Biographies & Memoirs

Part VI



Three More Years

DURING LYNDON JOHNSON’S next three years in the Senate—his final three years in the Senate—there would be a challenge to his style of leadership. In the 1958 elections, recession, growing unemployment, anger among farmers at President Eisenhower’s veto of a bill to increase farm price supports (and at his Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson), and the revelation of influence-peddling by the President’s top aide, Sherman Adams, cost the Republican Party forty-eight seats in the House of Representatives and twelve in the Senate (including, improbably, even the Ohio seat that had been held by John W. Bricker; William Knowland, having resigned, lost his race for the governorship of California). In 1959 and 1960, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by almost two to one in both houses of Congress, in the Senate by 64 to 34.

Of the new Democratic senators elected, none were conservatives and five were liberals, “eager,” as Evans and Novak wrote, “to make common cause with the tiny, beleaguered faction of liberals” who had been challenging Johnson’s leadership. “You know there has been this undercurrent of emotion against your leadership in the last six years,” Jim Rowe wrote Johnson shortly after the election. “It is much stronger today than it has ever been in the past.”

Within weeks of the election, this undercurrent had risen to the surface: a letter to Johnson from Joe Clark of Pennsylvania, demanding increased representation for liberals on the Democratic Policy and Steering Committees, found its way into the press. Pat McNamara demanded more frequent caucuses. And several of the newly elected liberals, notably Edmund Muskie, who had broken the Republican hold in Maine by twice winning election as governor and then had defeated Republican incumbent Payne to win a Senate seat, and, surprisingly, William Proxmire, were unwilling to be relegated to the spear-carrier roles that Johnson’s method of operation required. Offering Muskie advice on his Senate career, Johnson told him not to make up his mind on issues too early—to wait, in fact, “until they get to the Ms in the roll call.” But when, a few weeks later, Johnson said he assumed Muskie would be supporting him in the first big Senate fight of January, 1959—the attempt, once again, to amend Rule 22—Muskie responded by saying, “Well, Senator, I think I’ll follow your advice, and just wait until they get to the Ms.” And when he voted with the liberals, Johnson, while not throwing down his pencil, responded otherwise as angrily as he had with Frank Church; Bobby Baker was dispatched to tell other senators that Johnson considered Muskie a “chickenshit.” As for Proxmire, who had once called himself Johnson’s “biggest birthday present,” he turned out to be a somewhat unwelcome gift. During his early days in the Senate, in 1958, Proxmire had seemed willing to pay, in both silence and obsequiousness, the price for admission to the Senate “club,” entering debates only upon an invitation from a senior senator, scheduling his first major speech for the day before Easter recess, when most senators would already have left Washington and wouldn’t have to listen to him, and tendering a strikingly full measure of deference to the Majority Leader at every opportunity. But he soon decided that the price was too high. Talking one day to an acquaintance about a freshman colleague who also spoke seldom, he exclaimed, “He might as well not be a senator!”

Proxmire decided, he was to say, to “be a senator like Wayne and Paul,” and became outspoken on the floor. In 1959, after Johnson refused his request for appointment to the Finance Committee—Proxmire felt the refusal was due to his opposition to the oil depletion allowance—Proxmire went further, in a full-dress Senate speech attacking Johnson’s leadership. “There has never been a time when power has been as sharply concentrated as it is today in the Senate,” he said. At the first caucus he had attended, in January, 1958, he said, “senators assembled and listened to the Majority Leader read a speech which he had previously released to the press in full. There was not a single matter of party business discussed. There wasn’t even a mention of a party program, not a whisper concerning any legislation.” And the next meeting of the Democratic caucus wasn’t until “a full year later…. Senators had to surrender for another year their right and duty to determine the Democratic Party’s policies and programs.” Proxmire then gave a series of talks attacking “one-man rule” in Congress, in the Senate by Johnson, in the House by Rayburn (“When you get these two men together with the power of making committee assignments, you see the obsequious bowing, scraping senators and congressmen around them”), and demanding more frequent caucuses and larger, more democratic party committees.

All during 1958, 1959, and 1960, the liberal attacks on Johnson continued; in January, 1960, the liberals embodied in a formal resolution demands for more frequent caucuses, for selection of the Policy Committee membership by a vote of all Democratic senators instead of by the Leader alone, and for the drawing up by the Policy Committee of a Democratic legislative agenda. And these attacks were treated by the Washington press corps as significant revolts against Johnson’s leadership, with headlines and cutting cartoons; one, by Herblock, showed “King Johnson” on a throne with a spear knocking off his crown as he said, “Methinks, milord, that the peasantry is getting restless.”

Johnson’s grip on the reins of senatorial power, however, was far too firm for the attacks to have any real significance. He was stung by Proxmire’s attacks into answering him on the floor, saying the Wisconsin freshman needed a “fairy godmother” or a “wet nurse.” “This one-man rule is a myth,” he said. “I do not know how anyone can force a senator to do anything. I have never tried to do so. I have read in the newspapers that I have been unusually persuasive with senators. I have never thought these were accurate reports. Usually when a senator wants something done and does not get his way, he puts the blame on the leadership. It does not take much courage, I must say, to make the leadership a punching bag.” As for Clark, Johnson didn’t deign to reply to him himself; he delegated that task to Majority Whip Mike Mansfield, who said that instead of restructuring the Senate, the Democratic senators should rely on “the leadership and parliamentary skill of Lyndon Johnson.”

