Hundreds of pages before Coke Stevenson, the governor of Texas, first sets one boot in front of the other, on a dusty, deserted street in Alice, Texas, walking toward the gunslingers that he believed rustled the 1948 Senate election for Lyndon Johnson, he had already been transformed into legend. His apotheosis occurred the moment Robert Caro raised the curtain on him. The scene is pitch black, in the “vast and empty Hill Country,” utterly desolate except for a campfire, around which there sits a teenager, who has been working a lonely trail carrying freight, a task too forbidding for older men. The boy is the young Coke, a child of rural poverty, studying textbooks on bookkeeping:
And if that scene—the single circle of light in the dark and empty hills; the boy within that circle, studying to get ahead; the courage and ambition which had brought the boy out into the emptiness—symbolizes the legend of the West, so, indeed, Coke Stevenson’s whole life was the raw material out of which that legend is made.
Thus we learn that the legend is no legend at all; it is nothing less than the true story of the Old West. Caro invites his readers to put aside their sophistication and their cynicism as he draws them into a fully imagined world of the past, where the fabulous was real, when a man known as “Mr. Texas” rode the purple sage and ran for the Senate against Lyndon Johnson.
For Caro, the frontier is an enchanted wilderness—the state of nature where the American character is always rejuvenated. Coke Stevenson is the Leather-stocking as Jeffersonian, the frontiersman as democrat. His closeness to the land builds his body and his spirit. He is more authentic than the others in the political arena, the “plain old Adam, the simple genuine self against the whole world,” as Emerson described the ideal American. Everything about Stevenson is self-made, unflawed by his modernizing and corrupting society; he is a self-made banker, rancher, politician, architect. He does not seek public office, it seeks him. He designs and builds his own house in the Hill Country, carrying every stone for the fireplace from a ridge miles away. The house is a “refuge from the world,” lacks a telephone, fitting perfectly into nature.
All around Stevenson in Austin are fallen men, creatures of the “Three Bs” (beefsteak, bourbon, and blondes). Stevenson was “an unusual figure against this backdrop … more silent than ever,” yet he was accorded respectful deference because his shining virtues were instantly recognized. The quality of this Natty Bumppo of the legislature that was particularly apparent was his piety. “He read the two constitutions (state and federal)—and took their words—as literally as he read his Bible, and his reverence was no less deep.”
His cultural primitivism attested to his authenticity, his lack of complexity was proof of his purity. His whole frontier experience led him to believe that the government that governed best, governed least. “The philosophy embodied in the Texas Constitution dovetailed with the philosophy of the man who studied it in the light of a predawn fire in his ranch house by the South Llano; its character was his.” Coke embodied land and liberty. In spite of his own lack of political ambition, politicians prevailed on him time and again to run for office, and the voters kept raising him to higher and higher positions, from legislator to Speaker of the House, from lieutenant governor to governor. “He made Texans remember why they were proud of being Texans.” Criticism by rivals and carping journalists did not stick because, to Texans, “Coke Stevenson was not a politician but a hero.”
Coke accepted the acclaim of Texas on Fourth of July weekend, 1948, at the Texas Cowboy Reunion, where he led the parade of riders, behind the Stars and Stripes and the Lone Star flag, “He was riding ‘Pal,’ a big, magnificently muscled palomino, but Stevenson, with his great shoulders and the erectness with which he held himself in the saddle, seemed almost too big for him.” As he passed by, “it seemed” that every man greeted him with “a cowboy gesture, a peculiarly Texas gesture,” touching their fingers to their Stetson brims and pointing to him, a “sign of respect” made by the old men and the “sons and grandsons of the old ranchmen” whose “fathers and grandfathers had told them the story of Coke Stevenson,” who had “never become a politician, had never betrayed his standards, which were, of course, their standards, too … their beloved ‘Cowboy Governor’—their own Governor.”
But a hero cannot be truly heroic, of course, unless he proves himself in combat with an antihero. The frontiersman in harmony with the woods must defend his simple, noble creed against the outlaw. Against the good of the West, there stood the evil of the West, the dark side of individualism and liberty, that obeys no law and seeks to destroy the frontier idyll in connivance with the city slickers, who breathe contempt for the innocence and the decency of the common folk. Enter Lyndon Johnson. In Means of Ascent, Caro has created a black-hatted villain more dastardly than any ever imagined by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour.
As the curtain rises on Johnson, he has lost an election for the Senate. It was an election that he tried to steal. His deepest motive in life was not to seem like his “idealistic, romantic, rigidly honest” father, Sam Ealy Johnson, a state legislator who had failed at business. Thus Lyndon’s climb was marked at every point, according to Caro, by a compulsive “stealing of elections.” In his 1941 campaign, he pledged that if war came he would leave Congress to join “your boys.” War came, and the congressman implored his benefactor in the White House for an important appointment in Washington.
The appointment was not forthcoming, and finally Johnson gained an assignment as a liaison and observer for the Navy. He had been a physical coward since childhood, but in the South Pacific he joined an air squadron for a bombing raid against a Japanese base. His plane came under enemy fire, an attack during which he behaved coolly and calmly. He was awarded a Silver Star. Caro is not overly impressed. Over time, he reports, the incident became more awesome in Johnson’s telling of it, and his role inflated to the point where he claimed the other men had referred to him as “Raider” Johnson. This was an early “credibility gap.”
