22 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (9)


One of the themes of Lyndon Johnson's early political career is debilitating illness.  Sometimes the exact nature of the illness is unclear (the phrase "nervous exhaustion" tends to be repeated); at other times, the illness is more definite — for example, Johnson's appendicitis at the end of his 1937 congressional campaign.  Often, sickness seems to be triggered my excessive anxiety or overwork.  The 1948 campaign for the U. S. Senate begins, for Lyndon Johnson, with a kidney stone.  Perhaps the cause of the stone was psychosomatic, perhaps not.  Johnson had passed kidney stones before.  But shortly after begins his campaign — a campaign he seems to have understood as the deciding political moment of his life — the pain sets in.  For some time he continues working (despite physical agony, lost of appetite, and persistent nausea), pretending that nothing is wrong.  One of his assistants is kept with him at all time to help him bear the pain.  His doctors inform him that if the stone does not pass (which it appears day by day less likely to do) he will have to have it surgically removed, or risk permanent kidney damage.  And the surgical removal of a kidney stone would have ended his campaign and his political future.

Caro chronicles the stone's progress in great detail.  Eventually, Johnson is completely incapacitated by the pain, hospitalized, and removed to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where a technique has been developed for non-surgical extraction of kidney stones.  After some worry about the feasibility of the operation in Johnson's case (his stone is lodged too far up the ureter for the operation to be guaranteed success), the extraction is successful, and Johnson returns to Texas to begin the great fight for his political future.

The campaign of 1948 is a fusion of the 1937 and 1941 campaigns.  As in 1937, Johnson works tirelessly to meet as many voters as possible.  As in 1941, he has apparently unlimited campaign cash reserves to draw on.  Coke Stevenson, his opponent, is an old fashioned conservative Democrat, whose sole platform is constitutional government, justice and the rule of law.  Stevenson prefers to stand, rather than to run.  He refuses to engage in name-calling, and he refuses to make any campaign promises, insisting that "the people know my record".  Despite all this, Stevenson was one of the most popular politicians in Texas history.  Johnson commanded no where near the same degree of respect among Texas voters.

The centerpiece of the Johnson campaign is the "flying windmill", a helicopter he uses to quickly get around the state. The windmill functions both as a convenience for Johnson (though not for his staff, who have to deal with the complex logistics of refueling and arranging landing sites), and a big draw to his public events.  In 1940s Texas, the majority of people have never seen a helicopter, and so Johnson's arrival in each small town becomes an attraction sufficient to draw the entire population.

Johnson exploits Stevenson's lack of political guile in order to attract conservative voters who would not naturally have supported him.  He comes up with lies about a Stevenson "Secret Deal" with the Labor Unions to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and broadcasts them constantly on radio stations across the state, causing those who supported Stevenson to begin to doubt his good faith.  In time, this propaganda campaign, combined with Stevenson's persistent refusal (until too late in the campaign) to respond to Johnson's attacks, led to the frustration of the Stevenson campaign's funding efforts, crippling his organization.

(I am offering a substantially abbreviated account of the race, omitting some shenanigans that take place when Stevenson visits Washington, DC, and skipping over the first-round election, which eliminates all the candidates but Johnson and Stevenson.)

A major coup for Johnson is winning the support (and especially the financial support) of the big Texas oilmen — the ones who backed Pappy O'Daniel's gubernatorial campaign, and then arranged for him to win the '41 Senate race when they got tired of his administration.  Caro explains that, in order to win their support, Johnson had to take a page out of O'Daniel's book, and start delivering speeches in his (populist, rabble-rousing) style on the radio regularly.

The decisive element of the 1948 race ends up being none of the things mentioned, but the same thing that determined the victor of the 1941 race: organized voting fraud.  When election day arrives, the votes are counted and reported in.  At first, Stevenson has the lead.  Then the corrections come in, sometimes adding votes for Johnson, sometimes for Stevenson, but preserving the overall result more or less, with Stevenson ahead by several thousand votes.

Then the gap begins to close.  And finally, a couple of days after the election, when the ballots have all been reported, Johnson is ahead by 87 votes.

The votes that closed the final gap and won Johnson the election come in large part from a single precinct, which produces a "corrected" vote count well after its initial election night report, supplying two hundred new votes, all but one or two for Johnson.  When the election result is announced by the election board (though not yet made official, since that was the responsibility of the Texas Democratic Party — remember that because Texas is a one-party state, the election that counts is the primary election, and this is where all the real political fights happen), Stevenson is outraged, convinced that fraud has taken place, and decides to go down and investigate for himself.  First some assistants, then Stevenson himself, go down to Jim Wells county (home of the infamous Precinct 13 which decided the election) and demand to see their election materials.  For a minute, some of Stevenson's people are allowed to see it, and they use what they see to establish what everyone already suspects: that the "misreported" votes were actually added after the fact.  Not only were the additional votes all recorded in a different pen, they were recorded in alphabetical order and, when several individuals listed as having voted are asked by Stevenson and company, they explain that they did not.

Armed with this evidence, Stevenson makes his case to the state's Democratic Party officials, who are charged with announcing the final election result.  But Johnson is ready: first to use his influence with people in state politics to stop Stevenson's investigation, and then to use the courts to prevent Precinct 13's election box (with the evidence inside) from being opened and examined.  Unbelievably, Johnson wins: he gets an injunction barring the opening of the box (which is then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which upholds Johnson's side), and then he wins (by a single vote) the endorsement of the disputed election results by the central committee of the Democratic Party in Texas.  Lyndon Johnson is now a U. S. Senator.

Caro rounds out Means of Ascent with an account of Coke Stevenson's life after 1948.  This ends volume two.