Your Book Review: The Years Of Lyndon Johnson

Finalist #9 of the Book Review Contest

[This is the ninth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. If you like reading these reviews, check out point 3 here for a way you can help move the contest forward by reading lots more of them - SA]

Despite appearances, this is not a biography. It's actually an epic fantasy series that happens to be true. A young man grows up on the edge of civilization, decides to fix his father's mistakes, turns to the dark side for power, wins victories despite the odds, betrays his mentors, and smashes the oppressive status quo. There's even a Bilbo.

(Instead of Bilbo Baggins, it's Senator Bilbo, a white supremacist who says things like "the pure and undefiled Caucasian strain" while he's on the Senate floor.)

1: Memorable characters

Sam Rayburn: Speaker of the House. He had so much integrity that he scared other members of Congress.

Alvin Wirtz: LBJ's evil lawyer. (For non-Americans, Lyndon Baines Johnson was often abbreviated as LBJ.) "Wirtz was the kind of lawyer who would slip into a contract a sentence---a sentence that changed the contract's meaning---in the hope that the opposing lawyer would not notice it."

Abe Fortas: "the most brilliant legal mind ever to come out of the Yale Law School". In the late 1930s LBJ needed the Public Works Administration to fund a dam, but the law prevented the PWA from building flood-control dams or power-generation dams. LBJ asked Fortas for help. Fortas told the PWA that the dam would both control floods and generate power, so it could be funded. When LBJ became president, guess who he appointed to the Supreme Court?

Pappy O'Daniel: A flour advertiser who could hypnotize people with his voice. Then he discovered politics.

Coke Stevenson: "Mr. Texas". Imagine that a child wrote a heartwarming story about an honest Texan who works his way up from poverty, buys the ranch of his dreams, reluctantly enters politics, makes his state a better place, and finds true love. That's Stevenson's life.

Frank Hamer: The sheriff in a Western movie. "By the 1930s, Frank Hamer had been wounded seventeen times; at least twice he had been left for dead. He had killed fifty-three men."

Luis "Indio" Salas: "feared for his savage temper and immense physical strength". One time he beat up a restaurant owner, so the owner's wife asked the police chief whether he was going to arrest Salas. The chief replied, "No, lady, you better thank the Lord that Luis did not kill your husband."

Richard Russell Jr.: The ultimate Southern senator. He was a political genius, a perfect gentleman, and a diehard racist.

2: LBJ's guide to amassing power

(i) Seduce older men

(Eww, not like that.) LBJ had a gift for becoming a "professional son" to any powerful man. At college, LBJ sat at professors' feet and stared at them as if they were God's gift to the educational system. LBJ constantly ran errands for the college president, Prexy Evans, and wrote glowing editorials about him.

LBJ's fellow students were not amused. One said:

"Words won't come to describe how Lyndon acted toward the faculty---how kowtowing he was, how suck-assing he was, how brown-nosing he was."

But this flattery paid off. Evans put LBJ in charge of the financial aid program. Yes, really. And when other students wrote nasty comments about LBJ in the yearbook (e.g. the time he stole the Student Council elections), Evans ordered professors to cut out those pages with razors.

LBJ would repeat this flattery with President (Franklin) Roosevelt, Speaker Rayburn, and Senator Russell.

(ii) Treat your employees like dirt

LBJ wanted his staff to be absolutely loyal, so he could direct them like chess pieces. He found their weak points---their weight, their divorce---and mercilessly taunted them. I'm not going to describe the crude things he did.

Before his marriage, LBJ treated Lady Bird like an angel; once they were married, he treated her like one of his employees.

(iii) Work insanely hard

When LBJ's back was to the wall, it's much easier to sympathize with him. He transformed from a horrible orator to a persuasive speaker. He barely slept. He ran to work every morning. He even treated his staff well, serving them breakfast.

During the 1948 Senate campaign, he flew across Texas in a helicopter, trying to reach as many voters as possible. At one point the engine stalled, so the helicopter fell 25 feet and bounced off the ground. The pilot freaked out, but LBJ barely noticed because he was thinking about how to win the election.

(iv) Get sick because you worked insanely hard

During LBJ's 1937 long-shot campaign for Congress, he got appendicitis, but worked despite the pain until he collapsed just before the election. (From personal experience, you can't work despite the pain when you have appendicitis.) During LBJ's 1948 long-shot campaign for the Senate, he got a kidney stone. This time the pain was so bad that he almost quit the race, but fortunately doctors were able to remove the stone.

(v) Use money in new and exciting ways

LBJ funneled government contracts to Brown & Root, a construction company. In return, they gave his campaign gobs of money. During the 1948 election, two of his campaign staff ate at a cafe and then accidentally left behind a brown paper bag containing $50,000 in cash (more than $500,000 in today's money). Luckily no one stole it.

Using all of this money, LBJ was able to make the media say whatever he wanted about his opponent, Coke Stevenson. He hired "missionaries" to hang out in bars and spread rumors about Stevenson. Thousands of federal workers also repeated LBJ's talking points.

(vi) Cheat

But Stevenson was a storybook character, so money couldn't defeat him. He simply told the people of Texas that he would continue to do the right thing, and they believed him. LBJ had lost the 1941 Senate election because Pappy O'Daniel had cheated better than he did. Now LBJ would cheat, and he would cheat big.