Johnson refused to meet any of the liberal demands. They had asked for more frequent caucuses. That first Democratic Caucus of 1958—the one at which, in Proxmire’s phrase, “not a single matter of party business” was discussed—was the only caucus held in 1958. In 1959, there was also only one caucus. Then, during the first days of January, 1960, the Senate liberals “determined to speak out” and to make an all-out attempt at reform. At the Democrats’ January 7 caucus, Clark introduced a resolution stating that if at least fifteen senators requested a meeting of the Democratic Party Caucus, one would be held every two weeks. A debate ensued, “the more senior members generally speaking in opposition,” as Clark recalls, until Johnson ended it by saying he would be happy to call a caucus anytime at the request of even a single senator. Johnson was as good as his word—but he added some other words. During that January, he scheduled no fewer than four additional caucuses—but also let it be known that he would not be displeased if senators found they had better things to do. Attendance steadily declined. Sixty of the sixty-four Democratic senators had come to that first, January 7, caucus. By the January 20 caucus, attendance was down to twenty-four.* And, Clark was to say, “that was the end.” The liberals did not even request another caucus “largely because those of us who wanted regular meetings became convinced that without leadership support, which was not forthcoming, we could not turn out enough members to make the conferences worthwhile.” The liberals had proposed another resolution: that the Policy Committee be selected not by the Leader but by an election. The vote on that resolution was 51 to 12—against it. Proxmire had to concede that despite two years of attacks, he had failed to make “any real dent” in Johnson’s power. The Star’s “Washington Window” column summed up the denouement of Proxmire’s revolt against Lyndon Johnson: it had been a “David and Goliath drama,” but with a non-traditional ending: “Instead of Goliath being slain, it was David who was slain.” Talking with Proxmire, Richard Russell told him that his “position reminded him of a bull who had charged a locomotive train…. That was the bravest bull I ever saw, but I can’t say a lot for his judgment.”

THROUGHOUT LYNDON JOHNSON’S LIFE, in every institution of which he had been a part, a similar pattern had emerged: as he rose to power within the institution, and then, as he consolidated that power, he was humble—deferential, obsequious, in fact. And then, when the power was consolidated, solid, when he was in power and confident of staying there, he became, with dramatic speed and contrast, autocratic, overbearing, domineering.

Now, during his final three years in the Senate, this pattern was repeated. “The success of his leadership affected the Lyndon Johnson lifestyle visibly,” George Reedy was to say. “During his early years as leader, he put on a humble-pie act that would have done credit to Ella Cinders. This faded overnight and a major task of his staff was to keep the hubris from showing—too much.” This task was difficult. He already had an unprecedented amount of office space. Now he took over more—a lot more—not in the Senate Office Building but in the Capitol itself. He already occupied most of the western end of the Capitol’s Gallery Floor in the Senate wing, with his two-room Majority Leader’s suite in G-14 and his three-room Policy Committee suite in G-17, 18, and 19. But between these two suites was a third, the only space on that end of the floor that he didn’t occupy—a two-room suite, G-15 and G-16, filled with the staff of the Commerce Committee. Now he commandeered that as well, so that, as one reporter wrote, “He will have a seven-room spread of offices replete with crystal chandeliers and rich furniture, occupying the entire northwest Senate wing on the third floor of the Capitol.” Sometimes, for a new visitor, he would sweep aside the heavy drapery behind his desk there, and suddenly the window would be filled, as one reporter wrote, with the “marbled city below with its great avenues running toward the White House.” Grand as this suite was, it was still too far from the Chamber floor for his liking, but on the same level as the Chamber floor, and conveniently near it, was a suite of two huge rooms that had been the staff and meeting rooms of the Senate’s District of Columbia Committee. He commandeered that, too. On its high ceilings, above its big crystal chandelier, were frescoes (as soon as he chose the office, painters began touching them up) of boys carrying baskets of flowers and young maidens reclining on couches: a Roman emperor’s banquet. Reporters began referring to it as “the Emperor’s Room” before coining another name, which stuck: “the Taj Mahal.” Lady Bird imported an interior decorator from New York to redo the suite in green and gold. “On entering the office,” Sam Shaffer wrote, “one was immediately confronted” by an extremely well-lit, fully life-size portrait of its occupant, hung above its marble fireplace. The artist had portrayed Johnson leaning against a bookcase, but he had captured at least some of the piercing quality in Johnson’s eyes; “That huge picture of Lyndon looking squarely in the visitor’s eye first thing on entering Lyndon’s office is a sure irritant,” John Steele reported in a memo to his editors at Time. And it was not only Lyndon Johnson’s portrait that was well lit. High above the desk, concealed in the chandelier, two spotlights had been placed, focused so that as the man himself sat at the desk, they cast on him what one reporter called “an impressive nimbus of golden light.” In a corner of the immense room he had ordered high walls of polished mahogany built, and behind them was a bathroom—a Johnsonian bathroom (a “monument of a toilet,” James Reston called it) used as Johnson used bathrooms: soon secretaries, assistants, and senators were having to take dictation from him or discuss issues with him as he sat before them on the toilet.

Johnson made other changes, too, in that Capitol wing that was his world. When he came to the deserted Capitol on a Sunday, he sometimes had to wait a minute or two for an elevator since only one elevator operator was on duty. Now the waiting time was eliminated: three operators were on duty all Sunday. And the operators of the subway between the Capitol and the Senate Office Building no longer stopped working at six o’clock; they remained on duty until Johnson had left the Capitol.

The pattern was discernible not only in the office but in the way visitors to it were treated—not the committee chairmen, of course, but almost all his other colleagues. Often, they were kept waiting; sometimes there would be three or four senators of the United States cooling their heels in the Majority Leader’s antechamber. Even the placid Mansfield once lost his temper over the length of time he was kept waiting for an audience and left, saying to Ashton Gonella, “Well, I’m not going to wait this long for anybody.” (Mansfield’s attitude displeased Ms. Gonella; in recounting this incident, she told the author, “I did not like people who did not respect Mr. Johnson.”) While the time senators spent in the suite’s outer office was sometimes uncomfortably long, the time they spent in the inner office was sometimes uncomfortably short; a request might be made of the Leader, and it might be denied, quickly and curtly, after which, it was clear, the applicant was expected to get up and leave.

Lyndon Johnson’s attitude toward his colleagues was increasingly proprietary and paternalistic. “They were his children; it was his Senate,” Ms. Gonella explains. Some of them were wayward children; that was all right, that was why he was there—the firm, fair father, to see that they didn’t get into trouble. In November, 1958, he would tell John Steele, in an off-the-record interview, “You know, I feel sort of like a father to these boys. A father loves his sons, though one son may drink a little too much, another may neck with the girls a little too much. A good father uses a gentle but firm rein, checks his sons, guides them, and above all understands them.” He knew what each of them needed. In 1958, he selected his new favorite, Frank Church, for the honor of reading George Washington’s Farewell Address in the Senate on Washington’s Birthday; telling a reporter why he had selected Church, he explained that he “needed a bit of bringing forward—just like my daughter does at school.” More and more, he was unguarded in his estimates of his colleagues’ abilities, and in his description of their relationship with him—after all, why should he watch his words; what could they do about it if they didn’t like them? “Now, Alan,” he said about Bible—said to a journalist—“Alan is a good, mediocre senator. He’ll do what I tell him.”

