299 Absolute Power Corrupts, Absolutely– Exhibit A: LBJ

       Lord Acton (Sir John Dalberg-Acton), one of the most learned 19th century historians (allegedly knowing everyone worth knowing and reading everything worth reading), famously declared, in a letter to an Anglican clergyman:  “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence not authority.”  Acton’s insight clarifies the careers of dictators such as Napoleon and Stalin, but it also stamps the trajectories of democratically-elected politicians from Rome’s Republic (e.g. Tiberius and his brother Gaius Graachus) to today’s USA (e.g. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Vice President (“Cactus Jack”) John Nance Garner, branded a “power-hungry dictator”).  That majoritarian democracies easily suppress liberty can be routinely demonstrated, and many 19th century thinkers feared what Gerald Massey described as “the tramp of Democracy’s earthquake feet.”  In short, as arguably the greatest student of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, said, egalitarian movements too often illustrate Richelieu’s quip that leveling the “surface facilitates the exercise of power.”  

  Though some of his predecessors clearly evidenced power’s allure, Lyndon B. Johnson impressed all who knew him as insatiably addicted to its toxin.  So Robert A. Caro, writing the definitive biography of Johnson—The Years of Lyndon Johnson—included the word “power” in each of his four volumes (the fifth volume, covering the presidential years, has yet to be published).  And the same word—“power “—stands out in one of LBJ’s most controversial critiques, A Texan Looks at Johnson:  A Study in Illegitimate Power, by J. Evetts Haley.   When it was published, in 1964, I was mid-way through my graduate studies in history at the University of Oklahoma and accepted its widespread dismissal as a “hatchet job” lacking substance,—a malicious verbal vendetta motivated by petty animosities written by one of LBJ’s enemies.  Nevertheless, since Haley had taught at the University of Texas and published some respected monographs on Western history (e.g. the XIT Ranch and a biography of Charles Goodnight) I acquired and read the book.  

As a budding historian, I checked Haley’s footnotes and found ample citations—though mostly taken from newspapers rather than documents.  At that time, of course, the “primary sources” historians seek were unavailable, and I considered A Texan Looks at Lyndon as more a “Philippic” than serious scholarship.  Nevertheless, old Demosthenes’ “Philippics,” warning against Philip of Macedon’s ambitions, certainly contained important truths regarding the tyranny-to-come under his son, Alexander the Great.  And I remembered Cicero’s stirring orations, also called “Philippics,” denouncing Julius Caesar’s dictatorial ways as a threat to the Republic.  Similarly, Haley’s attack on Johnson raised serious questions concerning the president’s character.  In time I learned that Haley was not only an historian but personally quite active in Texas politics, running unsuccessfully for a both a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and Governor of the state.  He knew, first-hand, the notable political figures of his day, including LBJ and his associates.  In that sense, he was an eye-witness of many events as well as a scholar recording them.  That Haley (a Texas conservative) and Caro (a New York City liberal) basically agree in assessing LBJ’s character certainly suggests the accuracy of their conclusions.      

Just recently, as I finished the fourth volume Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, I reread A Texan Looks at Lyndon to see if Haley’s claims appear credible 50 years later.    Haley’s biographer, Bill Modisett, recently declared that “none of the assertions contained in the book have ever boon proven wrong and all of them have been verified through publications since that time.”  More importantly, what I found that Haley rather rightly discerned what one most needs to find out about someone:  his essence, his character.  Indeed, Haley’s assessments are even more amply evident in Caro’s less polemical and exhaustively documented work, which began with The Path to Power (New York:  Vintage Books, c. 1981).  Immersed in all the available details, Caro found a “dark” current within LBJ, “a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.”  His was a “hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself—or to anyone else—could stand before it” (p. xix).  He had “a genius for discerning a path to power, an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in that path, and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal in moving along it” (p. xx).  As Johnson himself declared:  “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me.  I know where to look for it, and how to use it.”   Though often unreported, there here is, as Joachim Joesten’s 2013 treatise claims, The Dark Side of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

