Lyndon Johnson:A Man Who Takes His Time
(TIME, April 25, 1960) -- Texas stirred with the promise of the season. The roosters greeted the dawn with an ovation, the newborn calves staggered after their mothers into greening pastures. The clear, swift- flowing Pedernales River sparkled under a benign sun, jack rabbits scampered across the country roads, and the bluebonnets spread their rich, bright cloak over the low hills. By midmorning at the L.B.J. Ranch, the winter-paled body of a weary man was slung in a canvas hammock, as the soothing strains of a Strauss waltz were wafted from a hi-fi speaker in a nearby live oak tree. Overhead, at the top of a 60ft. pole, three flags billowed in the breeze: the Stars and Stripes, the Lone Star of Texas, and a blue standard with five stars and the initials L.B.J., which informed the world that the proprietor was in residence.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, senior Senator from Texas, puissant majority leader of the U.S. Senate, and a leading Democratic aspirant for the U.S. presidency, was taking a well-deserved rest. He had safely escorted the second civil rights bill since Reconstruction through 53 energy-sapping days of stormy debate, and the Senate -- his Senate -- was in recess for the Easter holidays. But Johnson yielded only his lanky body to the therapy of the sun; his restless mind was as busy as a hummingbird. From the sprawling old ranch house came the clatter of typewriter keys, as a pretty secretary tapped out a just-dictated letter; when Johnson called her through a handy squawk box, the secretary would return, her shorthand notebook and pencil at the ready. From time to time she handed Johnson a convenient extension telephone, with an urgent call from Washington or some other distant spot. Without a telephone at arm's reach, Johnson is as wretched as a squirrel without a tree.
Steadfast Statesman. Above and beyond the clattering typewriters, the telephone calls and his other business-as-usual, there was one momentous personal problem running through Lyndon Johnson's calculating-machine brain. When he arrived in Texas, he told his closest friends and well-wishers that some time during his vacation he would make a final decision on the question of running for the presidency.
Most observers were under the impression that Johnson had made up his mind a year or more ago. Her certainly acted like a candidate (a current Senate joke: "Have you heard that Lyndon is writing his bills on stone tablets?"). He hadn't done much campaigning outside of Texas, to be sure, but the first order of business, according to the Johnson master plan, was to stick to his Senate job, building and improving his legislative record and displaying the public image of Lyndon Johnson, the steadfast statesman, while other candidates battled through the primaries. Later, he would campaign on that record and that image -- or so the experts said. Meanwhile, the L.B.J. outriders traveled all over the country, feeling out delegates, talking to political leaders, studying the political weather for him. Six months ago a big Johnson-for-President headquarters had been established in a twelve-room suite in Austin by Speaker Sam Rayburn; its 14 employees and volunteer workers (including Elliott Roosevelt Jr., 23) were busy handing out campaign literature and Johnson lapel buttons (a brass cowboy hat embossed with L.B.J.).
Youngest Ringmaster. For all the Texas trappings and the legends of his vanity, Lyndon Johnson could offer his partisans an image that had a special, tested quality about it. In the Democratic campaign of 1960, which, unprecedentedly, is preempted by Senators (except for ex-Governor Adlai Stevenson), Johnson is the dean of the school of legislative experience. A Southerner by tradition, he has been a national figure in action; from the time he became ringmaster of the demoralized Democratic minorites at the age of 44 (the youngest in history), he has demonstrated a genuine talent for bringing together the far-flung factions of his party into a workable, effective legislative machine. During his regime, Democrats have increased their congressional majorities in each election since 1954, despite their drastic loss of the presidency in 1956.
Johnson, too, has a special claim on a reputation for national responsibility. He has served longer with a President of the opposite party than any majority leader in history. Under less reasonable, less determined leadership, the Senate's record of achievement since 1954 might have been a veto-studded nightmare for the Republicans, a fiasco for the Demcorats, a major setback for the nation. "There is room in America for partisanship," says Johnson in the theme of his campaign. "There is not room in America for division. The challenge of our times is to unite our nation."
