The Presence of Fire
When you come into the presence of a leader of men, you know you have come into the presence of fire; that it is best not incautiously to touch that man; that there is something that makes it dangerous to cross him.
The room on the first floor of the Barbour County Courthouse in the little town of Eufaula, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk’s Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county’s Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections—not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
It was not a large room, and it was furnished very plainly. Its walls, white and in need of a fresh coat of paint, were adorned only by black-and-white photographs of former county officials. Against the rear wall stood a row of battered old filing cabinets that contained records of deeds and mortgages and applications for driver’s licenses, and in front of the cabinets were six small, utilitarian gray metal office desks, each with a small, worn chair. Then there was a waist-high wooden counter at which people doing business with the County Clerk’s Office usually stood. Today, the three registrars were standing behind the counter, and the applicants were standing in the bare space in front of it. No one offered them a chair, and the registrars didn’t bother to pull up chairs for themselves, because the hearing wasn’t going to take very long.
Trying to register to vote took courage for black people in Alabama in 1957, even when physical intimidation or violence wasn’t employed to discourage them—as it often was. Everyone knew about black men who had registered and who shortly thereafter had been told by their employers that they no longer had a job, or about black farmers who, the following spring, went to the bank as usual for their annual “crop loan”—the advance they needed to buy the seed for the crop they were planning to plant that year—only to be informed that this year there would be no loan, and who had therefore lost their farms, and had had to load their wives and children into their rundown cars and drive away, sometimes with no place to go. Indeed, David Frost, the husband of Margaret Frost, one of the three applicants that August day, would never forget how, after he himself had registered some years before, a white man had told him that “the white folks are the nigger’s friend as long as the nigger stays in his place,” but that “I had got out of my place if I was going to vote along with the white man,” and how, for months thereafter, instead of calling him “David” or “Boy” as they usually did, white people called him by the word he “just hated, hated”: “Nigger”—pronounced in Alabama dialect, “Nigra”—and how, when they learned he was planning to actually vote, a car filled with men had stopped in front of his house one night and shot out the porch lights, and how, cowering inside, he had thought of calling the police, until, as the car drove away, he saw it was a police car.
And of course there was the humiliation of the registration hearings themselves. Many county Boards of Registrars required black applicants to pass an oral test before they would be given the certificate of registration that would make them eligible to vote, and the questions were often on the hard side—name all of Alabama’s sixty-seven county judges; what was the date Oklahoma was admitted to the Union?—and sometimes very hard indeed: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
The Barbour County registrars used a less sophisticated technique. They asked more reasonable questions—the names of local, state, and national officials—but if an applicant missed even one question, he would not be given the application that had to be filled out before he could receive a certificate, and somehow, even if a black applicant felt sure he had answered every question correctly, often the registrars would say there was one he had missed, although they would refuse to tell him which it was. Margaret Frost had already experienced this technique, for she had tried to register before—in January of 1957—and forty years later, when she was an elderly woman, she could still remember how, after she had answered several questions, the Board’s chairman, William (Beel) Stokes, had told her she had missed one, adding, “You all go home and study a little more,” and she could still remember how carefully blank the faces of Stokes and his two colleagues had been, the amusement showing only in their eyes.
Nonetheless, despite the humiliation of her earlier hearing in the County Clerk’s Office, Mrs. Frost—a soft-spoken woman of thirty-eight—had returned to that dingy room to stand in front of that counter again. “I was scared I would do something wrong,” she recalls. “I was nervous. Shaky. Scared that the white people would do something to me.” But, she says, “I wanted to be a citizen,” truly a part of her country, and she felt that voting was part of being a citizen. “I figure all citizens, you know, should be able to vote.” In the months since January, she had, with her husband asking her questions, studied, over and over, all the questions she felt the Board might ask, until she thought she would be able to answer every one. And on August 2, she put on her best clothes and went down to the courthouse again.
As it turned out, however, the diligence with which Margaret Frost had studied turned out to be irrelevant, because the Board examined her and the two other applicants as a group, and one of them wasn’t as well prepared as she.
When she asked Stokes for an application, he said, “There’s twelve questions you have to answer before we give you an application.” He asked just two. Mrs. Frost answered them both correctly, as did one of the other applicants. But the third applicant answered the second question incorrectly, and Stokes told them that therefore they had all failed. “You all go home and study a little more,” he said.
Margaret Frost left the room quietly, and she never sued or took any other legal action to try to force the Board to register her. Doing so, however, would almost certainly not have helped. In August, 1957, black Americans in the South who were denied the right to vote, and who asked a lawyer (if they could find a lawyer who would take their case) what law would assist them to do so, were informed that there was no such law—and that information was accurate. Summarizing the situation, a study made that same year by the United States Department of Justice concluded that “There is no adequate legal remedy” for a person who had been denied a registration certificate by a county Board of Registrars.
The scene that had occurred in the Eufaula courthouse was not an unusual one in the American South in 1957. After the Civil War almost a century before, there had been an attempt to make black Americans more a part of their country, to give them the basic rights of citizens—which included, of course, a citizen’s right to vote—and in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution had supposedly guaranteed that right, forbidding any state to “deny or abridge” the “right of citizens . . . to vote” because of their race or color. But the amendment proved to be an insufficient guarantee in the eleven southern states that had seceded from the Union and formed the rebel Confederacy; specific laws to give the amendment force and make it meaningful—federal laws, since there was no realistic possibility that any southern state would pass an effective statute—were going to be necessary. During the eighty-seven years since the Fifteenth Amendment had been ratified, scores, indeed hundreds, of proposed federal laws had been introduced in the Congress of the United States to ensure that black Americans would have in fact as well as theory the right to vote. Not one of these bills had passed. And in Barbour County, in which there were approximately equal numbers of black Americans and white Americans, out of 7,158 blacks of voting age in 1957, exactly 200—one out of thirty-five—had the right to vote, while 6,521 whites had that right. In Alabama as a whole, out of 516,336 blacks who were eligible to vote, only 52,336—little more than one out of ten—had managed to register. For the eleven southern states as a whole, out of more than six million blacks eligible to vote, only 1,200,000—one out of five—had registered. And of course, even those blacks who had registered to vote often didn’t dare go to the polls to cast ballots, because of fear of violence or economic retaliation. In 1957, there were scores of counties in the South which had tens of thousands of black residents, but in which, in some elections, not a single vote had been cast by a black.
The room in another city eight hundred miles to the northeast—in Washington, D.C.—was hardly more impressive than the Eufaula County Clerk’s Office. It was L-shaped, and the short leg of the L was lined with telephone booths only slightly larger than conventional booths and distinguished from them only by a small light bulb above each one that was lit when the booth was in use. The other leg—the main part of the room—was narrow and drab, its two long walls a pale tan in color and undecorated except for a few black-and-white lithographs and dull green draperies. Aside from a rickety little desk and a small fireplace on the right wall and a pair of swinging doors on the left, both walls were lined with couches and armchairs covered in cracked brown leather, and they were set so close together that their arms almost touched. On the room’s far wall, however, was a feature that didn’t fit in with the rest of the furnishings: a huge mirror. Twice as tall as a man and wide enough to fill almost the entire wall, bordered in a broad frame of heavy gold leaf, it was a mirror out of another age, a mirror large enough for a man to watch as he swirled a cloak around himself and to check the way it sat on his shoulders—or, having removed the cloak and handed it to a waiting pageboy, to check every detail of his appearance before he pushed open those swinging doors. And when those doors swung open, suddenly, framed between them in the instant before they swung shut again, were long arcs of darkly glowing mahogany, semi-circles of desks whose deep reddish-brown surfaces had been burnished so highly that they gleamed richly with the reflection of lights in the ceiling high above them. There were ninety-six desks. The narrow room, drab though it was, was one of the cloakrooms, the Democratic cloakroom, of the United States Senate.
