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When he was young—seventeen and eighteen years old—Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren’t paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.
With little mechanical equipment available, the road was being built almost entirely by hand, and his job, when he wasn’t half of a pick-and-shovel team with Ben Crider, a burly friend—six years older—from Johnson City, was “driving” a “fresno,” a heavy two-handled metal scoop with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. Standing behind the scoop, between its handles, as the mules strained forward to force the scoop through the hard Hill Country caliche soil, he would push as they pulled. Since he needed a hand for each handle, the reins were tied together and wrapped around his back, so for this work—hard even for older men; for a tall, skinny, awkward teenager, it was, the other men recall, “backbreaking labor,” “too heavy” for Lyndon—Lyndon Johnson was, really, in harness with the mules. But at lunch hour each day, as the gang sat eating—in summer in whatever shade they could find as protection from the blazing Hill Country sun, in winter huddled around a fire (it would get so cold, Crider recalls, that “you had to build a fire to thaw your hands before you could handle a pick and shovel . . . build us a fire and thaw and work all day”)—Lyndon would, in the words of another member of the gang, “talk big” to the older men. “He had big ideas. . . . He wanted to do something big with his life.” And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: “I’m going to be President of the United States one day,” he predicted.
Poverty and backbreaking work—clearing cedar on other men’s farms for two dollars a day, or chopping and picking cotton: on your hands and knees all day beneath that searing sun—were woven deep in the fabric of Lyndon Johnson’s youth, as were humiliation and fear: he was coming home at night to a house to which other Johnson City families brought charity in the form of cooked dishes because there was no money in that house to buy food; to a house on which, moreover, his family was having such difficulty paying the taxes and mortgage that they were afraid it might not be theirs much longer. But woven into it also was that prediction.
In many ways, his whole life would be built around that prediction: around a climb toward that single, far-off goal. As a young congressman in Washington, he was careful not to mention that ambition to the rising young New Dealers with whom he was allying himself, but they were aware of it anyway. James H. Rowe Jr., Franklin Roosevelt’s aide, who spent more time with Johnson than the others, says, “From the day he got here, he wanted to be President.” When old friends from Texas visited him, sometimes his determination burst out of him despite himself, as if he could not contain it. “By God, I’ll be President someday!” he exclaimed one evening when he was alone with Welly Hopkins. And an incident in 1940 showed the Texans how much he wanted the prize he sought, how much he was willing to sacrifice to attain it.
Lack of money had been the cause of so many of the insecurities of his youth, and his election to Congress, far from soothing those fears, had seemed only to intensify them: he talked incessantly about how his father, who had been an elected official himself—a six-term member of the Texas House of Representatives—had ended up as a state bus inspector, and had died penniless; he didn’t want to end up like his father, he said. He talked about how he kept seeing around Washington former congressmen who had lost their seats—as, he said, he would inevitably one day lose his—and were working in low-paying, demeaning jobs; over and over again he related how once, while he was riding in an elevator in the Capitol, the elevator operator had told him that he had been a congressman. Hungry for money, he had already started accepting, indeed soliciting, financial favors from businessmen who wanted favors from him, and had been pleading with two important businessmen—George R. Brown of the Texas contracting firm of Brown & Root and the immensely wealthy Austin publisher, real estate magnate and oilman Charles Marsh—to “find” him a business in which he could make a little money of his own. So when, one autumn day in 1940, the three men—Johnson, Brown and Marsh—were vacationing together at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, lying on a blanket in front of their adjoining cottages, and Marsh offered Lyndon Johnson a business in which he could make a lot of money, the two businessmen were sure the congressman would accept it. Marsh, who, in Brown’s words, “loved Lyndon like a son,” told him he could have his share in a lucrative oilfield partnership, a share worth three-quarters of a million dollars, without even putting up any money; he could “pay for it out of his profits each year.” To the surprise of both men, however, Johnson said that he would have to think about the offer—and after a week he turned it down. “I can’t be an oilman,” he said; if the public knew he had oil interests, “it would kill me politically.”