LBJ’s path to power began in central Texas’s “Hill Country,” where young Lyndon experienced poverty and shame as a child.  His parents were exemplary folks, but their young son (early determined to “be somebody”—to be President, in fact) decided living virtuously brought few rewards and quite early turned to scheming and manipulating to gain his goals.  Determined to get an education, he attended the only college in the Hill Country—Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, accredited only four years before he arrived in 1927.  Before graduating, needing money, Johnson secured a teaching position in Cotulla, a small town 60 miles form the Mexican border populated mainly by Mexicans.  He poured enormous energy into his teaching tasks and showed genuine concern for his students, illustrating another character trait that persisted throughout his life—a concern for the impoverished and disadvantaged.  After replenishing his funds, LBJ returned to San Marcos to finish his college studies.   Though he studied sufficiently to succeed as a student, he seemed to major in campus politics and student affairs, early on manifesting one of his most obvious traits:  “obsequious to those above him, he was overbearing to those where were not” (p. 153).  Still more, he was notoriously untrustworthy, “snaky all the time” (p. 188).  Unable  to tell unvarnished truth about even the most innocuous subject” (p. 156), he even stole an election that he won by one vote.  Assessing LBJ’s college years, Caro concludes:  “The methods Lyndon Johnson used to attain power on Capitol Hill were the same one he had used on College Hill, and the similarity went far beyond the stealing of an election” (p. 199).  

Following his graduation, Johnson took a job in Houston’s Sam Houston High School, where he taught speech and coached the debate team to victory in the state championship.  Soon after beginning his second year of teaching, however, he accepted the position of private secretary for Richard Kleberg, recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and departed for the nation’s capital, arriving in December 1931.  He was, Caro says, “on his way.”  His boss, Congressman Kleberg, one of the richest men in Texas, took little interest in the daily duties of his position.  He was a generous, kindly man, but very much a playboy disinclined to work.  So young Lyndon took control of the office—managing the staff, answering the mail, raising funds, dealing with constituents’ requests, doling out offices.  He quickly mastered the intricacies of D.C. politics, adeptly mastering the means whereby one climbed the ladder of success.

To do so he followed the pattern evident when he was in college—especially by ingratiating himself with older, powerful men.  In Washington, none was more powerful than Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House, and it was Rayburn who arranged for LBJ (at the age of 26) to be appointed director of the National Youth Administration in Texas.  Returning to his home state, Johnson selected the staff, directed the funds, and hired the workers as the NYA prescribed.  In the process, he made the contacts and built the political machine he needed to further his own ambitions.  Most significantly, he helped a Houston businessman, Herman Brown, build the Marshall Ford Dam in the Hill Country, which brought electricity to that region.  In years to come, money flowing from Brown & Root’ apparently bottomless coffers would play a truly major role in LBJ’s ascent to national stature.  Throughout Johnson’s career, men carrying envelopes stuffed with $100 bills shuttled to-and-fro, cementing important deals on his behalf!    

When, in 1937, Congressman James P. Buchanan died, Johnson saw his opportunity to replace him, though he was largely unknown in the district dominated by the city of Austin.  Fortunately for Johnson, however, President Roosevelt was not only known but wildly popular.  So LBJ ran a very simple campaign:  “Roosevelt.  Roosevelt.  Roosevelt.  One hundred percent for Roosevelt.”  He also knew how much money matters in elections, and he secured lots of it.  With money he enlisted party leaders and staged extravagant barbecues that attracted hundreds of voters.  With lots of money he could also buy lots of votes, which he did.  He campaigned furiously throughout the district, exuding an air of “friendliness and sincerity, a love of people” (p. 415).  And, thanks to his support in rural areas, he won!   Then the young congressman, the protege of Speaker Rayburn, quickly made his mark in Washington, ingratiating himself with President Roosevelt, funneling New Deal funds to his district, and expanding his own political base.  “A hallmark of Johnson’s career,” Caro says, “had been a lack of any consistent ideology or principle, in fact of any moral foundation whatsoever—a willingness to march with any ally who wold help his personal advancement” (p. 663).  Haley anticipated Caro’s verdict by noting that “the most exacting logician can search the Johnson utterances and public record and find no conclusive evidence of dedication to any eternal verity; no statement of basic spiritual belief; no yardstick based on goal principle by which his personal life is guided, or by which public policy is measured and determined” (p. 15).  