The cloakroom was generally rather empty, a comfortable, comradely place whose manners as well as furniture resembled those of a men’s club (the only woman among the ninety-six senators was a Republican), a place of handshaking and backslapping and bluff camaraderie; a sleepy place—literally sleepy, since among the dozen or so senators present on a typical afternoon, several elderly men might be taking naps in the armchairs. In that August of 1957, however, the cloakroom was often crowded, with senators talking earnestly on sofas and standing in animated little groups, and sometimes the glances between various groups were not comradely at all—sometimes, in fact, they glinted with a barely concealed hostility, and the narrow room simmered with tension, for the main issue before the Senate that summer was civil rights, a proposed law intended to make voting easier for millions of black Americans like Margaret Frost, and the liberals among the Democratic senators were grimly determined to pass that law, and the southerners among the Democrats were grimly determined that it should not be passed.
The liberals in the Democratic cloakroom—the majority cloakroom; there were forty-nine Democratic senators in 1957 and forty-seven Republicans—included some of the great figures of the fight for social justice in America in the middle of the twentieth century. Among them was Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota, who as a crusading young mayor had courageously fought not only underworld gambling interests but the racial and religious bias that had made Minneapolis “the anti-Semitism capital of America”—one of the mightiest orators of his generation, he had, in the face of warnings that he was fatally damaging his career, delivered one of the most memorable convention addresses in the nation’s history, a speech that roused the 1948 Democratic National Convention to defy the wishes of its leaders and adopt a tough civil rights plank. Among the other liberals in the cloakroom were white-maned Paul Douglas of Illinois, war hero and renowned professor of economics, who had battled for rights for black Americans on a dozen fronts with the same unwavering independence with which he had taken on Chicago’s rapacious public utilities and corrupt political machine, and Estes Kefauver, who had won his Senate seat by defeating Tennessee’s notorious, venal—and racist—Crump Machine. Among them, too, was a younger senator who would become a great figure: John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts.
With the exception of Kennedy, the names of these senators, and of others, too—Wayne Morse of Oregon, Stuart Symington of Missouri, Frank Church of Idaho, Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington—would be all but forgotten forty years later, when this book was being written, so exclusively had the history of America come to be thought of in terms of America’s Presidents, but in 1957, these men were icons of the liberal cause. In their ranks were eloquent orators, profound believers in social justice, senators of principles and ideals. Their ranks included senators who had long stood staunchly for the rights of man. And now, in 1957, these heroes of liberalism were united behind the latest civil rights bill, all of them determined that this year, at last, a civil rights bill would be passed.
Yet, eloquent though they were, courageous and determined though they were, honorable as their motives may have been, these men had been eloquent, courageous, determined and honorable in many previous fights for civil rights legislation, and each time they had lost. If, for eighty-seven years, every attempt to enact federal voting rights legislation had been blocked in Congress, most of the more significant of these bills had been blocked in the Senate, for it was in the Senate that the power of what had come to be called the “Southern Bloc”—the congressional delegations from the eleven former Confederate states—was strongest. And the situation was virtually the same with the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been passed two years before the Fifteenth—in 1868—supposedly to guarantee black Americans “the equal protection of the law” in areas of life outside the voting booth. During the intervening decades, generations of senators committed to the rights of black Americans—Progressives, reformers, liberals; from Charles Sumner of the mid-nineteenth century to Herbert Lehman of the mid-twentieth—had attempted to pass laws that would make that amendment effective. Hundreds of pieces of legislation had been proposed—bills to give black Americans equality in education, in employment, in housing, in transportation, in public accommodations, as well as to protect them against being beaten, and burned, and mutilated—against the mob violence called “lynching.” Exactly one of those bills had passed—in 1875—and that lone statute had later been declared unconstitutional. It was not, therefore, only in the area of voting rights that black Americans had been denied the help of the law. No civil rights legislation of any type had been written permanently into the statute books of the United States since the ratification of the Fifteen Amendment. And, despite the determination that this latest generation of liberal senators had displayed in the civil rights battles they had waged in recent years, not only had they been unable to reach their goal, they were not getting closer to it; rather, it was receding from them. In the last
battle—in the previous year, 1956—not only had a civil rights bill been crushed in the Senate, it had been crushed by a margin greater than ever before.
In this summer of 1957, it seemed all but certain that the liberals—and the black Americans like Margaret Frost for whom they were fighting—were going to lose again. Among Democratic senators, it was not the liberals who held the power in the Senate; it was the senators who stood in their own, separate groups: the southerners. Of the eight most powerful Senate committees, the southerners held the chairmanships of five; another was held by a dependable ally of the South. And the southerners were led by a senator, Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, who during a quarter of a century in the Senate had never lost a civil rights fight, a legislative strategist so masterful that he had, in long years of uninterrupted victory, been called the South’s greatest general since Robert E. Lee. Russell was a senator whose name is also all but lost to history, so that most Americans touring Washington today hardly know for whom the “Russell Senate Office Building” is named, but during his years in the Senate he was a figure so towering that an admiring journalist would recall years later, “Back then, when the U.S. got into trouble and Truman or Ike or Kennedy asked for help, Russell would gather up his six-foot frame, stick a forefinger into his somber vest and amble down those dim corridors to see if he could help his country. Everybody watching felt better when he arrived.”
. . .
In the cloakroom as well, however, standing near its center, the focus of activity in it, was another senator, the Democratic Leader and hence the Senate’s Majority Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
He was not a member of the liberal faction, far from it. His state, Texas, had been one of the eleven Confederate states, and his accent was often (not always, for his accent changed depending on whom he was talking to) the same syrupy southern drawl as that of the Barbour County registrar, and he used many of the same words and phrases—including the word that David Frost hated; Lyndon Johnson was, in fact, using that word a lot in the Democratic cloakroom that Summer. “Be ready to take up the goddamned nigra bill again,” he told one of the southern senators, Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Walking over to a group of southerners, he told them there was no choice but to take it up, and to pass at least part of it. “I’m on your side, not theirs,” he told them. “But be practical. We’ve got to give the goddamned niggers something.” “Listen,” he told James Eastland of Mississippi, who was anxious to adjourn for the year, “we might as well face it. We’re not gonna be able to get out of here until we’ve got some kind of nigger bill.”
Johnson’s voting record—a record twenty years long, dating back to his arrival in the House of Representatives in 1937 and continuing up to that very day—was consistent with the accent and the word. During those twenty years, he had never supported civil rights legislation—any civil rights legislation. In Senate and House alike, his record was an unbroken one of votes against every civil rights bill that had ever come to a vote: against voting rights bills; against bills that would have struck at job discrimination and at segregation in other areas of American life; even against bills that would have protected blacks from lynching. His first speech in the Senate—a ringing defense of the filibuster that was a key southern tactic—had opened with the words “We of the South,” and thereafter, as this book will demonstrate, he had been not merely a member of the Senate’s southern anti–civil rights bloc, but an active member; not merely one of the senatorial “sentries” whom Richard Russell deployed on the floor to make sure that the liberals could not sneak a bill through (although he was a vigilant sentry), but one of the South’s strategists. He had been raised to power by the Southern Bloc, had been elected Democratic Leader through its support. He was, in fact, the protégé, the anointed successor, of the bloc’s great general, the senator Richard Russell had chosen to carry its banner when he himself should one day be forced to lay it down.
