those back home. So, what to do? He started with the question of how to turn conservatives against the amendment and he realised that he would have to turn the Senator most influential in foreign affairs against it, Walter George. This alone would not be enough, he needed to get George to offer a new amendment that would split the Republicans. It would have to be strong enough so that Eisenhower would be on one side and the isolationists on the other but moderate enough to get Republicans who had been united with Eisenhower in opposing the Bricker amendment would break away and support this new amendment. If this happened then it would be a Democratic amendment that was the centre of attention and would be saving the president from the ardent isolationists. Adding to the complexity, after persuading George to introduce the amendment he had to make sure it didn’t pass. After all he still didn’t want limits on presidential power. If it was killed outright though George would blame him for the embarrassment so he had to also make sure that the defeat was not too decisive. He wanted the George amendment to pass by the majority but not by the requisite 2/3’s needed for it to be enacted. Finally the last hitch was that his financial backers would have to be persuaded that he had supported restrictions on presidential powers all along. So, it was all pretty straight forward then.

Johnson set about cutting this Gordian knot. He had a memo drafted outlining the issues with the Bricker amendment and then set about “one of those really stellar performances of persuasion” and finally got George to agree to submit his own amendment. George’s amendment only contained two clauses, that no “provision of treaty could supersede the Constitution; the second that no international agreement other than a treaty –  such as an executive agreement or the UN charter – could become internal law in the US except by an act of Congress”. This drew liberals, and since it still asserted the primacy of the constitution over any treaty some of the isolationists were converted as well. He hit a snag though when Republicans realised they would struggle to support this amendment given that the headlines would be that they had to be saved by the Democrats. That would have to be dealt with later. In the meantime Johnson passed word around to Democrats to vote for the George amendment whether they were for or against it so that it would pass the first vote to get to the floor, then after this could vote how one wishes.

In a vivid description of the scene Caro writes about the day of the debate, ‘standing in the centre of the crowded Democratic cloakroom, Senators milling around him, Bobby Baker darting to his side and away again, he kept nervously pulling the long tally sheet from his pocket and studying it through his glasses, counting and recounting….And sometimes, as a Senator spoke to him, or Baker whispered something in his ear, or a piece of intelligence came to him from the Republican side, he would take a pen form his pocket and scratch out a checkmark on one side of the list, and make one on the other side, and then count again.” Johnson’s counting was not in vain, in fact the George amendment was only one vote away from passing so Johnson went to fetch Harley Kilgore who was absent due to “either alcohol or influenza” but was brought to the chamber. Vice president Nixon looked at Kilgore and asked him how he voted, “No” said Kilgore groggily and with that the George amendment failed to pass with the votes 60 in favour 31 against. Every element Johnson needed to position precisely, every plan he needed to work, did and his strategy for making the Democrats the popular again party worked and they won back control of the Senate with a 48 to 47 majority.

Wielding power

Johnson’s behaviour throughout his life was one of varying levels. He had extreme deference with those who could truly help him, the Russels and Rayburns. With those who worked for him he could be ruthless and vulgar. He would get aides to take transcriptions as he sat on the toilet with the door open. He would reach down his pants and scratch his crotch in front of his assistants. He would tell his female secretaries that they should go on a diet as he wanted ‘to look at a good trim back end’. With his colleagues he would be respectful whenever he was beginning in a new area like Congress or the Senate, but after he had accumulated power he always changed. When Kennedy was president and a Senator told him that they couldn’t vote how he wanted because it would kill  him politically in his state, Kennedy would respond that he ‘couldn’t agree but that he understood’, Johnson never understood.

With the Democrats taking back control of the Senate came Johnson’s chance to use his position as majority speaker to its fullest. Previous majority leaders merely acted as agents of their policy or steering committee, but Johnson had already stacked the policy committee with those who he trusted. Now he not only was the one to talk to if you wanted to find out about a bill, he was getting messages like “Dear Lyndon: I would consider it a great favour if you could help me to achieve postponement of the textile bill.” His political capital was rising. His grip tightened more on the floor as well. The Senators had become accustomed to his help in so many ways, allowing him to handle bills on the floor and field questions from the press, given that he was the most knowledgeable on most issues, this seemed like a natural progression. The stick grew alongside the carrot, he made it clear that Committee assignments were going to be made not on seniority or even qualifications but on Senators allegiance to Lyndon Johnson. Nowhere was this shown more apparently than him keeping the Senate’s most respected expert on taxation, Paul Douglas, off of the Finance Committee even when there were two vacancies to fill.

