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Lyndon Johnson: Political Strategist

Lyndon Baines Johnson was an extremely goal oriented man. When he was twelve years old, he got the idea of becoming President and devoted most of his exceptional energy toward this aim.

Patrick Powers

Watching President Obama frustrated by the Republican Congress and now Senate, I turn for solace to Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, found in my small-town public library. There I read of the most effective Democratic President in my lifetime, and of colorful politicians of his early legislative career in the 1940s, like Coke Stevenson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As you may see, that effectiveness came with a price.

I. Beating Coke

Lyndon Baines Johnson was an extremely goal oriented man. When he was twelve years old, he got the idea of becoming President and devoted most of his exceptional energy toward this aim. To get there he had to beat the highly respected Governor of Texas in the Democratic primary for Senator in spite of being largely unknown. But he had two things going for him. He knew how to run a modern campaign, and he had a very deep source of funds. While Lyndon was a Congressman he had made contractor Herman Brown many millions of dollars, and Brown was generous with campaign spending. Lyndon decided to take Coke on, with John Connally as campaign manager.

Coke Stevenson's life reads like fiction. At age sixteen he went into business, driving six horses and a wagon full of goods over "roads" that were only ruts. After tying up the horses at night he taught himself bookkeeping, reading by the campfire. Tiring of this extremely strenuous teamster life, he found work as the janitor of a bank, eventually becoming its president. He read law and history by candlelight, became a lawyer, and gained fame.

Stevenson's first appointment in government was a temporary one, to capture cattle rustlers. He did this with only one other man, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. The main rustler turned out to be the son of the richest man in the district so there was political heat, but he got the man convicted and imprisoned.

Coke hated politics and deal making, preferring to live on his ranch with no telephone, bathing in the creek and cooking beans over a wood fire. He never drew attention to himself, seldom asked anyone to vote for him, and showed little in the way of facial expression. On the whole Coke didn't talk much: that would be un-cowboy. To please his wife he ran for the the Texas State Assembly. He developed a strong reputation for economy while getting the job done. One office led to another, even though he never made a campaign promise and indeed hardly campaigned at all. These unorthodox methods led him all the way to the governorship of Texas. In 1948 he decided to run for Senator. His opponent in the Democratic primary was the young upstart Lyndon B. Johnson, backed by now-wealthy Herman Brown.

The first order of business for the Johnson campaign was to have weekly polls. With polls it was possible to see what worked and what didn't. Johnson used fancy polls to see how strongly voters felt on the various issues. One could change one's stance accordingly. This was very expensive, but without it he would be was flying blind. Next, Brown supplied him with a helicopter, pilot, and fuel, all free of charge. This was important in Texas with its long distances between towns. The helicopter with a large LYNDON JOHNSON painted on either side was a novelty in those days and never failed to draw a crowd. One Lyndon Johnson campaign helicopter wore out and had to be replaced.

There was a first surge of popularity but it was not nearly enough. Lyndon fell severely ill. He came out of that with a plan. Lyndon decided that Coke's weakness was that he considered himself above politics and would never, ever answer an attack. He would say only that his record spoke for itself. So Lyndon could spread lies about Coke without Coke defending himself. Lie he did. Unions were hated in Texas, so the main lie was that Coke was pro-union.

Texas was blanketed with newspaper ads and radio spots. The polls started to go up.\par This was quite a desperate strategy. Coke was infuriated by such tactics and if elected Senator he would surely take revenge. Lyndon didn't have much respect for campaign finance law, so there was a chance that Johnson and Brown would end up imprisoned. To avoid this Lyndon had to win, and Brown had to give him all the money he needed.

Eventually Lyndon was able to maneuver Coke to Washington, DC where Lyndon got his friends in the press to question Coke aggressively. When asked if he were pro-union, Coke wouldn't answer. All Coke had to do is say he was not pro-union, and that would have been the end of that. But had never answered such questions and wasn't going to start now. Eventually it got so bad that he decided he must reply. But by now Johnson had raised so much doubt amongst Coke's backers that Coke's source of campaign funds was gone. He refuted the charges, but couldn't now afford to have that answer heard.

