Book Review: Masterful

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate
By Robert A. Caro. Alfred A. Knopf, 1,040 pages, $35.00

The year 1952 was a potentially dangerous one for the NATO alliance. Western European nations were fearful of Soviet aggression and their leaders were hoping for strong assurances that the United States remained committed to their security.

The congressional debate in Washington was not reassuring. In the U.S. Senate that spring and summer, isolationists were ganging up, as usual, on President Harry Truman's foreign-aid program, vying to see who could slash the most from the $7 billion he had requested for European NATO members. The House had cut $1 billion. Dwight Eisenhower, the just-retired NATO commander, ominously warned that deeper cuts might cripple the alliance. But the Senate's isolationists, led by Republicans Robert Taft of Ohio and Herman Welker of Idaho, were undeterred. "We've already poured $75 billion down a rat hole and still are losing people by the millions to Communism," Welker complained as he proposed cutting another half-billion dollars.

As a key vote neared, the conservatives, due to heavy absences among Northern Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans, appeared to have the numbers to impose their cuts: Forty one of the 81 senators still in Washington that week supported the deep reductions called for Welker and Louisiana's Russell Long. To the beleaguered Senate majority leader, Democrat Ernest McFarland of Arizona, the situation was hopeless. What the Senate needed, Newsweek magazine suggested, was "a minor miracle."

Just as all hope appeared to have vanished, the 43-year-old majority whip of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, developed an idea that his biographer Robert A. Caro suggests may have saved the NATO alliance. As Caro describes the scene in Master of the Senate, the freshman from Texas strode into the chamber with a brilliant plan to salvage Truman's foreign-aid program. Instead of persuading senators to change their votes, Johnson's creative mind perceived another way to win: Get rid of a sufficient number of opposing votes to ensure a victory for Truman. That, he concluded, could only be done by using a maneuver known as a "live pair."

A live pair occurs when a senator refuses to cast a vote out of courtesy to an absent senator who would have voted the other way. The two non-votes cancel each other and negate the impact of the senator's absence. It is a quaint and arcane practice (and still used in both houses of Congress). Born of senatorial courtesy and decorum, the practice suddenly became, in Johnson's hands, an effective parliamentary weapon. After Senate leaders spent the night contacting absent senators and arranging the pairs, Johnson's adroit gambit worked. The deepest cut the isolationists could manage was $200 million. The Senate averted a potential crisis within the NATO alliance.

For years chronic absenteeism had been crippling the Senate. But Johnson had perceived a way to turn the problem to his party's advantage. "Within the clouds of legislative gloom that had shrouded the Senate for so many years," Caro writes, "there had suddenly flickered, very brief but very bright, a bolt of legislative lightening."

Seldom had the Senate witnessed such sparks of legislative genius. This is the Johnson that Caro chronicles in the third volume of his massive biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Preceded by The Path to Power (1982) and Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate is a welcome addition to what may be the most ambitious and successful biography project in a century. (Caro expects to finish the story in volume four.) For his first two books on Johnson, Caro was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. There is every reason to believe that this work, which chronicles the most fascinating period of Johnson's productive political career, will win more awards.

The gripping story that Caro tells in 1,040 pages is of a moribund Senate and the leader who harnessed and exploited its latent energy, transforming it into a dynamic institution capable of positive, progressive action. Long ruled by a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans, the Senate during the first half of the century had been, in Caro's words, "the stronghold of the status quo, the dam against which the waves of social reform dashed themselves in vain -- the chief obstructive force in the federal government."

The framers had, of course, designed the Senate for this role of cooling the passions of the people, insulating the body from sudden gales of public opinion by giving senators six-year, staggered terms. For all of the Senate's 160 years, it had performed its obstructionist role accordingly. While the nation's politics and culture were changing, the Senate remained mired in an earlier epoch, a listless body of mostly wealthy and detached barons. Observes Caro: "The House and Senate -- the Senate of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, the Senate that had once been the 'Senate Supreme,' the preeminent entity of American government -- had sunk in public estimation to a point at which it was little more than a joke."

With Johnson in its midst, however, the Senate wouldn't remain a joke for long. Elected to the Senate in 1948 under the most dubious of circumstances (documented in Caro's scathingly critical Means of Ascent), Johnson quickly rose to power in a body whose hallmark had always been seniority. Indeed, his rapid ascension from Senate freshman in 1949, to Democratic whip in 1951, to minority leader in 1953, and finally to majority leader in 1955 (all within his first term), is one of the more remarkable stories in a most remarkable book.

Johnson managed this steady advancement largely because he knew the Senate -- its ways, its culture, its rules, and its history -- like no man before him. "Mr. Johnson took to the Senate as if he had been born there," his longtime aide Walter Jenkins once said. "It was obvious it was his place." More than anything, Johnson understood power: where to find it, how to acquire it and, once he had it, how to use it. In this regard, he was as skillful as any politician in American history.