Believing they understood Johnson’s political ambitions—Lyndon was always telling them about how he wanted to stay in the House until a Senate seat opened up, and then run for the Senate, about how the Senate seat was his ultimate goal in politics; never had he mentioned any other office, nor did he mention one during his week at the Greenbrier—Marsh and Brown were shocked by his refusal. Being known as an oilman couldn’t hurt him in his congressional district, or in a Senate race in oil-dominated Texas. But then they realized that there was in fact one office for which he would be “killed” by being an “oilman.” And then they understood that while Lyndon Johnson might hunger for money, that hunger was as nothing beside his hunger for something else.
And unlike others—the many, many others—in Washington who wanted the same thing he did, who had set their sights on the same goal, Lyndon Baines Johnson, born August 27, 1908, had mapped out a path to that goal, and he refused to be diverted from it.
The path ran only through Washington—it was paved with national, not state power—and it had only three steps: House of Representatives, Senate, presidency. And after he had fought his way onto it—winning a seat in the House in 1937 in a desperate, seemingly hopeless campaign—he could not be persuaded by anyone, not even Franklin Roosevelt, to turn off it. In 1939, the President offered to appoint him director of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration. The directorship of a nationwide agency, particularly one as fast-growing, and politically important, as the REA, was not the kind of job offered to many men only thirty years old, but Johnson turned the offer down; he was afraid, he said, of being “sidetracked.” In 1946, he was urged by his party to run for the governorship of Texas. If he did, he knew, his election was all but assured, and at the time his path seemed to have reached a dead end in Washington: stuck in the House now for almost a decade, with little chance of any imminent advancement to its hierarchy, he seemed to have no chance of stepping into a Senate seat. In the 435-member House, he was still only one of the crowd of junior congressmen, and, as a woman who worked with him when he was young put it, he “couldn’t stand not being somebody—just could not stand it.” But he still wouldn’t leave the road he had chosen as the best road to the prize he wanted so badly. The governorship, he explained to aides, could never be more than a “detour” on his “route,” a detour that might turn into a “dead end.” (Some years later, when his longtime assistant John Connally decided to run for the governorship, Johnson told him he was making a mistake in leaving Washington. “Here’s where the power is,” he said.) In 1948, still stuck in the House, he was about to turn forty, and a new assistant, Horace Busby, saw that “He believed, and he believed it really quite sincerely . . . that when a man reached forty, it was all over. And there was no bill ever passed by Congress that bore his name; he had done very little in his life.” Hopeless though his ambition might seem, however, Lyndon Johnson still clung to it. Instructing Busby to refer to him in press releases as “LBJ,” he explained: “FDR–LBJ, FDR–LBJ. Do you get it? What I want is for them to start thinking of me in terms of initials.” It was only presidents whom headline writers and the American people referred to by their initials; “he was just so determined that someday he would be known as LBJ,” Busby recalls.
That year, frantic to escape from the trap that the House had become for him, he entered a Senate race he seemed to have no chance of winning; during the campaign, and during post-campaign vote-counting, he went beyond even the notoriously elastic boundaries of Texas politics, and won.
But the Senate, into which he was sworn in January, 1949, was also only a step toward his goal, only the second rung on a three-rung ladder.
