Book Notes: Master of the Senate

I completed the third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. Here’s my review of book #1 The Path to Power.

It’s another epically long but epically engaging account of one of the most influential political actors in American history. In this book-cover-mastervolume, we learn about the institution of the Senate and how LBJ transformed a lethargic, obstinate body into one that did his bidding — eventually, that bidding included key civil rights legislation that is now part of his legacy. Johnson’s relentless ambition is on display as always. With respect to civil rights, you’re left unsure what his actual principles are — i.e. how much he truly believed in the cause of equal rights for blacks or whether it was sheer political expediency (an aspiring President needed support from the north) that drove him to action. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter since he got the job done. He got it done because of his knack for understanding people and exploiting their insecurities; for brokering compromise among his Senate colleagues; for kissing the butt of power brokers; for courting the media and feeding them memorable zingers; most of all, it was his knack for simply working hard and never giving up on his ambition.

It’s a remarkable book. Feel free to skip the more detailed blow-by-blows of less important Senate battles. Do not skip Caro’s description of Johnson’s character and his relationships. My highlights from the text are below. Bold font is my own. Most of these sentences/paragraphs do not appear consecutively but they do appear in this chronology.


Many county Boards of Registrars required black applicants to pass an oral test before they would be given the certificate of registration that would make them eligible to vote, and the questions were often on the hard side—name all of Alabama’s sixty-seven county judges; what was the date Oklahoma was admitted to the Union?—and sometimes very hard indeed: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?

But these Leaders were not Lyndon Johnson. “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me,” he was to tell an assistant. “I know where to look for it, and how to use it.”

Power corrupts—that has been said and written so often that it has become a cliché. But what is never said, but is just as true, is that power reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, he must conceal those traits that might make others reluctant to give it to him, that might even make them refuse to give it to him. Once the man has power, it is no longer necessary for him to hide those traits.

It was, thanks to him, a bill that the House could also pass, and that the President could sign—the first civil rights legislation to be added to the statute books of the United States since 1870. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 made only a meagre advance toward social justice, and it is all but forgotten today, partly because it was dwarfed by the advances made under President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. But it paved the way—its passage was necessary—for all that was to come. As its Leader, he made the Senate not only work, but work toward a noble end.

Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”

DURING THE GILDED AGE—the era of its greatest power—the Senate sunk from the heights of public esteem to the depths. Its inertia was a subject of public ridicule—“The Senate does about as much in a week as a set of men in business would do in half an hour,” one newspaper correspondent wrote

THEN, AT HIS INAUGURATION on March 4, 1933, the new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declaring that “This nation asks for action, and action now,” summoned Congress into special session. If there was a single moment in America’s history in which the slow slide of power—now in its fourth decade—from Capitol Hill to the White House suddenly became an avalanche, so that, for decades thereafter, governmental initiative came overwhelmingly from the Executive Branch, with the legislature only reacting to that initiative, it was that session—the session that lasted a hundred days, and was so significant a landmark in the nation’s history that it became enshrined as the Hundred Days, the session in which a President proposed, and proposed, and proposed again, in which he proposed the most far-reaching of measures—a session in which Congress scampered in panic to approve those proposals as fast as it could. Should Congress fail to provide immediate action, the second Roosevelt

For almost two years beginning in September, 1934, the high-ceilinged, marble-columned Senate Caucus Room was the chief rallying point for isolationist sentiment in the United States,

 The Senate vote for the Neutrality Act of 1937 was an overwhelming 63 to 6. In October, 1937, with Japanese troops now pushing into North China, with the fascists winning in Spain, with Germany having reoccupied the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles treaty and with Germany, Italy, and Japan having formed a military alliance, Roosevelt warned that if totalitarianism rolled over one country after another, America’s turn would eventually come.

But when Britain, alone, beleaguered, asked for help to keep fighting—fifty or sixty overage World War I destroyers to combat Nazi submarines—Roosevelt feared the Senate mood hadn’t changed, at least not enough. “A step of that kind could not be taken except with the specific authorization of Congress, and I am not certain that it would be wise for that suggestion to be made to the Congress at this moment,” he told Churchill.

IN A SINGLE FLASH, the flash of bombs, the policy of the Senate of the United States was exposed as a gigantic mistake. The failure of the world’s most powerful nation to lead—or in general even to cooperate—in efforts, twenty years of efforts, to avert a second world war must be laid largely at the door of its Congress, and particularly at the door of its Senate. That has been the verdict of history.

power of committee appointments within the Senate, passing resolutions that committees would be chaired by members of the majority party, that members of committees be carried over from Congress to Congress, that rank within each committee be determined by length of service in the Senate, and that the most senior member of the majority party would automatically become chairman. Thereafter, party caucuses drew up lists of committee appointments; the Senate as a whole simply accepted them. A senator’s rank on a committee was therefore determined by one qualification, and one alone: how long he had sat on it.