Back in the States, Johnson gained control of a radio station in Austin by hook and by crook, and it became the basis of his considerable fortune. His assertion that the station belonged to his wife and that he had no involvement with it was a ruse. Lady Bird, a painfully shy and self-conscious young woman, was a special target of the personal abuse that all who were close to the monstrous Johnson received at one time. He treated her like a servant, berated her physical appearance before their friends (“You look so muley, Bird”), abandoned her on weekends for his wealthy mistress, while she learned the skills required to manage his congressional office when he was on his naval assignment.
Johnson’s decision to run again for the Senate in 1948 was a huge gamble; if he failed, his political career would be over. His will to power was almost superhuman, in Caro’s account: he campaigned even when a kidney stone induced fevers, sweats, and vomiting, and then campaigned harder to make up for time lost in the Mayo Clinic. His campaign was like a fever itself, driven by demonic energy, even lifting him airborne in an infernal machine—“The Flying Windmill,” a helicopter carrying him from small town to small town, where such a device had never before been seen and drew gawking crowds. “Hello, down there,” boomed the candidate, from the sky. “This is your friend, Lyndon Johnson.” It was the machine in the garden, a contraption that intruded upon the bucolic setting where Stevenson was campaigning the old-fashioned way, from courthouse to courthouse, shaking hands man to man, riding horses and sawing logs.
Johnson, the former Roosevelt man, was so diabolically possessed with his own ambition that he made a Mephistophelean alliance with the reactionary business establishment and veered sharply to the right. He struck an even more devilish deal with George Parr, the corrupt “Duke of Duval,” who controlled the votes of large sections of south Texas. In Alice, in Jim Wells County, Ballot Box 13 (controlled by Parr’s pistoleros) was withheld on election night until the outcome became apparent. Then its tallies gave Johnson an eighty-seven-vote victory.
And so Coke Stevenson, accompanied by his old friend Frank Hamer—he was “even more legendary,” the Texas Ranger who ambushed Bonnie and Clyde—walked down the proverbial dusty street, with Hamer’s right hand “poised just above the butt of his gun, his fingers curled for the draw.” But Stevenson, unlike Gary Cooper, was thwarted. He was not given the tally sheet for Box 13. Johnson’s connections among the sybarites and sophisticates of the capital came into play. “Facing a Gordian knot of seemingly insoluble legal complications, Lyndon Johnson reached for his sharpest tool of all.”
That “tool” was not a six-shooter, but Abe Fortas, the “most brilliant legal mind ever to come out of the Yale Law School,” a New Dealer who had become one of the most influential attorneys in Washington. Fortas’s gift was for the clever manipulation of abstractions (an artificial quality that, in Caro’s rendering, had no relationship to character). Bringing to bear the cosmopolitan Fortas was ultimately what allowed Johnson to triumph over Stevenson’s “Jeffersonian” principles. The outcome was a victory of the counterfeit over the true, the inauthentic over the natural, the modern over the traditional, the politician over the citizen, the city over the country, the dark over the light. Once upon a time in the West …
That is not the only legend implicated in Robert Caro’s book. Once upon a time in the East … there was the legend of Robert Caro. And it is on that legend that the story in Means of Ascent, and its astonishing success, finally rests. It was born in 1974, when a former Newsday reporter’s tome on Robert Moses was published and won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, at the age of thirty-nine, Caro began his biography on an even greater practitioner of power, Lyndon Johnson, a project that has consumed fifteen years and produced two volumes that have carried its subject only to the doors of the Senate. The next two volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson may perhaps occupy another fifteen of the years of Robert Caro. He is as obsessive as Ahab in pursuing his quarry, though his whale is not white—as obsessive as Johnson in his own pursuit of power.
The heart of the Caro legend is his “genius” for finding and delivering the complete truth. This “genius” is the result of a preternatural investigative energy. In each of his books, Caro is said to have interviewed more witnesses and exhumed more archives than anyone else who ever went near the subject. Caro’s wife, too, is a part of this authorial legend, selflessly dedicating herself to his work for four years in Texas, burrowing in countless libraries, slowly sifting through hundreds of boxes of Johnson’s papers: “What she is interested in is the truth,” writes Caro in tribute.
What does Caro mean by “truth”? He appears to mean the unparalleled and comprehensive accumulation of facts. Caro must be the greatest positivist in America. The swarm of particulars in his possession are what invests him with powers of mythic explanation and moral judgment. And the sheer quantity of his facts is what gives his work its aura of unassailable authority. (Martin Gilbert’s many volumes on Churchill come to mind, but Gilbert doesn’t pretend to anything more than a full record of what can be known.) One may dispute Caro’s interpretation, but not his method, because his method is, well, omniscience. It is not hard for Caro, therefore, to overwhelm his critics with his amassed detail. “I did the thing he didn’t do,” he told The New York Times about a recent critic. “I did the work.”