It was a rung on which he seemed very much at home. Lyndon Johnson was, as I have written, a reader of men. He had promulgated guidelines for such reading, which he tried to teach his young staff members. “Watch their hands, watch their eyes,” he told them. “Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.” Teaching them to peruse men’s weaknesses, he said that “the most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say”—and therefore it was important not to let a conversation end until you learned what the man wasn’t saying, until you “got it out of him.” Johnson himself read with a genius that couldn’t be taught, with a gift that was so instinctive that one aide, Robert G. (Bobby) Baker, calls it a “sense.” “He seemed to sense each man’s individual price and the commodity he preferred as coin.” And Johnson also had a gift for using what he read. His longtime lawyer and viceroy in Texas, Edward A. Clark, was to say, “I never saw anything like it. He would listen at them . . . and in five minutes he could get a man to think, ‘I like you, young fellow. I’m going to help you.’ ” Watching Lyndon Johnson “play” older men, Thomas G. Corcoran, the New Deal insider and quite a player of older men himself, was to explain that “He was smiling and deferential, but, hell, lots of guys can be smiling and deferential. Lyndon had one of the most incredible capacities for dealing with older men. He could follow someone’s mind around, and get where it was going before the other fellow knew where it was going.” These gifts served Lyndon Johnson better in small groups—men marveled at his ability to “make liberals think he was one of them, conservatives think he was one of them”—since that tactic worked best when there was no member of the other side around to hear. It worked best of all when he was alone with one man. “Lyndon was the greatest salesman one on one who ever lived,” George Brown was to say. These gifts had gone largely wasted in the House, whose 435 members “could be dealt with only in bodies and droves,” but the first time Lyndon Johnson walked into the Senate Chamber after his election to that body, he muttered, in a voice so low that his aide Walter Jenkins, standing beside him, felt he was “speaking to himself,” that the Senate was “the right size.”
This assessment proved accurate with ninety-six men in that body, there were only a relatively small number of texts to be read, and because of senators’ six-year terms, these texts were not constantly changing, as they were in the House, and therefore could be perused at length—some Senate subcommittees had only three members, so on these subcommittees it was literally necessary for the great salesman to sell only one man to obtain a majority for his views—and he rose to power in the Senate with unprecedented speed. In a body previously dominated by the strictures of seniority, he became Assistant Leader of his party in 1951, two years after he arrived there; in another two years, still in his first term, he became the party’s Leader; two years later, in 1955, when the Demo-crats became the majority party in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson became the Majority Leader, the most powerful man in the Senate, after just a single term there, the youngest Majority Leader in history, the most powerful man in the Senate after just a single term there.
The youngest—and the greatest. By 1955, in the opinion of its journalistic chroniclers and a growing number of historians and political scientists, the Senate was the joke it had been for decades, only more so—so much an object of contempt that, increasingly frequently, a suggestion was being heard that perhaps the institution might be dispensed with entirely: its “obsolesence,” said the era’s most authoritative work on Capitol Hill, George B. Galloway’s The Legislative Process in Congress, “may lead the American people in time to recognize that their second chamber is not indispensable.” Revolutionizing the Senate, not only pushing long-stalled social welfare legislation through it but making it, for the first time in over a century, a center of governmental energy and creativity, Lyndon Johnson brought a nineteenth-century—in many ways an eighteenth-century—institution into the twentieth century. The role of Leader—legislative leader—was, furthermore, clearly a role he was born to play. As he stood at the Leader’s commanding front-row center desk in the Senate Chamber directing the Senate’s actions with the surest of hands, as he strode the aisles of the Chamber and Capitol with colleagues addressing him by title—“Good morning, Leader.” “Could I have a minute of your time, Leader?” “Mr. Leader, I never thought you could pull that one off”—he was completely in charge, a man at home in his job. His twelve years in the Senate, his wife, Lady Bird, was to say, “were the happiest twelve years of our lives.”