Johnson’s methods, moreover, were different from the methods of the liberals, not a few of whom disliked and deeply distrusted him. They spoke of principles and ideals—the traumas of his youth had made him despise men who spoke in such abstractions; calling them “crazies” and “bomb-throwers,” he cut off their attempts to move conversations to high ground by saying, “It’s not the job of a politician to go around saying principled things.” While they spoke of kindness, compassion, decency, he had already displayed a pragmatism and ruthlessness striking even to Washington insiders who had thought themselves calloused to the pragmatism of politics. While the Douglases and Humphreys spoke of truth and honor, he was deceitful, and proud of it: at that moment, in the Democratic cloakroom, as he talked first to a liberal, then to a conservative, walked over first to a southern group and then to a northern, he was telling liberals one thing, conservatives the opposite, and asserting both positions with equal, and seemingly total, conviction. Tough politicians though some of the liberals were, they felt themselves bound, to one degree or another, by at least some fundamental rules of conduct; he seemed to feel himself bound by nothing; he had to win every fight in which he became involved, said men and women who had known him for a long time—“had to win, had to!”—and to win he sometimes committed acts of great cruelty.
But he was about to become—beginning in that summer of 1957—the greatest champion that the liberal senators, and Margaret Frost and the millions of other black Americans, had had since, almost a century before, there had been a President named Lincoln.
On the Senate floor, late each morning, a clerk might be desultorily shuffling papers on the dais, pages might be strolling through the deserted arcs of desks, laying out the Daily Calendar and the drafts of bills, one or two senators might be standing chatting near the door of each cloakroom, down in the well a little knot of journalists, assembled for the daily briefing by the party leaders, might be listening to Minority Leader William Knowland talk, in his ponderous, droning way, about the day’s schedule—the Senate Chamber was the sleepy, slow-moving place it had always been.
And then, shortly before noon, the tall double doors at the rear of the Chamber’s center aisle would swing open—wide open, so hard had they been pushed—and Lyndon Johnson would be coming through them. As they swung, he would, without pausing, snatch the brown file folder Gerry Siegel was holding out to him, and toss an order to George Reedy out of the side of his mouth. And then he would be coming down the aisle’s four broad steps with a long, fast stride. Seeing the journalists’ heads turn, Knowland, realizing Johnson was approaching, would stop talking. He would sit down at his desk, waiting to hear what the Majority Leader had to say.
Johnson would stand by his desk, in the center of that broad semi-circle of shining mahogany. Since he was on the first step, six inches higher than the floor of the well where the journalists were standing, he would be looking down at them from a height even greater than his own, and he also looked even taller than he was because the desk was so small. His thinning black hair was slicked down smooth, so that as his face turned to one side, there was nothing to soften that massive skull, or the sharp jut of the big jaw and the big nose, and when the face turned back, his eyes, under the heavy eyebrows, were those intent, intense dark eyes, always wary, that could in an instant narrow into slits and become so intimidating. And under the eyes was the grim tough line of Lyndon Johnson’s mouth. “He would stand there very erect, so tall and confident, just the model of a take-charge man,” recalls one of the journalists. “There was a nervous vitality that just poured out of him, almost an animal energy.”
And his physical presence wasn’t the only reason he seemed so big.
Other Majority Leaders who had met with reporters before each day’s Senate session had traditionally been accompanied by assistants to fill in the details of the answers to the reporters’ questions. No assistant accompanied Lyndon Johnson: he didn’t need any; he knew the details himself. The file folder that Siegel had prepared contained the day’s agenda, the Calendar of Bills, with notes on senators’ views about various bills, and brief statements Johnson was to give. In the memory of the reporters who met with him regularly, Lyndon Johnson never—not once—opened that folder. “Somebody might ask him about some minor bill,” one reporter says. “He’d say, ‘Oh, that’s Calendar Number so-and-so.’ He knew the numbers without looking. Or he’d say, ‘That’s not been discussed in committee yet. Looks like it might be coming out of the subcommittee this week.’ He knew where each bill was—exactly where it was.” He knew the activities that had occurred in the various committee and subcommittee hearing rooms that morning—the arguments that had been made, the actions that had been taken—as if he had been present in every room. “If you said, ‘Look, such-and-such committee just amended that amendment,’ he would say, ‘That new amendment is there because . . .’ He seemed to know every aspect of everything the Senate had done or was going to do.” Says another reporter: “He knew the Republican strategy, too—how we didn’t know. He might say, ‘Now, we’re going to debate an hour on this. However, the other side will try to amend the amendment. . . .’ ”
He knew exactly what he wanted to say—what he wanted the journalists to know—and he said nothing more. As the journalists looked up at him, the clock over the double doors at the rear of the center aisle was in their line of vision, so they were constantly reminded that the bell would ring, bringing the Senate to order and their time to ask questions to an end, precisely at noon. “He not only had his physical, dominating presence, but the clock behind him,” one of the reporters recalls. Not that he needed that assistance—or any assistance. “There would be little time for questions,” Booth Mooney would recall. “Nor any need for them, in Johnson’s opinion. The Majority Leader of the Senate had given them a basis for their stories. What more could they ask?” If there was a question that annoyed him, recalls one of the journalists, “he would answer the question. But he would put a spin on it, so he would be saying it his way.” That was the only way he answered any question. “You didn’t get any more than Lyndon Johnson wanted to tell you,” a journalist says. “Never. I don’t think, in all those years, he ever slipped up. He knew exactly what he wanted to say—and that was what he said. Period. I never felt in all those years that he ever lost control [of one of those press conferences in the well]. He was always in charge.”
Part of the aura that surrounded Johnson as he stood front-row center in the Senate Chamber was, as some of the reporters acknowledge, “the buildup, the accrual—the knowledge we had of what this guy had done, of what this guy could do. Of what he wanted to be.” It was an aura of triumphs won, of triumphs anticipated. But the aura was more than reputation. “Power just emanated from him,” another of the reporters says. “There was that look he gave. There was the way he held his head. Even if you didn’t know who he was, you would know this was a guy to be reckoned with. You would feel: don’t cross this guy. He was so big! And he would look around the Chamber—it was like he was saying, ‘This is my turf.’ ” More than a century before, a rider encountering big-eared, blazing-eyed John Wheeler Bunton on the Texas plains wrote of his unusual “bearing,” others spoke of his “towering form” and “commanding presence.” For more than a century, those words and phrases had been applied to generation after generation of Buntons. Now they were being applied to the Bunton who had become Majority Leader of the Senate. “He had the bearing of a man on a pedestal,” one of the reporters in the well recalls. “He had the bearing of a man in command.”
Then, at noon, the bells would ring, and the gavel of the senator in the chair—the senator Lyndon Johnson had put in the chair—would rap, and the Senate would convene. And Lyndon Johnson would still be in command.
