Money, Corruption and Power: The Stolen Elections of Lyndon Johnson – Part 3

The Black Swan, Going Postal
Lyndon Baines Johnson [Public Domain]

“The number of votes at the patrónes’ command was not necessarily limited by the number of eligible voters. Since voters over the age of sixty were not required to pay poll taxes, and since poll tax lists were checked only irregularly to eliminate the names of those who died after sixty, “in the Valley,” as one expert on the subject puts it, “the ‘machine’ votes the dead men.” Nor was American citizenship necessarily a requirement; on Election Day, voters were recruited in saloons on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and brought across in truckloads to vote on the American side…” [The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Volume 2: Means of Ascent (1990) – p. 183]

“Coke Stevenson’s strongest point was his reputation. Lyndon Johnson had decided his only hope was to destroy it.” [Vol 2. – p. 211]

Second Senate Nomination Campaign

Lyndon Johnson’s main opponent in the 1948 Democratic Senate nomination campaign, Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, had adequate funding by normal standards, although his type of campaigning generally didn’t require much money. He wasn’t corruptible but big business generally contributed when he ran for office regardless because his laissez-faire philosophy was agreeable to them. But his opponent was about to conduct a very different type of campaign:

“… Johnson was thinking of money on a completely different scale. He always had. His first campaign for Congress, in 1937, had been one of the most expensive congressional campaigns—possibly the most expensive congressional campaign—in the history of Texas. During his first Senate campaign, in 1941, men handed him (or handed to his aides, for his use) checks or envelopes stuffed with cash—checks and cash in amounts unprecedented even in the free-spending world of Texas politics—and with these contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars, he had waged the most expensive senatorial campaign in Texas political history. Now, in his last chance, he planned to use money on a scale unprecedented even for him.” [Vol. 2 – p. 180]

With the federal contracts that Johnson had helped them obtain, Brown & Root’s profits soared from the millions into the tens of millions. There was no question they would back him when needed.

Once again, jefes or patrónes, the local bosses in areas populated by Mexicans, would play an important part in finding the required votes for Johnson; and none more so than George Parr, the ‘Duke of Duval’. Despite Stevenson going into the campaign with high popularity, Johnson’s alliance with Parr gave him a 25,000-vote head start.

Johnson also displayed savvy and innovative use of polls, seeing potential in their use where others had not, giving him deeper insights into voter preferences. His ally John Connally described this campaign to Caro as “the beginning of modern politics”. [Vol. 2 – p. 193]

As with his first congressional campaign, Johnson would battle with illness and a kidney stone would almost derail his campaign but sheer force of will drove him on.

He resorted to lying about his opponent, claiming that he was against federal aid for veterans and pronounced that he did nothing, that he was calculating and straddled the fence (surely an example of projection if ever there was). Although these initial attacks on Stevenson’s integrity did not succeed, he persisted.

Johnson was also able to make use of a relatively new technological innovation, the helicopter, as a campaign gimmick to attract attention. Helicopters had been used during the Second World War but barely at all in civilian life. They had the advantage of attracting crowds and being able to access people in remote places who couldn’t travel to see him, the kinds of rural voters that he had so successfully targeted in his first congressional campaign (though the logistics of refuelling would require a lot of additional money and planning, plus there were some mechanical difficulties).

The normally cautious Stevenson then made a mistake in accepting an endorsement by the Texas branch of the American Federation of Labor. Given that the AFL was not strong, whilst anti-union sentiment in Texas was, this hurt Stevenson because it gave Johnson something to attack when he had previously found difficulty in landing blows on his opponent’s character. Johnson knew how to go for the jugular, a skill he had shown a knack for back in his college debating days and something he would continue to develop throughout the years, with an ability to find someone’s weak points and really hurt them. He alleged a “secret deal” between Stevenson and the AFL. No such deal existed.