He let reporters know how cleverly he manipulated them.

His attitude was also apparent in the terms in which he described his own activities. In January, 1958, two days before the President’s State of the Union address to Congress, Johnson delivered a speech to the Senate Democratic Caucus, instructing George Reedy to tell reporters it was Johnson’s “State of the Union address.” Did a President have a Cabinet? During the course of his speech, Johnson, as Time put it in a March, 1958, cover story on him, “hoisted himself to political heights without precedent by referring to himself, in effect, as President of the U.S. (South Pennsylvania Avenue Division). ‘As majority leader of the Senate,’ said he, ‘I am aided by a cabinet made up of committee chairmen.’” Doris Fleeson might poke fun at his pronouncements, asking if he had worked out a disability agreement with his second-in-command, Mansfield, but most of the Washington press corps, which had overplayed each attack on Johnson’s leadership (and then, after each one had failed, had conceded that his power was greater than ever), agreed with Time’s assessment that Johnson is “without rival the dominant face of the Democratic 85th Congress…. As such … he does indeed stand second in power only to the President of the U.S.” Asking, “Who is the most powerful man in the United States today?” Stewart Alsop, in January, 1959, answered his own question: “The President.” But, he added, “Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson … certainly runs the President a close second, especially now that voters have given him a huge majority to lead. There are those who argue that Johnson is, in fact, if not in theory, the country’s most powerful man, because he loves … to exercise power, and President Eisenhower does not.”

BUT ALTHOUGH DURING THE FINAL THREE YEARS of his Senate career, Lyndon Johnson’s power over the Senate was as great as ever, the legislative achievements of this last stage of his Senate career were in many ways no more than a reprise of his early years in the Senate.

This late period opened with a repeat of the theme—“preparedness”—that had been so prominent during the early period, more full-throated but in most aspects remarkably similar to its earlier form. On October 4, 1957, during the Senate recess before the opening of the Senate’s 1958 session, Russia launched Sputnik (“traveling companion”), the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Americans were shocked, having been confident of their nation’s technological and scientific superiority over the Soviet Union. A new age—the Space Age—had been launched, and it wasn’t America that had launched it but America’s most feared enemy. Despite the Eisenhower Administration’s attempts to minimize the Soviet Union’s achievement (Sherman Adams said that America was not about to play the Russians in “an outer-space basketball game”), in the first excitement its implications seemed ominous. The Russians had beaten America in the race to develop a missile capable of placing a satellite in orbit; might they not also win in the race to develop a missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads? Lyndon Johnson was down on his ranch when the news came over the television late that afternoon. He was to recall that when, after dinner, he, Lady Bird, and their guests, Dale and Scooter Miller, took the evening walk on the dirt road next to the Pedernales, they peered up at the dark Hill Country sky, unsuccessfully “straining to catch a glimpse of that alien object” among the skyful of stars. He felt, he was to recall, “uneasy and apprehensive”—as did much of America that night and in the weeks to come. The country’s first reaction was an alarm that approached panic; in the excitement it seemed that the Administration had squandered America’s lead in missilery, and that the nation had been caught unprepared, as unprepared as it had been seven years earlier, when Communist troops in Korea had attacked without warning across the 38th parallel.

With the nation possibly in danger, Richard Russell was again not the bigot but the patriot—a patriot who, in love of his country, was pure of heart. On October 4, Russell was back in the big white frame house in Winder, and all that evening, telegrams and telephone calls arrived there from his colleagues, for, apprehensive over the news, they knew, as they had known during the MacArthur crisis, who was the best senator to handle the necessary investigation, the senator who was, moreover, chairman of the Senate committee—Armed Services—into whose jurisdiction the investigation fell. “This is so vital a matter that nothing short of your own guidance will give it the necessary prestige and force,” John Stennis said. Stuart Symington was particularly insistent, urging “complete hearings” before the full committee so that “the American people can learn the truth”; in such hearings, he, as former Secretary of the Air Force and a longtime critic of Eisenhower’s defense policies (and as a Democratic presidential candidate planning to base his campaign on the defense issue), envisioned himself playing a substantial role. But Russell, more and more aware of his loss of “energy,” felt there was someone better suited for the work than himself: the senator who had done such yeoman work during that earlier time of unpreparedness. Having returned from his walk to the Pedernales, Johnson was about to put in a call to Winder when the phone rang in his living room. It was a call from Winder, and Russell told Johnson that the investigation should be carried out not by the full Armed Services Committee but by its Preparedness Subcommittee. Symington, he was to tell Johnson, “has a lot of information and would raise a lot of hell, but it would not be in the national interest.” Soon, in a time of possible peril to the Republic, the telephone calls were again going back and forth between the big frame house in sleepy Winder and the ranch in the isolated Hill Country. Russell’s tone was again avuncular. “You’re so thorough you’ve got to have the answers before you ask the questions,” he told Johnson. “Maybe this time you should ask the questions first.” To Stennis and Symington and any other senator who asked him to conduct the investigation, Russell said, as he was to put it, that he “had more or less turned this whole matter over to Senator Johnson.”

PREPAREDNESS HAD BEEN THE ISSUE THAT HAD, in 1950, catapulted Lyndon Johnson to Senate prominence, of course, and what he did now with that issue—and with that subcommittee (which, George Reedy was to say, “he had kept alive” during the intervening years “through the same instinct that causes people to store obsolete furniture in an attic rather than throw it in the trash”)—duplicated in many ways what he had done with the issue and the subcommittee in 1950.

