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Lyndon Johnson demands a quid pro quo from the Houston Chronicle

Once Lyndon Johnson became president, a remarkable historical resource became available:  His recording of all his phone calls at the White House and at his ranch.  This allows Robert Caro to describe with an extraordinary vividness events from early December of 1963 on.

One remarkable example of Johnson hardball had to do with his demand for a written assurance of favorable coverage for the duration from the Houston Chronicle.  The Chronicle had endorsed Nixon in 1960, and was not much favorably disposed to Johnson.  The Chronicle’s president, John Jones, was also the president of Houston’s National Bank of Commerce, which was attempting a merger with another Houston bank, Texas National. Jones was also the president of a major charity that owned 2.75 million shares in the National Bank of Commerce and had other major Houston business interests.

Both the Federal Reserve and the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division had come out against the merger, and the president was to make the final decision.

Johnson’s reaction?  He called Jones and demanded a letter explicitly stating that Johnson would have the paper’s support as long as he was president, and that the paper send its managing editor, who was a long time Johnson associate, to Washington to assure favorable coverage.  After some backing and forthing, that included Jack Valenti and George Brown (of Brown and Root Construction) communicating clearly to Jones that Johnson meant the price he was setting, Johnson got his letter and got the managing editor sent to Washington, and the next day, Jones got his approval.

In the course of Caro’s telling this, you get vivid tellings of the phone calls where Johnson, to use my father’s phrase, tells Jones how the cow ate the cabbage: they were going to have to deal in Johnson’s terms to get their approval.  In Latin, there was to be a quid pro quo.

This is all around 523-527 of Caro’s The Passage of Power.  So far– I’ve less than a hundred pages left– this is an intense and compelling book that is obviously covering what Caro has building up to since the beginning of the first book.  The repetition, while still frustrating, drops off enormously when the book hits November of 1963, although at the pace its going, it’s hard to imagine Caro finishing this.  The first 274 pages cover from the 1960 election to early October of 1963.  The next 250 pages, which have far less of overwriting and repetition (and are much more compelling) take the reader from October to December of 1963.   Yes, that’s a critical period, but it’s hard to imagine Caro finishing Johnson’s presidency in one book, and he’s taken like 35 years to do the four books already out.

15 comments to Lyndon Johnson demands a quid pro quo from the Houston Chronicle

  • Dura

    I told you he was corrupt.

  • Phil Woods

    He was no different than FDR or any president who got things done. I’m not saying you are wrong though, but could Jimmy Carter have gotten the Civil RIghts Bill passed in ’64? I know there are many time-related weaknesses to my question, but please try and answer it honestly anyway.

  • Ben

    Politics isn’t about finger sandwiches and tennis court petty sweat. Sometimes it takes brute political force to get things done. If you’ve ever heard the recording of LBJ’s dressing down Richard Russell like he (Russell) is a pouty little schoolboy, you know what I mean.

    Like so many other Southerners … let me rephrase that: like those extremely few other Southerners who recognized that it was time to wipe Jim Crow off this nation’s law books, when LBJ turned the corner on social justice he brooked neither petulance nor opposition from Congress. No one knew better than LBJ how the Civil Rights Act would seen by millions as a great stain on his legacy and his political party, but he turned into the wind and replaced “all deliberate speed” with “right now.”

    I have no problem with LBJ’s squeezing the balls off Houston’s then-dictator, John Jones. Good on him.

    LBJ’s leadership and political steel brought a significant beginning to (a hoped for) end to what may have been (still is) one of America’s last uncompleted missions: race-based discrimination. LBJ and others have moved legal and political mountains, but too many hearts refuse to budge. Unfortunately, brains are attached to those unbudging hearts. I have no use for either those brains or those hearts. None. I hope the feeling is mutual.

  • NMC

    One conclusion one has to draw from the new book: Johnson’s view that Kennedy was a lightweight on the topics that Johnson had mastered– how legislation worked– was accurate. Kennedy and his people had no clue how to get their domestic programs through Congress, and the one time they asked Johnson for advice, he gave it, was correct, they ignored it, and almost assured that their civil rights bill would never pass, and that it would take down with it other domestic programs. The reason the word “almost” is in that sentence is that Johnson fixed the timing problem Kennedy had created and got the bill through.

  • James

    So, Ben, the end justices the means. You argue so relative to the civil rights laws. Do you argue the same regarding LBJ and the Vietnam War?

    Do you come tio the same defense for Nixon and Watergate? Our is it ok only for LBJ because he promoted and accomplished changes in civil rights?

    Does that also justify Mohnson’s quid pro quo’s that did nothing but increase his personal fortune and that of his friends. Does the end justify the means there as well ?

  • NMC

    As far as I can tell from Caro’s account, Johnson’s accomplishment in producing the civil rights bills in 1957, 60, and 64 was by playing extraordinary (probably unprecedented) brilliant hard-ball and maneuvering, but there’s no suggestion that in that realm he was using illegal means. He was perfectly willing to squeeze a senator as hard as possible about personal projects, to threaten public embarrassment, to flatter, and to work the rules of the senate and house to get the bills through in the form he wanted (with the 64 act, the form he wanted meant no compromise, the language of the act as original proposed by the Kennedy administration). Without his skill and forcefulness, it would not have happened.

