The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson was first elected to the United States Senate in 1948. In that year, the Senate was, as it had been for decades, an institution where tradition was king, custom ruled, and change came, when it came at all, with infinite slowness. Power, in the form of chairmanships, choice committee assignments, and even the right to speak with authority, was gained through seniority and seniority alone. The sheer number of years a man (and aside from Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, they were all men, white men) spent in the Senate was the sole measure of his eligibility for the perks and powers of office, and woe to the upstart who sought a benefit or took to the Senate floor before he had been properly seasoned.
Seniority was power and a weapon, but in the small world of ninety-six senators (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet achieved statehood) there were other weapons, and none was greater than the filibuster. Through tradition, senators jealously guarded their right to almost unlimited debate upon any subject. Unless two-thirds of the Senate voted for cloture, debate could not be stopped and a small band of determined senators—or even a single senator, if he possessed the determination and stamina—could effectively halt all legislation. Nowhere was the filibuster and the threat of filibuster used more consistently and effectively than by the senators from the South in their unyielding struggle against any and every civil rights bill. So potent was the filibuster in their hands, and so powerful were they because of their seniority, that although they constituted a minority of the body, they effectively ruled the Senate. The leader of the South, and in many ways the leader of the entire Senate, was Richard Russell, senior senator from Georgia.
This was the place where Lyndon Johnson arrived in January, 1949, to be sworn in as the junior senator from Texas. At forty- one, Johnson was relatively young and, although he had served in the House of Representatives since 1937, he had no seniority in the Senate. However, he moved quickly, adopting Richard Russell as his mentor and favoring the older man, a life-long bachelor, with almost constant attention and lavish flattery. As a Texan, Johnson naturally allied himself with the southern senators and became one of Russell’s key lieutenants in blocking civil rights legislation year after year. Impatient with the seniority system and unable to bide his time, Johnson at once threw himself into the hard work of understanding the Senate and his fellow senators. A shrewd, natural reader of human beings and a phenomenally gifted politician, Johnson knew what it would take to change a senator’s mind, secure his vote, or retain his loyalty. He was seemingly unimpressed by ideals: Bills passed, not speeches made, was Lyndon Johnson’s criteria of legislative success. He became a master of campaign finance, knowing where hefty contributions could be found and channeling them to his supporters in the Senate.
As a result, Lyndon Johnson moved ahead in the Senate with phenomenal speed. In 1951, he was named Democratic whip, his party’s second-in-command in the Senate. Four years later, he was elected to the post of minority leader and, in 1955, when the Democrats regained control of the Senate by a narrow margin, Johnson assumed the post of majority leader.
Still, as Robert Caro points out, the position of majority leader carried with it no inherent powers of its own and was, in many ways, as much a danger as an honor. Since the majority leader could not appoint committee members or name committee chairmen (seniority alone determined that) and lacked even the authority to assign office space (another of the seemingly endless perks of seniority) he had little power to punish or reward. Even his leadership responsibilities were not backed by sufficient resources, since committee chairman (the “barons,” as Caro calls them) determined when bills would be reported out of their committee to the full Senate.
By the time he became majority leader, Lyndon Johnson had already begun to overcome the difficulties he faced and secure the powers he needed. His close association with Russell and his dedication to the fight against civil rights legislation had gained him the solid backing of the southern senators, yet he managed to retain the respect (sometimes grudging) of the more liberal northern members. He worked well across the aisle with his Republican counterparts without alienating the Democratic leadership. Most tellingly of all, he gained power in the traditional, if often underused fashion of legislative leaders: He read all the bills, knew all the arguments, and kept track of all the details. Early in his service as Democratic whip, Johnson was master of the intricacies of the legislative process, knowing better than committee chairmen the status of their bills and,...
(The entire section is 1985 words.)