Ambition Untamed: Lyndon Johnson’s Years in the Senate

Mark Laluan

Robert A. Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate” is not so much a biography of the former president but of the political landscape of the 1950s and 60s and the struggle to achieve civil rights. Caro’s book shows readers that race is still a relevant political issue even today.

Throughout this nation’s history, the institution of the United States Senate has served as a mirror of the America it represents.

From her “Golden Age” when such figures as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun held sway on the floor with their oratory down to the partisan stagnation of contemporary times, the Senate has reflected American virtues and vices throughout the ages.

“Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert A. Caro is much less a biography of Johnson’s time in the Senate than a biography of the institution during the fifties and sixties.

Built around of a theme of the way “power reveals” the character of a man, “Master of the Senate” makes strides in painting a picture of our thirty-sixth President at the height of his power and prestige.

Johnson had always desired to become President but as a Southerner his way was blocked. The particularities of history and the South’s preservation of that most “peculiar institution” through Jim Crow ensured that no other section of the country would support a President from the South.

The office of Senator was thus the highest post a Southerner wishing to devote his life to public service could aspire to. It is fitting that Johnson viewed the Senate as a way station to the Presidency; through a combination of hubris, ambition and raw determination Johnson sought to create traction on the major issue keeping him from the font of power.

Race remains as relevant of a political issue today as it was in Johnson’s time. Just as today, the great urban political machines maintained by the Democratic Party held sway in the North. Here were the votes Johnson needed to first secure the Democratic nomination and then win the Presidency.

These machines who championed leading New Deal liberals of the time—such as Hubert Humphrey—would never accept a Southern Democrat such as Johnson to lead a national ticket.

While Johnson had done yeoman’s work for FDR’s New Deal policies during his formative political years in Texas, Johnson’s connections with the filibustering and race-bating “Southern Caucus” lead by Richard Russell were a deal breaker in every way, shape and form.

Johnson then did what every politician—from student government officials to congressman—does when faced with the need for support from two or more sides with mutually exclusive goals and agendas.

He fibbed, cheated and manipulated the rules to convince all sides of the equation that he was nothing but totally committed to their side. In his situation this meant convincing both sides that passing watered down civil rights legislation was in both of their interests.

Arcane rules of seniority meant that Johnson required Southern support to retain control of the legislative agenda. It was with this support that Johnson gained for himself the position of Minority and then Senate Majority leader.

He needed the support of Northerners to gain the support of urban machines in the North which were the centers of Democratic power in the North. No civil rights legislation had been enacted since 1875 and Northerners had regularly passed legislation in the House since the thirties just for such legislation to fail in the Senate at the hands of Southerners and their threat of filibuster.

The end result of this process—Civil Rights Act of 1957—was a thoroughly watered down piece of legislation, which provided a beginning to the civil rights legislation Johnson so ardently pursued as President.

It is impossible to know if this dogged pursuit was because of change in Johnson’s heart towards the condition of minorities or because of his lust for power. Given the balance of evidence it is likely both were equal factors.

No public figure can so resolutely press for legislation without believing in it. The éminence grises and silver foxes which populate the public imagination as being representative of the politico’s pragmatism are few and far between.

If one judges the results rather than remaining wedded to critiquing the process, it is clear that Johnson did set in motion the demise of legalized Jim Crow in the South. America by and large has moved beyond the ghost of the Old Confederacy.

The “in the past we couldn’t have cake, now we’ll eat it too” mentality of modern social legislation to seeks to address a problem largely dead in contemporary society. In many ways such a mindset keeps the problems related to racial inequality alive.

Johnson’s strategy for cultivating a racially based vote has been so successful that generations of politicians have remained wedded to it.

Perhaps it is time to move beyond the politics of race and leave such memories in the past, where they belong.