But Caro’s legend poses a danger to his work. For he has staked everything on his encyclopedic mastery of his sources, on having penetrated every corner. “I’m bringing out information that’s really shocking and new so the first response is always disbelief,” he said to The Washington Post. But what if there are corners that Caro has not penetrated? What if there are sources that he does not know, particulars that rearrange the light and the shadows on all his subjects? What, then, of Caro’s famous facts, of his authority as a biographer?
“I was Coke’s secretary for a few legislative sessions,” says Mark Adams, who lives in Washington state. Adams was a young newspaperman from Kilgore, Texas, when he went to work for the Speaker of the House in Texas in 1934. Though he was active in liberal politics in Texas, after a stint as a New Dealer in Washington, he supported Stevenson against Johnson in 1948, and he “remained Coke’s friend throughout his life.” Adams is cited as a source in The Politician, Ronnie Dugger’s 1982 biography of Johnson. Caro never interviewed him.
Stevenson’s former secretary remembers rumors that, like Speakers of the House before him, Stevenson accepted money from the oil and gas companies in exchange for leases that were never acted upon. Adams recalls:
They would have executed a lease form so that it would seem a legitimate transaction rather than a bribe or campaign contribution. I don’t see that there would be any reason to register them. Oil and gas didn’t have anything to do with it. It was just to launder the money. A record would be an embarrassment to everybody.… It would have been totally untypical of Coke if there had been a record. He had a frontier idea of handshake deals, your word is good and so on, a very keen sense of privacy. You don’t even inquire about your friends. You don’t pry into their affairs.
In any case, says Adams, the notion that an oil company might actually drill on Stevenson’s ranch was ludicrous. “That was the poorest oil prospecting land in the world,” he maintains.
Adams remembers more about Caro’s hero of Texas. One afternoon Stevenson and a lobbyist
came out of his office and into the anteroom where my desk was. They talked about a deal about sheep. The number being sold kept changing and the price kept changing. I sat there in total silence and wondered why they wanted a witness. They could have talked in the utter privacy of the office. The final figure they came out on was $75,000. At the time the discussion I had heard didn’t make sense, the number of sheep being sold, the price changing, finally settling on the round figure, I just assumed that they wanted a witness to the fact that this was a sheep deal if they ever needed one.
The sheep in question never materialized. Later, though, Adams heard of “an oil deal that involved about $75,000.” Then, he says, “I thought I could guess why these two men came out of the inner office into this less comfortable anteroom to strike a ‘sheep’ deal.”
Adams does not remember these events with indignation. This was, instead, just Texas business as usual:
I don’t have any doubts that he [Stevenson] took the money. I completely doubt that it changed his attitude or vote. It wasn’t a quid pro quo. It was part of the spectacle of how things went on.… I never said anything to Coke. I didn’t mutter a word, even though there we were. I never asked him about it later. Again, you’ll understand, I didn’t even wonder.
Now, the testimony of Adams, his certainty about what he saw, does not prove absolutely that Stevenson was a crook. Adams offers circumstantial—first-hand and credible circumstantial—evidence. What matters, rather, is the unillusioned image of Stevenson that informs his former secretary’s recollections. And Adams’s story is not some bizarre codicil to the Coke Stevenson story. After his days as Speaker, Stevenson was never able to escape from widespread rumors about phony oil leases. No newspaper ever investigated, of course, given the state of the press in Texas at the time, though almost everybody in Texas politics was familiar with the scuttlebutt.
The hearsay focused particularly on Stevenson’s deals with the Magnolia Petroleum Company, now out of business. “It was so well known,” says Bob Eckhardt, a former Democratic congressman from Houston who was deeply involved in Texas politics in the 1940s as a lawyer in Austin for the oil workers’ union. In his Capitol Hill townhouse a few weeks ago, Eckhardt rummaged through his files and produced a yellowing copy of The Texas Spectator, a liberal journal that was a forerunner of The Texas Observer. On the cover of the issue dated May 24, 1946, is an illustration, drawn by Eckhardt himself, that shows Stevenson surrounded by lovely magnolias, and above his head a caption that reads “Sweet Magnolias.” For those who followed Texas politics, the innuendo was plain. Eckhardt was interviewed by Caro, but not on this less-than-saintly aspect of Stevenson’s legend. Caro cites many journalistic encomiums to Stevenson—“Log Cabin Statesman” and the like—but he makes no reference to this tradition of Texas skepticism.
The Magnolia deal is even bluntly stated as fact in a footnote of a book on the period, The Establishment in Texas Politics: The Primitive Years, by George Norris Green. Caro approvingly adduces this volume in his text to underline Stevenson’s honesty, citing Green’s assertion that in winning votes in south Texas the ballots were “turned in on time,” but he does not mention Green’s damaging footnote. Though a smoking gun is not produced, the footnote does prove that the story was in open circulation, and more generally that the place of Coke Stevenson in the political culture of Texas was not at all what Caro thinks it was. Meanwhile Caro chooses to go with “one lobbyist” who told him, “You just instinctively knew that Coke Stevenson was not someone you could approach with any kind of an offer at all.… No one would have dared to offer Coke Stevenson a dime.”