There was the same instant creation of an extremely able staff from outside the Senate world. Johnson’s first choice for general counsel, in fact, was the subcommittee’s earlier general counsel, Donald Cook. But Cook, now president of American Electric Power and determined never to work for Lyndon Johnson again, declined, and Johnson persuaded the man who had engineered Cook’s move to American Electric, the New York attorney Edwin Weisl Sr., to accept the job in his place, and Weisl brought with him the brightest of the young lawyers at his big New York law firm, Cyrus R. Vance (who quickly caught Johnson’s eye, would be boosted by him up through government ranks, and, during Johnson’s presidency, would become Secretary of the Army), as well as Edwin Weisl Jr., a young attorney. Scientific expertise of the same quality came with the recruitment for the subcommittee’s staff of scientists from Harvard and Rice Institute. These lawyers and scientists were added to the nucleus of the subcommittee’s staff, headed by Daniel McGillicuddy, that was already in place, since Johnson had kept that nucleus intact over the years. Reedy was informally seconded to the subcommittee to be, again, its publicity director. There were the same assurances to a President—now not Harry Truman but Dwight Eisenhower—that the subcommittee would not attempt to lay blame on the Administration; after one Johnson visit to the Oval Office, Eisenhower would tell Ann Whitman that Johnson had “said all the right things. I think today he is being honest”—the same eloquent assurances of nonpartisan-ship to Senate Republicans, particularly to Styles Bridges, who was still the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member; there would be “no ‘guilty party’ in this inquiry except Joe Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev,” Johnson said; the material being assembled by the committee’s staff was so “deeply disturbing” that even “the most hardened ward-heeler would forget politics if he knew the facts.” He therefore pledged not to embarrass the “one man who can give the orders that will produce the missiles. That man is the President of the United States.” “We very much appreciate the way you are approaching this,” Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy replied. “… If through your efforts it is kept out of partisan politics, it will be for the good of the public and we want to work with you.” To Republicans, he held up Symington as a spectre, the way he had held up Joe McCarthy to Democrats in 1950. “If he did not initiate it [an inquiry], it would be done by Symington, and that would be much worse,” he told John Foster Dulles. There was the same journalistic praise over the non-partisanship. The investigation “will serve a useful purpose,” Time’s editors were told in a memo from the magazine’s Washington bureau. “… It is not, repeat not, being conceived as a witch hunt. Johnson knows that a good investigation is the only kind that will satisfy anyone, and in the end bring credit to everyone…. Here, as downtown, there is a sense of urgency, of consideration of the national interest.” There was the same understanding that nonpartisan-ship was, in this instance, the best politics, for the facts that would undoubtedly be brought out could hardly reflect other than unfavorably on the Administration. As a memo to Johnson from Reedy put it: “This may be one of those moments in history when good politics and statesmanship are as close to each other as a hand in a glove.”

There was the same emphasis on publicity, the same squeezing out of every possible drop of that mother’s milk of politics. “Johnson’s running things … hit the extreme this week,” John Steele was to report to his editors. “He was running the photographers and they were, for once, not objecting. He’d usher them [to closed committee sessions] for pictures, then usher them out and turn his attention to newsmen. Speaking so fast that no one could take a word-by-word account, he would rip through a briefing on a committee session, pant that he was ten minutes late for a luncheon speech he had to make. ‘The statements will be up in a minute anyway,’ burst out of the room to give the television interviewers time for ‘just three’ questions, then flaring up when a fourth was asked—‘I told you, just three.’”

There was the same cultivation of the press, the same leaking of news to the most influential newsmen, the same long background sessions with columnists, a cultivation that extended into evenings, when he would invite them home to dinner, or weekends, when especially favored newsmen would be invited down to Huntlands, or even to Texas, with the most favored newsmen of all, Bill White and Stewart Alsop and Rowland Evans, coming to the ranch. (White, the most favored newsman of them all, secured the prize invitation: a visit to the ranch for Christmas.)

And there was the same skill in the obtaining of publicity, the same sure touch for public relations: for the right witnesses, the nation’s most renowned nuclear and rocket scientists, like Edward Teller, Vannevar Bush, and Wernher von Braun, and the nation’s most bemedaled generals and admirals of the nuclear age—Curtis LeMay, Hyman Rickover, James Gavin—called in the right order: the scientists first—“To elevate the hearings into the realm of space and away from interservice battles in the Pentagon,” Reedy explains—and, first of all the scientists, the one whose reputation as “the father of the hydrogen bomb” assured maximum press interest. Teller didn’t disappoint: in Reedy’s words, he “painted a verbal picture of a universe in which mastery of outer space meant mastery of the world. The message he sent was clear. The Soviet Union had taken the first step into the heavens and unless we hurried to catch up, the later steps would find us under Communist domination.” Then came the generals, to paint a disturbing picture of how an overly economy-conscious Administration had allowed its emphasis on a balanced budget to interfere with the nation’s security.

During the Korean War, the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee had been a source of vivid, apt, headline-making phrases. One phrase that Reedy now tried to suggest to Johnson, in fact, would have repeated a key word from the subcommittee’s earlier heyday: Reedy suggested that Johnson say that Sputnik presented the American people with a challenge, a challenge that would require “a call to action instead of a summons to a siesta.” Johnson rejected the suggestion out of hand: why would a great phrasemaker need to repeat himself? New phrases evolved in his press relations, press conferences, and letters to constituents. Some linked this moment of unpreparedness to another—one worse even than Korea. Sputnik was “a disaster … comparable to Pearl Harbor,” Lyndon Johnson said. The Space Age is “an even greater challenge than Pearl Harbor,” he said on another. Pledging nonpartisanship, he said, “There were no Republicans or Democrats in this country the day after Pearl Harbor.” Some evoked—not all that subtly—the speeches of a man whose speeches he wanted to imitate. By pulling together, Americans could make the Space Age “our finest hour,” he said. (To Texans he likened Sputnik not to Pearl Harbor but to the Alamo. Texans had lost that battle, he said, but had won the war against Mexico: “History does not reward the people who win the battles, but the people who win the war.”)

