A Review of The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (Knopf Publishing Company, 1990) by Robert Caro
“I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel: ‘As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal; Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel; Lo, Greed is marching on.'” Mark Twain A Pen Warmed- Up In Hell
In their adulatory screed, Lyndon, Washington Post editors Haynes Johnson and Richard Harwood wrote of LBJ in 1973: “Someday he will have his biographer, and it will take the talents of a Mark Twain to capture him.” Confident that, despite the crucible of Vietnam, “history will judge him gently,” Harwood and Johnson still lamented the public outcry that forced their flawed paladin’s retirement to the banks of the Pedernales “to await a more compassionate judgment.” The biographer they heralded published his first volume in 1982. Eight years later, in volume two, he renders a preliminary judgment with ” a pen warmed-up in Hell.”
Robert A. Caro’s Means of Ascent, the second volume of his magnum opus, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, focuses on the seven lean years of Johnson’s political life. The Pulitzer prize-winning author notes that from July, 1941 until his sordid triumph over Coke Stevenson in the 1948 Senate primary campaign, Johnson “lost his toehold on national power. And with the death of his greatest patron, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he lost even the aura of a White House favorite.”
The story begins as war comes to America. Congressman Johnson is forced to make some effort to honor his oft-repeated campaign promise “to be in the front line, in the trenches, in the mud and blood with your boys,” when duty called. Caro carefully documents Johnson’s energetic efforts to delay the call of duty, or at least to have it call him to a big federal agency in Washington rather than a small foxhole in the South Pacific. Failing in this, Johnson submits to the absolute political necessity to “see combat.” And “see” it he does, Caro notes, as an observer, not a combatant, for one mission only. It must be admitted, of course, that even one combat mission can be enough to get a man killed, and Caro does not minimize the danger to which Johnson voluntarily subjected himself in the June, 1942 B-26 raid on the Japanese base at Lae. Though he contributed nothing to the work of the plane’s crew, according to Caro, Johnson behaved well under fire-well enough to merit a Silver Star from his politically sensitive commander, General Douglas MacArthur. No other member of the crew received a decoration for the mission. Caro indignantly observes that some of the crewmen “were to fly twenty-five missions without receiving any medal, much less one as prized as the Silver Star.”
Caro quotes a Johnson protege, Joe Kilgore, as recalling that, in years to come, Johnson “bitched and bitched because he only got the Silver Star.” Now a grizzled combat veteran, Johnson could safely afford to resign his commission and resume his seat in Congress.
In a chapter entitled “Buying and Selling,” Caro explodes the carefully constructed myth of Ladybird’s business acumen, supposedly the only source of the fabulous wealth Lyndon began to amass in the post-war years. Caro details Johnson’s wirepulling at the FCC to prevent conservative rancher J. M. West from acquiring KTBC in Austin and enable Ladybird to purchase the potentially lucrative radio station-the foundation of Johnson’s financial empire-at a bargain price. In telling this squalid story, Caro relies on FCC records and interviews with Tommy Corcoran, George Brown, and other parties to the controversy still among the living-except one. Cowman and historian J. Evetts Haley are conspicuously absent from Caro’s account of the KTBC scandal except for a couple of citations from A Texan Looks at Lyndon. In an apologetic footnote apparently written to assuage his fellow liberals, Caro explains:
“Haley’s book is an anti-Johnson polemic which could not be confirmed on many points, but unlike the rest of the book, his description of the negotiations between Ulmer and West at this time is firsthand, since he was J. M. West’s general range manager, and represented West in many business affairs – including West’s attempt to purchase KTBC.”
Omitting any reference to Haley in his index and his “selected bibliography,” Caro observes the taboo that liberal academe placed more than five decades ago on one of the truly great historians of the American Southwest. With the exception of Ronnie Dugger (who actually did interview Mr. Haley in 1967) the rest of Johnson’s claque of liberal biographers, including Eric F. Goldman, Frank Cormier, Doris Kearns, Harwood and Johnson, and Merle Miller, seem never to have even heard of J. Evetts Haley. Yet Haley, who ran for governor of Texas in 1956, was a prominent, lifelong political foe of Johnson. His book, A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power, undoubtedly remains the most widely read of all the seventeen biographies of “Landslide Lyndon.” Caro’s failure to seek an interview with the still-active and very accessible Texas historian is disappointing and, a bit puzzling since Mr. Haley is very much “out of the old rock” that produced the hero of Caro’s narrative-cowboy and patriarch, Coke Stevenson.
In chapter eight, “The Story of Coke Stevenson,” Caro portrays the man he calls “the living personification of frontier individualism, the very embodiment of the myth of the cowboy, a myth that still, today, reverberates through the American culture with astonishing power.” In prose that verges on lyric, Caro captures the courage, integrity, gentility, and patriotism that made Coke Stevenson the most beloved governor Texas has ever known. The six chapters that follow tell the story of perhaps the most controversial (and certainly the most far-reaching) Senate campaign in modem American history.