He continued his reading, not books of course, but of rules, and again it paid off. Rule 13 paragraph 3 spoke about “unanimous consent agreement” a device by which the Senate, by unanimous consent agrees to limit the amount of time a bill can be debated for, the number of amendments that can be introduced, the amount of time that can be spent debating those amendments etc, and all under the control of specific senators. Generally this was only used if there had already been substantial debate on an issue but Johnson started to decline bringing bills onto the floor until he had got a unanimous consent agreement worked out. Any Senator could block unanimous consent but few ever felt the desire to oppose Johnson in such a blatant way. Paul Douglas was to say that under Johnson the Senate acted like a Greek tragedy “all the action takes place offstage, before the play begins”. He was not, however, shy of demonstrating his power in more blatant ways. If when the roll call began on a vote all his Senators were present he would start to make a revving motion from his desk with a pencil or his forefinger to the presiding officer to make them speed up, if he wanted it to go slower he would make a downward pushing motion. Once he even shouted across the floor “change your vote Allen”, getting him his desired result every time.

legislative battle #3

When his ambitions aligned with those of liberal causes, the cause was often advanced further than any Senator thought possible. The minimum wage hadn’t been increased in six years since 1949. The president was proposing a 20% increase to 90 cents per hour, the labour committee chaired by Douglas was expected to pass a bill out much more generous raising the minimum wage to $1.25. With many Republicans and conservatives opposed to such a rise it looked like the minimum wage would go the way it had done for so many years, so Johnson began trying to find a compromise telling both sides that he had counted the votes. He told the liberals they should vote for 90 cents as they didn’t have the votes for $1.25 and at the same time telling the conservatives they should settle for 90 cents as they didn’t have the votes to stop the wage rising to $1.25. As he was on the floor though he noticed something, the bill had been brought out under unanimous consent giving both parties one hour of debate which the Republicans had used and the Democrats had just started, thinking there was an hour until the vote many Senators had begun wandering off. Most of the Senators left on the floor however were not the liberals who would be opposed to an increase of only 90 cents or the conservatives who would push against even that, the Senators left on the floor were mainly moderates who where happy to vote on the unamended bill that increased the wage to $1. Suddenly and unexpectedly a voice vote was called on the amendment to change the minimum wage to 90 cents, which was defeated. Then the pending matter was the unamended bill itself, a voice vote was taken and the bill passed. The minimum wage had been raised to $1 after six years of stagnation. Just after the vote was finished Senators were wandering back in and were asking “what’s the vote on?” and when they were told it was on the minimum wage bill were left “speechless”.

Civil rights

The most important topic of the book is civil rights. Here is a cause that is setting the nation ablaze and that Johnson knows he has to act on if he is to ever stand a chance of becoming president. Anti voting sentiment against blacks was so strong that in the 1940 elections only around 2% of blacks of voting age in the South cast votes. Not only that but so deep were the racial hostilities that after the supreme court passed a law to desegregate schools, Georgia actually amended its state constitution so that it no longer had to maintain a public school system. A new wave of emotional and, more importantly, well publicised incidents started to change this. It started with Emmett Till, a young black boy from Chicago, visiting family in Mississippi who was accused of wolf whistling at a white girl. Two white locals came around to the house he was staying in, abducted him, beat him, shot him, and drowned his body. As distressing as the story sounds it was not much in the way of new events, what made Emmett Till’s story different was his mother’s insistence that his body be brought back up to Chicago and that an open casket ceremony be held. The pictures from that ceremony have become immortalised as pictures of injustice, there young Emmett Till is, his face bloated with water from the river, his skull misshapen from the beatings, his body dressed in a suit, his mother and father standing over him with a look of utter loss. Now the atrocities of the South were being seen by a Northern audience, now the atrocities of the South were harder than ever to ignore.