His very demeanor made newsmen feel, as they had felt in 1950, that the nation was in trouble, that there was not a moment to lose, that news of the subcommittee was big news. A memo from Rowe reminded Johnson of the necessity of creating “a sense of urgency to counteract the complacency of the administration,” and it would be hard to imagine a more superfluous piece of advice. Yet Johnson did not, in fact, seem to feel all that much urgency himself. News of Sputnik had come on October 4, and Russell had in the next day or so turned over the investigation to Johnson, but Johnson did not come to Washington until October 16, and he returned to Texas two days later—and, except for a day he spent sightseeing in Monterrey, Mexico, he stayed in Texas until, on November 2, the Russians launched a second, much larger, satellite that carried a live dog (and was therefore named “Muttnik”); only then, on November 3, did he return to Washington for the subcommittee’s organizational meetings and a seven-and-a-half-hour briefing for himself, Russell, and Bridges at the Pentagon. He stayed in Washington for four days, and then went back to Texas for twelve days, returning to the capital on November 20 to prepare for the subcommittee’s hearings, so that during the more than six weeks following the launching of Sputnik, he was in Washington for six days. But during those six days—and when, in January, he returned to the capital full time—he put on quite a show. (A memo from Steele told his editors: “This was the pace Johnson was traveling at as he breakfasted one day at the Pentagon with McElroy, another day at the Pentagon with [Wilber] Brucker, as he whisked the Senate through its opening session…. Johnson was moving through days of seven hours of committee sessions, hours of planning future sessions with his staff, the long party conferences, innumerable confabs with fellow senators and other party officials, speeches … television films for a Texas network, innumerable telephone conversations with government officials, a mountain of mail—all with a lopping [sic] speed but with a deadly purpose. Johnson was working this week as though the orbiting of an American Sputnik was his own responsibility and that it should have been done yesterday. His speed, intensity, and energy was contagious. An Army Brigadier General grabbed a sheaf of news releases to hurry the distribution to reporters at a Johnson committee session….”) Leaving Capitol Hill in the evening after filing their stories for the next day’s papers, reporters would glance back at the darkened Capitol and see lights still blazing in that corner office on the third floor. “There seems to be a terrible sense of urgency about all this, doesn’t there?” one reporter said to another, as he snatched up his notepad and ran down the hall to cover still another Johnson press conference. Watching Lyndon Johnson hurry through the corridors, coat-tails flapping, journalists coined jokes about his intensity. “Light a match behind Lyndon and he’d orbit,” was one.

There was new proof that, in 1958 as in 1950, no matter how skilled Reedy might be, Lyndon Johnson was his own best public relations man. One day in January, the Preparedness Subcommittee, which had met in open session that morning, was scheduled to meet behind closed doors to hear sensitive testimony from Major General John B. Medaris, commander-in-chief of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. During the noon break, however, while Johnson was, in John Steele’s phrase, “lapping up a creamed chicken dish in his ornate green and gold Senate office,” the phone rang. Defense Secretary McElroy wanted to tell him that he was about to make an important announcement: that the Army was being authorized to proceed on a “top-priority basis” with the development of a solid-fuel missile instead of relying on liquid-fueled missiles as in the past. Johnson didn’t hesitate. Without so much as a pause, he asked McElroy not to make the announcement himself, but instead to let General Medaris make it—during his testimony before the subcommittee.

The headline-making news would therefore come not from the Pentagon, but from the Johnson Subcommittee, and Johnson made sure that the headlines would be big. The time was already about 2:22 p.m. The closed-door session was scheduled to begin in eight minutes. Johnson sent aides and secretaries scurrying to the Press Room and to the Senate cafeteria where some journalists ate lunch, to announce that at 2:30 sharp the subcommittee’s doors would be thrown open—very briefly—for an important announcement. Reporters and photographers came running, some still chewing, and as they entered the room, Johnson, pounding his gavel for order, shouted, with the air of someone delivering a communiqué from a war zone, “General Medaris has a brief announcement to make. Copies of his statement will be ready in a few minutes.” Two senators—Saltonstall and Flanders—were entering the committee room at a leisurely postprandial senatorial pace, and then, as soon as Flanders sat down, he got up again and started to leave the room. “Senator, Senator—where are you going?” Johnson asked. “Oh, I’ll be back in fifteen seconds,” Flanders replied. “But you can’t leave us—this isn’t going to take fifteen seconds,” Johnson said curtly. Flanders sat back down, and Medaris made his announcement. And although there had been very little time to prepare a quotable phrase, one was ready on Lyndon Johnson’s lips. As soon as Medaris had finished reading, Johnson told the General, as reporters’ pens scribbled, “I hope this is not just a directive but that it is backed up with cold, hard cash. If you will convey that message to him [McElroy] maybe it will persuade him to make some more decisions.” In case anyone had missed them, Johnson repeated the key words—twice. “Cold, hard cash,” he said. “Cold, hard cash.”

There was still television to be accommodated. This was a problem, because the TV camera crews, anticipating a closed session to which their bulky cameras would not be admitted, had left them down by the Caucus Room while they had lunch and had not been able to lug them downstairs in time for the announcement. Even as Medaris was speaking, Johnson aides were telling the cameramen to set up their cameras in the corridor outside the committee room, and as soon as the General had finished, Johnson stepped around the committee table, grabbed his arm, pulled him bodily out of his chair, and propelled him into the hall. “Now fellas, let’s roll it!” Johnson said, standing so close to Medaris that it would have been difficult to show the General without showing him, too. One of the cameramen, still panting from his race upstairs, managed to say that one of their number had not yet arrived. “Well, you take it and give it to him,” Johnson said angrily, and when the cameramen said that was impossible, he replied, “Now, listen, I told you to be ready.” (“No one dared to mention that he had given them eight minutes to do so,” Evans and Novak said.)

THERE WERE OTHER SIMILARITIES between 1958 and 1950, the same tendency toward hyperbole and oversimplification, for example. Dramatic though the Sputnik launchings may have been, their military significance—their significance, in other words, for America’s safety—was minimal. The launchings showed that the Russians had indeed developed rockets with more thrust than America’s, but it was not thrust but rather the rockets’ accuracy and the destructive power of the nuclear warheads they carried that would count in war, and in both accuracy and explosive power the United States was still far ahead. In addition, America’s bomber fleet of huge B-52S, constantly on alert or in the air, was vastly superior to Russia’s bomber fleet, and had the added advantage of access to airfields virtually on Russia’s borders. A Soviet attack on the United States would, for all Nikita Khrushchev’s blustering, have been suicidal: America had enough nuclear capacity and missile technology—many times more than enough—to reduce the Soviet Union’s cities and factories to ruins should the USSR launch an attack. Moreover, during the Eisenhower Administration the American margin of superiority had not narrowed but widened.