As disgust with the Senate’s ineptitude intensified after the war, a hundred critics focused on the seniority system as a major culprit. Columnist Ernest K. Lindley wrote in 1949 that “it has been condemned in recent years by almost every authority or impartial observer of Congress.”

OF ALL THE AREAS in which the Senate failed America, it failed most memorably on the issue that was the single most important issue of the time: race.

Says one extremely conservative Republican congressman, “Politically, if we disagreed, it wasn’t apparent to me. Not at all.” In fact, no one really knew Johnson’s heart because he seldom fought for an issue or even expressed a definite opinion about it.

EVERY STAGE of Lyndon Johnson’s career had been marked not only by pragmatism but by what is, in a democracy in which power is conferred by elections, the ultimate pragmatism: the stealing of elections. 

“What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing: if you don’t, you’re as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn’t there, and no chain of reasoning, no matter how logical or elegant or brilliant, will win your case for you.”  Exhibiting his penis to his roommates, Johnson called it “Jumbo”; returning to his room after a date, he would say, “Jumbo had a real workout tonight,”

Nervous and restless, he couldn’t seem in public to stop moving, and among the movements was an inordinate amount of scratching: of his chest, of his stomach—and of areas not generally scratched in public. He was constantly pulling his trousers lower, either in front or back, while complaining about his tailor’s failure to provide him with sufficient “ball room,” and he was continually, openly and at length, scratching his rear end—quite deeply into his rear end sometimes.

Years later, Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter who had just begun working for Johnson, was summoned to the President’s bathroom in the White House. Watching Johnson, “apparently in the midst of defecation,” staring at him “intently, looking for any sign of embarrassment,” and “lowering his tone, forcing me to approach more closely,” while “calculating my reaction,” Goodwin realized that he was being given a kind of “test.” Goodwin passed—and so had many of the staff members to whom Johnson had given the same test during his years in the House of Representatives.

Johnson defined what he meant by that: “I want real loyalty. I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window and stand up and say, ‘Boy, wasn’t that sweet!’ ”

“The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you,” Johnson said. “The most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say.”

As with all his talents, he had analyzed it himself. “I always liked to spend time with older people,” he would tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, and, besides, spending this time had a purpose, even when he had been a boy. “When I was a boy, I would talk for hours with the mothers of my friends, telling them what I had done during the day, asking what they had done, requesting advice. Soon they began to feel as if I, too, was their son and that meant that whenever we all wanted to do something, it was okay by the parents as long as I was there.” 

“There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic. Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition.”

Under the leadership of Richard Brevard Russell Jr. the Senate was indeed the place where the South did not lose the Civil War.

After a while, the conversations no longer took place only in Russell’s office. Russell would be drafting a committee report, or reading over one that he had assigned Johnson to work on, and there might be more work to do on it. Or there might be a line of questioning to be worked out for witnesses in the next day’s hearings. Johnson would be helping. Why didn’t they finish over dinner? he would suggest. Lady Bird had dinner waiting for him. It would be no trouble at all for her to put on another plate. It would make things easier all around. “You’re gonna have to eat somewhere anyway,” he would say. And after a few such invitations, Russell accepted one.

And after Spring arrived, occasionally, in the late afternoons, Lyndon Johnson would make another suggestion, one to which Russell always responded with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Asked years later what drew the two men together, Russell mentioned first the sport he loved. “We both like baseball,” he explained. “Right after he came to the Senate, for some reason we started going to the night baseball games together.”

LYNDON JOHNSON’S MAIDEN SPEECH was delivered during one of the century’s most bitter civil rights battles, for Truman’s dramatic 1948 election victory—after a campaign during which his commitment to civil rights never wavered, a campaign, furthermore, in which black voters played a newly important role in key northern cities—had combined with the Democratic recapture of Congress and the arrival on Capitol Hill of aggressive civil rights advocates like Hubert Humphrey and Paul Douglas, plus a rising public outcry against Jim Crow, to give liberals confidence that the long-awaited day of social justice was at last at hand, that Congress’s Southern Bloc could no longer stand in its way.

The image was summarized in Healy’s lead paragraph, which said that “the junior United States Senator from Texas maintains the most rigidly one-track mind in Washington. Johnson is entirely preoccupied with the science of politics, which for him is an exact science and one which he has mastered superlatively.