Who Can Do It? Despite the evident assets and all the activity on his behalf, Johnson has not made a final, irrevocable commitment to run. For weeks he has been moody, uncommunicative. His old hail-fellow familiarity with the press, his eagerness to confide his triumphs of backroom bargaining and artful maneuvering was gone. Part of it was Johnson's new, statesmanlike posture. But part was the anguish of debate and doubt in the Elsinore of his mind. The possibility of being defeated by Jack Kennedy, Stuart Symington or any other Democratic candidate at the July convention, or by Dick Nixon or any other Republican in the November election makes him wince. Johnson has deliberately postponed the final decision, too, because he is convinced that once a Senator succumbs to presidential fever, he loses much of his stature and usefulness in the Senate (a case in point: Georgia's Richard Russell, Johnson's own political godfather in the Senate who, since his unsuccessful try for the Democratic nomination in 1952, has never regained the eminence he once had as a Senate leader.)
Another reason for Lyndon Johnson's doubts is a genuine humility and respect for the American presidency as seen close hand from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Said a close friend of Johnson's recently: "He knows he's got a heart big enough to be President. He knows he's got guts enough to be President, but he wonders whether he has intelligence and ability to be President -- and wonders if any man does. He's seen them all -- those who have had it and those who are trying for the job. To his mind none of them are big enough for the job." Johnson's awe for the highest office explains in large measure the cordial working relationship he has with President Eisenhower -- reciprocated in Ike's judgment of him as the "best Democrat in the Senate."
Presidential Segregation. There are good and sufficient reasons to make Lyndon Johnson hesitate about running for President, much as he might covet the job. His health is a major consideration: in 1955 Johnson survived a more serious heart attack than the one that felled President Eisenhower two months later. But Ike is the living proof that a man can serve as President for years after a heart attack. Johnson is in good health; his heart is completely healed, and he carries a plastic-enclosed cardiogram in his pocket to prove it.
The problem of geography is more serious. If, in the vicissitudes of politics, he should be nominated and elected this year, Lyndon Johnson would be the first Southerner to become President since Andrew Johnson (no kin) was inaugurated in 1865. And since Andrew Johnson, an excommunicated Tennessean, lost his credentials as a Southerner by remaining loyal to the Union during the Civil War, Lyndon Johnson would in fact be the first bona fide Southerner in the White House in 110 years, since the brief (16 months) administration of Louisiana's Zachary Taylor. (Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Va., but his lifelong loyalty was to New Jersey.) In his efforts to escape the presidential segregation of the Dixie-born, Johnson has done everything short of moving the state of Texas to the Rocky Mountains (in February, for the second successive year, Johnson and his partisans tried and failed to get Texas admitted to the Democratic conference of Western states). In public, Johnson pooh-poohs the notion that a Southerner can't win. "Hell," he snorted recently, "Jack Garner was on a national ticket in 1936, and the Democrats took 'em all except Maine and Vermont." But Franklin Roosevelt was on the topside of that ticket, and times were different. Texas is still Texas, and Johnson is still a son of the South, and even his civil rights bill is not likely to change the label on the L.B.J. package.
Impeccably Liberal. Along with his regional coloration is the legend, well cultivated by Northern liberals, that Johnson's Southern blood is laced with Bourbon conservatism. The legend is untrue and unfair, as a scrutiny of his voting record reveals. Johnson stands ideologically to the right of Kennedy, Symington and Hubert Humphrey -- but it is the merest shade to the right. He has always upheld his oil-rich constituents, voting to give the tidelands to the states and steadfastly opposing any attempts to cut oil and natural gas depletion allowances -- but no Texas politician in his right mind would do otherwise. In 1958, he opposed a school construction grant, and in 1959 he voted to continue expense account tax deductions. Johnson's votes follow an impeccably liberal legislative path.
Among the milestones:
The big union bosses' claim that Johnson is antilabor is not supported by his record; rather he refuses to let labor call his shots. Nor is there any visible ground for the suspicions of Negro leaders -- especially in the light of the civil rights bill. Personally, he is as anti-segregationist as any Yankee. Johnson's record, if anything, has become more liberal with the years, e.g., he opposed statehood for Alaska and Hawaii in 1954; later he was a vigorous supporter of it.