In 1940s Texas, basically every type of election fraud was real: Dead people voting, county bosses writing down whatever numbers they wanted, Mexicans being hired to cross the border and vote, etc. By buying tens of thousands of votes, LBJ was almost able to close the gap between him and Coke Stevenson. That wasn't enough, so six days after the election, Luis Salas "found" 200 more votes for LBJ, giving him a margin of victory of 0.01%.

Stevenson naturally suspected fraud, so he and Frank Hamer investigated Salas's extra 200 votes. A group of gunmen blocked them, but Hamer scared them away by walking towards them. The two living legends discovered that, among other irregularities, the 200 extra voters had cast their ballots in alphabetical order. With this evidence, Stevenson obtained an injunction preventing LBJ from being elected to the Senate. To save his political career, LBJ had to stop the investigations:

"To [LBJ], every man was a tool, and in difficulty he reached unerringly for the right tool. Now, facing a Gordian knot of seemingly insoluble legal complications, Lyndon Johnson reached for his sharpest tool of all...he asked Alvin Wirtz: 'Where's Abe?'"

Abe Fortas realized that there was no time to go through the normal legal process, so he got creative. He wrote a pathetically weak legal brief so that the circuit court rejected LBJ's appeal after just nine hours. The case moved up the appeals system like lightning, reaching Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in less than a week. Black struck down the injunction, so LBJ halted the investigation and buried the fraud.

(However, Stevenson was a storybook character, so he then met his soulmate and lived happily ever after. Seriously, chapter 17 of Means of Ascent is named "A Love Story", and it's very sweet.)

(vii) Keep your ideology secret

During LBJ's first decade in Congress, he gave almost no speeches and proposed almost no bills. He kept his mouth shut so that when he ran for senator and president, no one could pin him down to anything. During LBJ's second decade in Congress, he revealed that he was a racist just like Senator Russell, and he helped Russell block civil rights bills. During LBJ's third decade in government, he did the most of any politician to enact civil rights, having pretended to be racist just to get power.

This is the best thing LBJ ever did.

3: About the author

All of this raises an important question: Did LBJ assassinate John F. Kennedy so that he could become president? On one hand, LBJ excelled at covering up stuff, and he broke the law whenever it was convenient. On the other hand, he had some moral boundaries: No assassinations or coups. And I trust that that Robert Caro would have found out.

Why do I trust Caro? He's the kind of biographer who searches Mexico to find Luis Salas:

"I get asked why it takes me so long to produce my books. Let me tell you that trying to track down someone who has left the United States years before and returned to [somewhere] where he 'moves around a lot' is not a matter of hours."

(Luckily for Caro, Salas had become a kindly old man by the time Caro found him.)

And Caro's wife, Ina Joan Caro, is equally dedicated. Caro admits:

"I sometimes notice, when reading Acknowledgments sections in other biographies, that the biographers have had the assistance of whole teams of research associates, research assistants and perhaps a typist or two. But I never feel envious of them. I have Ina."

She's the kind of assistant who sells their house to raise money and only tells him afterwards.

Together, they're the kind of researchers who move to the Texas Hill Country just to learn how tough LBJ's childhood was. How tough?

"During the 1930's, the federal government sent physicians to examine a sampling of Hill Country women. The doctors found that, out of 275 women, 158 had perineal tears. Many of them, the team of gynecologists reported, were third-degree tears, 'tears so bad that it is difficult to see how they stand on their feet.' But they were standing on their feet, and doing all the chores that Hill Country Wives had always done---hauling the water, hauling the wood, canning, washing, ironing, helping with the shearing, the plowing and the picking."

Two clarifications: (a) If you don't know what a perineal tear is, look it up, because it's really bad. (b) Back then, "ironing" meant that you: (i) started a fire in your stove (even during the scorching Texas summers), (ii) placed an iron (six pounds of solid iron) on the stove until it was hot, (iii) grabbed it with an oven mitt (blisters were common), (iv) and did a few minutes of ironing until the iron cooled down.

Then you restart the process. Women called the irons "sad irons". In the late 1930s, LBJ brought electricity to the Hill Country, making the housework less like torture.

Of course Caro isn't perfect. He quickly dismisses President Hoover as an uncaring plutocrat, when really he was a lot weirder than that. But Caro has devoted his life to writing these books, and it shows. On the back cover of his first LBJ book, Caro looks like this:

On his most recent book, Caro looks like this:

(Sometimes I worry that he'll catch coronavirus and die before he finishes the last LBJ book.)

And he's an excellent writer. In December I started reading Working, a book Caro wrote about his research process. This sounds like a book that bores people to tears, but instead it literally brought tears to my eyes.

4: All the way with LBJ?

Caro hopes that his books will help people understand how democracy works:

"The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be."

I could speculate about diffuse, inchoate things. But let's get specific. Suppose LBJ is found frozen in the Arctic ice, is brought back to life (à la Captain America), and runs for president again. (He only was elected once before, so the 22nd Amendment would not prevent him.) Would you vote for him? If you think of LBJ fighting for civil rights, he seems like a second Lincoln. If you consider how LBJ lied about the Vietnam War, he makes Nixon look trustworthy.

I would put him back in the glacier. It's one thing to choose a competent politician because expertise matters; it's another thing to elect someone who named his kids Lynda Bird Johnson and Lucy Baines Johnson in order to make the public think about the initials LBJ. Besides, I would suspect that LBJ froze himself to wait until we stopped hating him for Vietnam. Fooling everyone about his true motives for decades is exactly what he does.

Despite what I've just said, if LBJ talked to me, he would probably convince me to vote for him.

(The canonical version of this review, including the page numbers of quotes, is here.)