While reflecting on the rise of JFK from relative obscurity to the Presidency, I noted that there were other exponents of the political dark arts, notably his rival and then Veep Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ was the real successor to Franklin Roosevelt: Kennedy admitted that he was a realist, rather than a liberal. Johnson carried the torch of liberalism from the New Deal into the 1960s.
Johnson had entered the Senate after winning election in 1948 (he had served in Congress from 1937), but the manner of his primary victory was controversial. He did not win the initial ballot, and a run-off was ordered. LBJ then won the run-off, but many of the votes were cast in the names of recently deceased citizens. In Johnson’s defence, his opponent probably also indulged in fraudulent actions, but was less good at it.
Johnson ultimately became Senate Majority Leader – the post now occupied by Harry Reid – and there he became expert in knowing everything about his fellow Senators. Their preferences, influences, secrets and above all their record on the Hill were noted in intimate detail. LBJ knew just what it would take to turn any one of them when a vote was called.
And if a fellow Senator needed his personal attention, Johnson would administer “The Treatment”, a mix of haranguing, pleading, threats and general coercion administered in a fashion which today would be classed as In Your Face. He asserted that the only time he trusted one of his colleagues was “When I’ve got his pecker in my pocket”.
But Johnson also had a humorous side, although his scatological approach was disliked by JFK. Also, as J K Galbraith put it, much of Johnson’s humour was “lost in the laundry for public consumption”. So he did not say of Gerald Ford that the latter “couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time”, but rather said “That Gerald Ford. He can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”.
Sadly, even LBJ could not bring himself to stand up to the military, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. So it was that his domestic record – the “Great Society” reforms – was overshadowed by the quagmire of Vietnam and the subsequent fracturing of the Democratic Party.
Which brings us back to Tricky Dicky.