The first words from Richard Nixon or Walter George, or whoever was presiding in their place—after the chaplain’s prayer and the ritualistic “The Senate will be in order”—were “The chair recognizes the Senator from Texas,” and for some time thereafter, Johnson, standing at his desk in the center of the first row, would be the only senator recognized. It would be he who, after disposing of the parliamentary preliminaries (“On request of Mr. Johnson of Texas, and by unanimous consent, the reading of the Journal of the Proceedings of May 25, 1955, was dispensed with”), made the requests—the requests that only he could make—for permission for committees or subcommittees to meet although the Senate was in session. (“On request of Mr. Johnson of Texas, and by unanimous consent, the Subcommittee on Judicial Improvements of the Committee on the Judiciary was authorized to meet during the session today”), the requests that had once been automatic but that were no longer so automatic, that were an exercise of his power. It was he who ordered up the executive session (“Mr. President, I move that the Senate proceed to the consideration of executive business.” “Without objection, so ordered”), and it was he who, during that session, shepherded the Senate through the Advise and Consent functions on nominations (“The Chief Clerk read the nomination of Admiral Arthur William Radford to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. . . . The Chief Clerk read the nomination of General Maxwell Davenport Taylor to be Chief of Staff, United States Army. . . . The Chief Clerk read the nomination of General Nathan Farragut Twining to be Chief of Staff, United States Air Force . . . mr. johnson of Texas: “Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the nominations be confirmed en bloc.” “Without objection, so ordered”) and on treaties as well (“Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that these treaties be considered as having passed through their various parliamentary stages up to and including the presentation of the resolutions of ratification, that the Senate take one vote on the treaties, and that President Eisenhower be notified of the Senate’s action.” “All those in favor of ratification, please stand and be counted. . . . Two-thirds of those senators present having voted in the affirmative, the resolutions of ratification are agreed to”). It was he who ended the executive session, and moved that the Senate return to legislative business. It was he who ordered up the morning hour, with its speeches, “subject to the usual two-minute limitation,” and it was he who ended the morning hour. And it was he who, after the morning hour, stood again at his desk to recite the formula—the formula that, by Senate custom, only he could recite—that was so vital to senators: “Mr. President, I move that the Senate proceed to the immediate consideration of Calendar No. 394, Senate Bill 2080, a bill for the relief of Oakley F. Dodd”; “Mr. President I move that the Senate proceed to the immediate consideration of S. 2083, a bill to authorize a preliminary examination and survey of the channel leading from Indian River Bay to Assawaman Canal, Delaware.” After each of these Calendar Calls, the legislative clerk had to participate in the ritual, stating the bill by its full title (“A bill [S. 2083] to amend the Water Pollution Control Act in order to . . .”), and if the clerk was not reading fast enough, Johnson would become impatient. As he stood beside his desk, he was separated from the clerks on the second level of the dais only by the few feet of the well, and his eyes were on a level with theirs. “C’mon, c’mon, let’s get going,” he would say to the clerk facing him across the well, and a few bills later, “C’mon, GET GOING!” Senators watching Lyndon Johnson intone the ritualistic words that called a bill off the Calendar would know that they had bills over which they wanted—needed—that ritual intoned, and that only Lyndon Johnson could intone it.
It was Lyndon Johnson who called up the non-controversial bills that had been reported out of committees, moved their consideration and shepherded them efficiently through the process of passage. After the presiding officer had ordered a clerk to “state the bill by title for the information of the Senate,” and had then said, “The question is on agreeing to the motion of the Senator from Texas,” Johnson would either have the committee chairman briefly explain the measure—“I call the motion to the attention of the distinguished senator from Oklahoma”—or would briefly explain it himself.
And it was Lyndon Johnson who gave the Senate its schedule—in a tone of authority that let the Senate know that it was he, and he alone, who was establishing that schedule.
“Mr. President,” he would say, “I wish the Senate to be on notice that the Senate will consider on next Tuesday the State Department Appropriation Bill. The mutual security bill probably will be reported to the Senate by then and be available for consideration on that day. It is my understanding that the Committee on Banking and Currency hopes to report a housing bill. If it is reported as expected, it is my hope that the housing bill be considered sometime next week. If action can be had on the minimum wage bill, it is my plan to schedule it for consideration by the Senate as soon as it is reported out of committee.” He would make verbal gestures toward those who presumably were also involved in the scheduling process—“If the committees will report the bills—and I do not urge them to do so until they have thoroughly considered them and have reached full accord on them—the Policy Committee, and I am sure the Minority Leader will cooperate as he has in the past, will schedule the bills quickly.” But at the slightest hint that some other member of the Senate was daring to interject himself, no matter how slightly, in the process, Johnson reminded him who was in charge. In May, 1955, for example, Republican Charles Potter of Michigan, whose state was vitally interested in an early vote on the Great Lakes Fisheries Convention, a treaty with Canada, ventured to press Johnson a bit too hard on when the vote might be taken.
“When did [the Majority Leader] say he would call up the Convention?” Potter asked.
“The distinguished senator from Michigan has spoken with me on several occasions about the Fisheries Convention,” Johnson replied. “I am anxious to cooperate with him, as he has always cooperated with the Democratic side of the aisle, particularly with the leadership. If it is possible to call up the Convention on next Tuesday, it will be done.” On such occasions, Johnson’s tone indicated clearly that if it wasn’t possible, it wouldn’t be done. And sena-
tors hearing the exchange could hardly help being reminded of what might have happened to Potter’s cherished treaty if he had not “always cooperated with . . . the leadership.”
These matters of scheduling were mostly routine, on non-controversial bills. But there were also the controversial bills, the major legislation. Passage of such legislation—winning on the major bills—was as difficult for Lyndon Johnson as it had always been for Majority Leaders, for he was in as precarious a position as any of his predecessors; what position, indeed, could be more precarious than that of a Leader with a one-vote margin, particularly when the party that was supposed to provide that margin was divided as deeply as his was divided? The Senate as a whole was divided on almost every major issue; with blocs of senators—Mountain States senators, Prairie States senators, Northeast urban votes, Southern Caucus votes—certain to oppose one issue or another, there were few proposals on which a majority vote was certain.
Because of these divisions, passage of most significant legislation required putting together, for each bill, a new, unique, collection of votes, and the margin would always be narrow—every vote counted. And Lyndon Johnson needed on each separate major bill votes not only for the bill but for the unanimous consent agreement that alone could insure that the bill could be brought to a vote, and that the differences between voting blocs and between individual senators had been sufficiently bridged so that when the votes were counted he would have a majority. So each major bill was the subject of countless negotiations.
Some took place in the Chamber, on the Senate floor—on that floor on which, for generations, the prevailing pace had been the slow, hesitant steps of old men, on which the prevailing attitude had been the extremely dignified, or overdignified, senatorial pomposity, on which the prevailing parliamentary procedure had often seemed to be the quorum call, the prevailing sound the drone of insignificant rituals.
Now Lyndon Johnson was in charge of that floor. One moment he would be sitting down beside Kerr or Anderson on one of the couches in the rear of the Chamber, the next, he was up buttonholing a senator who had just entered, joking with him, draping an arm around his shoulders, and then talking confidentially to him, bending close to his ear. Then, seeing another senator come in, he would be off to greet him, crossing the long Chamber. He would be throwing himself into the chair next to Richard Russell and talking with him out of the side of his mouth, or sitting down next to Walter George, and, leaning forward, be bringing him up to date on the activities of the day, or, jumping up, would be heading across to another senator. Sometimes he would throw himself down in his own chair, and, stretching his long legs out into the center aisle, or crossing them, would lean far back into the chair and slouch down until he seemed to be resting on the nape of his neck and the small of his back. He might sit like that, lost in thought, for several minutes. And then, having arrived at some decision, he would lunge up out of the chair and stride rapidly over to some senator and begin talking to him.
