Libertarians have always had a sense of history. Mainly because they puzzle over the USA of the 19th Century and its transformation into the USA of 2007. Many explanations are offered. A Pulitzer prize winner, Robert A. Caro, has made a unique contribution to this political conundrum in a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. What a book! the first two volumes, which I read, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, go 1400 pages. LBJ, you’ll recall is referred to as the founder of “The Great Societyâ€; big benevolent government. Therefore the life and times of this consumate politician blights our lives, even today.
Chockful of details, the character of the man is vividly revealed. Initially he was a west Texas rugged individualist who philosophically detested the New Deal. But that didn’t keep him from using it’s largesse to outlanders – like his God-forsaken congressional district – to climb the slippery pole of politics. Caro describes the political environment, then draws the man himself – in incredible and unflattering detail. The concise explanation? Johnson would do whatever it took to win. Not excluding lying, stealing, and wielding the hammer of his power. And it was a huge hammer forged by the treasury of Brown and Root, the construction behemoth, now a subsidiary of Halliburton. Tangled in a legally convoluted power project, the company was on the ropes. On a hope and a prayer they were building a dam for the government totally unauthorized by the government. Then the Lone Ranger (that’s LBJ) rode to their rescue.
I’m trying not to overstate the point. But this pile of rocks on the lower Colorado River in West Texas was literally a pivotal point in American history. Pivotal, because it guaranteed the ascendancy of this hagridden, junior congressman and the liberal legislation he crammed into the body politic.
The key to LBJ’s career was the treasury of Brown and Root (and soon other kindred sources) which Herman Brown opened to this freshman Congressman. Money talks – everywhere. But in West Texas it shouts loudly and when it’s not shouting, it’s buying votes. And Herman Brown was a man of bountiful gratitude who never forgot his own personal Lone Ranger; the young congressman with the big ears and flapping long arms who could “fixâ€ anything â€“ even an unauthorized dam illegally built on land not owned by the federal government. LBJ, with both hands in the construction company’s till became the money man for the democratic party. And in 1948 ran for senator against a mythical Texan, legendary Coke Stevenson. Stevenson was a man after our own heart. Upon being criticized for not restraining the bedlam that was the state legislature (he was the Speaker) he replied, “as long as they’re not voting, they’re not passing any laws. And as long as they’re not passing any laws, they’re not hurting anybodyâ€. A wise man. But too honest to compete with Lyndon and his Brown and Root money.
I better stop before I give away the plot. LBJ eventually goes for the highest office in the land. But I’m not going to tell you the outcome.
The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, two books which will open your eyes to American politics in the first half of the 20th Century.