In Austin, it turns out, “Mr. Texas” was more generally known as “Calculatin’ Coke, though Caro contemptuously dismisses the appellation, as though brushing dirt off Stevenson’s white Stetson. And about Calculatin’ Coke there are many illuminating stories that Caro did not see fit to include in Means of Ascent.
Caro portrays his hero as being in the profane world of politics, but not of it: “There was a reserve, a dignity, about this tall, broad-shouldered silent man with that watchful stare that set him apart from the crowd.” And yet as Speaker he seemed to know well how to service his fellow legislators, at least according to Texas Merry Go Round, a book published in 1933 and written by anonymous “watchers of the Texas legislature,” almost certainly State House reporters. (The book, like other materials that Caro does not cite, is readily accessible.) “The perquisites of a Legislator,” the “watchers” wrote,
are so extensive that he oftentimes succeeds in having his girlfriend supported at the public cost. The lady, if you please, becomes a stenographer and draws a salary from the State of Texas. In earlier and less efficient days, the girls used to undergo a form of tryout, a committee making solemn pretense of testing their talents as stenographers. But at the present session Coke Stevenson, Speaker of the House, told his supporters to name their choices and appointments would be forthcoming immediately.
One can only imagine how many pages Caro might have lavished on such a story if the name in it were not Stevenson: the sordid, tangled history of perquisites; the sociological origins of the girlfriends, a cavalcade of Sister Carries, their dreams and tragedies; and, finally, the crucial importance of feeding the amoral appetites of others in the rise of an amoral leader.
Then there is the matter of Stevenson’s racism. Caro takes two sentences to dispose of it: “There were almost no Negroes in the Hill Country, and Stevenson accepted all the Southern stereotypes about that race. He refused to intervene in wartime race riots in Beaumont, or to investigate a lynching in Texarkana.” Stevenson appears here as the passive victim of his time and his place, his inaction really an offense of indifference. And even this acknowledgment of the scuffs on the marble bust of Caro’s hero is made grudgingly. These small defects can be charged, Caro writes, to Stevenson’s “upbringing in that isolated country …”
Caro’s description of Stevenson’s racial attitudes is so flawed and incomplete that it creates a picture at variance even with his hero’s own publicly stated positions. In 1942 a black man named Willie Vinson was accused of raping a white woman, dragged from a hospital bed, and lynched by a mob. It was the first lynching during the war, and it besmirched the international reputation of the United States. Attorney General Francis Biddle wrote a distressed letter to Governor Stevenson urging him to bring the murderers to trial. Stevenson refused to prosecute those responsible for the deed. But it was worse than that: in his reply to the attorney general, he made a sly argument in favor of lynch mobs. “Certain members of the Negro race,” he wrote, “from time to time furnish the setting for mob violence by the outrageous crimes which they commit.” With this carefully crafted letter, Stevenson shrewdly played to the galleries. (This entire affair, by the way, is recounted in detail by George Norris Green in the book that Caro cites on Stevenson’s integrity.)
Race, as we shall see, was a powerful undercurrent in Stevenson’s politics, and in his contest with Johnson, but one will not learn this from Means of Ascent. Caro’s thorough mishandling of the issue begins with his introduction. In it, he attempts to show the positive side of Johnson, delivering his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech in 1965, before he embarks on the exposure of his negative one. The section is a literary and political non sequitur, a misdirection to the reader, perhaps inserted to insulate the author in advance from the sort of harsh criticism from Johnson’s partisans that he experienced after the publication of his first volume.
But even this bit of fairness is so intense in its prosecutorial zeal that all nuance is flattened and Johnson’s civil rights record is made one-dimensional. “Until 1957, in the Senate, as in the House, his record—by that time a twenty-year record—against civil rights had been consistent,” writes Caro. The truth is that Johnson was never more hypocritical than in his votes against civil rights. They were never made out of conviction and were always taken as political positioning, in line with every other statewide Texas officeholder. And even so, in March 1949, after his election to the Senate, he said: “Racial prejudice is dangerous because it is a disease of the majority endangering minority groups.… For those who would keep any group in the nation in bondage, I have no sympathy or tolerance.”
This was not the normal thing for Texas politicians to say. In 1954 Johnson was the only Southern senator (apart from Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr., both from the border state of Tennessee) to break ranks by refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto in favor of segregation and against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Senator Richard Neuberger, a liberal Democrat from Oregon, remarked that it was as “courageous an act of political valor as I have seen take place in my adult life.”
But Caro goes on: “And although in that year  he oversaw the passage of a civil rights bill (as Majority Leader of the Senate), many liberals had felt the compromises Johnson had engineered to get the bill through had gutted it of its effectiveness—a feeling that proved correct.” Now, that bill was not simply “a civil rights bill,” as if it were one among many, just another bill about a regular subject of federal legislation. That bill was the first civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction—a monumental legislative achievement, whatever its limitations, which Johnson personally guided through enormous difficulties to enactment.