Even standing still, Lyndon Johnson was somehow always in motion, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, restlessly shifting his shoulders, one big hand plunging into a pants pocket to jingle coins or the keys on his big key ring, the other scratching his back—or scratching other parts of his body, too, for some of the motions Lyndon Johnson made front-row center on the great stage of the Senate floor were those intimate motions that embarrassed other men even in the relative privacy of Johnson’s office. The reporters in the Press Gallery would nudge each other and giggle when, jamming a hand into a side pocket of his pants, the Leader quite openly scratched his crotch, bending one leg and leaning far over as he did so, one shoulder much lower than the other, the better to reach hard-to-reach recesses of his body; sometimes, taking out his inhaler, he would tilt his head so far back that he was staring straight up at the ceiling, and shoving the inhaler far up his nose, he would snort so vigorously as he inhaled that the snorts were clearly audible up in the Gallery. Sometimes, standing there, he might jam both hands into his pockets and rise up on his toes as he glanced around the Chamber with that air of command.
As the day wore on and the routine business was disposed of, and the crucial votes began to loom closer, his conversations would take on more intensity. Grasping a senator’s arm, he would take him off to the side of the Chamber for a quiet talk. One of his arms would be firmly around his colleague’s shoulders, and after a while, his other hand would begin to jab, jab toward the other senator as he made his points. The jabs would no longer stop in midair; Lyndon Johnson’s long forefinger would begin to poke into the other senator’s chest. Or that hand—the other arm would still be around the shoulders, lest the senator try to get away—would reach out and take the senator’s lapel, gently at first, but then harder, grabbing the lapel, pulling the senator closer or pushing him back. And Lyndon Johnson’s big head would be down in the other senator’s face, or, twisting and cocking, coming up into that face from below.
And he would be moving faster and faster, throwing himself down into a chair beside one senator to whisper urgently to him for a moment, then bounding up the steps to talk to another at the rear of the Chamber, then, seeing another on the far side of the Chamber, crossing the center aisle, hurrying through the Republican desks with those long strides, leaning forward in his haste. Or he would beckon Bobby Baker over to him, lean far down to whisper right in Baker’s ear so that no one else could possibly hear, and Baker would dart away. Or Baker would rush out of the cloakroom and over to Johnson and whisper up into his ear, and Johnson would rush up to the cloakroom. “And even if he was just standing there jingling the coins, you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” says Robert Barr of U.S. News & World Report. “If you were a spectator and you didn’t know who he was, you would wonder [who he was]—because of this unbelievable restless energy that emanated from him.” The Senate Chamber which had been so sleepy and slow, was now, suddenly, a room filled with energy and passion.
Then the unanimous consent agreement would be almost finalized—almost but not completely. Or, if the agreement was finalized, the times fixed in writing at which the roll would be called on the amendments and the final bill, he might have almost enough votes for passage—almost but not enough. And all too often in that divided and stubborn Senate, it seemed as if he would not be able, despite all his efforts, to get enough. And he had to have enough, had to win.
Striding up the aisle, Lyndon Johnson would push open the double doors to the Democratic cloakroom. Bobby Baker would hold out a tally sheet; Johnson would snatch it out of his hand. And Baker, who had been trying to make sure that all Johnson’s votes would be on the floor when they needed to be, would also have lists of the senators whom he had been unable to locate, or who had other commitments and had said they couldn’t be present, or who, for one reason or another, did not want to vote “with the leadership” on the upcoming bill. And he would have information for Johnson about disputes between two senators, or about the bill—amendments on which there was still no acceptable compromise.
“Get ’em on the line for me,” Johnson would say, and Baker would give the numbers to the telephone clerks, and the first call would go through into Booth Ten, the telephone booth closest to the clerks’ desks.
The matter to be discussed might be only one of attendance, and then Johnson might only say into the telephone: “Lister, we’re gonna motion up the District bill tonight, and Ah want you to be standin’ by. Ah’ll need you over here. Ah’m not even gonna tell the Republicans until Ah bring it up. And Ah want you guys to be ready.”
But the matter might be more delicate. Then the door to Booth Ten would close, and a senator or aide passing by would see Lyndon Johnson hunched over the phone inside. One hand would be holding a cigarette, from which he would take frequent deep drags. The other would be holding the receiver, and Johnson’s mouth would be very close to it. As he spoke into it, he would sometimes rise to his feet, his tall body filling the booth, or he might remain seated and hunched over on the little seat, but, standing or sitting, if he was having difficulty persuading the senator on the other end of the line to his way of thinking, Lyndon Johnson’s whole being would be poured into that persuasion. His head would be bowed low over the mouthpiece, and sometimes as he talked and he became more and more wound up in his effort, he would lower his head until it was beneath the receiver, and then it would cock to one side and come up under the receiver as if it was the senator’s face.
Sometimes Johnson would want to make sure that nobody could hear what he was saying. “If you stepped out of Booth Ten you could see the whole cloakroom,” one of the telephone clerks recalls, “and he would stand up, open the door [of the booth] and look around the corner to see if anyone could hear.” Then Lyndon Johnson would duck back into Booth Ten to say the things he didn’t want anyone else to hear.
What he said might have the desired result, and he would replace the receiver, step out of the booth, and snatch up the phone in the next booth, where the clerks had another senator waiting on the phone. Or it might not have the desired result. Then, as the conversation came to a close, Johnson, still inside the booth, door closed, might kick the booth as he hung up, or pound his fist into its wall. In the cloakroom, men would watch the booth shaking with the Leader’s rage. Or, stepping out of the booth after hanging up the phone, his face the “thundercloud” that men feared, he would kick the outside of the booth, “viciously,” as one Senate staffer puts it, or slam the door.
By this time, there would be lights, signals that senators were waiting for him on the line, over several booths. “He would go right down the row, getting his players lined up,” the telephone clerk says.
Often, while he was talking to one senator, a call he needed to take immediately would come in on another line. A clerk would tap timidly on the door of the booth in which Johnson was talking, and tell him the other senator was ready. Stepping out of the booth, the telephone still in his hand, the cord stretching with him, Johnson would reach into the other booth and take that receiver, and then stand between the two booths, with the cords stretching out from them to his hands. Or he might want to talk to two or three or even four of his “players”—senators with disagreements about the same amendment—at the same time, and he talked to them at the same time, on two or three or four phones, standing in the narrow aisle between the two rows of phone booths with a receiver, or two receivers, grasped in each big hand, talking first into one receiver, then into another, long black cords stretching out from his tall figure in all directions.
Sometimes this telephone persuasion would be successful. Then, moving from booth to booth, Johnson would slam the receivers back into their cradles, a thin smile of satisfaction on his face. Sometimes it wouldn’t. Then, with a grimace of disgust and fury, Johnson would drop the receivers, or hurl them to the floor so hard that they bounced and their cords would still be quivering when a clerk scurried to pick them up. He would smash his foot into one of the booths so hard that it shook, and as he strode out of the cloakroom back entrance to collect himself in the corridor outside, the telephone area still vibrated with Lyndon Johnson’s rage.
“Or,” the clerk recalls, “he might look around the corner of Booth Ten to see if anyone was in the cloakroom that he wanted to work on.” If there was, Lyndon Johnson would go over to him, to persuade in person.