When Johnson determined that the nexus of Senate power resided in the person of Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, leader of the Southern anti-civil rights forces, he began courting his senior colleague with a relentless passion that reminded some of his earlier successful courtship of House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Johnson displayed such obsequiousness and "bootlicking" that more than one Senate staff member would later compare him to the dastardly Dickens character Uriah Heap. The act worked, however. The normally brash Johnson transformed himself into the kind of senator the Southern barons could admire -- quiet, patient, and exceedingly deferential. Asked about Johnson's freshman year, Majority Leader Scott Lucas of Illinois responded with a description that would have confounded Johnson's former U.S. House of Representatives colleagues: "I found him at all times what I would term a gentleman of the old school."

Johnson's performance succeeded so well that when both Democratic leaders failed to be re-elected in 1950, he quickly enlisted Russell's support and captured the inconsequential position of Democratic whip under the leadership of the new, lackluster majority leader, Ernest McFarland of Arizona. When McFarland lost his re-election bid in 1952 to a challenger named Barry Goldwater, Johnson became the Democratic leader. And in a matter of weeks, he demonstrated that rare genius for legislative leadership that had first been revealed in 1952 when he helped his party's leaders salvage Harry Truman foreign aid program.

Johnson saw that Democratic leaders (and Republican ones, too) had no formal power to threaten or cajole their colleagues. And the Senate's staid seniority system ensured that these leaders would not be able to acquire such power. "Lyndon Johnson's only hope of obtaining the power that the southerners now held was to persuade them to give it to him," Caro writes, "and he would be able to do that only if they didn't realize that they were giving it to him -- if he was able to conceal from them the implications of what he was doing."

As Caro describes it, during a couple of weeks after the 1952 elections -- the election in which Dwight Eisenhower was elected president and Republicans seized majorities in both houses of Congress -- Johnson persuaded the Democratic barons to drastically alter the system so that talented freshmen senators could serve on major committees. Johnson recognized, and helped Russell and the others to understand, that, as Caro observes, "their best hope of regaining their lost power -- their gavels and their patronage -- was to create in the Senate a Democratic record strong enough so that Republican gains in the next election would be kept to a minimum -- so that perhaps the Democrats might even become the majority in the Senate again."

Thus to the Foreign Relations Committee went two intelligent and energetic liberals, Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield. An Armed Services Committee position went to the former Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington. Russell Long went to Finance, Herbert Lehman to Banking. Indeed, by the time Johnson finished, every freshman senator had a spot on a major committee. "By giving the liberals desirable committee seats," Caro writes, "[Johnson] had not only made them feel more a part of the party, he had also made them less likely to attack its Leader."

He had also accumulated considerable power. Under the guise of reforming the committee system, he had engineered a shift of power away from the Democratic Steering Committee -- a group of powerful Southern committee chairs -- into the majority leader's office. Now it was Johnson who decided, with the assent of the barons, which senator would get which committee post. "Men who knew who had given," Caro notes, "would know also who could refuse to give." Next, Johnson took over the Senate's Democratic Policy Committee, a panel that -- after Johnson became majority leader -- dictated which bills could be debated on the Senate floor. And once a bill reached the floor, it was Johnson -- not the committee chairman who had crafted it -- who shepherded the legislation during debate.

In this volume, as in Caro's previous works, Johnson's severest critics will no doubt see only a supremely ruthless and self-absorbed individual grabbing for power in ways that, at times, inspire outright revulsion. Caro calls this Johnson trait "raw, elemental brutality." For those who wish to see Johnson in this light, plenty of evidence is available.

Johnson's brutal and disgraceful 1949 campaign to defeat the nomination of Leland Olds for another term as chairman of the Federal Power Commission was nothing more than a way to appease and enrich his financial backers, who stood to gain millions from lax regulation of public power. Caro's account of this period is replete with examples of the Texan's near-complete fealty to his political and financial patrons, Herman and George Brown of Texas-based Brown & Root. Later in the narrative, Caro's description of Johnson's role in the passage of the blatantly anti-consumer Natural Gas Bill of 1956 is no less repugnant.

Johnson's shameless grandstanding as chairman of the Defense Preparedness Subcommittee during the Korean War, demonstrating that he understood the advantages of a talented staff (he assembled one of Capitol Hill's best), was an example of the depths to which he could sink in order to attract favorable press attention. And as majority leader, his vicious and sadistic manner with senators who were not, as Johnson put it, "team players," was breathtaking. "He could charm you or knock your block off, or bribe you, or threaten you, anything to get your vote," Senator Henry Jackson once observed.