Quite sure of these facts—in part because of amazingly detailed photographic evidence from U-2S, supersonic reconnaissance aircraft that overflew the USSR at heights of up to 85,000 feet—Dwight Eisenhower attempted, in the weeks after Sputnik, to reassure a jittery America (although believing, incorrectly, that Russia was unaware of the U-2 flights, he shied away from revealing any facts that might have given the Russians a hint of their existence). In an October 9 news conference, in which journalists’ questions, reflecting the mood of the moment, were more suspicious than at any other conference during his presidency, Eisenhower said that the satellite “does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota”; he would “rather have one good Redstone nuclear-armed missile than a rocket that could hit the moon,” he said. “We have no enemies on the moon.” Repeatedly during this period, the President sought to explain that we had more than enough nuclear capacity already so that massive emergency spending to develop more bombs was “unjustifiable”; “What is going to be done with this tremendous number of enormous weapons?” he asked on one occasion; how many times “could [you] kill the same man?” he asked on another. Furthermore, he said, the greatly accelerated spending would have “unfortunate effects” which his critics did not seem to have considered. As Ambrose puts it: “He deplored the Pearl Harbor atmosphere, the readiness to forget economics and spend whatever had to be spent to win the war. ‘We face,’ the President said, ‘not a temporary emergency but a long-term responsibility…. Hasty and extraordinary effort under the impetus of sudden fear … cannot provide for an adequate answer.’ He said he knew he could get whatever he asked for from Congress in the way of defense spending … but the suggested expenditures were at the expense of needed civilian expenditures and were ‘unjustifiable.’… We must remember that we are defending a way of life.” Turning America into a “garrison state” would mean taking the risk that “all we are striving to defend … could disappear.”

Lyndon Johnson, briefed repeatedly by the Pentagon, must have been aware of these reassuring facts, but his statements continued to be short on facts and long on “Pearl Harbor atmosphere.” His subcommittee’s first report, filed on January 23, 1958, said: “We have reached a state of history where defense involves the total effort of a nation.” Total effort meant in 1958 what it had meant in 1950; once again, the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee called for America to place itself—immediately—on an all-out war footing. In a prepared speech Johnson delivered on October 17, he said that the forty-hour workweek “will not produce intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and therefore the entire nation “must go on a full, wartime mobilization schedule.” His rhetoric escalated. America’s first attempt to orbit a satellite, the Vanguard 1, failed on December 6, when the missile exploded as it was leaving the Cape Canaveral launching pad. The news was delivered to Johnson as he was chairing a subcommittee hearing before a large crowd in the Senate Caucus Room. “How long, how long, oh, God, how long will it take us to catch up with the Russians’ two satellites?” he asked. His speeches, the author Alfred Steinberg says, “painted a frightening picture of the horror that would overtake the United States if it did not treat Soviet leadership in missilery as a war.” “Control of space means control of the world,” Johnson said. “From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperate climates to frigid.” The subcommittee hearings were to generate headlines day after day, but even Reedy was to admit that “in retrospect some of the material should have been examined more carefully before being spread on the record in ex parte proceedings. One of the results was the public creation of a ‘missile gap’—a concept that we were hopelessly behind the Soviets in the possession of ICBMs.”

And in 1958 as in 1950, the Preparedness Subcommittee produced a publicity bonanza—hearings in the Senate Caucus Room jammed with radio and television cameras and microphones; cover articles in national magazines (“In a week of shot and shell in Washington … Lyndon Johnson went a far piece toward seizing, on behalf of the legislative branch, the leadership in reshaping U.S. defense policy,” Life asserted)—and there were again, in ’58 as in ’50, indications that it was less preparedness than publicity that was the subcommittee chairman’s primary concern. Eisenhower’s calm assurances began to be understood, and they were bolstered by the successful launching of America’s first satellite, Explorer, on January 31, 1958—and the resultant slackening of media interest in the missile crisis was mirrored by a corresponding slackening in the chairman’s interest.

As usual the shift followed a Jim Rowe memo, this one typed on February 5. “I believe you have gained all you can on space and missiles,” it said. “You have received a tremendous press, increased your national stature and gotten away scot-free without a scratch.” A major recession was under way and, Rowe wrote, “I think you should turn now to the obvious new issue, which is unemployment.” Johnson turned. “In the early spring,” George Reedy was to say, he “just plain lost interest in the space issue. The public had begun to calm down and the Buck Rogers serials had played themselves out. He had never been comfortable with the subject matter and welcomed the rise of a new issue that he really understood—unemployment…. Unfortunately, Johnson … could see the [missile] issue only in terms of newspaper space and public attention. It did not involve poverty, education, or economic opportunity—problems which really held his attention. Therefore, as column inches devoted to outer space dwindled and as polls registered a diminution of popular interest, he virtually abandoned the entire project.” “Abandoned” was not an overstatement: Lyndon Johnson’s loss of interest in the space and missile investigation was complete—as became clear when aides approached him to ask for guidelines for the final subcommittee report. To their astonishment, Johnson didn’t want a report; he “would actually have preferred that the subcommittee issue nothing at all,” Evans and Novak would later report.

Johnson did not see a problem in this. “It did not bother him to abandon a program once he had concluded that it had lost its popular appeal,” Reedy was to say. Reedy, however, saw a big problem: danger that the 1958 investigation would come to resemble the 1950 investigation in another respect, and that journalists who had been around in 1950 might recognize—and call attention to—the similarity. “Some of the staff members … recognized that leaving it [the subcommittee report] in limbo would ultimately work against Johnson,” he says. “He had something of a reputation of exploiting issues without bringing them to a head, and to forget outer space after all the drama would have been deadly.” A final report, including seventeen tersely worded, extremely general recommendations (sample: “Start work at once on the development of a rocket motor with a million pounds of thrust”), was drafted by Weisl and Vance and approved by the six other subcommittee members (in yet another example of bipartisan unanimity). And, Reedy says, Johnson’s “worried assistants, who realized that his language [during the hearings] had been too strong to close the books with nothing accomplished, pushed him” into introducing a bill to create a new Senate committee, a Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, whose chairmanship Johnson took, to draft legislation for a national space program. “We’d shove the bills into Johnson’s hands and get him to introduce them and that’s the way the act emerged,” Reedy was to say, in a recollection confirmed by other aides. What Reedy calls the “bills” were actually amendments—to legislation that had been drafted not by the committee but by the Eisenhower Administration, which sent to Congress a bill creating a National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA).