Meanwhile, continuing to allow different people to believe different things about him, in spite of Johnson’s now overt positions against the New Deal, a Johnson ally, Welly Hopkins, took edited versions of Stevenson’s speeches with him to the northeast of the country, making Stevenson sound more conservative than he was and receiving donations for Johnson from labour and liberal interests in Washington and New York, thinking Johnson was still on their side. Johnson, with his ability to read men, gauged that Stevenson was too proud to repudiate the AFL endorsement, or to dignify personal attacks. This allowed Johnson to attack all the more, knowing Stevenson would not contradict him. He was also able to mislead people into believing that Stevenson was against the so-called Taft-Hartley Act, which curtailed union powers, because although Stevenson had in fact supported it, he had not widely publicised his support. The poll gap between the two men rapidly closed.

But then the gains halted. Gimmicks like the helicopter had drawn crowds but they were not going to get Johnson extra votes. Nor would mimicry of his opponent, which he used in public to some effect. (Johnson had a talent for mimicry and would often use it for entertainment value, whether in public or in smaller political circles.) He put in even more effort to persuade people. He began making better speeches and used his knack for being able to reach out to those who were normally neglected by political candidates and for pressing the flesh to make an impact after the speeches.

In the first primary, Stevenson obtained 71,000 votes more than Johnson. Johnson had a month to make up the difference.

Johnson used press allies to ambush Stevenson, encouraging them to ask him questions that he knew Stevenson’s sense of pride would make him want to avoid talking about. Stevenson had travelled to Washington and Johnson primed the journalists there, describing to them in derogatory terms a man they had never met before. The press conference that ensued was hostile, which was unusual for Washington in those days. Some neutral reporters found the questioning repugnant but it had the desired effect for Johnson, as did the coverage by a number of newspapers, particularly those that were run by friends of his, and the stories carried over onto radio too, where he had already bought plenty of advertising.

Johnson’s team also used what they called “missionaries”, “travelers”, “walking delegates” or “active campaigners”, people influential in a particular ethnic group who would go into their communities and spread rumours, with the assistance of money to buy beers for people in bars whilst whispering to them, using propaganda about Coke Stevenson’s supposed positions on things like the Taft-Hartley Act. Meanwhile Johnson would keep making such assertions publicly, whilst Stevenson continued to refuse to comment, to the detriment of the latter’s image. Johnson baselessly claimed Stevenson would seek to repeal Taft-Hartley and this damaged Stevenson’s standing with conservative businessmen, who had provided him with campaign funding in the past but were no longer willing to do so.

The Black Swan, Going Postal
Texas Governor Coke Stevenson [Public Domain]
Stevenson eventually released a statement to state his views on the importance of the Act but Johnson poured doubt on it and lied outright about a “deal” between the him and the AFL. His approach was dirty; he was gaslighting voters:

“… But the tactics had worked: Johnson had not merely “striven” to connect the endorsement with a “deal”—he had succeeded in doing so. Turning the truth on its head, he had made a state believe not merely a lie, but a lie which defied logic. Texas had known Coke Stevenson’s view about union bosses. But Lyndon Johnson was persuading a state that Stevenson’s view was the precise opposite of what it really was.

The magnification of the power of money in the new media politics made such persuasion relatively easy. A substantial number of voters in Texas did not subscribe to a daily newspaper, and since many weekly newspapers never carried Stevenson’s letter, these voters never read it; all they knew about it was what Lyndon Johnson told them… As John Connally is happy to explain: “You have to say something over and over to get voters to be aware of it. And he [Coke] didn’t [do that]. He didn’t advertise it, he didn’t make an issue of it on the radio. So the press might be aware of the [letter], they might write a story about it—but nobody knew about it.”” [Vol. 2 – p. 282-3]

Caro also suggests that Brown & Root used their influence with local subcontractors in East Texas and that banks and Federal agencies with whom Johnson had influence played their part – local farmers relied on banks for loans and Federal agencies for electrification.

Johnson’s lies about his opponent continued, claiming he was in league with Communists and his attacks on the labour unions gained him some of the conservative support that would previously have gone to Stevenson. Stevenson finally started to attack Johnson back, seeing the damage to his own reputation that was being done and taking exception to the claim he was a Communist tool. He criticised Johnson’s paltry legislative record and his conduct during the campaign. But Stevenson’s team didn’t have the money to repeat these messages often enough in the media. In the new political age, money and media mattered and Johnson had all the saturation he could want, whilst his opponent had little. Johnson also began parroting statements being made by Stevenson and another opponent, George Peddy. Sometimes the statements that originated with his opponents had only made in private phone calls, thus some believed that Stevenson’s phone lines in particular had been tapped.

