15 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (5)

VOLUME ONE: THE PATH TO POWER
PART FIVE: NEW FIELDS

Johnson has a few major strengths as a politician.  First, he works harder than almost anyone else.  Second, he is very talented at courting older men and being a "professional son" to them, in order to win their affection and support for his career.  Third, he extremely good at trading influence with people.  Fourth, he knows how to take advantage of the procedures and powers of institutions he is part of and offices he holds, in order to magnify both the weight of the institutions and the power of the offices.  Fifth, he is extremely good at political fundraising. The fifth part of this volume deals mainly with Johnson's struggles to employ the second, fourth, and fifth strengths in order to gain a more prominent position within the House of Representatives.

Johnson's relationship with Sam Rayburn (who would become Speaker of the House in 1940 and continue holding that office for almost all of the next 20 years) was already established during his time in Richard Kleberg's office  as a congressional secretary.  As Johnson realizes that his upward ambitions are being stymied by the seniority system in the House, his dependence on Rayburn decreases, and he attempts more and more to cultivate a relationship with President Roosevelt.  Roosevelt, while appreciative of Johnson's pro-New Deal campaign platform, has more important business than catering to a freshman congressman's ambitions, and ignores him during his first months in office.  Johnson struggles for attention, and is repeatedly rebuffed.  Furthermore, his attempts to trade influence with other congressmen fail, because he has nothing to offer them in return.  Johnson's reputation in the House is negative—people look at him as a mendacious blowhard who is always trying to get favors without giving any in return.

The turning point comes in Johnson's exploitation of a rift in the Roosevelt administration.  Roosevelt's vice-president, John Nance Garner of Texas, has become increasingly disillusioned with the New Deal because of the Court-Packing Plan, and begins to visibly distance himself from the administration and to speak against its policies with other politicians.  Garner's defection and anti-Roosevelt attitude are taken up by the congressional Texas delegation, which includes the senators and representatives from that state, who were in the habit of meeting regularly for meals and political discussion.  Johnson turns spy for Roosevelt and begins sending unsolicited reports to the administration on discussion among the Texas delegates.  By doing this he hopes to win favor with Roosevelt and to become "Roosevelt's man in Texas", i.e. the chief Roosevelt organizer for the Democratic Party in Texas during the 1940 presidential campaign.  The biggest obstacle to Johnson's achievement of this goal is Johnson's own mentor and father-figure, Sam Rayburn, who is a senior Texas delegate, well known and respected across the Texas political landscape, and an ardent supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Rayburn, however, unlike Johnson, is scrupulously honest and faithful, and refuses to abandon his old friend Garner in favor of his hero Roosevelt, or to abandon his political ideals in service of his old friendship.  And because Rayburn will not declare for one side or another, but cooperates with Garner as his fellow statesman and old ally, Johnson does his best to frame Rayburn as Garner's ally in opposing Roosevelt's re-election in 1940.  Using Charles Marsh's newspapers to drive the story, Johnson co-ordinates a series of carefully constructed press encounters which are meant to put Rayburn in a bad light.  Rayburn eventually becomes aware of Johnson's betrayal, and their relationship falls cold for a few years.  Johnson, however, wins himself a greater degree of influence (if not all he wanted) with Roosevelt, and becomes a familiar figure with the White House staff.

The 1940 campaign cycle arrives, and Johnson is left with nothing of import to do.  He struggles to get assigned to a post in the Democratic National Committee, or some other body of influence, but instead is merely named to the House Democratic Election Committee, which is a virtually defunct organization charged with assisting in the financing of congressional election campaigns across the country. (Caro describes in detail the past activity of this group and its perpetual lack of adequate funds to fulfill its mission.) As Johnson gets himself more and more license to act, however, in the last hour he comes through in a heroic way for his party, connecting the huge cash reserves of conservative Texas oilmen with cash-poor democratic politicians across the country, and wiring them much needed donations to finance their campaigns.  Johnson finally has his moment—his fundraising abilities and connections with Texas businessmen have made him patron to dozens and dozens of congressmen, who will then remember him in future elections and, more importantly, when they return to Congress.  Johnson's gaze, however, is already on the next step in his climb to the White House, the U. S. Senate.  This concludes part five.