David Kaiser: Echoes from the Fifties

[David Kaiser is a Professor in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College.]

The first volume of Robert Caro's massive biography of LBJ came out in the early 1980s, covering his career until the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite some irritating aspects--as I recall, it took the better part of 200 pages for LBJ to be born, and Caro as always tended to romanticize some of his characters--it was clearly an historical masterpiece, based mainly on remarkable interviews with men and women who had known LBJ at least since college. LBJ was one of those people, like his successor in the White House, who could not trust almost any other human being, and his associates repaid him after his death with an extraordinary willingness to reveal just about everything they knew about him. Caro's book was the closest thing I had read to a real-life version of All the King's Men, because it illustrated the extraordinary mixture of evil and good motives that go into even the best public policy. The conflict was reflected in the structure of the book. I remember a colleague at Carnegie Mellon remarking that he would have loved to have written a chapter like Caro's"The Sad Irons," which described the wretched lives of Texas farm wives before Johnson managed to help bring electricity to them as part of the New Deal. I replied that I would have gotten more of a kick out of writing another chapter,"The Dam," which told how Johnson, a newly minted Congressman, had arranged illegal federal financing for a dam on the lower Colorado River that had been begun by the firm of Brown and Root, run by two of his major patrons, George and Herman Brown. (Brown and Root, which later won a contract to dredge Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, is now part of Halliburton.) Caro's second volume appeared later in the 1980s and disappointed nearly everyone, including myself. It focused very heavily upon Johnson's theft of his election to the Senate in 1948 and unduly praised his opponent in that race. The third volume, Master of the Senate, took about fifteen years to appear, and took me about eight years to read, but it was worth it. I am not aware of any history of the twentieth century that has gone into a series of key legislative battles as closely as Caro handled those of the years 1949-57. This is the kind of book professional historians used to write, but I am not aware of a single such project being worked on in any university department today.

The main driving force in Johnson's life--as in his two most famous contemporaries', Kennedy and Nixon--was his ambition to become President. Kennedy got to the White House thanks mainly to his personal qualities, something that Johnson and Nixon could not do. They therefore had to focus singlemindedly on cultivating power, usually by winning the hearts and minds of older and more powerful men, but also by tacking with the times (and of the three, Johnson, the oldest, had by far the longest political career.) Caro's first volume showed how Johnson had risen during the New Deal era by cultivating FDR and Sam Rayburn, establishing himself as progressive southerner. But the narrative in this volume begins in 1949, when Roosevelt was four years dead and a conservative reaction was well underway. It also finds LBJ in the Senate, not the House, which was dominated by southern conservatives led by Richard Russell of Georgia. Johnson swung accordingly to the right. His maiden speech in the Senate was a defense of the filibuster, which the southerners intended to invoke to defeat the civil rights measures which Harry Truman had now endorsed. Shortly thereafter, Johnson ingratiated himself with his backers in the oil and gas industry by destroying the career of Leland Olds, a federal power commissioner who had become an advocate for public power and regulated energy rates in the 1930s. To do so Johnson and his allies used the crudest McCarthyism--a full year before McCarthy himself burst upon the national scene. The cultivation of Russell paid off in 1951 when, after the Democratic leader and whip had been defeated, Russell tapped Johnson for the number two spot. Two years later, in 1952, Johnson became the minority leader, and in 1954, when the Democrats regained control of Congress, he became, in Caro's words, the Master of the Senate.