Lyndon Johnson’s political genius was creative not merely in the lower, technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his career, most impressive, it was a capacity to look at an institution that possessed only limited political power—an institution that no one else thought of as having the potential for any more than limited political power—and to see in that institution the potential for substantial political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such power; and, in the process of transforming it, to reap from the transformation substantial personal power for himself. Lyndon Johnson had done that with the White Stars. He had done it with the Little Congress. He had done it with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And now the eyes of Lyndon Johnson were focused on another institution: the Senate of the United States.

The episode almost became one of America’s gravest constitutional crises. “It is doubtful if there has ever been in this country so violent and spontaneous a discharge of political passion as that provoked by the President’s dismissal of the General,” Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Rovere wrote. “Certainly there has been nothing to match it since the Civil War.” “The homecoming of the legendary MacArthur was like nothing else in American history.”

Few emotions are more ephemeral in the political world than gratitude: appreciation for past favors. Far less ephemeral, however, is hope: the hope of future favors. Far less ephemeral is fear, the fear that in the future, favors may be denied. Thanks to Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson now had, at least to a limited extent, those emotions on his side in dealing with senators; he had something to promise them, something to threaten them with.

Lyndon Johnson’s sentences were the sentences of a man with a remarkable gift for words, not long words but evocative, of a man with a remarkable gift for images, homey images of a vividness that infused the sentences with drama. A special interest group—organized labor in Texas, say—was never merely weak, it was “not much stronger than a popcorn fart.”

AS SOON AS THE LBJ RANCH was in good enough shape to be shown to journalists from Washington and New York, Johnson began to invite them down, because he wanted to use the ranch to create a picture of himself in the public mind—the picture of a self-made man who had pulled himself up in life by his bootstraps, of a man who, no matter how high he had risen, still had his roots firmly in his native soil. He wanted his image to be that of a westerner, or to be more precise a southwesterner—a Texan; a true Texas image: a rancher with a working, profitable ranch.

At the bottom of Humphrey’s character, as Johnson saw, was a fundamental sweetness, a gentleness, a reluctance to cause pain; a desire, if he fought with someone, to later seek a reconciliation, to let bygones be bygones, to shake hands and be friends again. And to Lyndon Johnson that meant that at the bottom of Humphrey’s character, beneath the strength and the ambition and the energy, there was weakness.

Hubert Humphrey was trying to use him, just as he was trying to use Hubert Humphrey. Lyndon Johnson knew that. But he knew something else, too. If two men were each trying to use the other, the tougher one would win—and he, Lyndon Johnson, was the tougher.

FOR A MAN WHO LOVED and idealized his “Southland” as deeply as did Richard Russell to be told to his face that no southerner could be President was, in Goldsmith’s phrase, a “visceral blow.” He “had indeed known, rationally, that he could not be nominated. Before campaigning in the North, however, he had not heard political leaders … tell him to his face that he was obviously the best-qualified candidate, but that they could not support a Southerner.” As George Reedy says, “It’s one thing to know something academically; it’s another to have it hit you in the face.” 

THE LESSON OF RICHARD RUSSELL’S DOOMED, quixotic campaign of 1952 was not lost on Lyndon Johnson, for whom it had the deepest implications. After all the acknowledgments that Russell was the best qualified candidate for the presidency—acknowledgments that had come from the North as well as the South—he had received virtually no northern votes at the Democratic Convention; the fact that he had never had a realistic chance of winning his party’s nomination, much less the presidency, had been made dramatically clear.

And this hard fact created for Johnson the most difficult of dilemmas. Being linked with the South would keep him from rising beyond the Senate. Yet being linked with the South was the only way in which he could rise within the Senate.

As his chauffeur on some of those trips puts it, “It was like he was having discussions with himself about what strategy had worked or hadn’t worked,” when he had tried to persuade someone, “and what strategy he should use the next time.” And not just discussions. Behind that closed office door, Lyndon Johnson would be playing out a conversation: what he would say; what the other senator would say in response; what he should then say—“He would be in there rehearsing, doing it over and over, trying to get it right,”

For all these reasons, Lyndon Johnson didn’t move against Joe McCarthy until the time had come when moving wouldn’t hurt him, and when he did move, he stayed sufficiently behind the scenes so that his own alliance with the Texas reactionaries would not be weakened.

“I see nothing wrong” in such “trickeries.… Lyndon Johnson knew that the illusion of power was almost as important as real power itself, that, simply, the more powerful you appeared to be, the more powerful you became. It was one of the reasons for his great success.” 

The Johnson who once had admitted or even boasted that he doubted if he had read as many as half a dozen books all the way through since leaving college was said now to be deep into Plato, not to mention innumerable volumes of American history.”

During the rest of his months on the ranch, the “sad, quiet” spells of depression alternated with periods of frantic activity. During these frenzied periods, he poured himself into recovering his health. Following doctors’ orders to get plenty of rest was easy on the isolated ranch.