Johnson showed tremendous focus. Once the campaign helicopter lost its lift. It fell thirty feet to the ground, bounced, then continued on. When the pilot commented on the nearly fatal event, Johnson didn't know what he was talking about. Lyndon hadn't noticed.

Johnson had made great gains but his polls still showed that he would lose the primary election. Close, but still a loss, the end of his career, and a possible prison term. "I couldn't bear the thought," he later said, "of losing everything." It was decided to buy the South Texas vote. Votes had always been sold in Texas elections but this was taken to a new level, with perhaps twenty-four thousand votes purchased for five dollars or so apiece. Lyndon knew from experience that it was vital to get the last vote. Normally completed in two days, the counting dragged on for a week. New votes were continually "found" until Johnson had a majority of eighty-seven votes. The last district to report, Precinct 13, showed a 99.7% turnout going almost entirely for Johnson.

Men were sent to Precinct 13 to examine the voting roll, which was locked in the vault of a bank. They were told that while they had a right to view the list, they didn't have the right to unlock the vault. Outraged, former governor Stevenson personally headed down to South Texas to investigate.

On the way he happened to meet an old friend, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. Since the old days when they had apprehended cattle rustlers together, Hamer had tamed several lawless towns, been wounded many times, and in the line of duty had shot fifty-three men dead. He had been the head of the posse that had tracked down and ambushed bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. A Hollywood screen writer said Hamer was the man upon which fictional Hollywood lawmen were based. Not much of a talker either, Frank said he had better come along. He strapped on his six-gun and they headed south.

The two elderly long tall Texans marched down Main Street to the bank, past groups of swarthy men armed with pistols and rifles. A large cluster of them blocked the door of the bank. Hamer said, "Git! Fall back!" while his hand hovered over his pistol. The group parted and allowed the two to pass. They demanded the voting roll. They were allowed only a glance, but that was enough. The names of the last 201 voters on the roll were all in alphabetical order, with 200 of those votes for Johnson. The men were able to memorize some of the names. When contacted, these voters denied they had voted. At least three of the voters were dead. If the 201 votes were excluded, Stevenson would win.

All of the copies of the voting rolls had been "lost" and the originals were in sealed boxes. Johnson was able to get a friendly judge to rule that the Precinct 13 Democratic Party could neither open the boxes nor even discuss challenging the total(!). The party wouldn't certify the Box 13 vote, but the Executive Committee of the party could vote to accept it anyway. Early canvassing showed that Johnson would lose. In a whirlwind of backdoor dealing the vote went 29-28 for Johnson. Then one member changed her vote from Johnson to "no vote," to tie the vote so that the decision would end up in the courts. Campaign manager John Connally found a committee member who was hiding in the bathroom, afraid to vote for fear of retaliation. Connally brought him out to vote for Johnson, then had the 29-28 vote announced before anyone else changed their mind.

Stevenson tried to get a federal judge to overrule the restraining order on contesting the Precinct 13 result. To the surprise of most he got it. The result could now be investigated. Witnesses were brought in to testify that in spite of being listed as voting for Johnson they had not voted. Johnson hired the best legal minds in Texas to contest the proceedings, but they couldn't come up with a plan. The problem was time. If the issue was still in legal limbo after one more week, then a deadline would be missed and neither Stevenson nor Johnson would be listed on the ballot for the general election. Lyndon's friend Abe Fortas figured it out. To get a decision within a week they had to lose the first federal appeal as quickly as possible, then go to a US Supreme Court Justice for the final appeal. While this was going on, the judge ruled that there was probable cause of fraud, and began examination of the voting lists. The lists were in unlabeled sealed boxes, so Box 13 couldn't be identified. Twenty possible boxes were collected by the judge and were slowly being opened one by one to find Box 13. The fraud would surely be proved.

On the other hand, President Harry Truman wanted Johnson in the Senate. Truman arrived in Texas and traveled around the state with Johnson in hand, asking Texans to vote for Lyndon. But the investigation continued.

The court had already examined ten of the twenty boxes. Then eleven. Twelve. After the thirteenth box had been opened a telephone call came in. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had ruled that federal government had no jurisdiction over the honesty of elections. Johnson was the Democratic nominee, and easily won the general election.