The quarry might be seated on one of the leather couches that lined the cloakroom walls. They were low and soft—ideal locales for persuasion, in the words of the clerk “good places for him to pin a senator into so that he couldn’t get away.”
Approaching the senator, Johnson would lean over him, perhaps chatting amiably for a moment or two about inconsequential matters, but with his weight resting on one hand that had been placed on the back of the couch, close by the senator’s shoulder. Then, switching to the real subject of the conversation, Johnson would sit down beside him. The hand would remain on the back of the couch, so that when Johnson, continuing to talk, leaned forward to look the senator more directly in the face, his arm would be stretched out beside the other man’s head. In the urgency of his appeal, Johnson would lean further forward, sliding to the edge of his seat, and twist his body so it was more in front of the senator. Then he would cross the leg furthest from the senator over the knee closest to the other man. Already faced with the difficulty of pushing up from those deep, soft cushions, the senator would find the difficulty increased by the fact that not only was there a big arm like a bar on one side of him, but also a big leg like a bar in front of him. If the senator exhibited signs of restlessness, Johnson would grab the ankle of that leg with his free hand, so that there were in effect two bars in front of the senator, not to mention a size 11 shoe in front of his face; “the poor guy,” the clerk notes, “couldn’t get out.”
With the senator’s continued presence thus assured, the first Johnson arm, the one that had been resting on the back of the couch, would stretch along it, so that the senator was almost completely surrounded. And the trap would be tightened. As Johnson talked faster and faster, that heavy arm would come down around the senator’s shoulders, hugging them. His hand would grasp the senator’s shoulder firmly. He would lean further and further into him, the hand that had been on his own ankle now on the senator’s knee or thigh. “I can still see those big meaty hands,” the clerk would recall decades later. “One would be massaging the poor guy’s shoulder, and the other one would be grabbing his leg. I can still see Johnson leaning into him.” His face would be very close to the senator’s now, pushing closer and closer, his head coming up under his companion’s so that the senator’s head was often forced back against the back of the couch. No matter how much he may have wanted to retreat further, he couldn’t, and as he was held helpless, Johnson would talk faster and faster, pleading, cajoling, threatening.
Some of these sessions on the cloakroom couches—or in the deep, soft cloakroom armchairs, better even than the couches for Johnson’s purposes, since by sitting down on one armrest and stretching an arm across to the other, he could imprison its occupant more effectively—lasted quite a long time. He had to win, and to win he needed the senator’s vote. And he wasn’t going to get up until he got it. “I’ve seen him devote an hour to work on one senator,” the clerk says.
Then that vote would be secured. Lyndon Johnson would be up off the couch, standing in the center of the cloakroom, dispatching Humphrey or Molly Malone to hold the floor with a speech (“Don’t quit talkin’ ’til you see me back in there”), asking Russell or Eastland to exert his influence with one of their conservatives or Humphrey to exert his influence with one of his liberals, going over the tally sheets again, reading—quickly but with great care—the latest text of an amendment, ironing out the last details of the unanimous consent agreement, and then sending Baker on the run to have Floyd Riddick’s fastest typist type it up. And then he would have the agreement back, and, holding it in one hand, and shoving open the double doors with the other, Lyndon Johnson would come back out on the floor to announce it—or, if he had not been able to get an agreement, to push the Senate to a vote without it, with, in his hand, the tally sheet that almost invariably showed that the vote was going to be very close.
If he had the votes, debate—even the limited debate permitted under the unanimous consent agreement—could only hurt, could allow opponents to realize what he was up to, could give Knowland time to get a more accurate count, could give men whose minds he had changed with his relentless persuasion time to change their minds back, to think better of what they had agreed to. He wanted the question called, and called fast; although the unanimous consent agreement allowed a certain number of hours or minutes for debate, he wanted to be able to yield his time back, and have his opponents yield their time back.
“Don’t talk, we’ve got the votes. Don’t talk, we’ve got the votes,” Bobby Baker would whisper, standing at the corridor door to the cloakroom as the senators came through on the way to the Chamber—which, with a vote imminent, was beginning to fill up. Some senators didn’t get the idea and insisted on speaking. “I’d go up to him [Johnson] on the Senate floor and say Senator Lehman would like to have the floor as soon as possible,” Julius Edelstein recalls. “He’d say” (and as Edelstein shows Johnson’s response, his face twists into a snarl), “ ‘Well, he can have the goddamned floor!’ ” Rushing over to Edelstein, Gerry Siegel said: “I know Lehman has to talk for his constituents, but make it short. Make it short! Otherwise, it’ll make the Leader mad.”
As a supporter of a measure was rising to speak, Johnson would go over to the supporter’s desk and growl, “Make it short. I’ve got the votes for it.” The reminders would continue during the senator’s statement. Once, Richard Neuberger of Oregon was giving an impassioned statement at a moment Johnson considered propitious for a vote. Johnson whispered to him to stop, but Neuberger didn’t. Circling Neuberger’s desk—in John Steele’s words, “like a coon dog does a treed animal”—Johnson whispered to him “from in back and then to the right side to tell Neuberger to knock it off.” Olin Johnston’s southern drawl was so slow! “Olin,” Johnson whispered urgently, “get the lead out of your ass!” “Lyndon,” Johnston said calmly, “you know I always read slow.” Says a Senate staffer who was standing nearby, “Then Olin goes back to reading. I thought Lyndon was going to have a fit.” Looking on another occasion at a speech that Olin was insisting on reading, Johnson saw to his dismay that it covered quite a few pages. “Two minutes, that’s all I can give you,” he said. “You’ve got to hold it to two minutes.” Johnston kept refusing. “Olin,” Lyndon said, forcing a comradely smile to his face, “why don’t you speak for two minutes and tomorrow you can put your whole speech in the Congressional Record and you can mail it to all the folks in South Carolina, and they won’t know the difference.” “Well, I guess that’s all right, Lyndon,” Johnston said, and read only a small part of the text—“so quickly,” an observer said, “that he scarcely could be understood.”
The long arcs would be filling up now—senators coming in and walking along them to their desks, and then standing talking quietly with a colleague or sitting listening to the debate on the proposed bill—as if a painter, having finished the background, was putting in the figures. Other senators would have congregated in the well, bantering with each other in the relaxed senatorial way. The Chamber floor would be the familiar, still Senate tableau.
Except that, on that floor, there would be one figure who, now, with the vote coming closer, seemed never to be still.
He was prowling the big Chamber now, ranging restlessly up and down, side to side. He rarely listened to the debate, except occasionally for a moment or two to see if the speaker was saying anything he hadn’t anticipated. Rather his eyes would be constantly roaming the Chamber, “seeing how things were going—seeing if they were going,” as one aide put it.