When asked by The New York Times why he did not elaborate on Stevenson’s racial attitudes in his book, Caro answered: “I did not get into it because it was not an issue in the ’48 campaign. Johnson’s stated positions were the same as [Stevenson’s] on race.” Caro’s errors of omission and commission, however, fail to square this circle. Johnson, after all, was as much a product of the Hill Country as Stevenson. Why was the “isolated country” an explanation for the one who was racist but not for the one who was not? How did a man with a “consistent” record against civil rights wind up telling the nation that “We Shall Overcome”?
Caro’s conflation of history with legend is exhaustive. He does not confine himself to Texas politics of the 1940s, but ranges back into the previous century, where he has discovered Governor Richard Coke, after whom Coke Stevenson was named, “a Confederate veteran who in 1873 wrested the government of Texas from the Carpetbaggers and freed the state from the injustices of Reconstruction.” Caro traces the source of Stevenson’s “Jeffersonian” philosophy in part to this period and to his namesake, even quoting a newspaper article that flatteringly compared Stevenson to the “lion-hearted Richard Coke.”
This linkage of Stevenson to Coke is indeed artful and apt, but not quite in the way that Caro intends. Among the vague “injustices of Reconstruction” from which Coke liberated Texas were the political and economic rights of blacks. His victory, enthusiastically supported by the Ku Klux Klan, was accompanied by a terror campaign of beatings and lynchings, described as a “counterrevolution” by the historian James M. Smallwood in Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans During Reconstruction (another hole in Caro’s bibliography). After Coke won, racial segregation was imposed, blacks were virtually disfranchised, and officeholders who refused to back the new regime of Jim Crow were subjected to Klan violence, winked at by the state authorities. Smallwood quotes a statement made by Governor Coke, delivered after a double lynching of blacks: it was, he said, “high time for an enraged and outraged people to take the law into their own hands.” It appears that Coke Stevenson really did inherit a legacy as well as a name from Richard Coke.
Early on, Caro explains that he is not a mere chronicler of lives. His true subject, he explains, is not really Stevenson, or even Johnson. It is power. For this student of the anatomy of power, the battle for the Senate in Texas in 1948 is “the perfect campaign to study.” By cutting to its heart, by exposing it “in all its brutality,” Caro claims that “there will emerge universal truths.” In making his case, however, Caro does not allow certain particular truths to intrude. His “perfect campaign” is perfect only because of the exclusion of these details. But without them, the larger meaning of the election is lost.
Means of Ascent is about how Lyndon Johnson stole an election. (One chapter is called, Stephen King–style, “The Stealing.”) By focusing a narrow spotlight on a corner of the stage, Caro keeps the rest in shadows. For Johnson’s chicanery, about which there can be no doubt, was not an isolated incident, a rare depredation of democratic politics, that reflects only on his warped character. It took place within a political culture, against a backdrop of other stolen elections, a drama spanning a decade of wild political struggle. At stake, as everyone involved understood, was not just control of the state of Texas, but the national government.
In 1938 W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a classic populist charlatan who gained his popularity on a radio show featuring his Hillbilly Boys and fundamentalist homilies, was elected governor. His rhetoric consisted of jeremiads against “professional politicians” and “communistic labor racketeers,” and hosannas for “free enterprise.” As he held the voters spellbound with his fiddle-playing, his religiosity, and his colorful language, O’Daniel served as the chief political agent of the reactionary oilmen, lawyers, and lobbyists in the state who were ferociously opposed to the New Deal.
The year of O’Daniel’s victory in Texas was a year of general reaction against Roosevelt. The Democrats suffered sweeping losses, a political defeat that brought the domestic New Deal to an anticlimactic end. From that time until 1964, when it was smashed by Johnson, the Southern Democratic-Republican coalition in Congress frustrated all major social reform. And it was by riding on the conservative wave of 1938 that Coke Stevenson managed to be elected lieutenant governor.
Caro attributes Stevenson’s win to “the way he held himself,” always acting “as his conscience dictated,” drawing the voters’ admiration for his belief in “individual liberty,” his “quality,” his “sincerity,” and the non-political modesty of his campaigning. But unmentioned by Caro is the main reason that Stevenson won the runoff, after finishing second in the primary: he was endorsed by the demagogue O’Daniel. Stevenson’s opponent, Pierce Brooks, protested, “All along he has openly declared he was against professional politicians. And surely Stevenson is one.” (The story is recounted in Seth McKay’s W. Lee O’Daniel and Texas Politics, which appears in Caro’s bibliography.)
The first movement against the New Deal surfaced in 1936, when a group calling itself “Jeffersonian Democrats for Texas” endorsed Alf Landon against Roosevelt. (Caro does not mention this episode.) By 1940 the opposition in Texas was more organized and powerful, bolstered by the 1938 electoral rebuke to Roosevelt. Its leader was Vice President “Cactus Jack” Garner, who had publicly broken with the president and sought to secure the Democratic nomination for himself on an anti–New Deal platform. Within the Texas Democratic Party, which was Garner’s base, a young congressman named Lyndon Johnson emerged as the leader of the Roosevelt faction, whose tactics were directed through LBJ by FDR personally. (This story is told in Caro’s first volume.) Garner was easily outmaneuvered and the “Stop Roosevelt” movement in Texas confounded, but bitterness remained.
