'Landslide Lyndon' Takes charge.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Hugh Aynesworth, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Lyndon Johnson, by almost all accounts, was not a nice guy. There have been many accounts of his legendary ego,

his foul treatment of women - including hiseversupportivewidow, Lady Bird - his obsession for power and his lack of loyalty as he fought his way out of a small farm upbringing to gain the presidency. Particularly in Texas some still weave tales about how Lyndon's political campaign suddenly discovered 202 votes five days after the election to propel him to the U.S. Senate in 1948 over three-time governor Coke Stevenson. The fact that hundreds of voters' "signatures" were handwritten in the same ink, in alphabetical order, and obviously by the same writer, fazed practically no one - at least no one who mattered. The margin of victory thus was 87 votes, saddling him with the sobriquet, "Landslide Lyndon," a nickname he carried until his death.

Johnson probably would have been just another politician were it not for a unique set of circumstances when he first arrived in Washington. He arrived at a time when the Senate's leadership was weak and faltering, when President Harry S. Truman's liberal policies were being disparaged by even some in his own party and when the Cold War and the fear of communism was near its peak. Lyndon Baines Johnson took advantage of every opportunity.

How he became the Senate's youngest majority leader in history, how he actually became a toadie to those who held power - most noticably of all, Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia - and how he often weaseled both sides of a situation for his personal gain, are part of the legend.

Robert Caro, in his third book about LBJ, "Master of the Senate," has far surpassed his former efforts in a truly remarkable portrait of a man who set out to be president while he was still somewhat of an errand boy in the Senate - then cajoled, manipulated, lied and cheated to get close enough that when John F. Kennedy was slain, he became The Man. It is a story of a crude, often vulgar man, but a man who worked day and night and became a lightning rod for most important doings in the Upper House in the 1950s and 1960s. And a man who treated his faithful wife, "Bird" more like a servant than his life partner - and embarrassed her openly with affairs he didn't try to hide.

Mr. Caro explains how LBJ, in one of his first Senate endeavors, out-demagogued Joe McCarthy (who was to come to prominencea few months laterwith similar tactics) in helping to destroy Leland Olds as the Senate held hearings on Olds' re-nomination to a third term as Federal Power Commission chairman.

Olds was anathema to LBJ's strong oil company connections in Texas, particularly Herman and George Brown, who had funneled hundreds of thousands into Lyndon's campaigns. The Browns owned Texas Eastern Transmission, a huge pipeline firm in Houston, and after Lyndon helped them buy two government-built pipelines, the "Big Inch" and "Little Inch," for a fraction of their worth, the Brown firm stood to make billions out of linking the nation's major metropolitan cities to the Southwest's natural gas fields. Their only problem: Olds and his FPC allowed gas producers to make only a profit of 9.5 percent. They knew they could make five, maybe ten times that much if the government didn't regulate the industry. Hundreds of millions were at stake - all coming out of the pockets of consumers.

After a furious campaign and strong backing of a deregulation bill sponsored by Oklahoma Sen. Robert S. Kerr (a major stockholder in Phillips Petroleum Corp.), the Senate passed the bill, but President Harry S. Truman - partly, he admitted, because of Olds' Senate testimony against it, vetoed the bill.The Browns and their lobbyists and lawyers told Johnson that Olds had to go; that he was costing them too much.

"Olds was the symbol of everything they (the oilmen) hated," former Texas legislator Posh Oltorf told the author. …