To him, however, the Senate remained only a rung on the ladder—as was demonstrated in 1956, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He had stayed out of the primaries and other pre-convention maneuvering because he had concluded he had no chance to win the party’s presidential nomination, but when at the very last moment, on the very eve of the convention, he suddenly came to feel that he did have a chance, he grabbed for the prize. Although his effort lasted only two days, the frenzied urgency with which, during these days, he grabbed (“Deep down, he understood the realities,” Jim Rowe recalls, “but he wanted to be President so much.” Adds Tommy Corcoran: “On most things, you could talk sense to Lyndon. But there was no talking to him about this”) showed how desperately he wanted it. And when the two days were over, and with another two days still remaining before the actual balloting, it became clear that the ballot would be only a formality and that Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois was assured of an overwhelming victory, Johnson, in the past invariably the most pragmatic of politicians, nevertheless refused to withdraw his name—against all logic, in the face of every pragmatic consideration—his supporters felt they understood the reason. After explaining that Johnson’s actions “made no sense to anyone, myself included,” John Connally added that in politics “you can always have a dream,” that “you always have hope”—and that Johnson had simply been unable to bring himself to give up his great dream. “He wanted it so much he wasn’t thinking straight,” Corcoran said. Resting up at Brown & Root’s hunting lodge in Falfurrias, Texas, after the convention, Johnson spent hours talking to George Brown, who says, “He hadn’t thought he would be so close . . . and then when all of a sudden, he felt he was close, he got carried away with the thought that he might get it, and he simply couldn’t bear to just admit he didn’t have a chance.” That was the explanation, Tommy Corcoran agrees; Johnson hadn’t withdrawn “Because he couldn’t bear to.” And these men knew he would try again—at the next convention, in 1960. Standing ankle-deep in discarded sand- wich wrappers, coffee containers and Johnson placards on the Convention floor after Stevenson had won (he received 905 votes, Johnson 80), Connally shouted defiantly, “Don’t you worry, this was just a practice run. We’ll be back four years from now!”
One obstacle made climbing to the next—the top, the ultimate—rung, reaching the prize of which he had so long dreamed, especially difficult for him. He was from the South, from one of the eleven states that had seceded from the Union and formed the rebel Confederacy, and that, despite America’s Civil War almost a century before, still largely denied basic civil rights to their black citizens—to the indignation and anger of the heavily populated northern states, the states whose convention votes determined the Democratic nominee. With growing black protests focusing attention on southern injustice, northern anger against the South was mounting steadily during the late 1950s. No southerner had been elected President for more than a century,* and it was a bitter article of faith among southern politicians that no southerner would be elected President in any foreseeable future; when members of the House of Representatives gave their Speaker, Sam Rayburn, ruler of the House for more than two decades, a limousine as a present, attached to the back of the front seat was a plaque that read “To Our Beloved Sam Rayburn—Who Would Have Been President If He Had Come from Any Place but the South.”
During his first twenty years in Congress, through 1956, Lyndon Johnson’s 100 percent southern voting record on civil rights and his work as a southern strategist, a Richard Russell lieutenant, against rights bills—work that had won him the trust and respect of the “Georgia Giant” so completely that Russell anointed him to one day succeed him, and the Southern Bloc raised him to the Senate leadership—had put what one journalist called “the taint of magnolias” on Lyndon Johnson; in 1956, there had been no realistic possibility that the North would support him for the nomination, or that it would, should he be nom- inated, vote for him for President. He could never scrub off that taint completely, but during the year following the 1956 disappointment, he managed to remove part of it. Throughout his life, there had been hints that he possessed a true, deep compassion for the downtrodden, and particularly for poor people of color, along with a true, deep desire to raise them up. During his previous career, that compassion, subordinated always to ambition, had revealed itself only in brief flashes, quickly suppressed, but in 1957, compassion and ambition had finally come into alignment, pointing at last in the same direction. His allies in Washington told him bluntly what he already knew: that the crux of the North’s animosity to him was its belief that he was opposed to civil rights, and that the only way to dilute that animosity was to pass a civil rights bill. “Consequential action . . . is essential for LBJ,” warned a confidential memo he received from his supporter Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. Otherwise, Graham told him, he might wind up his career as only another southern legislative leader, “only to be (another) Dick