Last week, looking at the darker possibilities that confront us, and speculating that the new Republican House of Representatives was going to plunge us into a deeper crisis, I suggested that Barack Obama was going to be the Herbert Hoover of our current crisis. This week I will focus on the alternative possibility: that we might in the next few years emerge from the crisis and that Obama might realize what appears to be his real dream, that of being Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The news of the day, reporting a serious Congressional effort to forge a budget deal and avoid a shutdown, points in that direction, although we a long way to go.) Caro's book reminded me of what that would mean. Then as now, the average Congressional Republican hated the New Deal and all its works--but also rejected America's new role in the world. Eisenhower, an establishment Republican, had to govern with the help of establishment Democrats like LBJ, and southerners, led by Russell, who were devoted to white supremacy at home but also believed in the essence of the Cold War abroad. And thus, Johnson and Eisenhower worked together to defeat the Bricker Amendment, which would have drastically curtailed the President's treaty-making power; to forestall a potentially divisive investigation of the Yalta agreements; to pass desperately needed housing legislation; and, in 1954, finally to destroy the career of Joe McCarthy, after he had turned his sights on his own Administration. Domestically that era, like this one, was an era of reaction, and the embattled liberals of the Senate, including Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Paul Douglas of Illinois, Herbert Lehman of New York, and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, initially earned nothing but Johnson's contempt. But because he knew he could not become President--still his dream--without some northern support, Johnson eventually began to cultivate Humphrey himself, and he moved further in their direction as the decade wore on and more GI liberals replaced Lost conservatives in the US Senate, most notably in 1958.

The question now is whether Barack Obama can in fact emulate Eisenhower from the other side of the aisle. In one respect he already has. Having passed the Health Care bill, his one major reform--which may or may not survive a Supreme Court challenge--he has now given up on any serious expansion of federal power, just as Eisenhower quickly accepted the changes wrought by the New Deal. Obama does indeed seem to be acting more and more like Eisenhower--his almost complete silence over the last few weeks, in the midst of a series of international and domestic crises, is quite striking, and indeed the conservative accusations that he is weak an indecisive--are quite similar to the charges against Ike that I heard in my childhood. But are there Republicans in Congress of the Johnson-Russell type who are willing to put partisanship aside to allow the government to function and preserve some civility in our politics? That question remains open. Similar questions hang over our second revolutionary front, in Wisconsin, where the motives of Governor Walker, as Paul Krugman pointed out brilliantly yesterday, are becoming more and more suspect. Several other Republican governors are backing away from extreme anti-union positions, and it is possible that the Tea Party movement will in fact have run its course by 2012--though hardly certain.

The long-term prospects for any new leftward shift, however, seem to me just about non-existent, partly for demographic reasons. The New Deal represented a coalition between left-wing members of the Missionary Prophet generation, led by FDR himself, and young GI voters; the Nomad Lost generation generally opposed it. Obama, a Nomad himself, won in 2008 by mobilizing Millennials on his side, but he could not do the same in 2010. Meanwhile, the Congressional elections marked a profound generational shift in the House of Representatives, where Silent and Boomer Democrats gave way, in dozens of districts, to very conservative Gen X Republicans. President Obama is virtually the only elected Generation X Democrat of any significance to emerge to date (although Andrew Cuomo could become another.) We remain very finely balanced at a critical point in American history. If Obama, like Ike, cobbles together some sort of governing coalition, we may move into a High by the end of his term. If exogenous events or Republican policies plunge us deeper into crisis, then anything could happen.

I cannot resist one more story from Caro's book. In early 1956, Johnson was pushing hard for a bill to deregulate the price of natural gas--a bill worth tens of millions of dollars to George and Herman Brown and other Texas oil men. Liberals, including the columnist Drew Pearson, were fighting the bill hard. In the midst of the controversy, a Senator from North Dakota revealed that a lobbyist had handed him an envelope containing $5000 in cash in exchange for his vote. (That was, of course, a lot more money then than it is now, although it's probably fair to say that votes were much cheaper, even adjusting for inflation, then than now.) That incident, Caro shows, was merely the tip of a huge iceberg, and a scandal erupted. Johnson managed, in typical fashion, to appoint a reliable trio of Senators to an ad hoc committee to investigate, and bury, the investigation, and in due time, the bill passed. But in an extraordinary moment in postwar history, Eisenhower--who had staunchly supported the legislation on free market grounds--vetoed it, explaining that he had to avoid giving the impression that powerful interests could buy legislation. I wonder if President Obama could think of a comparable gesture he might make down the road. It could do the country significant good.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network