Mississippi’s United States Senator Theodore Bilbo spelled it out in 1947 in a self-published book, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization: better to see civilization “blotted out with the atomic bomb,” he wrote, “than to see it slowly destroyed in the maelstrom of miscegenation, interbreeding, intermarriage, and mongrelization.”)

“The educational process had begun”; the Emmett Till trial “became the first great media event of the civil rights movement. The nation was ready; indeed, it wanted to read what happened.”

hear Mississippi’s senior United States Senator, James O. Eastland, shout that “In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers … African flesh-eaters. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.… All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.” 

Tuesday evening, instead of making his customary motion that the Senate adjourn until the next day, Johnson moved instead that it recess until the next day. None of the liberal senators or their staff members appear to have realized the significance of the word Johnson used, but they were to learn it the next morning, when Douglas made his motion. Walter George, back on the dais, told him it was out of order because petitions could be filed only during the morning hour. Douglas said this was the morning hour. George recognized the Majority Leader. While the southerners and many Republicans, in the words of one reporter, “sat there grinning like so many happy owls,” Johnson said that of course it wasn’t: the “morning hour,” Johnson reminded Douglas, was the first hour of each new legislative day. A legislative day begins after each adjournment, not after a recess, so there would be no morning hour until the Senate adjourned, except, of course by unanimous consent. Douglas asked for such consent. Russell said, “I object.”

But therein lay a seemingly insoluble dilemma: that way—the only way—did not seem a possible way. Because while he couldn’t win his party’s presidential nomination with only southern support, he couldn’t win it with only northern support, either. Scrubbing off the southern taint thoroughly enough within the next four years to become so overwhelmingly a liberal favorite that he could win the nomination with northern votes alone was obviously out of the question, so dispensing with southern support was not feasible: he had to keep the states of the Old Confederacy on his side. And yet a public official who fought for civil rights invariably lost those states.

These were warnings to a man who didn’t need warnings. “Johnson already knew” what he had to do in 1957, Rowe says. As Doris Kearns Goodwin was to write, “The issue of civil rights had created a crisis of legitimacy for both the Senate and the Democratic Party.” And therefore the issue was a crisis for Lyndon Johnson. In a sense—in the journalistic view, the public view—Lyndon Johnson was the Senate, its Majority Leader, the senator who would be held responsible for its actions. If the Senate appeared ineffectual, incapable of dealing with the issue, he would appear ineffectual, incapable. If it appeared sectional, southern, racist, he would appear sectional, southern, racist. Furthermore, as far as the Senate was concerned, he was the Democratic Party. If the party looked ineffectual or racist, the blame would fall on his head. If the party split, the chasm between southern and northern senators becoming unbridgeable, the responsibility for that would fall on his head, also. And the issue was, in addition, a crisis for him in terms of his personal ambition. As Goodwin wrote: “As a man with presidential dreams, Johnson recognized that it would be almost impossible for him to escape all responsibility for the Senate to act, that failure on this issue at this time would brand him forever as sectional and therefore unpresidential.” 

“I BELIEVE THE BILL WAS STRENGTHENED” by the amendment, Lyndon Johnson told reporters after the vote. It had not been strengthened, of course, but weakened, weakened quite drastically. No longer would it provide legal recourse for black Americans who were forced to attend segregated schools, to sit in segregated sections of movie theaters, or to take their meals at the back door of restaurants (nor, for that matter, would it provide recourse for a black woman who was forced to “squat in the road to pee”).

during the civil rights debate had been Murray Kempton, and what he watched on the floor below him filled him with disgust. “No single body in the Western Hemisphere has done more to abuse human liberty than the United States Senate in the last 10 years; and no member of that body is entitled to discuss the rights of man without apology,” he wrote.

During the civil rights fight of 1957, Lyndon Johnson had displayed, in discovering underneath the seemingly impenetrable southern defiance a weak spot (voting) on which southerners might yield; in locating underneath the impassioned northern rhetoric an area (loss of the right of jury trial) in which some northerners felt themselves on weak moral ground; and in using these two points of vulnerability to carve out, amendment by amendment, an area of reconciliation that could attract a majority—in doing all this he had displayed a remarkable ability in that most vital of legislative arts: the art of compromise.

THROUGHOUT LYNDON JOHNSON’S LIFE, in every institution of which he had been a part, a similar pattern had emerged: as he rose to power within the institution, and then, as he consolidated that power, he was humble—deferential, obsequious, in fact. And then, when the power was consolidated, solid, when he was in power and confident of staying there, he became, with dramatic speed and contrast, autocratic, overbearing, domineering.

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