“I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me, I know where to look for it and how to use it,” said Senator Lyndon Johnson, the Majority Leader. In Robert Caro’s new book, Master of the Senate—the third in his four-volume study of the 36th President—the author charts Johnson’s masterful exercise of power.
“My books are not biographies of famous men but are about political power, the power that affects all our lives,” says Caro, whose The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1975. “In the new book, I had to find out where LBJ found power in the Senate and how he used it to transform that hidebound body.”
Caro (and his one-person research staff, Ina, his wife of 44 years—an author herself) has devoted more than 25 years to Johnson, 12 to the latest volume alone. He interviewed 260 people, sorted through 2,082 boxes of Senate papers and wrote several drafts in longhand before typing others on an old Smith Carona. Caro calls Johnson “the greatest Majority Leader in the history of the Senate. I took the guy who did it best. And studied him.”
How does Caro feel personally about his subject? “I don’t think I like or dislike him,” he says. “But I am in awe of LBJ. Watching him get the 1957 Civil Rights Act through . . . I am in awe. This is not legislative power, this is legislative genius.”
The excerpt that follows chronicles Johnson’s seemingly hopeless 1957 attempt to pass the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, which southern Democrats were at first determined to block, as they had blocked every other civil rights bill for 82 years. Johnson, Caro shows, had long wanted sincerely to help people of color; in addition, he planned to run for President in 1960 and needed passage of the bill to make him acceptable to liberals and northerners. Though the bill that was originally introduced addressed a number of wrongs against African-Americans, what was left of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave the attorney general new powers to enforce the rights of African-Americans to vote, rights that in much of the South had long been denied through trickery and intimidation. Getting any civil rights bill through Congress would mark a milestone. “It didn’t matter that the bill was not strong,” says Caro, “because blacks needed to know they could have hope that civil rights legislation could pass the Senate. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was hope.”
Passage of the bill hinged on an amendment giving a person charged with contempt for disobeying a judge’s order—say, a white official trying to prevent blacks from voting—the right to a trial by jury (which in the South meant an all-white jury). The amendment, which liberals felt eviscerated the act, had been drafted to make it palatable to the South, but satisfied no one. “All the compromises and deals that had been hammered out in seven months of negotiations had only brought the two sides to an impasse at which no compromise seemed possible,” Caro writes. In fact, everyone seemed to know that the bill was dead—except LBJ:
To keep the two sides negotiating— to keep the 1957 civil rights fight from degenerating into the open hostility and bitterness in which so many previous civil rights bills had died— Johnson had to persuade his colleagues to conduct the debate in an atmosphere of outward friendliness and respect, or at least civility, so for some days, the opening scene of the Senate each noon hour featured the Majority Leader as Emily Post. In statements written by aide George Reedy and delivered during Johnson’s opening remarks each day, he encouraged the Senate to mind its manners, saying that it was on trial, that the world was watching it, and that he was confident that the Senate would do itself proud.
Johnson’s opening homilies were almost his only public utterances on the subject of civil rights. He had again assumed a low profile, and was not often on the Senate floor, spending his time in the Democratic cloakroom or huddling with aides behind closed doors, or with senators in his offices in the Capitol or back in the SenateOfficeBuilding. But there, in the cloakroom or behind closed doors, he was fighting, too, using the gifts he had demonstrated so vividly during his entire life.
All his life, he had had what Texas oilman and backer George Brown called a “knack” for simultaneously convincing people on opposite sides of an issue that he was on their side, and never had this knack been more vividly displayed. He did it with the tone of his voice: with northerners, his Texas twang became harder, more clipped; when he talked to southerners the twang softened into a full-fledged southern drawl. He did it with words. “If we’re going to have any civil rights bill at all, we’ve got to be reasonable about this jury trial amendment,” he said to liberal Illinois Senator Paul Douglas in the cloakroom one day. Five minutes later, he was at the opposite end of the cloakroom, telling Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina to “be ready to take up the Nigra bill again.”
He tried to make the southerners understand that as long as the bill contained a jury trial amendment, its passage would have minimal political repercussions for them. “You can go back [home] and say, ‘Listen, we could not stop them entirely. They just had too many votes, so they rolled over us. But look what we got. We fought and fixed it up so that those damned Yankee carpetbaggers couldn’t come back, and also they couldn’t brand you a criminal without a jury trial.’ ” He played on their pride as southerners. He played on their hopes: their hope that he might become President, and that if he did, that would be a victory for the South, a victory so great that its possibility should overrule all other considerations. He played on their fears. “The colored are not going to give up. They’re determined,” he told them. “We can’t continue to push these things down their throats. They won’t sit still any longer. We have to give them something. If we don’t allow progress on this issue, we’re going to lose everything.”