Among the Johnson credentials there is no foreign-service stripe. He has no first-hand experience in international relations as all of the other globe-trotting candidates, both Democratic and Republican, have. He has never talked chin to chin with Khrushchev in the Kremlin (but recalls the time last summer when President Eisenhower introduced him to Khrushchev and the Russian Premier replied: "I know all about him. I've read his speeches, and I don't like one of them"); he has not spread good will through India, or investigated Africa, or lingered very long on Washington's Embassy Row (fortnight ago he was too busy with his Senate affairs to accept an invitation to the White House dinner for Colombia's visiting Presiden Alberto Lleras Camargo). Johnson's one sortie into full-scale foreign relations was a brief chat with Mexican President (then President-elect) Adolfo Lopez Mateos in Acapulco in 1958. (Last October Johnson returned the Mexican President's hospitality with a huge fiesta at the ranch, featuring a Mexican band, platters of $2.50-per-lb. beef barbecue, hundreds of Mexican tricolors, 800 goggle-eyed guests, and a sign prominently displayed on a tree: LYNDON JOHNSON SERA PRESIDENTE. Johnson and Lopez Mateos made an entrance worthy of Auntie Mame in a helicopter, followed by Harry Truman and Mister Sam in another, smaller helicopter. It was, according to a Dallas reporter, "one of the most dramatic outdoor shows since they produced Aida with live elephants.") His lack of firsthand experience in foreign relations is regarded as a serious flaw in the Johnson image. But Johnson holds that his Senate leadership requires him to know more about foreign affairs than any jawing globe-trotter.
Swiftly Upward. "When I was born," Johnson likes to say, "my grandpa said, `There's a U.S. Senator.' My little playmates talked about that I guess. My desire was to become a Senator, not President." Grandfather saw Lyndon into the world in a frame house on the banks of the Pedernales not far from the present L.B.J. Ranch. Both grandfather and father had been aggressive men, one an Indian fighter, both members of the state legislature, and Lyndon grew up in the tall-in-the-saddle traditions of the Texas hill country. At Southwest Texas State Teachers College he was a Big Man on Campus, the star of the debating team.
When Richard Kleberg, one of the owners of the fabled King Ranch, ran successfully for Congress, young Lyndon helped out in the campaign, went on to Washington as his secretary. He began to move swiftly and surely upward. He married Claudia Alta ("Lady Bird") Taylor, the pretty heiress of a Texas rancher, after an intensive, ten-week courtship. In 1938 Johnson won a seat in Congress, running on an all-out New Deal ticket (not a very popular stand in 1938) against nine more conservative opponents. Franklin Roosevelt, who was cruising in the Gulf at the time, invited the daring young man aboard the presidential yacht, liked his looks, and invited him to ride through Texas on the presidential train. It was the beginning of a fruitful friendship, and Johnson's political pace quickened. After ten years of grooming in the lower House (including seven months' duty as a World War II naval officer in the South Pacific), he was ready for the Senate, waged a threshing-machine campaign throughout Texas, and won by a suspicious 87-vote plurality out of a million ballots cast. He quickly impressed his elders with his finesse at getting things done, was minority leader before the end of his freshman term, and majority leader before his second term was well begun.
Princely Shades. When he steps into the Senate chamber, Lyndon Johnson walks with the assurance of a Bavarian landgrave stepping into his castle. Sitting slumped in his aisle seat, he can sense everything that is going on behind him without turning around. He is addicted to expensive suits, monogrammed silk shirts and solid-gold accessories, and at 51 he comes within a nose of being handsome. Johnson has redecorated the off-chamber office of the majority leader in princely shades of green and gold, and installed a lighting system that includes two overhead lamps that focus an impressive nimbus of golden light on his greying hair as he sits at his desk. In the Senate, Johnson is lord of all he surveys, and he knows it.
Johnson has worked and suffered to achieve his domination over the Senate. After the Democrats won their big majority in 1958, he launched the 86th Congress with his own state of the Union message and a resounding promise to lead the country out of an Eisenhower vacuum. But he soon found that budget-conscious Ike had the moderate-minded U.S. behind him, and beat a dignified retreat. When Democratic National Chairman Paul Butler castigated Johnson for being too cautious and conservative, the Senate Demcorats rose up, almost to a man, to defend Johnson, and gave Butler the retort proper: mind your own business. As a good legislator, Johnson believes in taking a fatherly interest in the political and personal welfare of every one of his Democratic colleagues. If a fellow Senator is sick, Johnson demands a daily report -- three or four a day, if the illness is serious. He rolls out the welcome wagon for every freshman Senator, works hard to maneuver the most promising men into the most advantageous committee assignments. No local bridge-building bill is too far from Texas or too petty for his full attention, if it will help a colleague's progress toward re-election (Johnson's work in pushing through the Hells Canyon project won him the devotion and friendship of Oregon's late, ultra-liberal Richard Neuberger for the rest of his life). All Johnson asks in return is undeviating loyalty to L.B.J., his leadership and his program. And if a Senator is so ungrateful or independent as to stray from the fold, a saddened Lyndon Johnson pursues him even more relentlessly.
