Master of the Senate
As one reads the latest volume in Robert Caro's landmark biographical series of Lyndon Baines Johnson, one thinks of Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek.
Acton--the friend of the South who described its struggle in the Civil War as the Second War of American Independence--once wrote that great men are usually evil men. Clearly, if one is to measure the number of important posts and the power LBJ accumulated, he was one of Acton’s "great men."
Based on the considerable record of deceit documented by Caro, Lyndon Baines Johnson was an evil man even before his disastrous presidency of 1963-1968--a presidency in which he and his minions misled Americans into the Vietnam War, a presidency that nearly caused a civil war in this country.
Hayek comes to mind as one goes through Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson series--this is the third of a projected four volumes--and contemplates the record of triumph of this evil man, who would become president and send hundreds of thousands of Americans to Vietnam. This, after having run in the 1964 presidential election--a campaign deceitfully directed by presidential assistant and first-rate henchman Bill Moyers--as "the peace candidate." The triumph of Moyers’s master reminds one of what Hayek described in The Road to Serfdom, of how the worst are the ones mostly likely to get to the top of the greasy pole.
The worst, it seems to me, are the wire-pullers of both major parties: the men and women who are career pols and who ridicule those who actually believe in something. In the end, career pols only believe in their own ambition. Because they lack principles, it is easy for them to fool all manner of people. (I think here, for example, of the many liberals who finally conceded that Bill Clinton was dishonest, a discovery on a par with saying that whores have a lot of sex and pimps are not the nicest people in the world.)
Such is the LBJ depicted here: a political master of hocus pocus, a man who could alternately play the role of Uriah Heep and Boss Tweed. Take, for instance, the episode of Leland Olds's renomination to the Federal Power Commission. Johnson, trying to make a name for himself as anti-communist in order to impress the oil barons back home, concocted false communist charges against Olds.
Whether one agreed with Olds’s philosophy or not--though definitely a man of the left, he was also an opponent of communism--Caro shows that LBJ never really cared about the philosophy of Marx. He cared about power. After destroying Olds, Caro writes, LBJ told Olds, " 'Lee, I hope you understand there’s nothing personal in this. We’re still friends, aren’t we? It’s only politics, you know' " (p. 303).
Everything was politics to Johnson, which is why he was able to dominate the U.S. Senate even though he started at the bottom.
This third book in Caro's series begins with LBJ's arrival in the U.S. Senate as a junior senator--a seat he stole his way into after a crooked 1948 Texas election, a bit of skullduggery which Caro documented in Means of Ascent, the previous installment of this series.
By book's end and with LBJ's pending election as vice president of the United States, Johnson has become the youngest and arguably the most successful Senate majority leader in history. He has squared the circle. He is the "leader" (that’s what many slavish senators call him) who, in the late 1950s, oversees the passage of the first civil rights bill since the Reconstruction Era. He therefore establishes his bona fides with previously suspicious Northern liberals while at the same time retaining the support of segregationist Southern senators. Indeed, he is able to convince the latter that he is still one of them, even though he didn’t sign the "Southern manifesto," which protested the controversial Brown decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Caro points out, LBJ, by his statements, signals that he is with the segregationists in principle--or so they think. But not signing the manifesto was no great act of political courage. The segregationists, Caro writes, didn’t expect Johnson to sign the manifesto. The leader of the group, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, "was much more interested in pushing Johnson for President, which he was then doing, than in having another name on the Manifesto" (p. 787).
Anthony Lewis, in his New York Times review of this book, simply ignores the unpleasant parts of this LBJ portrait---which entail about 80 percent of the book--and focuses on the passage of the civil rights bill. What he fails to mention is LBJ’s raison d’être: Johnson wanted to run for president in 1960. To do so with any chance of victory, he needed to establish himself as a national leader, not as a Southern leader.
So, was LBJ, the man who loved "nigger" jokes in private, truly an enlightened liberal committed to freeing a significant part of this country from the state-sanctioned evils of Jim Crow?
Caro is a standard liberal and a great biographer who lets his reporting do the talking. Based on his biographical series of the nation's 36th president, it is obvious that LBJ was a first-class mountebank and legislator who would enlist in any cause, as long as there were votes in it. So in the late '50s, with the segregationist South’s still-strong hold on Congress and with increasing pressure from the North for civil rights, LBJ, the ultimate pol, hedged his bets and played it both ways.
When he assumed the presidency in 1963 following JFK's assasination, LBJ began to see more votes in the latter than in the former. All of a sudden, LBJ, the tacit supporter of the Jim Crow Southern senators in the 1950s, was singing "We Shall Overcome." In Vietnam, this devious, I-will-be-all-things-to-all-people formula met its match, but not before some 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died in a war that the U.S. easily could have avoided.
In the 1964 presidential election, Johnson, along with adviser Bill Moyers,1 ran on a pledge that the U.S. would not send troops to do what Vietnamese young people should do for themselves. Once the election was in the bag, however, LBJ ordered an escalation of the war. A few years later, the duplicity of LBJ was exposed. By 1968, this former "master of the Senate," this once-popular president who had won a lopsided victory in the 1964 election by charging that Barry Goldwater would start World War III, was so hated that he restricted his public appearances primarily to military bases.
Johnson did not run for re-election. He knew the gig was a public career filled with duplicity.
Johnson's vice presidential and presidential years will be covered in the fourth and final installment of this superb series. I look forward to it. These books should be read by every American who fears the evil that "great men" will do to our heritage and our charter of liberties, which are under attack every day from the scions of the man novelist Phillip Roth once called "Lying Baines Johnson"2
- 1. Moyers, Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield noted, strangely seemed to escape any taint for his close association with LBJ. She wrote that, "He (Moyers) enjoyed one of those useful reputations that the cleaver young associate invariably acquires. He was an extremely important person in Washington because he was so close to the president but also because he always managed to project a certain measured detachment from Washington. It is that familiar, small, but significant margin of separateness that, whether in a Hill apprentice or executive branch prodigy assistant or other type of good-child public servant always spares the junior partner of any share of the condemnation that is regularly heaped on the boss." See Washington by Meg Greenfield, pp. 48-49 (Public Affairs, New York, 2001). By the way, Moyers to date has never written or said anything critical of his former boss.
- 2. See Roth’s screamingly funny series of essays on the Nixon administration, Our Gang.