11 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (3)


Johnson's boss in Washington, the new congressman Kleberg, is one of the owners of the King Ranch, which was then and remains now one of the largest ranches in the world (at the time it comprised over 990,000 acres of land in south Texas).  Politics was a diversionary occupation for Kleberg, and it becomes clear to Johnson and his fellow secretary, Estelle Harbin, that their employer has no intention of wasting too much time around the Capitol.  Kleberg makes himself scarce, and Johnson and Harbin are left to figure out how Congress works, and how to manage a congressional office.

Caro spends a great deal of time explaining the business of congressional aides, and his explanation is helpful because so much of this volume and the next two volumes deal with the relationships between congressmen and their staff.  The main concern for Johnson in 1931 was to find a way of responding to the massive quantity of correspondence which came into the office each day, much of it asking for assistance with the federal bureaucracy, or advice in acquiring federal aid, loans, pensions, etc.  Johnson and Harbin thus had a twofold problem to solve: first in understanding where to go in the massive federal bureaucracy to get some question or problem addressed for a constituent, and second, how to see to it that the request was not lost, but actually concretely addressed by the relevant persons.  Johnson sets to work at both tasks, making contacts with other secretaries in order to find out how things are done, and then ingratiating himself at important offices throughout Washington—not just with people of authority, but with everyone at every level of the chain of command, in order better to grease the wheels for the needs of his boss's constituents.

After the first year in Washington, Harbin leaves and returns to Texas, leaving Johnson alone in charge of the office.  He convinces Kleberg to allow him to hire a replacement for Harbin, and he hires two: his young debate students Gene Latimer and L. E. Jones.  With Harbin gone, Johnson is now running the office exclusively, and he subjects Latimer and Jones to what can only be called a brutal regimen of slave labor in his service.  The three men share a room in the sub-basement of a capitol hill hotel, waking each morning before dawn, and returning late each night.  Johnson adjusts the office budget to maximize his salary, leaving Jones and Latimer barely enough to survive on.  The two men rarely get time off (they have to fight to get Sunday afternoons free, and even then Johnson grumbles), and Latimer is forced to work two jobs in order to earn his salary (his wages come partially from a job as a congressional mail clerk, which is independent of his work in Kleberg's office).  Johnson drives the two young men like animals, insisting that he should never hear them stop typing, scrupulously proofreading their responses to constituent letters, etc.  Years later, when asked why he refused to work for Johnson again after his time in Kleberg's office, Jones would explain that he feared he would be "devoured" by Johnson.

Johnson works in Kleberg's office for several years, hoping (it seems) that eventually Kleberg would leave Congress and vacate his seat.  To this end, as time goes on Johnson makes his own name more and more prominent in office correspondence, signing letters in place of his boss (as Kleberg's representative), making personal phone calls to constituents, etc.  He cultivates a wide range of valuable contacts in Kleberg's congressional district, hoping to be able to use them eventually in an election.  Always he is looking for untapped sources of influence and power that can help him advance to the next stage in his career.  (The plan for his ascent to the top was already at least loosely formulated by the time he started college, as evidenced by the testimony of the college president, and by memories of his students at Cotulla.)

After detailing the office structure with Johnson presiding over his slaves Latimer and Jones, Caro pauses for an excursus on the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, and the New Deal.  Caro reviews the history very well, but it is presumably familiar enough to readers that we can omit it here.

During his time as a congressional secretary, Johnson becomes involved in a social club for congressional secretaries, the "Little Congress".  The Little Congress is a parallel body in which the assistants of senators and representatives can debate legislation currently under consideration in the two houses, and is organized as a mock-congress, with votes and parliamentary procedure and so on.  Johnson employs the organization at first as a source of information and contacts, but as he becomes involved in it, he begins to see it (as he sees so many things) through the lens of possible career advancement, and throws himself into the organization, to use it as an engine for self-promotion.

