16 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (7)


When one takes an overarching view of the life of Lyndon Johnson, his career is easily divided into three major parts: his time in the House of Representatives (1937 - 1948), his years in the Senate (1949 - 1961), and his years as President (1963 - 1968).  I am not sure of Mr. Caro's plans for his series as a whole, but so far as I can tell it should be divided into five volumes, three of which are devoted to each of the major portions of his career, with two intercalary volumes dedicated to periods of frustration and transition in Johnson's life.  The result would be the following outline:

  1. The Path to Power – Johnson's youth and years in the House of Representatives, as a secretary and congressman.
  2. Means of Ascent – Johnson's fallow years in the 1940s, without political advancement, leading up to his epic campaign for the Senate in 1948. (Transitional volume.)
  3. Master of the Senate – Johnson's years in the U. S. Senate, ascent to the position of Majority Leader, and triumph as supreme politician during the Eisenhower years.
  4. The Passage of Power – Johnson's fallow years as Vice-President to Kennedy in the early 1960s, leading up to the Kennedy assassination and his assumption of power in November 1963. (Transitional volume.)
  5. [Title Unknown] – Johnson's campaign to keep the presidency in 1964, the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Vietnam and his retirement.
The important thing to understand from the outline above is that Means of Ascent, like The Passage of Power, is written as a transitional volume.  It lacks the grand scope of The Path to Power and Master of the Senate, and it shows a Lyndon Johnson who has been denied the instruments of political power and personal advancement so essential to his sense of purpose and well-being.  Nonetheless, the volume is interesting, because Johnson does not cease to develop and work during this period.

Means of Ascent is divided into two parts.  The first, "Too Slow", deals with Johnson's activity during World War II, his first forays into business, and some of his personal relationships during the 1940s.  The second part, "The Old and the New", focuses on the Senate campaign of 1948 and Johnson's contested victory against former Texas governor Coke Stevenson.

Readers of Means of Ascent quickly notice something odd, perhaps irritating, about Caro's writing in this volume.  When discussing a character trait or giving background information, Caro tends to repeat information from The Path to Power, sometimes in detail and at length.  Moreover, he sprinkles quotes and anecdotes given in the earlier volume throughout the text.  New readers may find this irritating, or assume that Caro is simply trying to cater to readers picking up the story mid-way, or filling up extra pages.  In reality, the repetition (which continues throughout the series) is a literary device used to reinforce the reader's awareness of certain aspects of Johnson's personality, or to refresh certain aspects of the historical situation.  These passages and quotations (of which the most memorable is probably Johnson's line "If you do everything...") add savor to the story, giving it a sort of participatory depth that would be absent without them.  The further you progress into Caro's epic, the more you know the tale he is telling, and can repeat back to him the anecdotes he is sharing with you.  Before one realizes this, the technique can be tiresome ("Oh, he's just recycling material from Volume One") but eventually it clicks.


Shortly after Johnson loses the 1941 special election for the U. S. Senate, the United States enters World War II.  Johnson has made much of his promise to his constituents that if and when war arrives, he will leave congress and enlist in the military.  Johnson keeps his promise and enters the Navy just after Pearl Harbor.  Of course, being Lyndon Johnson, he isn't afraid to work out a comfortable situation for himself, and arranges to be attached to a military base and production facility inspector, who sends him around the West Coast to check up on various bases and factories.  Johnson conveniently and repeatedly loses contact with his commanding officer during his "inspection tour", and spends several months staying in opulent hotels and having a grand time, courtesy of his friends (Charles Marsh and Herman Brown).  At one point he ends up in Los Angeles, where he engages the services of a professional photographer and speaking coach to advise him on his political image, how best to pose for photographs, etc.  Alice Glass, his mistress (as well as the mistress of his mentor and sponsor Charles Marsh) accompanies him on this trip, and finds his behavior repulsive.  (Remember, he is supposedly doing military service.)  This seems to have ended their romantic connection.

By Spring of 1942, it is clear that all absent congressmen are going to be called back to the Capitol, or asked to resign their seats.  Johnson will of course return, but there is a major political problem: despite having done several months of "military service" in the Navy, Johnson has not seen active combat, nor been anywhere near a combat zone, and this information will be damaging to him politically — if not immediately, then in the long run.  Johnson desperately needs to get to the Pacific and see some fighting.

