15 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (6)


The final part of Caro's first volume on Johnson begins in April 1941, with the news of the death of Texas's senior senator, Morris Sheppard.  Sheppard's death prompts a special election, to be held in the late summer of that year.  Johnson, hearing of Sheppard's death, immediately begins planning his campaign and recruiting advisors, financial backers, and staff.

In a number of ways, the '41 Senate campaign is similar to the '37 campaign which won Johnson his seat in the House of Representatives: many of the same figures play roles in it, and it has many of the mainstays of Johnson electioneering (nonstop work, endless speeches, etc.).  Unlike the '37 campaign, however, this campaign is statewide (Texas is a large state), and unlike in '37, Johnson now has virtually unlimited campaign funds, thanks to the Brown and Root construction company.  Campaign finance laws limited the amount a person could give to a single candidate to $5000, but in Johnson's campaigns this was easily circumvented: first, through the granting of "bonuses" to Brown and Root employees, and then more extensively through the pooling of contributions — especially out of state contributions — in cash which was hand-carried and delivered to Johnson headquarters.  Caro's quotes from John Connally and other Johnson men involved in the transportation of these bags (literally) stuffed with cash are astonishing.

At the beginning of the campaign, Johnson has a great deal of confidence in his ability to beat his opponents, Martin Dies (a fellow congressman) and Gerald Mann (Texas's Attorney General).  But everything changes when Texas Governor W. Lee O'Daniel announces his intention to enter the race.  O'Daniel is an almost unbelievable figure, and so Caro breaks to tell his story.

W. Lee O'Daniel was raised in Kansas and moved to Texas in his 30s to work for a milling company in Fort Worth, as a flour salesman.  His work selling flour got him involved in radio advertising, and he eventually got himself a regular radio show featuring a band of singers who performed music revolving around flour products and biscuits.  O'Daniel hosted the show and would give little radio talks, dubbing himself "Pappy".  His show became very popular, to the point where, by the late 1930s O'Daniel was one of the best known public figures in Texas.  He established his own brand of flour ("Hillbilly Flour") and became very wealthy.

In 1938, O'Daniel asked listeners to write to him telling him whether he should enter the race to become the next Governor of Texas.  (Up to this point in his life O'Daniel had never held political office or even voted in an election.)  He received several thousand replies, almost all of them urging him to run, and he did.  In the Democratic primary (Texas being a one party state, the primary was where winners were decided), O'Daniel won an outright majority of the votes, crushing his opponents and establishing himself as a political power.

According to Caro, O'Daniel's performance as governor was marked by a flippant lack of interest in the practicalities of government or the achievement of any of his major campaign promises (the most important of which was a lavish universal pension plan for the elderly, something that never had any chance of being passed into law).  After a couple of years of governorship, O'Daniel plays the same trick again, asking listeners (he maintains his radio show while in office) to write to him and say whether he should run for the U. S. Senate.  Of course, they say he should, although some express reservations because "We need you in Texas!"  And O'Daniel enters the race.

Pappy O'Daniel's entrance necessitates a shift in Johnson's public image and overall strategy.  Fighting O'Daniel, Johnson is fighting not just a politician but a household name and celebrity, someone who has, for over a decade, been entering the homes of Texans, consoling them with Gospel truisms and earthy advice and tales of his mother, and winning them over with his smooth voice and mild manners.  Pappy is a trusted and beloved figure, a popular hero.  Furthermore, when O'Daniel campaigns, he brings his band (the "Hillbilly Boys") around with him, and they do little concerts and live shows for the people.  This means that Texans are likely to go and hear what he has to say not just because he's a big politician who's visiting town, but because he's a celebrity putting on a free public show.

Johnson's response to the O'Daniel threat comes in several stages.  His first strategy is to prevent O'Daniel from actively campaigning, by using his connections in the Texas state legislature to prolong the legislative session and thereby force O'Daniel, as governor, to remain in Austin.  This he manages to do for several weeks.  Second, Johnson modifies his style of presentation.  At first, when his competitors are Dies and Mann, Johnson's main effort is to appear senatorial and brusque, and his speeches are delivered in an arrogant and condescending tone, shouted at his audience as if to a group of schoolchildren.  Once Johnson realizes that he needs not just to appear Senatorial but to beat O'Daniel, he modifies his affect in order to be more personable, and invests more effort in hand-shaking and small talk with the public.