Russell.” Corcoran, that ultimate Washington insider, was, as always, blunter; he was to recall telling Johnson flatly in 1957 that “If he didn’t pass a civil rights bill, he could just forget [the] 1960 [nominawtion].” And these warnings were being given to a man who didn’t need them. “If I failed to produce on this one,” Lyndon Johnson himself said, “everything I had built up over the years would be completely undone.” In 1957, he set out to pass a civil rights bill. And when, after months of effort, that attempt seemed to have failed, and he retreated to his ranch, as if to avoid being identified with another civil rights defeat, Rowe pursued him with a memo warning him that he had no choice but to come back and fight: “This is Armageddon for Lyndon Johnson. . . . I would not like to see the 1960 nomination go down the drain because of . . . 1957.” It had been upon receipt of that memo at the ranch that Lyndon Johnson had returned to Washington, and, in a monumental feat of legislative maneuvering, of bullying, cajoling, threatening, of lightning tactical decisions on the Senate floor, and of parliamentary genius on a grand scale, including a strategic masterstroke that brought into line behind his efforts, in a single trans- action, a dozen western senators, had succeeded in persuading his twenty-one fellow southern senators—the mighty “Southern Caucus”—to allow the passage of the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, eighty-two years earlier. It was not a strong bill. By the time Johnson had finished fashioning a compromise that the southerners would accept, provisions that would have enforced school desegregation and banned racial segregation in housing, hotels, restaurants and other public places—provisions liberals considered essential—had been removed; only a single civil right, voting, remained, and the provisions for enforcing that lone right proved largely useless. But the mere fact of the bill’s passage—that after eighty-two years in which every civil rights bill that reached the Senate had died there, one had finally been passed—was of historic signifi- cance. “It opened a major branch of American government to a tenth of the pop- ulation for which all legislative doors had been slammed shut,” Johnson’s longtime press secretary, George Reedy, said. And Johnson argued—in a con- tention that would be vindicated by history—that although there was only one right remaining in the bill, that was the right that mattered: that it gave blacks the power to at least begin fighting for other rights. Furthermore, he pointed out, once a bill was passed, it could be amended to correct its deficiencies. “It’s just a beginning,” he said. “We’ll do it again, in a couple of years. . . . Don’t worry, it’s only the first.”
Although passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act did not eliminate the distrust with which liberals viewed him—far from it; his previous record on civil rights was too long, and too southern, for that, the bill he had forced through too weak—his Washington allies felt that the sharpest edges of that distrust had been blunted. As for the southern senators, a key reason they had allowed the measure to pass was their hope that enactment of a bill with which Johnson was identified might, by lessening northern distrust of him, enable the South to get its first Pres- ident in a century; they were confident that as President, Johnson would keep civil rights reform to a minimum. He had, in years of private conversations, con- vinced the southerners that in his heart he was on their side. “We can never make him President unless the Senate first disposes of civil rights,” Russell had explained to Reedy. So if he ran for the 1960 nomination, expectations were that the eleven southern states would be solidly behind him—a bloc of 352 votes out of the 761 needed for nomination in the Democratic convention. And he had a real chance, political observers said, to go into the convention with a large bloc of votes from the West as well. Now, at last, was the moment Lyndon Johnson had been waiting for all his life. While Adlai Stevenson was still the idol of many Democratic liberals, his two losses in presidential campaigns disqualified him in the eyes of party professionals, and anyway he had said quite definitively that he would not be a candidate. The party’s perennial hopeful, Estes Kefauver of Ten- nessee (Adlai’s running mate in 1956), was distrusted by these same profession- als because of his stubborn independence. And Kefauver, like the other potential candidates, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Stuart Symington of Missouri, was a senator, and he, Lyndon Johnson, was the Senate’s Leader, their leader, the man they had to come to—and had been coming to, for years—for every large and small favor in the Senate pantry. As Lyndon Johnson surveyed the field in early 1958, none of these men seemed a particularly formidable opponent.
If he won the nomination, furthermore, he would not have to face Eisenhower, since the beloved President would have served the two terms the Constitution allowed. Neither of the two potential Republican nominees—William Knowland of California and Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon—would be nearly as formidable. Lyndon Johnson had positioned himself as well as was possible for a southern candidate. Now was the moment to strike.