LBJ’s ever-evident ambition prompted him to run for the U.S.Senate in 1942, unsuccessfully waging “the most expensive campaign in the history of Texas” (p. 718).  Failing in that endeavor, he ran again in 1948, garnering fame as “Landslide Lyndon” by virtue of his narrow (87 votes after 200 votes were added to Johnson’s total six days after the election!) victory over Governor Coke R. Stevenson, one of the state’s most honorable and venerated public servants, known affectionately as “Mr. Texas,” who was, Haley says, “a close student of the Constitution” and “never voted for a tax bill.”  Still more:  “He was anathema to the ultra-liberal New Deal elements” supporting LBJ (p. 21).  In 30 pages Haley highlighted what took Caro 265 richly documented pages to detail!   But both writers find much about Johnson the man revealed in his ’48 election.  Telling various audiences whatever he knew they wanted to hear—and changing the message from place to place—he ingratiated himself with credulous voters.  Relentlessly spreading untruths, deliberately lying, Johnson tried to tarnish Stevenson’s integrity, and “no one,” Caro says, “could destroy a reputation better than Lyndon Johnson” (p. 253).  Egregiously misrepresenting his WWII activities, LBJ posed as a war hero, though is “war” experience amounted to flying as an observer on one flight over New Guinea.  

And most importantly, as Caro demonstrates in a chapter simply titled “The Stealing,” he entrusted  the “Duke of Duval,” George Parr, to pack the ballot boxes sufficiently to win the election.  Legal challenges threatening to reverse the verdict ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but thanks to good friends in high places (most especially Abe Fortas providing skilled advice and Justice Hugo Black refusing Stevenson’s petition) LBJ “won” the election and became Texas’s junior Senator.  Many years later, one of the men, Luis Salas, intimately involved in the fraud in Duval County, lamented his complicity, saying:  “Johnson did not win that election.  It was stolen for him” (p. 388).  In a manuscript he showed Caro, Salas detailed his involvement “in one of the most notorious scandals of politics that opened the road for L. B. Johnson to reach the presidency of this country’” (p. 392).  As he had done in earlier elections, beginning when he was a college student, LBJ cheated whenever necessary to win.  

Having won the election, Johnson became, as Caro titles the third volume of his biography, Master of the Senate (New York:  Vintage Books, c. 2002).  He entered a legislative body notorious for its traditions, which included slowly moving up the ranks, but he quickly found ways to control it, becoming his party’s leader within two years, then Majority Leader (the youngest in American history) when Democrats regained control of the Senate.  His was a “rise unprecedented in its rapidity” (p. xxii).  To do so he courted allies in the Democratic cloakroom, talking to liberals like a liberal, to conservatives like a conservative, “asserting both positions with equal, and seemingly total conviction” (p. xvi).   He knew how to distribute funds and favors and did so effectively.  He mastered and manipulated the arcane “rules” of the Senate to his own advantage.  And he could always, Hubert Humphrey noted, “size up” a man, sense his most vulnerable spots, calculating how to exploit him to get his way, for as Stuart Symington recalled, “there was a sort of cruelty there” (p. 571).  

Johnson also relied on his amazing skill to obsequiously ingratiate himself with older, powerful men.  In the Senate, none was more powerful than Georgia’s Richard Russell, who was deeply committed to the nation’s armed forces and farmers—and to maintaining segregation throughout his beloved South.  Committee chairmen were disproportionately from the South, and Russell ruled them.  LBJ flattered and befriended the frequently-lonely bachelor, inviting him home to feast on Lady Bird’s cooking (as he had earlier done with Speaker Sam Rayburn).  He suddenly developed a love for baseball, one of Russell’s passions.  He seemed to share all the elder man’s convictions and was soon the recipient of his favors.  So LBJ aligned himself with the senator from Georgia and became Majority Leader as a result.  In the Senate, Johnson followed a life-long pattern, appearing utterly “humble—deferential, obsequious, in fact” when accruing power.  Then “he became, with dramatic speed and contrast, autocratic, overbearing, domineering” (p. 1018).  He became, quite literally, The Master of the Senate!

In 1952 he enthusiastically supported Russell’s unsuccessful bid for his party’s presidential nomination, learning thereby that a Southerner could not become a national candidate.  So Johnson needed to cater to Northerners and become known as more than a “Southerner” without losing the support of Russell and his allies.  This meant, in the 1950s, delicately walking a tightrope when dealing with the growing issue of Civil Rights.   Given the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision and Martin Luther King’s marches, there was a “rising tide” of discontent and agitation regarding segregation in America.  Growing up in the Hill Country, LBJ lacked much of the anti-black antipathy evident in men such as Richard Russell.  His brief stint teaching Mexican children had revealed his rather remarkable commitment to helping the disadvantaged.  So he could cautiously entertain supporting certain civil rights initiatives if he could do so without losing his political base in the South.  He could sincerely “help somebody” as long as it didn’t hinder his driving desire to “be somebody.”  That “somebody” he wanted to be was President!  To attain that objective he needed to burnish his image in the North, so he needed to get some sort of civil rights legislation passed by the Senate, and he finessed a plan in 1957 that persuaded enough Senators to vote for a bill that would serve as a prologue to more vigorous legislation a decade later, when he would be President.

His passage to the presidency is detailed in the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, titled The Passage of Power (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, c. 2012).  As the 1960 election approached, Johnson calculated his chances of winning his party’s nomination for the presidency.  Uncharacteristically indecisive, he delayed and wavered, testing the waters to see how likely he was to succeed.  Hoping that none of his rivals would secure the nomination in the primaries, LBJ pinned his hopes on triumphing in a deadlocked convention, but the delegates instead nominated John F. Kennedy.  Then, unexpectedly (perhaps pressured by Sam Rayburn), JFK asked Johnson be his vice presidential running mate.   Equally astounding, LBJ assented.  According to one of is aides, Johnson declared:  “‘Power is where power goes . . . [and] I’ll still control the Senate’” (p. 109).  Others, including FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, might have thought the position worthless, but LBJ imagined it might open to him further opportunities.   According to Clare Booth Luce, who asked him why he accepted the nomination, “he replied:  ‘Clare,I looked it up; one out of ever four Presidents has died in office.  I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin,’ and this is the only chance I got’” (p. 115).  On the campaign trail, his assignment was clearly to establish beachheads for Kennedy in the South (and most especially in Texas).  Consequently, Nixon won only three southern states and JFK won one of the closest elections in American history.     

Prior to 1961, vice presidents were largely ceremonial figures, but Lyndon Johnson resolved to turn the position into one of power, working both within the White House (unsuccessfully trying to slip into Kennedy’s inner circle) and the Senate (unsuccessfully scheming to retain his position as presiding officer of Senate Democrats and thus voiding the Constitution’s commitment to a clear separation of powers).  In fact, he found himself very much an outsider, excluded from exercising the power he desperately sought, derisively labeled “Rufus Cornpone” by the New Frontiersmen who now ran the country.   When important decisions were made, such as responding to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the vice president was not consulted.  Sophisticated socialites in D.C. smirked while wondering “whatever became of Lyndon Johnson?”  According to Jacqueline Kennedy, her husband distrusted Johnson and “‘was truly frightened’” at  “‘what would happen if LBJ ever became President’” (p. 224).   Brother Bobby truly hated Johnson; he detested liars and said Johnson “‘lies all the time . . . lies continually about everything’” (p. 230).  Bobby “despised the way Johnson treated subordinates” and considered him a “‘mean, bitter, vicious’” man (p. 580).  Rumors freely circulated that Kennedy might choose another running mate when running for reelection in 1964).  

Then came November 22, 1963, when the President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  In an instant LBJ attained his life-long ambition, becoming President of the United States.   He hadn’t been aboard Air Force One on the President’s fight to Dallas (excluded as usual from the inner circle), but now it was his to command.  No longer a supplicant hoping for handouts from the Kennedy clan, he demanded Jacqueline fly back with him in the plane carrying her husband’s body, symbolizing thereby Johnson’s legitimacy as his successor.  He also decided, inasmuch as possible, to retain Kennedy’s appointees (including Bobby as attorney general) to facilitate his transition to the nation’s highest position.  Knowing he needed to secure his party’s liberals’ support, he vowed to carry through on many of JFK’s legislative goals—most notably civil rights—and succeeded in ways impossible for Kennedy.  And he scrupulously avoided making necessary decisions regarding America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, fearing it would jeopardize his reelection in 1964.  “To watch Lyndon during the transition is to see political genius in action” (p. xvi).  

Johnson’s power-quest succeeded.  And Caro’s massive study amply illustrates Haley’s judgment:  his love for “money and power” corrupted whatever he touched, both people and institutions.  While assuring Americans (in his 1964 State of the Union message) that he was committed to “utmost thrift and frugality,” he proceeded to impoverish the nation’s treasury with his “war on poverty”—grandiosely promising “better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment,” to “not only relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”   Promising to keep the nation out of war, he secretly planned to precisely that.  Pretending to be a conservative when it brought him votes, he voted as a liberal and enacted deeply socialistic policies bringing him power.   Details regarding LBJ’s presidency await Caro’s final volume, but the verdict seems quite clear:  “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  And as Exhibit A there stands LBJ!  

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