'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. John Connally, the former Texas governor who was a strong adviser and aide to LBJ in his formative years in Texas and at the outset of his Senate years, said the campaign against Olds "transcended philosophy. This would put something in their pockets. This was the real bread-and-butter issue to these oilmen."

It was 1949, the era of Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and the House Un-American Activities Committee - the pervasive "Communist-under-every-bed" mentality. The fact that Olds had once been a member of the American Labor Party (designated by HUAC as Communist) gave the oil and gas barons hope. "It was important," writes Mr. Caro, "not only that Olds be defeated, but that he, Johnson, be given credit for that defeat."

Johnson talked the leadership into allowing him to head a subcommittee to examine the Olds nomination, then orchestrated hearings that destroyed the New Dealer Olds. Not only did the oil companies' lobbyists (who were the main witnesses against Olds) and HUAC dredge up newspapers articles he had written in the 1920s, but claimed ominously that many of them had been published in the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. (They had: anybody could buy the services of the Federated Press, for whom the articles were written).

As the hearings wound down, LBJ wrapped it up with a 50-minute presentation, beginning with a disclaimer, "I do not charge that Mr. Olds is a Communist." Then he proceeded to use numerous phrases designed to clearly imply just that. He repeated every allegation mentioned by his Texas pals.

During one recess, Johnson passed Olds and his wife in the hallway, stopped and put his hand on his shoulder and said, "Lee, I hope you understand there's nothing personal in this. We're still friends, aren't we? It's only politics, you know." Olds' nomination was rejected, 53-15 and Lyndon was the hero. Texas newspapers praised him like never before, and the oilmen showed their appreciation in many (financial) ways. This Caro volume, his third of a planned four, is indeed a masterpiece of reporting. One might not want to wade through 1,167 pages - no matter what the subject - but on most every page can be found enlightenment, entertainment, and vast intrigue concerning government - all sides of it. And through it all, this droopy-eared Texan played a starring role.

Mr. Caro, who received considerable criticism of his second book, "Means of Ascent," because, reviewers claimed, he painted LBJ in nasty colors, gave the man his due in this one, as he described the deft "tap dancing" Johnson was forced to do to get this nation's first civil rights bill since 1875 passed in 1957. He was 50 at the time and had long been publicly against civil rights, standing firm with his main Senate benefactor Russell and the other Southern bloc, but as Mr. Caro points out, Lyndon already had his eye set on the presidency and he knew he could never be his party's nominee unless he won over Northern liberals.

Johnson was in a quandry, as was the nation over the growing civil rights uprisings throughout the South. He knew that to openly promote a civil rights bill would alienate his solid Southern backers. Yet, to strongly and publicly oppose such legislation - whose time seemed to be arriving much too fast for many - would negate any support when and if he ran for president again (he had briefly been a long-shot candidate in 1956). "During Lyndon Johnson's previous political life," Mr. Caro writes, "compassion had constantly been in conflict with ambition, and invariably, ambition had won. For the compassion to be released, it would have to be compatible with the ambition, pointing in the same direction. And now, at last, in 1957, it was."

He then began to lobby Southern senators - once again with Russell as his entree - telling them some kind of a civil rights bill had to be passed. He spokes of "changing times" and national unrest. George Reedy, one of LBJ's closest aides for many years, said Lyndon was telling them in no uncertain terms, "You have a let a civil rights bill pass this year! If you don't, God knows what's going to happen." Meanwhile Russell was telling his Southern pals that if they did allow the first civil right legislation in 82 years, Northern pols would be more likely to consider backing LBJ for president later.

Though the bill was eventually weakened, it was significant - and in Lyndon's scheme of things, very significant in that he had been the catalyst, the pusher. "It took a Lyndon Johnson, with his threats and deceits with the relentlessness which he insisted on victory and the savegery with which he fougnt for it, to ram that legislation through," writes Mr. Caro. Somemay claim Mr. Caro depended a bit too much on LBJ confidants and aides like Reedy, Walter Jenkins and John Connally for much of the more significant recollections, but what better sources could there be?

One emerges from reading this book recalling the crudeness - LBJ urinating in the Congressional parking lot, often humbling those whose secrets he had discovered - but the man's brilliance and occasional compassion also is evident.

Perhaps Hubert Humphrey described LBJ aptly: "Sort of like a cowboy making love. A lion . . . clever, fast and furious when he needed to be and kind and placid when he needed to be." A superb book - one that so surpasses other efforts about Johnson, it has raised the bar for future historians.

Hugh Aynesworth is the Dallas bureau chief of The Washington Times.

MASTER OF THE SENATE: THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON

By Robert Caro

Knopf, $35, 1,167 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY HUGH AYNESWORTH

CAPTION(S):

[Photo from the book cover]