Through the years Johnson has gathered a formidable array of loyalists around him -- such divergent Senators as Georgia's rigidly conservative Dick Russell and Montana's liberal Mike Mansfield are outspoken in their admiration. Says Mansfield: "The Senate is the cockpit, so to speak. From here comes our next President. And who is the leader of the Seante?" Johnson has just two consistent Senate critics -- Pennsylvania's Clark and Illinois' Douglas -- and one consistent problem child -- Oregon's Wayne Morse.
"I'm Flattered." Johnson is a back-slapper, a shoulder hugger, a knee squeezer. "I like to press the flesh," he says, "and look a man in the eye." He is also a necktie fixer (he once lined up all the men in his office, carefully straightened their ties, and then demonstrated his own artistic method of knotting a necktie once and for all the first time he puts it on, carefully loosening it at night and slipping it over his head still perfectly knotted). These small attentions are disconcerting to some, but they are nonetheless genuine and sincere -- and never more so than when Johnson is trying to win over an enemy. "I'm flattered," says Attorney Franklin Jones of Marshall, Texas, a constant critic. "And I'm not about to destroy it all by supporting him."
In their combined 68 years in Congress, Johnson and his staunch old ally, Speaker Sam Rayburn, have racked up a thousand political debts. The IOUs are vividly charted on a large wall map of the U.S. in the Austin headquartes of Larry Jones, a former Texas assistant attorney general, who quit his job three months ago to prepare the Johnson-for-President campaign. The map is covered with red pins in every state and cranny of the nation -- each one representing a politician or politicians who can be mustered to the Johnson colors when the trumpet blows.
Colleagues & Artifacts. Some Johnson admirers in the Senate are already working for their candidate without the benefit of a formal announcement of his availability. Bob Byrd was yodeling for Johnson and against Kennedy through his West Virginia mountains last week. "For two years I've been talking Lyndon up out in my state," says Nevada's Alan Bible. "He'd be a honey of a President," glows Wyoming's Gale McGee. Washington's Warren Magnuson furloughed his able administrative assistant, Irvin Hoff, for a brief forward observer's mission through the Rocky Moutain and Pacific Coast states to seek out the delegates and discover the arcane pockets of potential Johnson strength. Nor are the Johnson enthusiasts restricted to the Senate: two of his closes Washington advisers and firmest supporters are artifacts of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Dean Acheson and Ben Cohen. "Of all these giant killers running for the presidency," says another Fairy Dealer-Wheeler, "Lyndon is the only one who has killed a giant."
Invading New York last January, Johnson got a tender kiss from Anna Rosenberg, onetime Assistant Defense Secretary in the Truman Administration, and a compliment from a Roman Catholic priest: "Now there's a man I like." Philip Graham, president and publisher of the Washington Post, agrees. "There isn't a single reason why Lyndon Johnson should be President of the United States," he says, "except that he's the best man." Not the least of Johnson's admirers is his wife, Lady Bird, who recently finished a cram course in public speaking and is effectively demonstrating the results at a series of ladies' gatherings in Texas (most recently at a Dallas Kaffeeklatsch featuring the "L.B.J. uniform," a $27.80, three-piece, red-white-and-blue dress, topped off with a white sailor hat with Lyndon B. Johnson stitched around the band).
Clink & Sizzle. If Johnson makes the inner commitment, decides to wage total war for the nomination, his campaign will enter the second stage of a carefully plotted, three-phased plan of action. The first phase was completed last fall, when Lyndon stumped through Texas from the Panhandle to Corpus Christi, organizing L.B.J. clubs in every county, snuffing out his guttering opposition, trussing up Texas like a bulldogged steer at branding time. It was a razzle-dazzle, Texas-style shivaree from beginning to end. At one climactic barbecue at the ranch of Pat Rutherford, an oil-cattle millionaire, 1,000 guests came from all over Texas, by Cadillac and Chevrolet and private plane (there was a separate chow line for the pilots) to see and hear L.B.J. "I have a rich friend in Fort Worth," reported Rutherford. "He flew down in a single-engine, came down low over the runway and saw 62 twin-engine planes. Hell, he went over to Austin and came back in a cab." When it was all over, the clink of campaign money was clearly audible, and Texas was branded with a sizzling L.B.J.
