My Search For Lyndon Johnson

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Johnson’s unsavory reputation is well deserved. He was a master fixer who never met an election he couldn’t manipulate. In 1937, when he made his first run for a congressional seat, he broke all the campaign finance laws, and his managers apparently gave Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s son, a five-thousand-dollar bribe for a telegram implying FDR’s support of LBJ. Someone in the Agriculture Department allowed Johnson campaigners to distribute parity checks to farmers, further identifying LBJ with FDR and a popular New Deal program in Texas’s Tenth Congressional District. In 1941 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes helped suppress an FBI investigation of LBJ’s fund raising in the 1940 congressional campaigns. In 1944 FDR settled an Internal Revenue Service investigation of Brown & Root, a Texas construction firm that put hundreds of thousands of dollars into Johnson’s 1941 Senate campaign. The uninhibited pursuit of the inquiry could have sent Johnson’s closest supporters to prison and ruined his career. In 1946 Tommy Corcoran, an FDR fixer and later a Washington attorney, helped Johnson secretly obtain the military records of his opponent in hopes of finding something they could use against him in the primary campaign. In 1948 Corcoran and Attorney General Tom Clark, whom Johnson had helped win his appointment by Truman, apparently lobbied Associate Justice Hugo Black to reject Coke Stevenson’s plea that Johnson’s tainted victory over him in the Democratic senatorial primary was grounds for keeping LBJ off the November ballot. In his 1954 primary campaign Johnson received help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation against a hopelessly outclassed opponent who commanded less than 30 percent of the vote. When John Kennedy won the nomination in 1960, Johnson aggressively sought the Vice Presidency, something he denied to his dying day but which now is confirmed by abundant evidence. John Connally says that LBJ asked him to arrange a draft at the 1968 Democratic convention despite his March 31 announcement that he wouldn’t run again.

The Federal Communications Commission offers yet another example of Johnson’s behind-the-scenes manipulation. There is telling evidence in the recollections of Arthur Stehling, a Fredericksburg, Texas, attorney and a friend of Johnson, in FBI wiretaps of Tommy Corcoran, and in the pattern of FCC actions that despite his insistent denials, Johnson effectively manipulated the FCC into favorable decisions affecting his considerable broadcasting properties.

Did Johnson commit all this skulduggery out of some flaw in his character? It’s clear that his consuming ambition propelled him into unholy actions. But that’s only part of the story. Johnson also took his cue from other successful politicians who broke the rules to get ahead. Indeed, in LBJ’s view, almost all politicians he admired and loathed—FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Harold Ickes, Tommy Corcoran, Tom Clark, Hugo Black, Herbert Brownell, Maury Maverick, Alvin Wirtz, the Kennedys, Wilbert Lee ("Pappy") O’Daniel, Coke Stevenson, and many others he served with in the House and Senate—had cut political corners—and worse—to win their ends. In Johnson’s mind he was no more than a representative political figure who operated within the “real” rules of the game.

He saw the Kennedys as a particularly good case in point. Johnson was initially contemptuous of Jack Kennedy’s ambition to be President. Behind his back Johnson called him “sonny boy,” sneered at his meager accomplishments in the House and Senate, and puzzled over his rise to prominence as a candidate. “It was the goddamnedest thing,” Johnson later told Doris Kearns; “here was a whippersnapper, malaria-ridden and yellah, sickly, sickly. He never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing. But somehow… he managed to create the image of himself as a shining intellectual, a youthful leader who would change the face of the country. Now, I will admit that he had a good sense of humor and that he looked awfully good on the goddamn television screen and through it all was a pretty decent fellow, but his growing hold on the American people was simply a mystery to me.”

But Johnson admired the boldness, calculation, and even ruthlessness with which the Kennedys went after the nomination. In the fall of 1955 Joe Kennedy sent Tommy Corcoran to ask Johnson to announce his candidacy for President. Corcoran was also to say that if LBJ would privately promise to take Jack as his running mate in 1956, Joe would arrange financing for the campaign. Johnson understood that the Kennedys wanted to use him as a stalking-horse for Jack’s White House ambitions. Joe Kennedy made it clear to Corcoran that the ultimate aim was to make Jack Kennedy President. From the Kennedy perspective a losing Johnson campaign against Ike, with Jack as Lyndon’s running mate, was a fine way to launch Kennedy’s campaign for the presidential nomination in 1960. Joe believed that Lyndon would lose to Ike, but not by the landslide that seemed the likely outcome of another Adlai Stevenson campaign, and a lopsided Eisenhower victory over a Stevenson-Kennedy ticket could be blamed partly on Jack’s Catholicism and might damage his political standing. Believing it premature to reveal his intentions, understanding that the Kennedys wanted to use him for their purposes, and seeing little need for their help in any event, Johnson turned them down.

When Charles de Gaulle came to the United States for Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, he said, in effect: This man Kennedy was America’s mask, but this man Johnson is the country’s real face. De Gaulle’s observation has much to recommend it; Johnson is an excellent vehicle for studying American politics since the 1930s.