What was going on in the Republican cloakroom? How could he find out? What could he read in the faces of the senators coming out of that cloakroom? Where were his senators: why weren’t they all here? Raising his hand over his head, he would beckon Bobby Baker or one of Baker’s aides, or, if they didn’t see him, snap his fingers loudly to get their attention, and order them to see that the senators were on their way. Were two or three on whom he had counted likely to be absent? He’d hurry across the floor to arrange live pairs. Was something going wrong? Was the chairman of Public Works drunk again, confused and rambling as he tried to manage one of his committee’s bills? Striding across the floor to another senator, he would whisper, “You ready to do five or ten minutes on Defense? I want to get Denny off the floor.” Then, forcing himself to move slowly so as not to attract attention, he’d walk down the aisle to where Chavez was standing, take his arm—if that wasn’t enough, take his lapel and put his other arm around his shoulder—whisper, “Denny, I’d like to talk to you outside for a minute,” raise a hand for recognition, tell the presiding officer, “Mr. President, I’d like to suspend discussion, and if it be the will of the Senate, take up the Defense Appropriations bill, and we will bring Public Works back in a few minutes,” and then lead Chavez up the aisle and out the door. Did he catch a glimpse, as the doors to the Republican cloakroom swung open, of a GOP senator on whose vote he was counting, talking inside the cloakroom, in a suspiciously cordial manner, to a White House liaison man? Waiting until the senator came out on the floor, he would check to see if the vote was still firm, and if it wasn’t he’d be moving quickly to some other senator, to try to replace it.
With the vote all but upon him now, he seemed always to be in motion, and the motion would be faster, almost frenzied. As he talked to senators, his hands never stopped moving, gesturing expressively, chopping the air with that snake-killing gesture, opening a palm to illustrate a point, punching the air with a fist, jabbing a lapel with a finger, patting a senator’s shoulder, straightening his tie, grabbing his lapel, hugging him if he agreed to the proposition being made.
If he dropped down into his own front-row center chair, he might sprawl down in it, stretch out both long legs across the aisle, or lean far back, crossing them. But he wouldn’t stay in any pose long. “Jiggling, scratching, crossing and uncrossing his legs,” leaning back in his chair with a hand up to his face as he whispered to Russell close behind him or to a senator who had approached with information or an inquiry, pulling out a tally sheet, writing something on it, tucking it back in his pocket, “he seemed,” in the words of one reporter, “simply unable to sit still for a moment.” Abruptly, galvanized by a sudden thought, he would leap out of his seat, “going from slouched to almost frenetic in an instant,” as another reporter put it, to rush over to a senator. “You’d see him with the finger right in the face. He’d be over on the Republican side as much as the Democratic. Then he’d be back across the floor, pulling someone else off to the side,” a slash of vivid movement through the senatorial still-life.
And if something was going wrong, Lyndon Johnson would be moving even faster, moving so fast that, Neil MacNeil reported, “his baggy-cut, almost zoot suit flies open.” Once, when Johnson was away from the floor, a number of senators unexpectedly began proposing one controversial, contradictory, and often confusing amendment after another to a routine Post Office appropriation bill being managed by Olin Johnston. The mere discussion of those amendments would plunge the Senate into the kind of angry debate that, in past years, would have brought it to a halt for endless days, Steele wrote; passage of any of the amendments would result in a certain Eisenhower veto. “The Senate was in a turmoil. The babble on the floor prevented senators from hearing and being heard. There were amendments to amendments; amendments offered and withdrawn; senators arose to protest they couldn’t hear the debate, didn’t understand what was transpiring.”
Then, into this “mixed-up mess” roared Lyndon Johnson. “Quickly sizing up the situation, he began to act. He paced from one side of the Senate Chamber to the other, moving at a loping gait, the coat tails of his gray flannel suit winging out behind. He whispered with Bill Knowland, with Frank Carlson, the Administration’s spokesman on postal matters; he conferred with Olin Johnston and Johnston’s aide; he talked with Russell Long, Ev Dirksen, Parliamentarian Charlie Watkins, with Dick Russell; he slipped to a phone, one equipped with a baffled mouthpiece, in an alcove just off the Senate rostrum. He snapped his thumb and second finger with the retort of a firecracker to summon a page for water. . . . The Senate Majority Leader was ready to straighten things out.
“It would take some straightening out—seven different maneuvers. . . . Johnson was running the whole show. From his Majority Leader’s desk, he hand-signalled the various players in the drama. He peremptorily cut senators off to seize the floor. He barked harsh orders to Jack Kennedy in the presiding officer’s chair to put this question, make that ruling. He pleaded with senators to defer speeches, he whispered to aides to summon this or that senator, he snapped his fingers like a whip to fetch more water. He sped to the cloakroom for a conference and back to his desk. He ranged the aisles. . . . A legislative catastrophe [was] averted.”
And that was on a non-controversial, relatively minor bill. On a bill on which the vote was going to be close, and the result of genuine political significance, the frenzy of Lyndon Johnson’s actions escalated another notch. As the moment approached for the roll call—the call that would determine the actual, irrevocable winning or losing for this man who had to win—Lyndon Johnson’s orders grew sharper, more punctuated with fury.
Some of his votes, votes he had counted on, were missing. There was no more “Sure, I understand, I hope he feels better”—“By God, I got to have his vote!” he rasped to Hennings’ assistant Bernard Fensterwald. “Get him IN HERE!” To other senators’ aides there was a single sentence, delivered in a low, threatening snarl: “Get your fucking senator over here.” Once, in the well, he dispatched Baker to the cloakroom to make a call; Bobby, walking away from him, didn’t move fast enough. With one long step, Lyndon Johnson caught up to him, grabbed each of Baker’s narrow shoulders in a huge hand and shoved him violently up the aisle. Once, Humphrey told a reporter, Johnson, after ordering him to do something and to “get going,” was so impatient that he actually kicked him—hard—in the shins to speed him on his way. (The reporter, Robert S. Allen, thought Humphrey must be exaggerating until “he [Humphrey] added, ‘Look,’ and he pulled up his trouser leg and, sure enough, he had some scars there. He had a couple of scars on his shins where Lyndon had kicked him and said, ‘Get going now.’ ”)
Some of the senators he needed on his side were still planning to vote the other way. On one vote, the recalcitrants included John Pastore. Talking to the little Rhode Islander, Johnson led him into the cloakroom, where they could not be seen from the galleries. Then he took each of Pastore’s lapels in a hand, pulled the hands together, and lifted them up so that Pastore was held motionless on tiptoe while Johnson brought his face down to stare into his eyes and deliver the argument that way.
The Leader was hurrying back and forth across the Chamber, prowling the aisles, charging up the stairs to the cloakroom—and then, suddenly, the moment was at hand, the moment for which he had been waiting: the number of votes on the tally sheet in his hand was—at last—the number he needed. He would win—if nothing changed. If the senator in the chair was not a thoroughly loyal Johnson man, he quickly put someone in the chair who was. And, prompting him across the well, he hurried the new presiding officer through his paces. Standing next to his Leader’s desk, he would mutter along: “No further amendments. . . . Third reading of the bill. . . . The clerk will call the roll. . . .” There might be interruptions from the floor from opponents. The muttering would become a growl—sometimes audible in the gallery. “Out of order!” Lyndon Johnson would prompt. “Out of order!” “Out of order,” the senator in the chair would say. “Call the question,” Lyndon Johnson would prompt. “CALL THE QUESTION!” The question would be called. “Yeas and nays have been ordered. The clerk will call the roll.”
And with those last words, the words that signaled the actual vote, the power of Lyndon Johnson as Majority Leader was fully revealed, for during the six years of his leadership, the Senate of the United States presented, during close and crucial votes, a spectacle such as had never been seen before during the century and a half of its existence.
If all his senators were present when the roll call began, and he could see that there were absentees on the other side, he wanted the roll to be called at a fast pace. If he didn’t have all his men there—if some stragglers hadn’t been found yet—then he wanted the roll call to be slow. And during the years when he was Leader, the roll was called at precisely the pace he desired.