The following year, after Senator Morris Sheppard suddenly died, Johnson faced O’Daniel in a race to fill the seat. Almost every observer agrees that O’Daniel’s razor-thin margin consisted of stolen voles—that he “outstole” Johnson. Caro traces the stealing to “Beer, Inc.,” the state’s liquor lobby, which was eager to remove the unstable, prohibitionist governor to Washington. But the stealing, according to sources on the scene at the time, was probably not confined to “Beer, Inc.” “I tell you one thing,” observed Robert Calvert, the Texas Democratic Party chairman in the 1940s, in Dugger’s book (cited in Caro’s bibliography), “the Stevenson people stole that election in 1941 in some east Texas counties so Stevenson could become governor when O’Daniel won, and if the Johnson people stole this one they were just getting things all squared up!”
It was an article of faith within Johnson’s entourage, moreover, that O’Daniel’s victory was based on stealing by Stevenson’s backers. Johnson himself told Dugger that Stevenson’s supporters had “tried to steal the ’48 election like they stole the ’41 election.” The remark is not quoted by Caro. “We felt,” J. J. “Jake” Pickle, the longtime congressman from Austin who was an aide to Johnson during his race against Stevenson, told me, “that the lobby group, the Austin crowd, the political friends behind Coke, the hanky-panky going on was done by them, with Coke’s blessings or not. Someone had to engineer those changes in east Texas. We’ve always thought it was the Stevenson supporters.”
The belief of Johnson—and his aides and allies—that the election of 1941 was stolen by the conservative forces that wanted Stevenson installed as governor undoubtedly provided a powerful motive for Johnson’s actions in 1948. Caro never mentions it, though he cites Pickle as one of those he interviewed. And after O’Daniel won, a state investigation into election irregularities, controlled by the new governor, produced a whitewash, thus legitimating O’Daniel’s victory. Green’s book delves into this aspect of the affair, which Caro completely neglects. Instead, Caro defended his portrait of Stevenson to The New York Times by claiming preposterously that “not even Johnson’s people disagreed about Stevenson.”
Then the conflict within the Texas party reached a new stage of crisis. One of the great curiosities of Means of Ascent is that it contains fifty-nine pages about LBJ’s helicopter, but there is not a single word in the book devoted to the momentous political events of 1944. And without understanding those events, it is impossible to understand the election of 1948.
In May 1944 the anti-Roosevelt forces, openly mobilized by Senator O’Daniel, tacitly supported by Governor Stevenson, and well financed by the conservative business interests, succeeded in packing the Democratic convention with a slight majority of delegates. After seizing control, their agenda was unveiled: to place “uninstructed” electors on the national ballot in Texas, who would cast their votes in the Electoral College for the Republican ticket. By this stratagem, Texans would be disfranchised in the general election, and the White House perhaps delivered to the Republicans, regardless of the popular vote. In short, the presidential election would be stolen. But the Democratic delegates loyal to Roosevelt and the national party learned of the conservatives’ plan and stormed out of the convention, and reformed themselves. At the national convention both delegations were seated, splitting the Texas vote. All summer long the Rooseveltians, who called themselves the Loyalists, organized. In September, a second state convention was held, at which they finally produced a majority.
The right bolted. Primed with oil money, they set up a new political party called the Texas Regulars. Its platform clarified the meaning of their “Jeffersonian” self-designation. Among its points was “Return of state rights which have been destroyed by the Communist-controlled New Deal.” And: “Restoration of the supremacy of the white race.” The Regulars filled the state’s newspapers with full-page ads that exhorted, “Let’s keep the White in Old Glory.” And they widely distributed a poster in which Sidney Hillman, a liberal labor leader who had organized a political action committee on behalf of Roosevelt and who was Jewish and clean-shaven, was depicted with a rabbinic beard knocking down Uncle Sam.
On election day, in Texas, Roosevelt won 822,000 votes, Dewey 191,000, the Texas Regulars 135,000. Devastated by the immensity of their defeat, the Regulars disbanded themselves as a party. Sam Rayburn (the hero of Caro’s first volume about Johnson) remarked that “this election will prove the death knell of certain mountebank politicians in Texas,” meaning specifically O’Daniel and Stevenson. Tarnished by their association with the Regulars, neither won office again. Absolutely none of this is in Caro’s book.
As the Regulars battled the Loyalists, Stevenson was drawn into a maelstrom over academic freedom at the University of Texas. He was against it; and his stand against it was very much part of the politics of 1944. Caro writes two succinct sentences about the whole affair, almost as if apologizing for Stevenson:
His lack of formal education hurt most after the O’Daniel-dominated Board of Regents of the University of Texas dismissed liberal university president Homer Rainey. The Rainey dismissal caused lasting damage to the concept of academic freedom at the state university, and Stevenson’s refusal to intervene in this controversy revealed that he did not adequately grasp that concept.