One of the riddles of Johnson’s life was his relation to race. Caro points out repeatedly that in the end Johnson did more for oppressed minorities than any other 20th century president and yet he had a grey relationship with the topic of race. He would repeatedly throughout his life assert he didn’t have an ounce of racial discrimination in him, Caro writes that he “did not feel that these characteristics [laziness and a predisposition to violence] were due to some innate, ineradicable defects in their [blacks] genes expressed in the colour of their skin. He believed that they were a product of the lack of education and opportunity with which America had shackled them”. Yet, to many of his Southern backers his views on race, they believed, were the same as theirs. Some even years later failing to recount anything that would make them think otherwise. In fact during 20 years from 1937 when he joined the house of representatives he had never supported a civil rights bill, not once. One phrase that encapsulates his attitudes well was written by the journalist Ronnie Dugger, he wrote that Johnson had “real, though expendable, compassion”.

The Senate was not a kind place for civil rights legislation. One only needs to look at who was given jurisdiction over it to see the state of things. Judiciary was chaired by Senator Eastland, not a friend to civil rights causes, and he made it clear that for a Committee with no written rules it was to be governed by Senate rules and under these petition for cloture, the practice where you can call for a Senator to stop talking thereby stopping a filibuster, must be signed by sixteen  Senators, the Judiciary Committee only had fifteen members however, it was made clear that any Senator who wanted to speak for as long as requested would not be able to be stopped by any means. The committee met for 90 minutes once a week and it was to take five meetings before the first Senator who was against 4 new civil rights bills had finished his remarks. This was the kind of territory civil rights was going to have to wade through.   

Johnson realised that he would have to become a champion of these causes if he ever wanted to shed the image of a Southern sectionalist candidate, but he did not come to act in this way for some time. 

Legislative battle #4

In 1956 Johnson not only didn’t support the civil rights bills but used underhanded techniques to squash them. The pending civil rights bill for 1956 had been passed by the house on July 23rd, the last Tuesday of the session and the Judiciary committee of the Senate, where the bill would get sent, had already had its last meeting of the term. There was a plan, however, to prevent the bill getting the unanimous consent needed to send the bill to Judiciary and keep it on the floor. To make sure nothing went wrong Senator Douglas would wait with the Bill while it was being copied in the Government Printing office, he would then accompany it onto the floor making sure that the Southerners could not hold a surprise vote. The Bill did not go to the government printing office however, it went to the Enrolling Office, its route had been changed so that Douglas would be avoided. The Bill was taken to the floor with Douglas rushing back towards the chamber to stop it but it was too late, the Bill had been sent to Eastland’s judiciary committee. 

There was one last hope. Douglas introduced a petition to discharge the committee from further consideration of the Bill, hoping to trigger a discussion on the issue. When Douglas made his motion he was told it was out of order and told that petitions could only be filed in the morning hour except by unanimous consent, which he was not to get. Douglas announced that he intended to file his petition the next day during the morning hour. Johnson concluded the work of the Senate that Tuesday instead of calling for the Senate to adjourn until the next day he moved that it recess until the next day. Few except the Southerners, who made studying the rules and procedures of the Senate a religion, noticed the difference, but there was a difference. The next day when Douglas tried to file his petition Johnson remedied him that ‘the morning hour’ was the first hour of each now legislative day but that begins after each adjournment not after a recess, and that was then the end of the civil rights bill for that year. Johnson was later to say that he did this as he knew the bill would not get the votes and so he didn’t want it to get voted down but rather not voted on at all. One may even believe this, however his actions after Douglas’ petition would give one cause to doubt. Instead of calling for a voice vote for Douglas’s adjournment motion, Johnson called for a roll call vote, in doing so making every Senator who did not want to be in his bad graces proclaim they were against Douglas’ motion one by one. There was no strategy to this, it was “an effort to humiliate”.