Certain themes from his college years are repeated here, especially his transformation of a quiet, peaceful social body into a ruthlessly competitive political machine.  Johnson decides to become president of the Little Congress (an organization in which leadership is based mainly on seniority), and he does.  In order to accomplish this goal, he takes advantage of the lax voting procedures of the group and recruits huge numbers of non-members to vote for him and his chosen candidates in their elections (a strategy tantamount to stuffing the ballot box).  Johnson wins, takes control of the group, and makes his presidency a frequent feature of local news reports, by publicizing meetings and inviting prominent figures to address the body. When Johnson's term as president of the Little Congress expires, he handpicks his successor, who operates in effect as Johnson's puppet. After a series of such administrations, other members of the Little Congress become tired of Johnson's domination of the group, and pushback develops against Johnson's election strategies, leading eventually to the strict enforcement of voting rules and discovery of Johnson's exploitation of non-member votes to win elections.  After his group's unseating, Johnson loses interest in the Little Congress, and all but departs from the group.

Caro emphasizes throughout this another important characteristic of Johnson's political activity. Johnson avoids taking principled positions in public at all costs. He will freely advocate one side or another in private, but as soon as she is given a public stage or a broad audience, he will refuse to speak at all. Caro tells us that whenever a discussion of principle was occurring in the Little Congress, Johnson would either slink to the back of the room or leave altogether. In private meetings he sides with the positions of the people he is speaking to: conservative with conservatives and liberal with liberals. He has a marvelous skill for anticipating the thought off his interlocutors and beating them to their own conclusions, so that he can agree with them before they have even been stated their viewpoint. Personally, he seems to have no principled views at all. He is eminently practical.

It is during this period think Johnson meets and marries his wife, whom history knows as Lady Bird Johnson, but whose birth name was Claudia Alta Taylor.  (The name "ladybird" was given by a maid in her parents' household, who remarked that young Claudia was "as pretty as a ladybird".)  Ladybird was a painfully shy child, whose mother died when she was still very young.  Her father sends her off to live with an aunt, who raises her.  The classic anecdote about Ladybird (in Caro's telling) is her terror of the possibility that she would be high school valedictorian and have to deliver a speech.  She hoped that if she were so cursed, she would come down with smallpox in order to avoid the occasion.

 Johnson meets Lady Bird during a stay on Richard Kleberg's King Ranch. Lady Bird has plans to work as reporter and has recently finished her college degree (the year is 1934) when she meets Lyndon Johnson during a visit to Austin. Johnson proposes to her during their first date and, after getting the approval of her father, Lady Bird and Johnson marry only a few weeks later.

At this point a few notes about Johnson's romantic life are in order. Up to now in his life, Johnson's interest has been directed solely toward the daughters of the wealthiest men available to him. He seems only to date the daughters of the richest men in town. This is true during his teenage years in Johnson City, and also during his college years in San Marcos. To an extent, Lady Bird fits this pattern—her father is a very wealthy businessman who owns a general store and cotton mill in the eastern Texas town of Karnak. (Johnson presumably had access to much wealthier daughters at this point, however.) Ladybird, like Johnson's parents, has a deep love of learning and literature and beautiful things, and Johnson woos her with promises of visits to museums and mutual appreciation of the arts. After their wedding, to which no one in Johnson's family is invited, the promises and pretense are swept away and the hard reality of marital life sets in—hard, that is, at least for Ladybird. Johnson seems to have treated Ladybird as a glorified servant. You did not go to museums with her he displayed his customary lack of interest in the arts and intellectual matters and Lady Bird is described as finding in Johnson the same frustrating anti-intellectualism as his mother found in him as a schoolboy.  She is reduced to reading passages of books to him at breakfast, in the hopes that he will absorb something and take interest.

Married life has its uses for Johnson, and the Johnsons' little apartment in Washington quickly becomes host to a circle of young Washington politicians and their wives.  But the most important new acquisition made possible by Ladybird is not a secretary or bureaucrat, but a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Sam Rayburn of Texas.

One of the beauties of Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson is the care with which he portrays figures who enter prominently into the narrative.  Many figures in each volume merit short profiles, and some longer biographical digressions, but always there will be at least one profile which merits its own chapter—one personality whose mark lies deep on the volume and serves as a counterweight to the personality of Lyndon Johnson.  The great figure in The Path to Power is Texas congressman Sam Rayburn, who was to become the longest serving Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives in the history of the nation (over 17 years).  And Rayburn, in Caro's profile of him, is simply a wonderful human being.