The biggest strategic change, however, a shift in the terms of the competition.  Since Lyndon Johnson, a third term congressman from Texas's 10th district, is a virtual nobody compared to Pappy O'Daniel, Johnson makes the campaign not "Pappy vs. Johnson" but "Pappy vs. FDR".  Images of President Roosevelt become the mainstay of all his campaign ads, and his public performances are no longer about Lyndon Johnson giving a political address, but a (literal) pageant chronicling the struggles of the Depression and the triumph of the New Deal, setting the stage for Johnson's big appeal to elect him, as a candidate in support of "ROOSEVELT AND UNITY".

Johnson's efforts to out-do the professional performer in his pageantry and showmanship are moderately successful, and the massive campaign expenditures — used to buy up radio time and advertising, to woo influential leaders across the state, and to win the votes of those under their influence — bring him close to O'Daniel in the polls.  Johnson also sees to it that the immigrant populations are "rallied" to his cause, by paying off the men who hold thousands of poll tax receipts in the southern districts of the state, and in Houston.  Caro spends some time discussing the mechanics of vote purchasing here, but his main (and extremely detailed) description of the matter is reserved for the next volume.

All in all, Johnson probably would have won the 1941 Senate race, but for an error made at the last minute, on election day itself.  When the men in charge of Johnson's "boxes" in southern Texas (i.e. precincts whose votes he had bought en masse) ask him when to report out their final tallies on election day, he tells them to do so immediately.  With all of Johnson's votes reported publicly, Johnson's numbers are more or less fixed, and this gives the people on O'Daniel's side knowledge of the number of votes they need to get in order to beat Johnson.  In Caro's view, O'Daniel was not sufficiently organized to orchestrate the procurement of votes for himself, but votes were procured for him anyway—not by Pappy himself, nor apparently by his campaign staff, but by men with large oil interests who had become wary of a continued O'Daniel governorship, and were worried about what might happen if he stayed in office too long.  In other words, O'Daniel wins the election by a hair, because his political enemies want to get him out of the state and into the Senate, where he can't do any harm.  Johnson goes from calm assurance, to concern, to despair as the numbers slowly come in and reveal his defeat.

Roosevelt had supported Johnson's campaign for the Senate, and now he supports him in defeat.  The biggest problem emerging for Johnson out of the '41 campaign is not the loss of his much-hoped-for seat in the Senate, but an inquiry by the IRS into certain irregularities in the books of the Brown and Root construction company.  As mentioned earlier, Brown and Root had given out large bonuses and special fees to various employees and affiliated lawyers, with the understanding that they were then to turn the money over to the Johnson campaign.  This way of handling things was advantageous for the company because on paper they were not violating the $5000 contribution cap, and they were able to write off the covert contributions as legitimate expenses.  The IRS apparently found the pattern of bonuses and withdrawals suspicious, and launched a full-fledged investigation into the matter, which clearly pointed to Lyndon Johnson's campaign.  The investigation, if brought to term, could have destroyed Johnson's political career and landed Herman Brown in prison, but Johnson (after a great deal of effort) manages to use Roosevelt's influence to get the investigation shut down, and the worst is averted.  The company is required to pay a few hundred thousand dollars in a tax adjustment, and the case is closed.

The final chapter of the book discusses Sam Rayburn's election as Speaker of the House of Representatives (his lifelong goal), and the healing of his relationship with Johnson.  Rayburn would faithfully support and advise Johnson for the rest of his life.

This concludes volume one.  The next volume, Means of Ascent, deals with Johnson's war service, his entry into business, and the 1948 Senate race which brought him to the next stage of his career.

[A spectacular collection of clips from the 1941 Senate campaign is available, narrated by Lady Bird Johnson.  You can view them below.]