Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power

By Rowland Evans; Robert Novak | Go to book overview
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Chapter IV THE LEADER

He doesn't have the best mind on the Democratic side of the Senate; he isn't the best orator; he isn't the best parliamentarian. But he's the best combination of all those qualities.

-- Richard Brevard Russell, describing Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in 1953

On the cold, rainy day of January 3, 1953, a new era, exciting and turbulent, was opening for the United States Senate. To those in the packed galleries, the most vivid figure on the floor was Lyndon B. Johnson, only four years in the Senate and at forty-four the youngest floor leader of either party. Johnson had taken his front-row center- aisle seat on the left (Democratic) side of the aisle as the just-elected Minority Leader, and assumed a physical stance that was to become a Senate trademark in the next eight years: sprawled almost full length, the tip of his spine balanced on the outside edge of his chair, legs crossed, laughing and joking across the center aisle with his Republican opposite number, the reserved Robert A. Taft of Ohio. An inveterate attention-grabber, Johnson kept sliding his chair over to Taft's side, then back to its place. For the first time, he was flexing his muscles as a new Democratic power.

If Johnson was nervous (which he was) or slightly overwhelmed by his sudden new prominence in the Democratic party (which he also was), the view from the gallery gave no hint of it. There was an incongruity, however, about this long, restless bean pole from the Texas bill country conversing as an equal across the narrow aisle with the distinguished, patrician Taft, even then wasting away from cancer.

Like Johnson, Taft had just been elected floor leader of his party. But--unlike Johnson--from the early 1940s Taft had been the de facto Republican power in the Senate (just as Richard Russell had been the de facto Democratic power). Thus, Taft was now merely getting de jure sanction for what had long existed.* Yet it seemed

____________________
*
Until 1953, Taft held power as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy

-50-

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