At the last minute, he arranges to be assigned to an inspection panel which will travel to Australia to survey the conditions of the troops.  And, while he is there, he volunteers to accompany a group of bombers on a mission, as an observer.  The bomber group is attacked, but Johnson's plane makes it through fine.  This is the extent of his combat service.  He is awarded the Silver Star and returns to Washington during the summer of 1942.

(Caro interjects here with a chronicle of the slowly ballooning legend of Johnson's military service—a legend he created and seems to have come to believe, involving many missions and months of service and the soldiers he fought with during the war.  He would wear his decoration for the rest of his life.)

During Johnson's half-year absence from Congress, Lady Bird takes control of his office, and does a very fine job of it, despite her shy disposition.  This seems to have won her some respect from Lyndon, but not much.  Furthermore, Johnson's military service re-ignites the bond between him and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.  Rayburn, having been betrayed by Johnson once, no longer has any illusions about Johnson's personal rectitude or principles, but the old bachelor seems to have loved him like the son he never had.

The title of Part One of Means of Ascent is taken from something Johnson was periodically heard saying to himself during discussions of his political future in the House of Representatives.  Johnson's father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., had died of a heart attack in 1937, around the age of 60.  Two of Johnson's uncles also suffered severe heart attacks and died young.  Johnson himself was reminded endlessly as a young man of his striking physical resemblance to his father, and therefore assumed that heredity was against him, and that he would die young like his father had (he was proved right, and died of heart failure at the age of 64).  The knowledge of this probability shaped Johnson's plans for his political future, and determined which routes he considered viable as means to his ultimate goal: the Presidency.  The route which would lead him to power through authority in the House of Representatives was severely hampered by the House's strict seniority system.  It would be years, perhaps decades, before Johnson had a chance of becoming even a committee chairman in the House, much less Speaker, and perhaps it would never happen—every two years he would risk losing his seat, derailing his climb to the top.  "Too slow," he would say, when thinking about this route, "too slow."  In all likelihood he would be dead or defeated before he came anywhere near the presidency.

The main alternative, then, was for him to run for the Senate.  Senators had a greater degree of prominence, greater power, and were better positioned for entrance onto the national political stage.  But Johnson had tried to run for the Senate, and had lost.  During his trip to the Pacific, the deadline arrives for him to file election papers in Texas, and he has to choose whether to run for his congressional seat, or to fight Pappy O'Daniel again.  After a period of torturous indecision, he decides to stay in the House, and stays out of the Senate race. (The mechanics of this choice are somewhat more complex and dramatic, as Caro describes it.)

Stuck in the House of Representatives throughout the 1940s, Johnson almost entirely loses interest in his legislative duties.  He speaks on the floor some astonishingly small number of times, introduces and sponsors virtually no legislation, and seems to have stopped trying to fight for the interests of his constituents.  He enters into a period of depression and frustration, and turns to other interests.

One of Johnson's perpetual problems is his lack of money—not for political purposes, but money of his own.  The resolution of this problem arrives in the form of a radio station, KTBC of Austin, which Lady Bird acquires and runs from the mid 1940s onward.  Caro describes the mechanics of the Johnsons' entry into broadcasting in great detail, making clear the extent to which Lyndon's influence on FCC licensing guaranteed a very low purchase price for the station and its equipment, and then guaranteed a virtual monopoly on local radio (and, later, television) in the Austin area.  Furthermore, Caro explains how Johnson used advertising sales as a conduit for political payoffs, performing favors for businesses who would then compensate him (or, legally, Lady Bird, since he was technically not the owner of the station) by buying ad time on the air. In time he would become a multi-millionaire. The system worked faultlessly for LBJ until 1963, during a scandal which is discussed in Volume Four.

Caro closes Part One by talking about how ill-suited Johnson was to work in the House of Representatives.  The House is too big for Johnson, in that his personality and political magic was most effective in small personal settings, in which he could know all the men involved and sway them on the basis of his knowledge and rapport with them.  The House was massive, involved over four hundred representatives, and these men and women rotated in and out of it randomly every two years.  The House was not a place for Lyndon, where he was just another young face, one of a crowd, slowly working his way through the system.  To really exercise his talents he would need to gain entry to a smaller and more stable body.  Part Two explains how he won his ticket to the Senate.