Before long, John Connally became Governor of Texas. Herman Brown moved into natural gas leases. Senator Johnson got the New Dealer who was regulating natural gas prices fired, the price soared, and Brown made billions. Much later a grateful President Johnson rewarded lawyer Abe Fortas with his own Supreme Court Justiceship. It didn't work out, though. It cramped Abe's capacity to make deals, and he eventually resigned. The campaign's finances were investigated. Tax fraud was found but the judgement was reduced to a manageable level.

Coke Stevenson returned to his ranch. A widower, he lived in a monkish solitude. He never ran for or held office again. He dug postholes into the rock, cleared brush, and sawed wood when he wasn't practicing law. At the county court he met a law clerk who liked kind, erudite men. He took her out riding and picnicking on his ranch. A wedding would draw far too much attention so they slipped into a church and had the minister marry them on the spot. A friend said: "It seemed like they couldn't bear to be apart for a minute." When their daughter Janie entered her teens, Coke made a big sacrifice for her. He had a telephone installed at the ranch. "You know how teenagers are," he said. A columnist for the The Dallas News visited the family at the ranch, after which he wrote, "After spending some time with Coke Robert by the green, rushing river, I'm wondering if he wasn't lucky to lose that Senate race by eighty-seven votes."


Before Coke Stevenson and LBJ locked horns, while Lyndon was quite a young man, he met Franklin Roosevelt. FDR and LBJ were like magnets: they attracted one another from a distance and once together they never separated.

It began more or less by accident. LBJ was running for his first office in Texas. Lacking name recognition, he decided to hitch his wagon to a star. Franklin Roosevelt was vastly popular in Texas, so Lyndon based his campaign on the Roosevelt name even though LBJ didn't particularly believe in the New Deal. After Lyndon won, FDR happened to pass through Texas after a fishing vacation and was introduced to Lyndon. Franklin was so impressed by young Lyndon's grasp of politics that he took Johnson along in his private rail car for the entire day. He offered Lyndon some counsel. Like most Texans LBJ wanted to be on the Agricultural Committee, but FDR advised him that a big war was on the way and there would be a lot more money and influence in Naval Affairs. He was right. \par \par Afterward FDR wrote about having met "a most remarkable young man." It's most unusual for a President to take much interest in a freshman Congressman. From that day on they worked closely together. \par \par Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson became close allies. They also had quite similar personalities. Neither FDR nor LBJ was an abstract thinker. Neither ever read books. Neither understood economics. They both disliked school and studying and did as little of that as possible. Instead they were both very good with people, but in different ways. FDR was the best with crowds, but not so good one on one. LBJ was the best one on one, but not so good with crowds. FDR was the master of the outside game. He was very popular but had trouble getting legislation passed because he was disliked on Capitol Hill. LBJ the inside game. He was great at getting legislation passed but the people didn't like him.\par \par They both pulled practical jokes. While in college Lyndon persuaded a classmate to smear fresh cow manure on his own face. This would supposedly cure his acne. For his part, FDR went cruising with friends in his yacht. He showed them a teletype from shore stating that the divorce law had been nullified. The divorced men on the cruise were now suddenly married again. There was considerable consternation until FDR cracked up laughing.

They were both liars, but in different ways too. FDR told the truth about big things but lied about small. He couldn't be trusted in a backroom deal. Even his friends complained about it. LBJ was a rock in the backroom \emdash he always delivered what he promised\emdash but lied about the big things, especially in the Presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater. The joke was, "They told me that if I voted for Goldwater we'd get into a war. They were right. I voted for Goldwater and that's exactly what happened."

In other ways they were very different, but this only added to the attraction. Lyndon admired FDR because he had money, status, and most of all, the Presidency. FDR admired Lyndon because he had come up without these advantages. FDR said, "if I hadn't gone to Harvard, that's the sort of freewheeling pro I'd like to be. He could well be the first Southern President."