The gap between the two men had narrowed in the runoff campaign but at the end it had ceased to close any further. Local bosses, especially George Parr and his enforcer, Luis Salas, would prove vital and large sums of money were provided to ensure that votes were obtained. Stevenson led by a small margin, 854 votes, at the end of Election Night. But the following days would bring confusion and recounts. Stevenson’s people were experienced enough to know how important it was to “hold out” and delay reporting all their boxes so they had a reserve to counter any changes made by the other side. Johnson had, of course, failed to do this in 1941 through overconfidence, which cost him. The feeling was that he would miss out again as there was little room left for movement after mechanical voting in some places meaning that many votes had already been tallied.

In Duval County, controlled by Parr, Johnson received 99 percent of the vote and in six counties within Parr’s wider domain, it was 93 percent overall. In other areas where Johnson been able to buy votes, the percentages were in the eighties.

“… So he received a 35,000-vote plurality from areas in which the voting pattern was dramatically out of keeping with the normal patterns in a democracy. How much of that 35,000-vote edge can be said to have been “bought,” either by payments to jefes and other political bosses who wrote down voting totals with little or no reference to the actual votes that had been cast, or by payments to bosses who rounded up men and women and made sure they voted as they were told to, or by payments to election judges who counted for Johnson votes that had actually been cast for Stevenson, or by payments to individual voters who voted in accordance with the payment they received, or by payments to deputy sheriffs who transported to the polls and directed the voting of men and women who did not even know whom they were voting for—how many of those votes were “bought” and how many would have been cast for Lyndon Johnson even had no money changed hands cannot, after forty years, be determined. But from the descriptions given by men familiar with the voting in the Valley and on the West Side that Election Day in 1948, it is apparent that the overwhelming majority of those votes—not merely thousands of votes but tens of thousands—fall into that category.

The dramatic disparity between the returns from the West Side and the Valley and the returns from the rest of Texas indicates the disproportionate significance that this area played in the election.” [Vol. 2 – p. 311]

Despite this, Johnson still trailed Stevenson by 854 votes when the Election Bureau closed at 01:30 on Election Night. So he would try to steal it. He would not make requests for vote changes himself – he had to maintain deniability – but he had others who could do so for him. Some bosses could not do more than they already had. But George Parr could and his officials contacted the Election Bureau to tell them that there were votes that still had to be counted from Duval County, whilst revisions would come in from others. Stevenson’s people protested because they knew what was afoot as revisions came in from different counties. But although the gap closed, returns from one county, which reported Johnson as having 2,645 votes to Stevenson’s 2,317, when checked by someone at the Bureau, were found to have been stated the wrong way around, so this had the effect of increasing Stevenson’s lead again. When the final totals were announced for the Tuesday (three days after the election) by the Election Bureau, Stevenson was 349 ahead. It then fluctuated slightly over the next couple of days but with little change.

But on Friday, the sixth day after the election, more votes came in for Johnson. Even though Parr’s Duval County was exhausted for votes, there were others he could turn to. And as some other votes trickled in that reduced Stevenson’s lead, Precinct 13 of Wells County, enforced by Parr’s man Luis Salas, brought in an additional 200 votes and the amended return meant that Stevenson no longer led. At final count Johnson had 494,191 votes to Stevenson’s 494,104.

Johnson had won by just 87 votes – as Caro notes, less than one hundredth of one percent. Many thousands of votes had been obtained for Johnson by illegal and unethical means, yet in the end a single border boss had decided the outcome of an election. But as we shall see in the concluding part, the result would not go unchallenged and the proceedings that followed were every bit as dramatic as the election itself. The outcome would have major consequences for the course of both US and world history.


Further reading:

Robert A. Caro – The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1: The Path to Power (1982)
Robert A. Caro – The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2: Means of Ascent (1990)
Robert A. Caro – The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 3: Master of the Senate (2002)
Robert A. Caro – The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4: The Passage of Power (2012)
Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974)
Robert A. Caro – On Power [audiobook] (2017)

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