Beyond his power grabbing, Johnson's personal conduct, particularly toward his wife, Lady Bird, was contemptuous at times. "Look at your hair, Bird," he is quoted saying to his wife in front of friends. "You look like a tumbleweed. Why can't you look nice, like Mary Louise here?" He conducted a flagrant affair with Helen Gahagan Douglas, a glamorous congresswoman from California. During the late 1940s, Caro writes, the two attended Washington parties as a couple and often arrived to work at the House Office Building in the same car, from which they emerged to walk into the building holding hands.

The most amusing collection of revelations here shows Johnson's lack of modesty and his exhibitionist traits. Johnson, Caro reports, would routinely urinate in front of secretaries, force staff members to meet with him in the bathroom while he defecated, and sometimes proudly showed off his penis -- which he nicknamed "Jumbo" -- to embarrassed Senate colleagues. This is the Lyndon Johnson of Caro's earlier works: earthy, profane, ambitious, overbearing, obsessive, petulant, cruel, and dishonest.

But Caro also shows us another Johnson, one whose traits were not as evident in his earlier works, perhaps because this volume describes not only Johnson's accumulation of power but how he exercised it once it was obtained. Caro disagrees with Lord Acton's maxim that "power tends to corrupt." "What power always does," he contends, "is reveal." The other Johnson revealed in these pages -- the Johnson for whom Caro's critics have been waiting for 20 years -- is finally more fully drawn.

What we see is a man who begins to use power not only for his political and financial benefit, but also to transform the Senate into a body capable of addressing the needs and demands of a post-World War II world. In other words, Johnson single-handedly made the Senate -- for the first time in the twentieth century -- an effective force. He believed that power must be used, and skillfully so, or it will slip through one's fingers like sand. "It is the politician's task to pass legislation," Johnson said, "not to sit around saying principled things."

Johnson, of course, employed some disagreeable tactics in pursuit of his legislative goals. Unanimous consent agreements, in particular, were reflective of his distaste for divisive floor debate. He wanted unanimity, especially among members of his own party. This often, as Caro documents, resulted in suppression of debate on the Senate floor because Johnson favored backroom deals and compromises over passionate discussion of the issues. That fear of open debate is one reason he waited until Senator Joseph McCarthy had incurred the wrath of nearly every Democratic senator before moving to censure him in 1954.

Caro offers one particularly remarkable anecdote to demonstrate how completely Johnson's management had invigorated the Senate. During one day in 1955, "the Senate passed 90 bills, confirmed an ambassador and a Federal Trade commissioner and then knocked off because it had temporarily run out of business. Elapsed time: four hours and 43 minutes."

Nothing, however, better demonstrates the indispensability of Johnson's legislative genius than how he navigated the minefield of civil rights in 1957. Caro devotes a considerable portion of his book to the 1957 Civil Rights Act -- a weak voting rights measure that broke the logjam on civil rights and made possible the landmark bills of the 1960s. The episode is the book's dénouement, for it demonstrates what happened when Johnson's compassion finally became, in Caro's words, "compatible with the ambition."

Johnson was hardly a closet civil rights activist; to the contrary, his spurts of bigotry and indifference toward blacks and Mexican-Americans are part of Caro's story. In fact, until 1957, Johnson -- to maintain the support of his Texas backers and the Senate's Southern bloc -- had not voted for a single civil rights bill or amendment during his entire 20-year congressional career.

By 1957, however, Johnson knew he could not be president without separating from his Southern colleagues and their rabid opposition to civil rights. He also knew he could not pass a civil rights bill without Southern acquiescence that would result in a bill so weak that liberal support for it would dissolve. It was Johnson's very real -- though periodic -- compassion for the downtrodden, his unique political and legislative genius, and his limitless ambition that finally combined in 1957 to create a legislative synergy that may never again be witnessed in the U.S. Senate.

The story of Johnson's skill in managing -- even driving and controlling -- the complex web of competing political and ideological forces at play in the Senate in 1957 may be the most compelling and fascinating story ever written about a twentieth century legislative body. For this is the intriguing tale, as Caro writes, of "a most unusual capacity, a very rare gift, for using the powers of government to help the downtrodden and the dispossessed."

Passing important social legislation in the Senate of the 1950s, as Johnson proved, was not a job for amateurs. Indeed, Johnson may have been the only person in Congress capable of accomplishing what he did. But it was not his integrity or high ideals that made civil rights a reality. Instead, it was, as Caro demonstrates so well, Johnson's naked ambition and his intense desire to reach the White House that sparked his drive to pass the pioneering act.

Most important for millions of black Americans was that in engineering passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Lyndon Johnson, having transformed the Senate, began to remake himself into the single white American "who did the most to help America's black men and women in their fight for equality and justice." It was a transformation -- to be fully documented in Caro's next volume -- with profound and lasting consequences for the American Republic.