In fact, five of the eight “O’Daniel-dominated” regents, a body dominated by Texas Regulars, had been reappointed by Stevenson. Witch-hunts for un-Americans had already begun in Texas. In the late 1930s, in an effort to undermine the New Deal, Representative Martin Dies of Texas had launched a series of investigations as chairman of the first House Un-American Activities Committee. The university regents were infected by this spirit of inquiry, having learned that students in one course were required to read John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. One by one, professors were summoned before their tribunal and asked whether they were real Texans or “foreigners.” Rainey, the university president, called together the faculty and read a statement defending academic freedom—for which he was removed. The students declared a strike, and the Lone Star flag on the main building overlooking the State House was lowered to half-staff. The largest demonstration anyone had ever witnessed in Austin proceeded by the thousands behind the Longhorn Band playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” and a coffin draped with a sign: “Academic Freedom is Dead.” The final destination of this protest was the governor’s mansion, where Stevenson lived, which they surrounded, singing “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” (This is discussed in Lone-Star Land by Frank Goodwyn, which is cited by Caro in his bibliography.)
In 1948 the battle royal between the Regulars and the Loyalists resumed, more passionately joined than ever. The Regulars had regrouped inside the party in an attempt to gain control of it, impose their own electors, and depose the Democratic president. Their confidence was buoyed by the conservative postwar mood in which the Democrats suffered worse losses in 1946 than they had in 1938. Roosevelt, moreover, was no longer dominating the scene; and his successor Truman was unpopular and vulnerable. Truman was also a clearer and stronger advocate of black rights than Roosevelt. The president issued an executive order barring segregation in the armed forces and forced the first civil rights plank into a Democratic Party platform. Outraged conservative Southerners staged a walkout and formed the States Rights (or Dixiecrat) Party, running Strom Thurmond as a presidential candidate.
In this atmosphere, Johnson tacked right. Caro ultimately attributes all these moves to his character. (The index listings for Johnson include: “cruelty … cynicism … manipulativeness … avoidance of taking stands … power for its own sake.”) Stevenson, meanwhile, is evoked as a model of imperturbability. (His index listings include: “dignity … fairness … honesty and integrity … taciturnity.”) The contest of 1948, according to Caro, was between principle and lack of principle. What he has overlooked completely is politics, or political cause and effect, not to mention a number of facts.
Stevenson campaigned, writes Caro, “as he had always campaigned, driving around the state, shaking hands, talking to handfuls of voters about ‘principles’ and the need for ‘economy’ and ‘common sense’ in government.” Caro does not mention Stevenson’s early attack on Truman’s civil rights program, his encouragement of the Southern revolt, his demands that the Democratic platform “leave off all reference to civil rights.” (These are all documented in Seth McKay’s Texas and the Fan Deal, which is listed in Caro’s bibliography.) Caro elaborates on Johnson’s scurrilous and absurd red-baiting of Stevenson, but he neglects Stevenson’s more vicious attacks, tinged with racism. Stevenson charged not only that Johnson opposed funding the House Un-American Activities Committee, but also that Johnson had lined up in Congress with the left-wing “Vito Marcantonio of the Harlem district”—with one stroke casting Johnson as red and black.
Johnson’s victory, according to Caro, was the fruit of character assassination, a helicopter, and theft. Caro appears to have accounted, with circumstantial evidence, for the eighty-seven votes in Ballot Box 13; but he fails to offer any convincing explanation whatever for the votes in the other ballot boxes, for the tens of thousands of other Johnson votes. The truth is that Johnson, unlike Stevenson, grasped the historical moment and the changing constituencies of the electorate, and sought to shape them.
Johnson understood that the campaign of 1948 was the first campaign of the cold war. Almost immediately, he had Stevenson on the defensive as an isolationist, a position that “Coffee Coolin’ Coke” took his time disclaiming. Johnson, who had been a member of the Naval Affairs Committee, flourished his specific knowledge in contrast to Stevenson’s ignorance masquerading as “taciturnity.” Johnson also instinctively knew that the returned World War II veterans and their families were the decisive voters. It was a generational constituency. Johnson was young, Stevenson was old. Johnson, for all his tall tales, was a decorated combat veteran. Stevenson was tall in the saddle but never saw the inside of a cockpit.
Horace Busby, who was Johnson’s longtime aide and now publishes a political newsletter in Washington, told me:
Johnson came up with his slogan in the middle of the campaign: Peace, Preparedness and Progress. He called it the three Ps. Johnson was making all the kinds of arguments you would hear in a national context, keeping our preparedness up to meet the Russian threat. It was proceeding on two different levels. Coke didn’t understand it, of course. He was running on how we don’t have good ol’ boys from Texas [in the Senate]. It was the State House candidate versus the national candidate. One was very parochial, one anything but parochial. Johnson was behind 72,000 votes after the first primary. I saw after two, three weeks at public rallies that the issue was working very well with all these young World War II veterans, who maybe got married when they came back. They were fed up with whatever this side meant to offer. It was not strictly isolationism, but it was old hat, old ways, old everything. They didn’t want it. That’s why we won.
Busby was interviewed by Caro; he says that they had “several discussions of Johnson’s strategy.” But now Busby complains that in Means of Ascent “Caro discounts that anything was going on except that Johnson was stealing votes.”
