14 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4)


After about a year of directing the National Youth Administration's Texas branch, Lyndon Johnson gets his first big political break.  James P. Buchanon, congressman for Texas's 10th Congressional District (Austin and the surrounding areas, including Johnson's native Blanco County), dies in February 1937, leaving almost the entirety of his term of office unserved.  A special election is arranged to fill his seat, and Johnson throws in his hat.

A number of older and more politically established candidates run against Johnson in this race, and no one seems to have expected him to win.  Furthermore, throughout the campaign, Johnson trails his opponents in the polls by large margins.  But Johnson has a drive and a hunger for power that no one else in the race possesses, and he campaigns nonstop, making half a dozen or more speeches each day, driving from town to town, from farmhouse to farmhouse, across the entire district to meet voters and persuade them to vote for him.  As the campaign progresses, Johnson searches for an issue he can use to distinguish himself from the other candidates, and eventually finds one: support for Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan, which aimed (among other things) to increase the number of Supreme Court Justices in order to overcome constitutional challenges to New Deal legislation.  Johnson appeals to voters as the most pro-Roosevelt of the candidates—the one who will go to congress and fight for the plan.

In a surprise result, Johnson wins the '37 special congressional election.  On the day before the election he (having worked himself to the point of total exhaustion) collapses with a serious case of appendicitis, and is in the hospital when he learns of his victory.  His illness is serious enough that he has to spend several weeks in the hospital, but is discharged in time to meet FDR in Galveston, where he becomes acquainted with the president, who is very impressed with the young man and invites him to call his fixer Tommy Corcoran if he needs any help in Washington.  During his first few years in Congress, legislation is not Johnson's concern.  Mainly he seems to have had his eye out for (1) advantageous political connections, and (2) opportunities to direct resources toward his constituency.  Through Roosevelt and Rayburn, Johnson secures an appointment to the House Committee on Naval Affairs, which FDR himself had sat on.  Unfortunately for Johnson, however, the House, and especially the Naval Affairs Committee, works on a strict seniority basis, meaning that younger members of the committee (and certainly freshmen congressmen) are rarely invited to speak in committee meetings, much less given substantive responsibility.

During his time in Austin, Johnson made the acquaintance of "Senator" Alvin Wirtz, a prominent Austin lawyer, influence-peddler, and legal representative of the Brown and Root construction company, which was discussed in Part Two.  Wirtz knows that Johnson will be sympathetic to the plight of his clients.  (Their plight is also indirectly his plight, since he expects to receive a significant chunk of their profits in the form of legal fees.)  In return for the assistance Johnson provides, of course, it is understood that Brown and Root will provide him with campaign finance support, which they do throughout his career.  Johnson navigates the bureaucratic and legal complexities of the Brown and Root dam problem, and wins them not just full approval and funding for their existing project, but additional funding for an expansion of the project, in total amounting to around $100 million.  Not only this, but as time goes on he will win them further contracts, including one to build a naval base, with a price tag several times that of their dam.

By this point a cast of characters is growing up around Lyndon Johnson: advisors, patrons, clients, assistants.  Aside from Welly Hopkins, who first recommended Johnson to Richard Kleberg as a potential secretary, we now have Herman Brown and Alvin Wirtz.  A further, equally important character is also added during this period: Charles Marsh, owner of a series of Texas newspapers and a great deal of real estate.  Marsh (like Sam Rayburn, and Franklin Roosevelt, and later Richard Russell, Jr.) takes to Johnson like a son, advises him, helps him financially, and invites him to his massive country estate in Virginia, Longlea, where he lives with his long-time mistress Alice Glass.  Caro devotes some time to consideration of Johnson's amorous dealings with Alice Glass, but mercifully not very much.  The relationship, which seems to have lasted at least two or three years, is interesting for the light it sheds on Johnson's relationship with his wife (and his basic lack of respect for her), but otherwise it merely adds unnecessary sharpness to our picture of Johnson's amoral and egomaniacal lifestyle.

At this point Caro pauses to give us a very detailed picture of the life and work of average people in the Texas Hill Country.  Grueling, bitter, harsh.  The picture he paints not only casts interesting light on Johnson's own background, but serves as the foil against which we understand Johnson's biggest public works accomplishment for his constituents during his years in the House of Representatives: the electrification of the 10th district's rural sections.  An account of Johnson's difficulties in financing and organizing this effort closes this part of the book.