Identifying the bill’s principal weakness—its lack of provision for a central policy-making body—Weisl, Vance, and Solis Horwitz recommended an amendment creating within NASA a small nine-member Space Council. Although during “the ensuing legislative process” Johnson, in Robert Divine’s words, “let his staff do most of the work,” he insisted that the recommendation be incorporated in the Act. Eisenhower wanted only a purely advisory body, “not one which makes decisions,” but in a meeting on Sunday, July 7, he and Johnson worked out a compromise, keeping the Policy Council but appointing the President as its head, and on July 29, 1958, Eisenhower signed the NASA Act into law. “Ike knew,” as Divine writes, “that he had out-maneuvered Johnson. Over the next three years, the Space Council met on only rare occasions,” without Eisenhower in attendance, and during that time had relatively little influence on national space or defense policies. But Johnson, in introducing the bill, said, reading from a memo drafted by Reedy, that he wanted to be a major figure in “the greatest of mankind’s adventures,” and Reedy’s maneuvers successfully concealed from journalists his boss’s lack of interest; their reaction is summarized in Evans and Novak’s judgment that the Preparedness Subcommittee’s space investigation was “a textbook example of what a Senate investigation ought to be.”

Despite such statements, in 1958 as in 1950 the actual results of a much-publicized Lyndon Johnson “preparedness” investigation were virtually nonexistent. Johnson “made it clear that he was going through the motions” of introducing and supporting the bill “only to quiet the insistent demands of his staff,” Reedy says. The creation of a space agency was significant in its institutionalization of the drive to explore space, but its form in practice was little different from the form it would have taken had Johnson not held his preparedness investigation. It would not be until 1961, when President Kennedy put Vice President Johnson in charge of the space program, that Johnson became genuinely active in a field with which he would become prominently identified. (“In later years, when he was reaping the public-image benefits of NASA achievements, he persuaded himself that they had taken place because of his prodding of his colleagues and his staff,” Reedy would comment.)

THE SPACE INVESTIGATION’S lack of accomplishment, and its other similarities to episodes in Lyndon Johnson’s early Senate career, was typical of the overall pattern of Lyndon Johnson’s last three years in the Senate. “The last two years of the congressional decade”—1959 and 1960—“can only be described as dreary,” Reedy was to write, and, with the exception of the space investigation, that adjective can be applied to the 1958 session as well.

There was, again, as in the Bricker Amendment battle of 1954, a fight against right-wing attempts to cripple another branch of the federal government, this time not the presidency but the Supreme Court. The South, of course, had been eager to punish the Court and limit its power ever since the Brown decision that year. In 1956 and ’57, in a series of civil liberties rulings, the Court overturned or narrowed anti-Communist or anti-subversive legislation passed by individual states and reaffirmed the supremacy of federal overstate law. The southern ranks were therefore swelled by the Jenners and Butlers and Curtises—by northern right-wingers of both parties. In August, 1958, shortly before adjournment, the conservatives had enough votes in both House and Senate to pass three anti-Court bills.

Having rolled through the House, the bills were reported favorably to the Senate by Jim Eastland’s Judiciary Committee. As ill-drafted as they were ill-considered—they would be called a “legal monstrosity”—they were the kind of bills that gave the Senate a bad name (they would, for example, force interstate business to comply with forty-eight different, and not infrequently conflicting, state laws). It was too much even for Russell, who also realized that passage of such legislation would be a severe blow to Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to woo liberal support for his presidential bid; Georgia’s senior senator had spoken for the bills publicly, of course, but behind the closed doors of the Policy Committee had not disagreed with Johnson’s decision to delay bringing them to the floor until August, when they could be buried in end-of-the-session confusion. Johnson had put Humphrey and Hennings in charge of counting votes, and when they assured him the bills would be defeated, he told the Policy Committee, “Well, I’m going to have to let them [conservatives] have their day on this stuff.”

When he called the Court-ripper bills up on Tuesday, August 19, and the first two were defeated, Humphrey’s count appeared correct. But when the third bill was brought up late Wednesday evening, with the Senate tired and querulous, the Court’s civil rights record suddenly was brought into a dialogue on the Senate floor, and in a moment all the old passions were aroused, angry exchanges broke out, positions hardened, and when the roll was called on a motion to table and thus kill the third bill, the motion lost, 39 to 46. A second vote lost, 40 to 47. Richard Russell saw what was coming. As the Senate floor erupted in shouting matches, he leaned forward and whispered to the man at the desk in front of him, “Lyndon, you’d better adjourn this place. They’re going to pass this goddam bill.” Jumping to his feet, Johnson said, “Mr. President, I move that the Senate adjourn,” but so infuriated were the conservatives by his action that, although adjournment was the Majority Leader’s prerogative, several senators insisted on a roll call on his motion. As it began, Lyndon Johnson stood up at his desk. There was a clipboard in his hand, and on it a long sheet of paper. When a vote was cast against him, the Majority Leader wrote down the name of the senator who had done so, making sure that what he was doing was obvious. This act of less than subtle intimidation had its desired effect: at the end of the vote, there were only eighteen names on the paper.

Walking over to Humphrey, who was shaking his head in bewilderment, Johnson let him know that he had failed—again—at vote-counting. “You boys screwed up,” he said. “I don’t know what you did, but you screwed up. You told me wrong.” Then he said, “If you want to beat this thing, there’s still a way.” Starting to explain the strategy that would have to be used, he suddenly realized that there were reporters listening. “I don’t know these people,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.” He started to lead Humphrey to his office. As he was crossing the Senate Reception Room, he saw Anthony Lewis, the New York Times Supreme Court reporter, coming down the stairs. Grabbing Lewis’ arm, Johnson brought him along, and Reedy as well, and the four men settled down for a talk, the Majority Leader behind the big desk, the three men facing him. Every twenty minutes or so, a secretary would come in and hand Johnson a fresh Cutty Sark and soda, which he would gulp down.

They settled down, to be more precise, for a monologue. “In the course of two hours, Humphrey may have gotten out about three sentences,” recalls Lewis, who, familiar with Humphrey’s customary garrulousness, was astonished. As for himself and Reedy, “I don’t think we said a word.”