A change of heart

Johnson realised that “If the Senate appeared ineffectual, incapable dealing with the issue [of civil rights], he would appear ineffectual, incapable”. He saw that if he was to have the greatest chance of passing a civil rights bill voting rights would be the best way. After all, the Constitution said “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged” on account of race or colour. And after all the Southern Senators, if they were anything, were constitutionalists. He also realised that protecting the right to vote was the pathway to all other rights. If blacks could vote, they could gain influence and representation and with these all other liberties. To accomplish his aims he would have to get Senators who he had never before had the support of to come to his aid. How he did this reveals better than any other text I’ve seen the interconnectedness of politics. He had to make sure the South knew it had enough allies so that it would not feel the need to filibuster, but where were these allies to come from?

Legislative battle #5

He found his first block with Hells Canyon. Hells Canyon was a powerful river that snaked through the Sawtooth Mountains and it was the topic of one of the hottest political issues in the states it weaved through. Who would harness its powers for energy production, private power companies or the public through a government damn favoured by most of the twelve Senators whose states the river ran through. Progress though seemed hopelessly stalled. Johnson saw a way in, not only did these Senators desperately want movement on the dam but civil rights in their states were not as contentious an issue as most of them had very small black populations. 

Johnson set about what he did best and made it understood that he could get them the votes for the dam but in return he wanted their help on civil rights and the Western Senators agreed to his terms. With the knowledge that should they need it the Southerners would have protection in numbers thanks to the Western Senators they were now willing to let a civil rights bill be entered onto the calendar. This bill represents another dilemma in the legacy of Johnson’s racial views. He is credited with two things, the first, getting some form of civil rights legislation passed in 1958 but also with gutting the bill of all its substance. Johnson seems to have realised though that any legislation, however weak, was the push civil rights needed and that passing a bill, even a weak one would put America on the right track. To friends who thought he was pushing for too weak a bill he would say in his usual eloquence “once you break the virginity, it’ll be easier next time”. He felt that many Republicans insistence to pass the full bill would instead mean that the bill was destined not to pass at all as it would be too much for the South to swallow. Johnson would need moderate liberal votes from both parties for a compromise amendment to part III, the part he was trying to gut. He saw where he might get this from. Senator Clinton Anderson, who while not thrilled with the prospect of having to gut the bill realised without doing so there would be no bill at all.

Now came his next challenge, part III was gone but part IV, the voting rights protections, was still too much for the Southerners to swallow. Common ground had to be found, the only problem was that it seemed like there was only a gaping chasm between the two sides. The South wanted a jury trial amendment so that anyone accused of breaking part IV would get to stand in front of a jury of their peers, in the South at the time this effectively meant they would see no punishment. After all, the two murderers of Emmett Till stood a jury trial where the jury deliberated for only 97 minutes, even that amount of time was said by one of the jurors to be a combination of trying to not look to bad by coming straight back in and the fact one of the jurors wanted to stop for a sandwich. Supporters of civil rights knew the realities of jury trials in the South and so were opposed to any changes like this. Many struggled to be fully opposed though as one Senator who supported the civil rights bill said “this was a terribly difficult issue for me because my populist background had always emphasised the importance of a jury trial”.

The answer seemed to come from Ben Cohen, a brilliant lawyer who Johnson knew well from the Roosevelt days. His work around was that it need not be necessary to rely on jury trials to enforce civil rights as jury trials were required only in criminal contempt proceedings not civil contempt. In criminal contempt a judge is punishing a defendant for violations of a judge’s specified injunction. In a civil contempt the aim is to force the defendant to obey the order in the future. “If the court’s order is disobeyed, the judge will hold the violation of his injunction in contempt of court and have him imprisoned until he does obey”. The true benefit was that the only act the defendant had to do to be released by the court was to comply with part IV.