FDR's advice to get on the naval committee worked out extremely well. During the war Lyndon got a big naval base in his district. Herman Brown got $400 million in contracts, a chunk of which went to Johnson's campaigns. Lyndon had so much cash he could afford to spread it around the rest of the Democratic party. Most Democrats didn't get contributions from big business in those days and would be quite grateful for a sum like $500. They needed that money. It could be the difference between winning and unemployment.

III. What Made Lyndon Effective

His father went broke in ranching so Lyndon started from the bottom. He got a job as a congressional aid, where his pluck caught the eye of Herman Brown. Brown sponsored his race for Congress which gave Lyndon the opportunity to meet FDR. LBJ beat Coke by the skin of his teeth to reach the Senate. The Senate ran by the seniority system and freshman senators were nonentities, but as a freshman Lyndon came to dominate the place. It's hard to believe.

How did Lyndon become such a success? There's quite a Lyndon list. Let me count the ways.

He got started very young
He learned a lot from his Dad, a popular politician
He worked extremely hard
He could drive others to work extremely hard for him
From an early age, he devoted all of his energy to becoming President
He had a great desire for attention and knew how to get it
He was phenomenal at getting the father/son thing going with older men
He was master of the rules
He was master of the unwritten rules
He got all the information he could and knew how to use it
He dug up all the dirt he could and knew how to use it
He made the very most of lucky opportunities
He cheated if he had to
He didn't cheat if he didn't have to
He lied if he had to
He didn't lie if he didn't have to
He was almost always a few steps ahead of the other guy
Once in Washington he controlled a good deal of money and knew how to use it
He befriended people of all kinds and beliefs
He was warm and trustworthy to his friends and worked very hard for them
He never made an enemy if he could help it
When he punished his enemies, he put them out of business entirely
Others feared to cross him
He could hypnotise himself into believing anything, so he could sell anything
He knew how to be sneaky and not get caught
He knew when his powerful friends would bail him out even if he did get caught
Most of his plans worked
He could conceal his intentions and feelings for decades to get what he wanted
He had a guiding star: the goal of bringing more justice to the world

IV. President Johnson

The US was so set against a Southern president that LBJ thought that succession via the vice presidency was his only hope. About one in five Presidents had died in office. It was his chance.

In 1963 Johnson's closest bagman, Bobby Baker, was caught in a scandal. Life magazine investigated Lyndon and found he'd improperly used his influence to make his fortune of $25 million dollars. They were about to publish when Novernber 22nd happened. The story was held up for some months. By this time Lyndon was landing the huge Civil Rights fish so it didn't matter. He won reelection in a landslide.

The Presidency did not bring him joy. He was never deft while standing in the public eye, and now he was in the public eye every day. He was deluged with criticism and became one of the most disliked Presidents.
Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?
That horrible song, he called it.
Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win...

LBJ approached Vietnam with the same overwhelming force he applied to Coke Stevenson. But this time the result would not be decided by the timid men of an obscure committee. Vietnam had only to endure the suffering for long enough, inflict enough pain in return, and southern Vietnam would be free. And so it was, at a terrible cost. LBJ had tangled with a people even more determined and ruthless than he.

The leader of Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh, a man with a personality that resembled that of Coke Stevenson to a remarkable degree. They were both self-effacing, taciturn, ascetic to the point of monkhood, unpretentious, solitary, dedicated to the public interest, widely beloved, thrifty, considerate, and lovers of nature.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and LBJ shared a dream. But when MLK spoke out against the war, LBJ withdrew the FBI's protection. Martin didn't live long after that. But as he said, it doesn't matter to me now. I've been to the mountaintop.

In the end, I think it was LBJ's guiding star that saved him. Otherwise he might have gone the way of Richard Nixon. Once Dick got to the top he had achieved his goal. There was no further way up. Nixon continued to stomp on his defeated opponents until the law caught up with him.

But in spite of all this trouble, mayhem, and travail, LBJ's dreams came true. His dream of the Presidency came true. His dream of wealth came true. His dream of helping the downtrodden came true. It wasn't easy, not easy at all. It was far, far, very far from easy. But happen it did. Lyndon Johnson madethose dreams come true.

Patrick Powers is a bass guitarist and poet, formerly of Bali, now living in northern Michigan.

Copyright © Patrick Powers. All rights reserved.