Standing at his front-row center desk, facing the presiding officer and clerk calling the roll, Lyndon Johnson would raise his big right hand, and with a pen or pencil, or simply with a long forefinger, would make those “revving-up circles in the air” that meant, as was said in the Introduction, “hurry up—he had the votes and wanted them recorded” before something changed. When, however, “he didn’t have the votes but would get them if only he had a little more time,” he would make the downward pushing motion with his open hands that meant “slow down.” As senators hurried into the Chamber, many walked down to the well to talk with their colleagues. Standing at the edge of the well, towering over men in it, Lyndon Johnson would raise his long arm over them, making those big circles, like “an orchestra conductor,” leading the United States Senate—the Senate that, for so long, had refused to be led.
Sometimes he would indulge in an even more blatant manifestation of his power. Somehow the vote hadn’t worked out as he had thought it would; he was a vote or two short of victory. So a vote or two would be changed—right out in the open. Johnson would walk across the floor to a senator who had been in opposition, and whisper to him, and the senator would rise and signal the clerk that he had been incorrectly recorded. “You would see votes changed right in front of your eyes,” the Senate aide says. Neil MacNeil, who knew the Senate so well, could hardly believe what he was seeing. “He did it in front of God,” MacNeil was to recall. “It didn’t happen much, but it happened. He was absolutely brazen about it. He put the arm on guys right on the floor.”
Sometimes Johnson would not even bother to walk across the floor. Once he yelled across the well to Frear, who was sitting at his desk: “Change your vote, Allen!” The Senator from Delaware did not immediately respond, so Johnson yelled again, in a shout heard, in the words of one writer, by “more than eighty senators and the galleries”: “Change your vote, Allen!” Allen changed his vote. Small wonder that Hugh Sidey, remembering years later the “tall man” with “his mind attuned to every sight and sound and parliamentary nuance,” who “signaled the roll calls faster or slower,” who gave another “signal, and the door would open, and two more guys would run in,” would say, “My God—running the world! Power enveloped him.”
Some of the touches that Johnson brought to the role of Leader were merely for dramatic effect. “Often these shows were carefully orchestrated and perhaps even a shade melodramatic,” Bobby Baker was to recall. “He [Johnson] was not only a fine actor but a fine director and producer as well. He delighted in striding about the Senate floor, conferring and frowning and giving the impression of great anxiety, while the packed press gallery and the visitors’ galleries buzzed and hummed with tensions, even though he knew—and I was one of the few people who knew—that he had three decisive votes hidden in some Capitol nook and would produce them at the most effective moment. The Republicans would snort at losing another cliff-hanger, the newspapers would trumpet a new Johnson miracle, and Lyndon Johnson would go off to a fresh Cutty Sark and soda to laugh and laugh.” But, Baker was also to say, “I see nothing wrong” in such “trickeries. . . . Lyndon Johnson knew that the illusion of power was almost as important as real power itself, that, simply, the more powerful you appeared to be, the more powerful you became. It was one of the reasons for his great success.”
Some of the more perceptive journalists realized that some of the drama they were reporting was staged drama. “Lyndon Johnson played Leader,” Sidey says. But he played the part well—played it better, far better, than anyone had ever played it before, played it as if he was made for it, as if he had been born for the role. And however he got the power, he got it. Doris Kearns Goodwin was not the only writer who was to call Lyndon Johnson “the Master of the Senate,” because that was what he was.
Introduction: The Presence of Fire
Barbour County episode: "Testimony of Margaret Frost, Eufaula, Barbour, Ala.," U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Hearing Held in Montgomery, Alabama, Dec. 8, 1958, pp. 262—67; Ina Caro and Robert Caro interviews with David Frost and Margaret Frost; see also Testimony of George R. Morris and Andrew Jones, pp. 248—262. "There is": U.S. Senate, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, Eighty-fifth Congress, First Session, on S. 83, And Amendment 2.S.83, S. 427, p. 239. See also Strong, Registration of Voters in Alabama; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, With Liberty and Justice for All, pp. 59—75, 84—95.
"Back then": Hugh Sidey, "The Presidency," Time, Dec. 15, 1985.
25. The Leader
"He would stand": The description of Johnson briefing the journalists, and of Johnson running the Senate, is based on interviews with journalists Robert Barr, Jim Brady, John Chadwick, Benjamin Cole, Allen Drury, Lewis T. (Tex) Easley, Alan S. Emory, Rowland Evans, John Finney, John Goldsmith, Neil MacNeil, Sarah McClendon, Hugh Sidey, John L. Steele, Alfred Steinberg, George Tames, J. William Theis, Tom Wicker, Frank Van Der Linden, and Sam Zagoria; with the following Senate staff members (who would often have been on the podium): Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick, Secretary to the Parliamentarian Murray Zweben, and Assistant Journal Clerk Bernard V. Somers; as well as the senators, assistants to senators, and members of the Senate's staff and Lyndon Johnson's staff listed in the "Note on Sources." "He would": Steele interview. "Somebody"; "if you"; "he knew": Barr interview. "There would": Mooney, LBJ, p. 162. "He would answer": MacNeil interview. "You didn't": Barr interview. "The buildup": Drury interview. "Power just": Barr interview. "In command": Cole interview.
"C'mon, c'mon": Riddick, Zweben interviews.
Potter exchange: CR, 83/1, May 26, 1955.
"And even": Barr interview. "Lister"; "if you"; "he would": Patrick J. Hynes interview. "Viciously": Reedy interview. "Good places": Hynes interview. "Don't quit": McCulloch interview. Sending Baker: Riddick interview. "Don't talk"; "I'd go": Edelstein interview.
"Make it short": McCulloch interview. "Like a coon dog"; "The Senate was": Steele to Williamson, March 4, 1958, SP. "Get the lead": Fensterwald interview. "Why don't": Davidson, quoted in Miller, Lyndon, p. 220.
"Seeing how": Read interview. "You ready": Schnibbe interview. "Jiggling": Shuman interview. "Going from"; "baggycut": MacNeil to Williamson, March 4, 1958, MP.
"By God!": Fensterwald interview. "Fucking senator": Schnibbe interview. Grabbed Baker's: Fensterwald, Steele interviews. "Look": Robert S. Allen, quoted in Miller, p. 175; Allen OH, SRL.
Lifting up Pastore: Mooney, p. 31; Reedy interview. Mutter along; "CALL THE QUESTION!": Riddick, Steele, Zweben interviews.
"Revving up": Reedy, U.S. Senate, p. 177; Reedy interview. "Orchestra conductor": Steele interview and Steele to Williamson, March 4, 1958, SP. Johnson directing Senate voting: Interviews with Barr, Fensterwald, MacNeil, Shuman, Steele, and Evans and Novak, LBJ: Exercise, p. 114; Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, p. 130; Steinberg, Sam Johnson's Boy, p. 412. "You would see": Wicker interview. "In front": MacNeil interview. "Change your vote": Evans and Novak, p. 96; Steinberg, p. 497. "His mind attuned": Sidey, Personal Presidency, p. 45. "Signal, and": Sidey interview.
"Often": Baker, Wheeling and Dealing, p. 90. "Played Leader": Sidey interview. "Master": Dugger, Politician. The subtitle of Ronnie Dugger's biography of Johnson, The Politician, is The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson, the Drive for Power, from the Frontier to Master of the Senate.
Excerpted from Master of the Senate by
Robert A. Caro.
Copyright 2002 by Robert A. Caro. Excerpted by
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