Stevenson had never sought public office. He had overcome severe poverty and a lack of formal education to become a successful cattle rancher and a noted attorney. Such was his reputation for honesty and efficiency, his neighbors persuaded him to serve as Kimble County Commissioner. Later, they sent him to Austin to look after the state’s business. Before long, he was Speaker of the House; then Lieutenant Governor; then Governor of Texas. Caro notes:
In 1946, he was asked-by newspaper editorials, by politicians, and by letters pouring in a flood into the gubenatorial mansion—to run for an unprecedented third term as Governor. Polls showed that his popularity was as immense as ever; even the liberal Austin American Statesman was forced to report that he was so idolized in the capital that one state official “seems to think that when he dies he will go to Coke Stevenson.”
That Lyndon Johnson deeply coveted a seat in the United States Senate is evident from Caro’s account (in volume one) of Lyndon’s fiercely fought and lost campaign of 1941. Governor W. Lee “Pass the biscuits, Pappy” O’Daniel had stolen the primary and Lyndon was not quite experienced enough to steal it back. 1948 would be different.
Johnson’s campaign methods, analyzed in great detail by Caro, were a unique and potent blend of old and new. He easily mastered the old circus sideshow, populist gimmicks that “Pappy” had used so effectively in 1941. To the traditional hillbilly bands, posters, barbecues, and histrionic oratory, Johnson added a few special touches of his own. He was the first politician to campaign from a helicopter. The sheer novelty of the strange-looking craft was a major crowd-fetcher. Caro argues convincingly that Johnson’s helicopter blitz of Texas was decisive in whittling down Stevenson’s tremendous lead. But helicopters and hillbillies were not enough to beat a man like Stevenson. To do that, Johnson would apply the techniques of mass propaganda that had made Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich. He flooded rural mail boxes with campaign broadsides cleverly printed to resemble ordinary newspapers. He saturated the airwaves with outrageous charges that Stevenson was secretly in league with corrupt “pro-Communist” union bosses (in actual fact it was Johnson who was receiving secret cash support from leftist union leaders such as David Dubinsky). At every city and country town Johnson shrieked that Stevenson would take away veterans pensions! Stevenson would halt all road construction! Stevenson would appease Stalin and vote for unilateral U.S. disarmament! So the charges went—over, and over, and over again.
To Stevenson, Johnson’s campaign speeches were simply tissues of lies-lies too fantastic to deserve the dignity of a reply. But Johnson knew how effective the “Big Lie” could be on a credulous and ignorant mass. He knew the power of hate, envy, and fear.
Stevenson never saw Texas voters as a mass to be manipulated. They were his neighbors. He treated them as individuals. He appealed to their good sense. He trusted them. Too many Texans betrayed that trust.
Stevenson was also betrayed by men of better breeding; men who should have known better. Caro charges that at a critical moment in the campaign, an influential group of “wealthy reactionaries” switched their support from Stevenson to Johnson. (Caro names one of these as Carr P. Collins of Dallas. Ironically, Robert Caro lists among his literary credits the “Carr P. Collins Award” from the Texas Institute of Letters.) “Stevenson,” Caro notes, “had always been too independent for their taste, too proud, not nearly subservient enough; not subservient at all, in fact.” This kind of misbehavior of the “natural leaders” of Southern society had called forth the populist champions of the nineteenth century, such as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and Tom Watson. By the middle of the twentieth century, the self-interested aristocracy had learned to rely on the new breed of ersatz populists, personified by Lyndon Johnson.
Money, lies, and dirty tricks were still not enough to steal Coke Stevenson’s victory. There would have to be voting fraud too. In chapter 13, “The Stealing,” Caro tells the story of “Ballot Box 13.” Readers of the Southern Partisan are too familiar with this thrice-told tale to need any repetition here. Caro does supply some new details, unavailable to J. Evetts Haley when he first hurled the charge of fraud in the face of the all-powerful President and the liberal establishment that reigned and ruled with him. It’s amusing to read the praises of Caro’s putative revelation ringing from the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and from old Johnson sycophants like Merle Miller. These are the very publications and propagandists that so willingly helped Johnson in his rise to illegitimate power. Truly, of them it can be said, “they have all the qualities of dogs, except loyalty.”
Former White House staffer Doris Kearns recalls working with Johnson on his Presidential memoirs. To the very end, Johnson wanted to substitute lies for truth. Often, when she attempted to remain true to the record, Johnson would explode, “God-damit. I can’t say this,” despite the fact that he had said it. Once he ranted: “For Christ’s sake get that vulgar language out of there. What do you think this is, the tale of an uneducated cowboy? It’s a presidential memoir, damn it, and I’ve got to come out looking like a statesman, not some backwoods politician.”
Johnson had hoped to steal an honored place in history as he had stolen Coke Stevenson’s place in the Senate. For most of us in Texas who remember the man and his legacy, Lyndon Johnson will always be a “backwoods politician,” but with none of the virtues of backwoods people.
This review was originally published in the Third Quarter 1990 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.