Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Report

One lesson hammered home in amazing detail by Caro’s Johnson bio is the paramount power of money in politics. Duhhh. Yes, but there is a level of detail and documentation in these volumes that is authoritative, and would simply be impossible in any account of more recent events. We get the perspective provided by the passage of sixty years, but the events (and even many of the names) are eerily familiar to readers of the paper this morning.

Johnson’s career was bankrolled from his first run for Congress by Brown and Root, a small, unassuming contractor you might have heard of from the Houston area. In election after election, Johnson spent sums that were unprecedented for congressional and senatorial campaigns respectively.

The Marshall Ford Dam. In the late thirties, Brown and Root had already started the dam that they would build their fortunes on, but they had two problems: (1) the dam was not authorized by Congress, as mandated by law, and (2) the dam was actually prohibited by law, because the land on which it was built was not owned by the federal government. These problems had originally been surmountable because the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee was committed to using his position to overcome these obstacles. But in February 1937, “Buck” Buchanan died at a most inconvenient moment for Brown and Root. Johnson was financed by the company in his first congressional campaign, in Buchanan’s district, specifically for the purpose of resolving these problems. It was make or break time for Herman Brown.

Johnson won his seat, and Brown got his dam, which was to be the financial cornerstone of the company’s future success. Caro seems to stand in awe of the sums available to candidate Johnson:

“A rough rule of thumb, occasionally violated, among Texas politicians was that a respectable statewide campaign could be waged for between $75,000 and $100,000. Johnson was thinking of money on a completely different scale. He always had. His first campaign for Congress, in 1937, had been one of the most expensive campaigns – possibly the most expensive campaign – in the history of Texas. During his first senate campaign, in 1941, men handed him (or handed to his aides, for his use) checks or envelopes stuffed with cash – checks and cash in amounts unprecedented even in the free spending world of Texas politics – and with these contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars, he had waged the most expensive senatorial campaign in Texas political history. Now, in his last chance, he planned to use money on a scale unprecedented even for him.

He had it to use. After Johnson’s 1941 Senate campaign, George Brown had delivered to Johnson Herman Brown’s pledge to finance a second Senate campaign as lavishly as he had financed a first. Since that time, the federal contracts Johnson had helped Brown and Root obtain had gotten bigger; profits had mounted from millions of dollars to tens of millions – and at the same time fierce Herman Brown had glimpsed the wealth that could come to his company through the efforts of a Senator, rather than a mere Representative. In 1947, the pledge was renewed; if Lyndon wanted to run, the money would be there – as much as was needed.”

It was these huge sums that allowed Johnson to employ a dang helicopter – of all things! – in the ’48 race. This was a huge advantage, not only in covering the vast Texas distances, but also for attracting crowds for the novelty of the ‘Flying Windmill’.