18 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (8)


In every volume of the series, sometimes more than once, Caro will pause for a chapter to give the personal history of one of the important figures crossing Lyndon Johnson's path.  In The Path to Power, he gives a biographical sketch of Lady Bird Johnson, and a full account of the rise of Sam Rayburn, the most important mentor of Johnson's early career.  The major biographical sketch given in Volume Two is not of a mentor or assistant, but an opponent—Coke Stevenson, Johnson's enemy in the 1948 Texas Senate race.

Caro has been accused, repeatedly, of gilding his portrait of Stevenson, gilding it to the point of inaccuracy.  In fact, the first chapter of Part Two of this volume seems to be the most criticized text Caro has written.  Not being an expert on the life of Coke Stevenson, or finding the controversy particularly interesting, I will say this: Caro's portrait is interesting and illustrative, even were it not completely accurate, but he has done a very thorough job of defending it against his critics.  In Caro's epic, Stevenson plays the Hector to Johnson's Achilles, the honest and humble civic servant brought low by the egomaniacal frenzy of his rival.  And, because Caro's history of Johnson is not at all flattering, much less morally edifying, Stevenson serves as the just counterpoint to Johnson's corruption—the man we wish would win, even though we know he cannot.  Stevenson represents the Old Politics, the politics of personal acquaintance and public record, pitted against the New Politics of mass media and image manipulation.  He represents an American Cincinnatus—holding office only to serve, and only at the public's request—pitted against an American Alcibiades, the demagogue grappling for power.

Coke Stevenson was a poor boy, the son of poor parents.  He grew up in central Texas, and seems to have had a rugged streak from his youth.  In his mid-teens he started running a freight business on his own, driving a wagon back and forth across an unpaved highway from his home town to the nearest train line, some days away.  Hoping to make something of himself, Stevenson reads books on law in his free time, and lots of books, apparently any he can get his hands on.  He rises from one random position to another, to becoming a prominent attorney in his hometown.  And throughout this, he develops a reputation (apparently well-deserved) for strength, fairness, and impeccable honesty.  Throughout his career, because of his reputation, when local municipal crises arise, people go to Stevenson to resolve them, and he does.  Thus begins his political career.  He is elected to one office after another, sometimes on the condition that he can run unopposed, often with the condition that he will resign his office as soon as the task he is elected for is accomplished.  And so he does, rising from one office to another, with intermittent breaks.  Eventually he is elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he serves two terms as its speaker.  Disturbed by plans to modify the Texas constitution and eliminate the bicameral legislature (making it unicameral), Stevenson runs for the office of Lieutenant Governor, campaigning against the change.  He holds this office under the governorship of Pappy O'Daniel (discussed in The Path to Power), and inherits the governorship when O'Daniel is elected to the U. S. Senate in 1941.  Stevenson is elected to continue his service as governor in 1942, and occupies the office through the end of 1946, whereupon he returns to his country ranch and his small town law practice.  He is at this point 58 years old.

Caro takes great pains to emphasize the overwhelming political popularity of Stevenson, who held several political records: the only Speaker of the Texas House to serve two consecutive terms, the longest serving governor, the only person to hold all three top state offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker).  Furthermore, his electoral victories tended to be overwhelming, including especially his election to the governorship 1942, which eclipsed even the landslide which launched Pappy O'Daniel into office.  Stevenson was the only governor of Texas ever to be elected by a majority in every single one of Texas's counties.  This majority, moreover, was not won by plastering newspapers and radio broadcasts with the candidate's name, but by a quiet campaign of driving from town to town, shaking hands and talking to people.  Stevenson repeated over and over that "the people know my record, and they know what I stand for."  He refused to make any campaign promises, and would not respond to attacks from political enemies.  His political style is of a sort that is virtually inconceivable in modern American politics.

Two years of retirement from public life seem to have given Stevenson an itch for office, and, with some coaxing from his friends, he decides to run in 1948 to fill Pappy O'Daniel's soon to be vacated Senate seat.  Of course, he isn't the only one who will be running.

[The story of the election (which makes up the remainder of Part Two) will be summarized in the next post.]