    With that comes just how difficult and, yes, corrupt Caro depicts Johnson. Caro leaves little question that Johnson made a fortune by use of his position in Congress in ways large and small, and the way quantities of cash flowed through his hands is truly startling. It is a very complex picture.

    Johnson presents a much more compelling version of the Willie Stark (based on Huey Long) character in All the Kings Men, which is all about whether the ends can justify the means. The hospital that gets built in that book, though, is substandard construction. What Johnson was essential in creating in 1964 was not substandard.

    In the last 30 pages of this book (which appears to finish in the Spring of 1964. I’m really wondering if Caro can get this done in another book– he’s barely started on Viet Nam, there’s the whole elections of 64 and 68, along with the Voting Rights Act. Once Johnson becomes president, he’s almost doing 40-50 pages on each month, and those passages are far less subject to the repetition elsewhere in the book.

    He’s on to his core topic, the whole point of this entire enterprise, and reading it is quite rewarding. I hope he gets it done!

  • Ben

    Don’t get your knickers in a wad, James. The Pope and the College of Cardinals operate similarly.

  • James

    Doesn’t make the pope, the cardinals, or the Catholic Church right if ttery do. My point is that the ends dont justify the means when the means are corrupt, which there is no doubt was true about Johnson. He would nog have been in office – either the Congress or the vice Presidency if he hadn’t stolen the election. Believe (modern day, anyway) no Pope has stolen the election to become Pontiff.

    Johnson did good with civil rights legislation, but he was a corrupt politician, corrupt Senator, and a corrupt President. passing the CR Act of 64 doesn’t absolve that – not in my book. Guess it does for you Ben. Must be a partisan difference in our politics.

  • Ben

    And your point is ….

  • James

    My point is – I have problems with him squeezing the balls off of then dictator Jones – giving him something of value in exchange for something of value to johnson. It is called corruption. And while you might not have a problem with corruption in the white house because the occupant also did something good – unrelated, I might add – I don’t give him a pass. Corruption doesn’t have a hash mark where you can play inside the lines on some things and outside on others; at least not in my book. Glad lbjs politics and ambition finally made him change his mind on civil rights – good for him. And good for the country. But we are still paying for many of his misdeeds and corrupt activities. (while his ancestors are I am sure still enjoying the fine life he left them from the profits of those deeds)

    So I dont give him a pass just because on this one issue he “did right, for whatever reason”. I accept him for what he was – a corrupt SOB. And a sorry elected official as well.

  • Phil Woods


    Remember that those “un-corrupt” men who fought for and gave us the constitution, turned their back on that inspired idea, and judged certain men and all women as ineligible to its promise. So one could argue that America was corrupt from the get-go, and this is saying nothing about the treatment of the Indians.

    Perhaps it took a man as complex as Johnson, to finally make the constitution live up to that one great, and most particular declaration. I don’t think anybody here is trying to make a saint of LBJ. But to deny this man’s incredible journey through the heart of American history because of the Great Society, which was working well before Vietnam sapped the goodwill and money out of the country, is short-sighted.

    Lord knows he was hatable, as you clearly understand, but so is anyone. To prove this, please offer up an example of an American president who is a beacon, and lets see if we can’t attack his morals and talents, or lack thereof. I wouldn’t go with any of the founders (see paragraph 1).

    p.s. If your hate comes from that war, well…there’s not much I can offer in his defense. He got some bad advice, and used poor judgement. There’s no doubt about it. Had he not been running against Goldwater in ’64 and not wanted to prove his hate of Communism, who knows what kind of a world we’d be living in.

  • Everyone gets up in arms but truth is our politicians have nothing to do with the common person and it’s not unusual to hear the general public being referred to as sheep every election year. The sad part is once we hear the pretty little speeches and have CNN, Fox or any of the other networks spin it to their purposes people just vote without fully thinking about the consequences of their actions.

    LBJ was a little more proactive making sure he got things spun the way he wanted is all.

  • Ben

    You mean he’s not Saint Lyndon? All Christendom mourns.

  • James

    Phil Woods, I might try to come back tomorrow and answer better, covering your many thoughts, but just in case I dont get to it. My “hate” – and it really isn’t hate, but a giant dislike, does NOT in any way come from, relate to, or have anything to do with the war. Yes, he totally screwed up the”management” of it, but in my opinion he did that with his entire presidency – and his entire political career.

    My “hate” comes from his corrupt practices – and my belief that he ran his entire presidency just like this passage NMC has referenced..

    BTW,, I could include many other”icons” along with LBJ in this same category. Not because of “the war”, civil rights, or any other policy issue, although many are from the same era; Eastland, Lott, Byrd, Finch, Long, Edwards …….

    No, I just dont like or respect corrupt elected officials, even if those blind hogs occasionally find an acorn. I’m not naive – realize that elected officials, not all of them, are not all angels. But I do expect them tio be honest – and get frustrated because so many of them stay in office because of their corruptness, not on suite of it.

  • James

    Sorry – ‘in spite of it.’

    Damn swype technology.

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