In his review of an interesting-looking new LBJ biography, Alan Brinkley writes:
Woods challenges as well a critical element of Caro’s extraordinary portrait of Texas politics in the second volume of his Johnson biography, “Means of Ascent.” Johnson, then a congressman, was first elected to the Senate in 1948, in a close and controversial contest in which allegations of fraud emerged that plagued him for the rest of his life. Like Caro, Woods vividly describes the complex web of corruption that accompanied this race. But he does not share Caro’s romantic preference for Johnson’s opponent, Coke Stevenson, whom Caro presents as a figure of outstanding integrity but whom Woods portrays as a hardened white supremacist whose campaign was no less corrupt than Johnson’s. And despite the many concessions to conservatives that Johnson had to make to survive in Texas politics, Woods argues that even in the 1950’s he remained the most important figure in the still substantial progressive wing of the state’s Democratic Party.
Like many people, I greatly admire Robert Caro’s work; The Power Broker deserves all of its accolades, of course, and the LBJ biographies have been consistently interesting and the third volume is almost as good as the Moses biography. But it must be said the general frame into which he puts the 1948 Texas Senate race is a profound embarrassment (as well as another lesson about the uselessness of the concept of political “authenticity.”) His portrayal of Stevenson as an almost noble figure done in by the corrupt Johnson is just remarkably wrong. As Sidney Blumenthal wrote in The New Republic (June 4, 1990):
Caro’s description of Stevenson’s racial attitudes is so flawed and incomplete that it creates a picture at variance even with his hero’s own publicly stated positions. In 1942 a black man named Willie Vinson was accused of raping a white woman, dragged from a hospital bed, and lynched by a mob. It was the first lynching during the war, and it besmirched the international reputation of the United States. Attorney General Francis Biddle wrote a distressed letter to Governor Stevenson urging him to bring the murderers to trial. Stevenson refused to prosecute those responsible for the deed. But it was worse than that: in his reply to the attorney general, he made a sly argument in favor of lynch mobs. “Certain members of the Negro race,” he wrote, “from time to time furnish the setting for mob violence by the outrageous crimes which they commit.” With this carefully crafted letter, Stevenson shrewdly played to the galleries. (This entire affair, by the way, is recounted in detail by George Norris Green in the book that Caro cites on Stevenson’s integrity.)
Race, as we shall see, was a powerful undercurrent in Stevenson’s politics, and in his contest with Johnson, but one will not learn this from Means of Ascent. Caro’s thorough mishandling of the issue begins with his introduction. In it, he attempts to show the positive side of Johnson, delivering his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech in 1965, before he embarks on the exposure of his negative one. The section is a literary and political non sequitur, a misdirection to the reader, perhaps inserted to insulate the author in advance from the sort of harsh criticism from Johnson’s partisans that he experienced after the publication of his first volume.
But even this bit of fairness is so intense in its prosecutorial zeal that all nuance is flattened and Johnson’s civil rights record is made one-dimensional. “Until 1957, in the Senate, as in the House, his record–by that time a twenty-year record–against civil rights had been consistent,” writes Caro. The truth is that Johnson was never more hypocritical than in his votes against civil rights. They were never made out of conviction and were always taken as political positioning, in line with every other statewide Texas officeholder. And even so, in March 1949, after his election to the Senate, he said: “Racial prejudice is dangerous because it is a disease of the majority endangering minority groups …. For those who would keep any group in the nation in bondage, I have no sympathy or tolerance.”
This was not the normal thing for Texas politicians to say. In 1954 Johnson was the only Southern senator (apart from Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr., both from the border state of Tennessee) to break ranks by refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto in favor of segregation and against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Senator Richard Neuberger, a liberal Democrat from Oregon, remarked that it was as “courageous an act of political valor as I have seen take place in my adult life.”
And Stevenson wasn’t just rabid racist running against one of three Southern and Border Senators who didn’t sign the Southern Manifesto; as Garry Wills notes, “Stevenson’s conservatism was not only states’-rights on racial matters but on fiscal ones as well. He took a pay-as-you-go approach to the state’s own budget, and wanted to keep the federal government out. He had always opposed the New Deal–a position Caro seems to prefer to Johnson’s inconsistent support for Roosevelt’s programs.”
The problem, I think, is that in his first two volumes Caro was trying to re-tell the story of Robert Moses using Lyndon Johnson. The problem is that Moses–a young man with an interest in progressive reform, who after a few failures became obsessed with accumulating power for its own sake, and was also a racist whose power was exercised in a way that was generally devastating for the less affluent–is something close to the opposite of Johnson, a great champion of civil rights who became more progressive as he became more powerful and whose Presidential power was invested in passing a staggering percentage of the best legislation to ever reach an American president’s desk. Master of the Senate is far and away the best of Caro’s LBJ books because he finally seems to be grasping this, and I hope that continues in future volumes. But, anyway, it’s nice to see somebody else challenging the myth of 1948; I might have to check Woods’ book out.