Exploratory preparations for Phase 2 have already been completed. A latent national organization is ready to spring to life at the word go, the Johnson weather forecasts have been charted in all parts of the nation (balmy in the South, spotty with some signs of clearing in the West, rainy in the Midwest, freezing in th East). If and when Johnson gives the word, the campaign will proceed -- but in low gear. Professional TV and public relations experts will be hired, campaign literature stockpiled, and random delegates nailed down, potential second- ballot delegates scouted. The backrooms will buzz, and Johnson will do as much traveling as the Senate calendar permits. Such local engagements as Bob Byrd's campaign in West Virginia will be openly encouraged; the IOUs in Kentucky and Oklahoma will be called in. But it will be a low-pressure, cat's paw campaign until convention time. "We don't want to go into the convention with the most strength," says Larry Jones. "We want it just as it is, with Kennedy first, so he can get out of the way."
Cudgeled Jackass. In his inner coat pocket, repository of many a national secret, Lyndon Johnson now carries 1) a poll that shows he could beat Dick Nixon for the presidency even if he lost the big Eastern bloc of states, and 2) a tabulation of his present delegate strength, which Johnson estimates at 550 votes. This optimistic figure is based on a nucleus of 319 votes from Texas and the South (the largest sure thing any candidate can yet claim), an additional 110 from the border states and another 100 or so from scattered admirers in the West and Midwest. (Last week Tennessee named its 33-vote Democratic delegation headed by Governor Buford Ellington, a close friend of Johnson's. Technically uncommitted, Tennessee is actually pledged to L.B.J. all the way.) Despite the bitter, anguished reaction to the civil rights bill, the South is still solid for Lyndon, and his only real source of strength, because he is still the Southernmost candidate. Says an eminent Georgian: "It will smooth over. Lyndon Johnson is the only one of all the candidates I can support." Adds a Kentucky legislator: "Things have come to a hell of a pass if we can't cudgel our own jackass."
Like all the other Kennedy competitors, the Johnson strategists figure that Kennedy will fall on the lances of the old professional bosses at the Los Angeles convention -- if he hasn't already lost the race in West Virginia. If Kennedy falters, Johnson is prepared to make an end run at the convention (Candidates Symington and Humphrey don't even figure in the calculations). Again, like the other hopefuls, he has a potent candidate for Vice President: Jack Kennedy. "I can see it now," says an aide. "He'll be standing there in the hotel room after the nomination, and he'll say, `We want that boy for Vice President. Go get him for me!'" Is Johnson likely to run as Vice President on anyone else's ticket? Not a chance, says a Johnson staffer. "Can you imagine Lyndon sitting there watching someone else trying to run his Senate?" And if Johnson failed, where would his Southern power go? Johnson personally is fond of Humphrey and somewhat less than impressed by Symington. But conceivably, if the Kennedy-Humphrey-Stevenson liberals are arrayed against Johnson, the Southern votes might well go to Missouri's Symington -- in fact, in their Midwest sales pitch Johnson forces are snuggling close to Symington people. Should Johnson find the nomination safely tucked in his inner coat pocket, he would swing into the full momentum of Phase 3, a hell-for-leather national campaign against Nixon (whom he personally admires) -- the kind of campaign that makes the Eyes of Texans gleam.
Parliamentarian's Approach. Lyndon Johnson is a smart, shrewd, complex man; he has the capacity and the desire to be President. But he is a superb strategist, too, and he would never risk his cherished Senate leadership on a quixotic adventure -- even with Jack Kennedy as his Sancho Panza. He is a man who takes his time, counts the votes, sticks to the possible, makes no move unless he is reasonably certain of success. "Lyndon is using the parliamentarian's approach," said one anxious friend last week. "He waits around for the precise moment and then moves by a set of rules he knows. But in the national game you don't wait, and you don't have any set of rules." Clint Anderson was more confident: "I know that he doesn't move until he has the votes. He has this great skill of putting votes together. I don't know why he can't do it on a national scale. He'll find a way."
AllPolitics home page|
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics