Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Robert Caro: Means of Ascent

In "The Path to Power," Robert Caro had sketched the essential character of Lyndon Johnson as a man of appetites, dominated by twin desires for money and power and by a consuming impatience to sate them. Yet by 1941, Lyndon Johnson was a stymied man, devastated by his first electoral defeat in the 1941 Senate election. That loss had left him with few allies and fewer prospects. He was the junior member of the Texas delegation to the House of Representatives, and it simply did not satisfy him. Like an Dickensian urchin outside a great estate, Johnson longed to be among a more exclusive society: the United States Senate.

“The Means of Ascent” concentrates on seven relatively uneventful years in the life of Johnson, in which he struggled to maneuver a path to the Senate. Johnson’s first tactic was to make a name for himself in the military. As the United States entered World War II, a number of congressmen volunteered themselves for the military, often out of patriotism and just as often out of ambition. The danger, as Johnson quickly discovered, is that the chain of command was not very friendly to political opportunists. Johnson kept seeking high-profile assignments, and his commanding officers kept burying him far away from the gaze of Washington. Johnson’s extensive connections within the D.C. elite ensured him the honor of a Silver Star (awarded under false pretenses), but not even military honors were enough to save him from the obscurity of service. Moreover, Johnson had relied on his political allies in Texas to put his name on the ballot while he was away, but by the time he returned from the war they were strongly considering dropping him from the ballot entirely. He managed to keep his seat, but realized that he did not have the political stature to stay for long.

The election of 1948 was Johnson’s last hurrah. His 1941 opponent, former Governor “Pappy” O’Daniel, had declined to seek another term in the Senate, so Johnson had to face the current Governor instead. Coke Stevenson was an immensely popular statesman, who had succeeded O’Daniel in 1941 and won all subsequent elections with landslides. Caro portrays the 1948 campaign not merely as the last stand for Johnson, but the last stand for the so-called “gentleman’s campaign” that Stevenson personified. Since the time of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, most politicians did not actively campaign, but remained at home while their allies and associates spread the news of their candidacy. Stevenson was a politician in this mold, a man more comfortable at his ranch than in a legislature, but who commanded respect and exuded extraordinary gravitas in his political dealings. Thus, tragically, Stevenson was largely absent from the campaign trail, while Johnson not only had the ambition to defeat this political behemoth but the energy to sustain that ambition.

Johnson launched what would become the prototype for the modern campaign. Texas presented unique difficulties for a candidate, foremost among which was the low population density. Towns were sparsely populated and sparsely distributed around the non-urban regions. Johnson overcame this challenge with a gimmick that would define his campaign: he traveled by helicopter from town to town, with multiple stops each day. He managed his supply lines as carefully as a general, sending staff ahead to spread the news and provide fuel at each stop. Audiences would gather from miles around, some to see the candidate and most to see his ride, which had been nicknamed the “Flying Windmill.” Johnson was lucky in other ways as well: the primary was hotly contested between three candidates, and while Stevenson dominated the early returns, he did not receive a majority on the first ballot. Thus, a special runoff was held, allowing Johnson the needed time for campaigning.

Lastly, Johnson developed relationships with the local political machines around the state, and it was these relationships that would prove decisive. Stevenson’s honesty gave him an advantage in public opinion, but gave him a severe disadvantage when it came to the widespread practice of ballot fraud. As the votes were tallied on the night of the primary, Stevenson led Johnson by nearly 20,000 votes. Caro details how Johnson’s connections to the machines in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere allowed him to reduce that lead to 854 votes by the end of the first night, to 349 votes the day after, to 157 by the end of the week. “And suddenly,” Caro reports, “with virtually all the counting in the election over, Coke Stevenson was no longer ahead.” Jim Wells County (of the Rio Grande Valley machine) had amended its results and given Johnson an 87-vote lead.

The matter eventually came before the Texas Democratic Party’s executive committee. The testimony ensured the notoriety of the incident, by bringing to light incidents of clear voter fraud: hundreds of pro-Johnson voters had apparently shown up at the polls right before closing time to cast their votes in alphabetical order. Astonishingly, Johnson had such support in the executive committee (and had flown in several absent supporters) that the disputed totals were upheld, even if it was by only a one-vote margin. Stevenson filed and won an injunction from a Federal District Court, ordering Johnson’s name off the general election ballot until after an investigation, but that order was voided by by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Johnson proceeded to crush his Republican opponent in the general election – the South would remain solidly Democratic until after 1964, when Johnson led the Democrats in passing the Civil Rights Act.

Caro’s biography provides a glimpse into the life of a master of realpolitick, and thereby a glimpse into the very fabric of modern politics. Caro describes in this book how Johnson became the pawn of a few oil tycoons, whose business (the future Halliburton) prospered from an alliance with Johnson. He further describes Johnson’s mastery of political maneuvering and the new campaign techniques that would soon dominate the field. Caro depicts Johnson’s method of politics as belonging to a world of lusts, for power, money, glory, and women. Johnson epitomized this world, this very different mode of politics than ever envisioned by Aristotle, let alone by the Founding Fathers for the American experiment. Caro provides a sobering glimpse into a world of corruption, of ballot-stuffing and horse-trading. It is a rather depressing perspective in a world where money makes a man and man returns the favor.

Yet, whatever implications Caro draws, this biography does not drive the reader to despair. In the midst of Johnson’s vain ambition and voracious appetites, he maintains a principled core that seems oddly out of place amidst his character. Once all his appetites were sated, after ascending to the Presidency, these principles seemed to take precedence. It certainly could not have been political expedience that drove him to push the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a veritable act of hari-kari for Democrats across the American South. Caro’s depiction of Coke Stevenson is also encouraging to those seeking redemption for politics. Stevenson was a deeply principled man, a deeply respected man, whose only campaign flaw was his inactivity, borne of his desire to appear disinterested in power. Yet such disinterest is by no means inextricably linked to keeping a healthy attitude towards politics. If “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” then the activity of good men should be sufficient to prevent evil from triumphing. Perhaps that is the lesson of this biography, beyond its descriptions of Johnson determining his own fate despite adverse conditions. Caro shows us the strategic and tactical blunders made by the decent men left in Johnson’s wake, that those who seek a more honorable polity may learn their history to avoid repeating it. It is a lesson well worth learning.

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