Common ground was widened again with a proposal to engage labour leaders for support for the jury amendment. The Taft-Hartley Act had limited strikers rights to jury trials and unions had tried to have these rights restored, so if a provision was extended to guarantee jury trials for criminal contempt beyond civil rights cases then he could potentially get labour leaders support and hopefully therefore the support of Senators in states with a heavy labour presence. At first the response was not what he had hoped. Then the railroad brotherhoods made themselves known as potential allies. While among the most segregated of all unions they had suffered greatly from a lack of jury trials in the railroad labour wars of the 1880’s and 90’s and with the Taft-Hartley act they again saw the danger they were faced with. Johnson then got the United Mine Workers, whose centre of power was West Virginia, a one industry state, and so West Virginia’s two Senators suddenly became supporters of the jury trial amendment. One final push was needed.

The last push came from Frank Church, the youngest Senator and one who was eager to get back in Johnson’s good graces after he had accidentally voted against him in his first vote. He saw that much liberal antipathy centred on the impossibility of getting a just verdict from an all white Southern jury so he said “If the juries couldn’t be segregated, we could get the jury trial amendment though.” The idea was that this would appeal to northern liberals who had an issue with the jury trial amendment weakening a civil right by granting blacks a new civil right, the right to sit on juries. The addendum was called a ‘gimmick’ by many, as Southern juries still would almost certainly not convict whites on racial cases even if they were desegregated but it was enough of a token, an excuse, to get support. To make sure nothing went wrong though Johnson wanted the addendum to be introduced at the latest possible stage and he wanted every element of the bills progress to be scripted.

He had recruited Senator O’Mahoney to deliver the opening address, then Church was to stand and ask O’Mahoney to yield where he would then propose his addendum. O’Mahoney acted surprised at the interruption but allowed it. Church asked if he would be agreeable to this addendum to his amendment and, surprisingly enough, it turned out that he was indeed agreeable. The next act was Senator John Pastore who had a demanding role indeed. He was to play the “skeptic and doubter who, by giving voice to his doubts, convinces himself that they are groundless and is converted into a true believer”. He played it brilliantly, starting off as the “earnest, undecided senator” he actually led the whole chamber through a subtle and convincing set of arguments in favour of the amendment. With his votes from the South, his votes from the Westerners who wanted their Dam, his votes from the Senators beholden to the wishes of the labour unions, his votes from those who saw the Church addendum as enough of an excuse, his votes from those who wanted to see action, any action taken on the front of civil rights, he achieved what few thought possible and the civil rights bill was passed 51 to 42.

This was not a moment of unadulterated victory. After all those who cared least for civil rights were among those voting for the bill, a bill that had been gutted and gutted until it was a shell of what it arrived as. Nixon who was Vice President at the time called it “one of the saddest days in the history of the senate” and indeed all those emasculations and gimmicks had the foreseeable effect of a bill that was to prove almost completely ineffectual in what was laid out in its writing. Not only was the bill moot but the south’s greatest fears were realised anyway when on September 4th paratroopers were sent in with bayonets to enforce school desegregation.

Pragmatism vs idealism

This battle encapsulates one of the central themes of the books. That of Pragmatism vs idealism. Johnson passed the first civil rights bill in decades and yet did so seemingly only to be able to claim that he did so. He gutted the bill past the point many would say was necessary and yet we can never know if any stronger bill could really have passed. It was not only on the field of civil rights where we see this conflict play out in Johnson’s life. We are told throughout the books that he is almost unparalleled in his dedication to his constituents. Setting quotas of one hundred letters a day for everyone in his office to respond to. Whilst a Congressman he fought more than any other Senator to get funds for rural electrification for those in his constituency. Yet always with an end seemingly in sight. Never done for the act itself but for what the act can buy him. Favour of his voters, favour of the media, of the country. How much does it matter what the motivations of a person are if they wield their power in support of a worthy cause?


Caro writes “it is said that power corrupts but what is never said, but is also true, is that power reveals”, Johnson is revealed to be indefatigable in his quest for power. He transforms the very fabric of the organisations around him, he transforms the very nature of who he is time and time again, sometimes for the greater good, sometimes not. It is his very effectiveness that makes it most difficult to pass judgement on the merits of his rise up to this point, he truly had done good for so many but always at service ultimately to himself. I wrote this essay largely as I felt there was great value in seeing the ways and practices of one of the most talented aquireers of power in history and I hope to have shed light on just what these were and how Johnson made himself so ruthlessly effective.

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