Critical to Johnson’s strategy was his alliance with the Loyalists. Their struggle against the Regulars and his campaign against Stevenson brought them together in a common cause. “This was a backlash from the 1944 campaign,” Creekmore Fath explained to me. Fath is an Austin lawyer who was the Texas manager of the Truman campaign, a central figure in Texas politics, who refused to be interviewed by Caro. “The whole fight was who was going to control the machinery of the state Democratic Party. Johnson made his deal, that he would support the Loyalists to take control of the executive committee if they would support him.” Caro locates the origin of this alliance at the state Democratic convention, where Johnson wanted his eighty-seven-vote margin over Stevenson certified, and presents it as a straightforward political quid pro quo, not as the convergence of large historical forces. Fath says that Johnson and the Loyalists made their compact “two months before the primary election.”
The Loyalists were willing to work very hard for Johnson, despite his waverings and his compromises, because “on the basis of comparison in Texas, he was liberal,” says Walter Hall, a progressive businessman prominently involved in the Loyalist cause, who was Johnson’s chief supporter in Galveston. (Caro did not interview him.) “They had been running Texas for a long time—the big oil companies, the big banks, insurance companies, the newspapers.” Before supporting Johnson, Hall peppered him with questions about his positions on federal aid to education, national health care, and even voting rights for blacks. “After my conversations, I envisioned him becoming a progressive senator. Anyone who was halfway informed on the two men knew the difference. I supported Lyndon in every way I knew how.”
Indeed, Stevenson’s presence in the race was itself a compelling reason for the Loyalists to help Johnson. “Stevenson,” says Fath, “was as corrupt as a Texas politician can get.” Johnson understood Stevenson’s reputation in these quarters, and he exploited it. “Coke was very much sided with the Regulars,” recalls Pickie. “He was their symbol. Coke was just a solid sort of representative, reliable to his crowd, available.”
Still, most of the Loyalists were not motivated by affection for Johnson. They were fearful, above all, that the presidential election might be stolen in Texas. “I didn’t care about the Johnson question,” says Bob Eckhardt, who was designated by the Loyalists to work out with John Connally (then Johnson’s aide) the details of certifying the senatorial vote at the convention. The result was that a number of Dixiecrat delegations were unseated, the Loyalists triumphed within the party, and Johnson was declared the nominee. Eckhardt recalls watching Stevenson supporters march out of the convention behind a Confederate flag.
Stevenson’s last hope was the courts. Caro writes that he was determined to make a last stand for his beliefs, “the Code of the West.” His lawyer was Dan Moody, a former governor, whom Caro fails to identify as a leader of the Texas Regulars, who presided as the chairman of the 1944 rump Democratic convention after the Loyalists angrily split. But Stevenson’s legal efforts were futile. The results of the election were upheld; Ballot Box 13 was never unsealed. Johnson went on to an easy win over the Republican Jack Porter, whom Stevenson endorsed. (Caro doesn’t identify him as a former Texas Regular either.) And Truman, to the surprise of almost everyone, won Texas by a larger margin than any other state.
Means of Ascent is a foreshadowing of Caro’s future volumes, in which he will establish his master idea of Johnson’s responsibility for the “shredding of the delicate yet crucial fabric of credence and faith between the people of the United States and the man they had placed in the White House”—a fabric that “until the day of Kennedy’s death” was “whole.” It is hard to imagine a more naive and sentimental rendering of America’s conflict-ridden history. (One hundred years before Kennedy sent advisers to Vietnam, the American “fabric” was rather creased by the shelling of Fort Sumter.) In truth, the history missing from Means of Ascent foreshadows a different and even more pertinent story: the origins of the modern Texas Republican Party, whose favorite son currently inhabits the White House.
Caro intended, in his saga of the 1948 campaign, to reveal “universal truths” about power. But he is not a student of power, he is a hater of it. For Caro, power is essentially corrupt and coercive. He sees almost every transaction among political actors as intrinsically venal. Against power, he poses righteousness. He is constantly seeking purity of heart in politics.
To hate power, however, is to hate politics. Caro’s notion of power is bizarrely apolitical. It is no wonder, then, that finally he put all real political analysis aside in favor of the Great Man theory of history (which has always been a way of putting much of history aside, too). And the Great Man theory of history turns out to be extremely hospitable to the conventions of contemporary political journalism, in which a fixation on behind-the-scenes mechanics is combined with a belief in the explanatory power of personality, in the reduction of political behavior to psychology—all presented, of course, as sacred fact. Caro’s massive and Manichaean work merely reproduces and expands upon those conventions.
Caro has used his material selectively, tendentiously, to confirm his Manichaeanism. “Threads, bright and dark, run side by side through most of Lyndon Johnson’s life,” he writes. “… The two threads do not run side by side in this volume. The bright one is missing.” But the notion of a bright thread is as false as the notion of a dark thread. For this reason, Johnson has eluded Caro—the more complex, even darker Lyndon Johnson who was an unlovable man desperate to be loved, whose cynicism and idealism were mysteriously inseparable, all of a piece. “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men. There are no such depths and no such ambiguities in Robert Caro’s Texan epic.