In 1948 Lyndon Johnson was miserable. He was a woefully weak individual who needed the power of public office to bring him some degree of relief from the monsters of insecurity that plagued him.
He had had some clout with President Roosevelt and used this to advance his career, but President Truman had seen how he used people and wanted little to do with him. Without access to the White House, Johnson could see that he was losing power in Washington.
To get his career back on track Johnson needed to move up from Congressman to Senator. There was one little problem…one obstacle in his way.
That problem was Coke Stevenson, the extremely popular former governor of Texas who had only four years before this received 85 percent of the vote in the race for governor. How does an opponent defeat a living legend like Coke Stevenson who was the personification of everything good in a public official?
The answer to that question is easy. You tell lies about Stevenson. You tell lies about the man and you lie about his record. You raise unprecedented amounts of money and use it to repeat the lies in the media. Brown & Root, a construction company that Johnson helped get lucrative federal contracts, gave lavishly. You use this money to hire people to go into rural areas to spread lies and rumors among people who are illiterate or nearly so. You use this money to buy votes in areas dominated by Mexican-American leaders and black leaders who can deliver the votes of people who are for the most part illiterate. And if buying votes isn’t enough, you just steal however many you need to win. And of course, you do all of this with the help of a friendly press.
Once again, I urge you to read Robert Caro’s “Means of Ascent.” This is the second volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Everything I told you last week and will tell you this week and in future weeks comes from that book. The thing that is so fascinating about the book is Caro’s use of quotes from Johnson’s closest assistants.
One of Johnson’s top aides was John Connally, who was later elected governor of Texas and was riding in the car with John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated. Connally described the significance of the Stevenson-Johnson race. He told Caro, “This [the 1948 senatorial campaign] was the beginning of modern politics.” Quoting Connally and others Caro explains how this campaign ushered in polling to an extent that was unheard of. Three or four polls per campaign was the maximum in the past. Johnson wanted that many per week.
Johnson did not care about the issues, Connally explained. In all of his campaigns Johnson tested issues until he found one which “touched” voters. That was the term Connally used and Johnson found several issues that “touched.”
One issue was labor legislation. In 1947 Congress, with a great deal of bipartisan support, passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. Corruption in the ranks of labor led to the passage of this legislation and few were more unpopular in this country than “corrupt labor bosses.” Johnson was able to convince many voters that Stevenson was the tool of these bosses and was taking their money, when in fact Johnson got huge amounts of labor money and Stevenson received little or none. All of this was accomplished with the help of an accommodating press that saw no problem with allowing Johnson to spread these lies about a conservative.
“I’m not going to sling any mud,” Johnson said in one speech, but in fact that’s all he did. He referred to Stevenson as an “old man” and lied about his age. He referred to him as “big-bellied” when Stevenson could outwork almost anyone. He referred to him as a “stooge” of labor, an “isolationist” and an “appeaser,” when none of these were true.
What is sad is that Coke Stevenson did not try to refute any of this, in part because he had been attacked in other campaigns and had always won, but also in part because he did not understand the power of the media. He also did not understand that the media was in Johnson’s corner.
In Texas in 1948 there was a primary election on July 24. If any candidate got a majority, he would be the Democratic nominee and would be elected in the fall because there were no Republicans in Texas in those days. Johnson’s job was to keep Stevenson from getting a majority and then there would be a runoff on Aug. 28. Actually, one poll showed Johnson running ahead and Johnson was devastated that he did not beat Stevenson, but when the votes were counted for the July 24 election, Stevenson was 71,000 votes ahead.
As bad as the attacks on Stevenson had been prior to July 24, they got worse between then and Aug. 28 and the tactics got dirtier. Johnson knew his career would be ended if he did not win. His supporters, the folks from Brown & Root, had almost been indicted for past political activities and knew they would be indicted if Johnson didn’t win this election because they had “multiplied their illegalities,” as Caro describes it. Connally talked of handling “inordinate amounts of cash.” Money was flown into all parts of Texas by Brown & Root planes.