Lewis would never forget that monologue. An acute political observer, he understood its purpose. It was, he would say, “a display of his being on the right side of issues.” (McPherson would explain Johnson’s thinking: “What an opportunity: to defeat a bad bill, save the Court, and win the embarrassed thanks of Senate liberals! It was worth doing.”) But nonetheless the monologue was awesome: not only a step-by-step exegesis of the complicated parliamentary maneuvers that alone could stop the bill from passing, but an exposition of why it should be stopped, an exposition so passionate that from that day forward, Anthony Lewis would believe in Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to liberal causes. “Johnson always wanted to be seen by people like me as a defender of civil liberties,” he would say decades later. “On the other hand, I think he actually believed in it—at least that’s my opinion. It’s my opinion because of things like the passionate lecture I saw him give Hubert Humphrey that night.”

Lewis would remember with particular vividness one incident that occurred during the monologue while Johnson was explaining that he would need time to carry out his maneuvers, and that therefore Humphrey would have to filibuster to give him that time. And if the maneuvers failed, Johnson said, Humphrey would still have to filibuster—because if the maneuvers failed, a filibuster would be the only way to defeat the bill. Humphrey, who, of course, as Lewis knew, “had been fighting filibusters all his life,” was reluctant to agree to do that, and Johnson said he understood Humphrey’s feelings. But then Lyndon Johnson said, “Hubert, they’re really gonna lambaste you for filibustering because you’ve always been against the filibuster. But if they hit you on one cheek, Hubert, you gotta turn the other cheek.” And as Lyndon Johnson said that, he took one of his huge hands and slapped one of his own cheeks with the flat of that hand—slapped it hard. And then he took his other hand and slapped his other cheek—hard. “So hard!” Anthony Lewis would recall decades later. “He took his hand, which was a very large hand, and hit himself on the cheek—so hard! I thought, That must have hurt! And then he took the other hand…. I felt he believed in what he was saying. Definitely.”

As it turned out, a filibuster would not be necessary. When the Senate convened the next day, Johnson put into motion the tactics he had outlined during the monologue: first, he had a motion introduced to return the bill to the Judiciary Committee, so that the vote would not be on the bill but only on the procedural motion, and therefore senators Johnson wanted to switch their vote “could,” as Mann says, “truthfully claim that they had voted not to kill the bill but only to return it to committee.” Then, using pressure and persuasion, he got enough senators to switch so that the vote on the motion was a tie, 40 to 40. And finally he got the forty-first vote, by persuading the GOP conservative Wallace Bennett of Utah to switch. An ardent supporter of Richard Nixon, Bennett very much wanted Nixon to be President. Johnson pointed out to him that a tie vote would have to be broken by Nixon, and no matter how Nixon voted, Johnson told Bennett, the vote would hurt Nixon’s chances to become President: he would have to antagonize either liberals or conservatives. The way to save Nixon from this dilemma, Johnson said, was to make sure the vote wasn’t a tie. So, as startled exclamations came from the gallery, Bennett voted aye—to send the anti-Court bill back to Judiciary, and death there.

DURING THESE LAST THREE YEARS, Lyndon Johnson would again, as in his early years, have to placate Herman Brown and the Texas right-wingers (which he did by steering to passage, in behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the harshly anti-labor Landrum-Griffin Act) and the great Senate bulls (he paid off a lot of debts to Clinton Anderson by cooperating in Anderson’s efforts to defeat President Eisenhower’s nomination of Lewis Strauss to be Secretary of Commerce, the first defeat of a presidential nominee for a Cabinet office since 1925). To try to placate liberals, he produced in each of the three years—1958, 1959, and 1960—a legislative package of progressive proposals that he said should be passed. The 1958 package had one fewer proposal than the thirteen-point Program with a Heart of 1956, but was otherwise quite similar—and the fate of all three packages was similar to that of the 1956 program, too: the few proposals that were passed had been watered down to inconsequentiality.

His interest in the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination made it impossible for him to avoid the civil rights issue, but his civil rights enthusiasm of 1957 had noticeably faded, possibly because, much as he needed liberal support to obtain the nomination, southern support was still the sine qua non, and in 1957 he had pushed southern senators, and Richard Russell, as far as they would go.

The net result of the 1959 and 1960 Senate civil rights battles was, at best, the smallest of steps forward—and it may even have been a step back. In 1959 (as in 1953, 1955, and 1957), Johnson first cut the ground out from under a liberal attempt to revise Rule 22 by engineering a compromise which, although technically a very modest weakening of that rule, might very well have proved in practice to strengthen it—John Stennis praised Johnson’s “matchless leadership” in obtaining the compromise. Forced into introducing a civil rights bill of his own when both the liberals and the White House introduced their bills, he devised a measure so tame that Roy Wilkins called it a “sugar-coated pacifier.” And then he allowed even that bill to die within the Judiciary Committee.

In 1960, the southerners staged a filibuster—the filibuster they had forsworn in 1957—against another liberal attempt to pass a civil rights bill. Lining up on the side of the South, Johnson opposed a liberal attempt to impose cloture. The vote on cloture, after two months of southern speeches, was 42 for, 53 against, figures that may be the clearest indication as to whether cloture could have been imposed in 1957; liberals had taken the 38 votes they obtained in the 1957 Rule 22 fight as a hopeful sign that they were in sight of the two-thirds vote needed to change the rule and make cloture possible; now, two years later, a vote had been taken on the cloture issue itself, and not only had they not obtained the necessary two-thirds, they had not even obtained a majority. As Robert Mann was to write: “Gone was their argument that an outmoded cloture rule was preventing the Senate from voting.” The civil rights bill that eventually passed in 1960, with the tacit acquiescence of Russell and the South, was a bill that Johnson, working with Eisenhower’s new Attorney General, William P. Rogers, had weakened to the point of meaninglessness. Liberals could only be thankful that, as Joe Clark put it, Russell, “the southern generalissimo,” was a gracious victor who threw the liberals “a few crumbs.” When the bill passed, Clark approached Russell and said, “Dick, here is my sword. I hope you will give it back to me so that I can beat it into a plowshare for spring planting.”

*Another January caucus was attended by thirty-eight senators but, Clark was to say, only because it was an unusual case; it met to discuss a bill “close to floor action.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!