Rayburn is born in Tennessee in the 1880s, raised in poverty, and works his way through college.  Eventually he is elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he becomes acquainted with Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. (Lyndon's father), and shares Sam's disdain for "The Interests" and flat refusal to accept any compensation or bribery from corporate lobbyists.  Sam's hatred of lobbyists and corporate interests in government stays with him his entire life, and he staunchly refuses at all points to accept anything from them, earning a reputation for untouchable honesty.  Rayburn is also a very grim and intimidating figure, the sort of man who exudes leadership, and before whom other men stand in awe—if not because of his reputation, then simply because of his stern disposition and solemn manner.  But Rayburn was, by Caro's account, a sad and lonely man.  He married once, but his wife left him only a few months into their marriage, and he never wed again.  He is said to have expressed repeatedly his longing for a son, for a child he could take fishing with him.  He was profoundly shy, and his solitude was not made easier by his unapproachability.

Johnson takes advantage of Rayburn's acquaintance with his father in order to strike up a friendship with the older man, and begins inviting him over for meals at the couple's apartment.  Caro suggests that Rayburn's acquiescence to Johnson's invitations (eventually regular invitations, including weekly Sunday brunches) was due to two main factors.  The first was Ladybird.  Rayburn, even then a powerful figure in the House, was regularly invited to social events, but found them burdensome and had little patience for Washington hostesses.  But in Ladybird he seems to have found something of a kindred spirit.  In Caro's telling, Rayburn sympathized with her shyness, and delighted in the opportunity to try and make her feel at ease.  She was a new cook (and, by some accounts, in those years a bad one); he praised her cooking; she learned to cook his favorite food.  He visited regularly and expressed care and concern for her in his own small ways, and she seems to have reciprocated his affections.  The second reason for Rayburn's presence was Lyndon.  Lyndon had long been in the practice of working on older men and women to make them sympathetic and amenable to his professional needs.  To Rayburn he became a sort of "professional son", playing to the older man's sadness over his own childlessness, exaggerating their personal history, etc.  And Rayburn seems to have gone along with it for some time.  Even when, after a few years, he became more clearly attuned to Johnson's ruthless pragmatism and instrumental view of human relationships, he stayed in contact with him, and played an enormous and positive role in Johnson's political career from the mid-1930s all the way to the 1960 Democratic National Convention (Rayburn died in 1961).

By the mid 1930s, Johnson is becoming impatient, and there are no signs of Kleberg's retirement from politics or removal to some other post.  Johnson seems to have started a rumor (multiple times) that Kleberg was being considered by FDR for the post of ambassador to Mexico, hoping that the rumor would catch on, but nothing comes of it.  Voicing his anxieties to Rayburn, Johnson gains the assistance of his friend, who uses his influence to get Johnson appointed director of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration, a WPA-style New Deal organization created by the federal government to help give jobs to unemployed high school graduates and enable college students in need of money to work to pay their tuition.

Johnson's work with the NYA merits a more substantial treatment than I will give it here.  Caro has a good deal to say about the scope of his work launching the organization, and his leadership style as director.  The main thing to note is Johnson's use of patronage: Lyndon Johnson is never afraid to ask for a favor from a friend, sometimes large favors, and often (with subordinates) total devotion and obedience ("boot-licking devotion").  But Johnson repays his helpers by bringing them along as he ascends to greater power.  As director of the NYA, he gathers round himself his lackeys from the White Stars club in San Marcos, and other friends who have helped him out.  As time goes on, these characters will return over and over again.

Caro closes this third part of volume one with a discussion of a large civil engineering problem ostensibly unrelated to Johnson.  Again he gives us a personal history, this time of Herman Brown (a recurring character throughout the biography).  Brown's construction company is looking to build a dam, a massive dam, a $26 million dam in western Texas.  They want to build this dam because it is the big project they've been waiting for—the one that will elevate them into the big leagues and really make them a lot of money.  But there are various problems with the project.  Conflicting Texas and Federal laws make its authorization impossible (the dam is on Texas land, but is to be funded by the federal government, which by law restricts itself from funding the construction of dams on land not federally owned).  But the Browns are already very deep in construction costs, making it possible that they will lose everything when the bureaucrats in Washington realize that they have made a mistake, and that the completion of the dam whose initial work they funded cannot be legally funded to completion.  Etc.  So the Brown and Root construction company needs someone in Washington, fast, who will be able to pull the strings for them and get extraordinary authorization for their project.  And, Caro suggests, Lyndon Johnson is to be that man.  This ends part three.