There were the usual arrangements for the buying of votes. Huge sums of money were given to leaders in the Mexican-American and black communities. But “missionaries’ were also hired. These were people who went into the rural communities to hang out at stores and other public places to spread lies, called “whispers.” Local Democratic leaders who had supported Stevenson for years were bought for $1,000 a pop. (Who is worse here, the guy who offered the bribe or the one who took it?) Federal employees by the thousands supported Johnson.
Johnson, who wasn’t going to sling any mud, called Stevenson “just another crooked Texas governor,” who “sold pardons.” He called him a “caveman,” and a “Neanderthal.” When Stevenson failed to respond to Johnson’s false and vicious attacks, he was “dodging.” Nothing hurt more than the charge he had a “secret deal” with the labor bosses. Even Stevenson’s long-time supporters who should have known better started to fall for the lies.
Paul Bolton, a Johnson speech writer explained how it all went down. “Repeat the same thing over and over and over—jumping on Coke Stevenson’s having secret dealings with labor. You knew it was a damned lie [but] you just repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. Repetition—that was the thing.”
That folks is the way of the Democrats. The Coke Stevensons of the Democratic Party are gone. The Democratic Party of today is the party of Lyndon Johnson. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, Dick Durbin and the rest of the Washington Democrats are line-bred descendants of Lyndon Johnson. There is no place today in the Democratic Party for an honorable man like Coke Stevenson.
If the lies weren’t effective enough, you could bring in reporters from Washington, D.C., to do a hatchet job on Stevenson. That happened. Reporters from Texas who didn’t write stories to suit Johnson got fired.
Even with all of this, Johnson, with only 10 days left before the Aug. 28 runoff, was trailing in his private polls by seven points and could not close the gap.
One of Johnson’s campaign chiefs explained that at this point campaigning was not going to get it done. Johnson needed ethnic blocks and even more money was flown into the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio to make sure more votes were delivered than ever before.
The area that was particularly corrupt was the Rio Grande Valley. Robert Caro described the inhabitants of the Valley. “These Mexican-American inhabitants were largely illiterate; the Valley as a whole had one of the lowest illiteracy rates, if not the lowest, in the entire United States.”
It was these people who were herded to the polls and told how to vote. In some counties the ballots were not even counted, the boss just put down the totals he wanted to report. Mexicans were trucked in from across the border in Mexico to cast ballots. An election in the Valley was a thing of beauty for Democrats.
Fifty-nine years later these same people are still being exploited by Democrats, not only in elections, but in jury trials. The trial lawyers in this country—remember the trial lawyers give 90 percent of their political donations to Democrats—love to take cases to the Valley, where they can use illiterate jurors to pluck corporations of money in the same way Coke Stevenson was plucked of votes in 1948.
So what happened in the election? The people voted on Aug. 28, 1948, and a majority—granted it was a small majority—voted for Coke Stevenson. Six days after the election, after numerous recounts and canvasses, Stevenson still held a slim lead. Then at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 3, six days after the election, 200 more votes for Johnson were “found” in one of these Valley counties.
What occurred here was blatant vote stealing. The list of names of voters who had cast ballots in that precinct had originally been turned in as 765. Needing more votes that number got changed to 965 and the names of 200 voters were added to the list. These last 200 names were written in blue ink, whereas the first 765 were written in black.
A different author, a Texas Democrat who later was to run for governor, in a 1964 book said the last 200 names were all written in the same hand and were in alphabetical order.
Make no mistake. These votes were stolen. The Mexican-American enforcer who saw that people voted the right way, Luis Salas, gave Caro an interview and explained exactly how the votes were stolen.
Even though the votes were stolen, the election still could have gone Stevenson’s way, if the Democratic state committee had done its job. However, Johnson was able to buy a majority of his party apparatus and hold on to his stolen election. This is another lovely scene, as is the involvement of a U.S. Supreme Court judge. But that’s for next week.