Waging War With The Regulars:
Lyndon Johnsons 1946 Renomination Battle
L. Patrick Hughes, Austin Community College
Securing tens of millions of dollars in federal funds for projects involving flood control, rural electrification, public housing, and military preparedness, Lyndon Johnson had transformed the Tenth District of Texas during four and one-half terms in the House of Representatives. His position appeared unassailable as World War II drew to a close. Factors nonetheless converged in 1946 to imperil his political future. Having initially ridden Franklin Roosevelts coattails into office amidst the despair of the Great Depression, the congressman now faced reelection in a different and increasingly foreboding environment. Roosevelt was dead, dissatisfaction with fourteen years of Democratic rule in Washington mounted daily, and the Republican party stood ready to exploit the inevitable frustrations of economic reconversion. Most threatening, however, was the escalating warfare within Democratic party ranks in Texas between moderate and ultraconservative factions known respectively as Loyalists and Regulars. Abandoning Roosevelt over court reorganization and the third term issue, conservatives seized control of state government, attempted to block the presidents renomination during the war, and targeted moderates such as Lyndon Johnson for defeat in the partys primaries in 1944. Though Johnson easily won renomination, challenger Buck Taylors vituperative attacks upon the New Deal and the congressmans personal finances foreshadowed the full-blown assault of Austin attorney Hardy Hollers and the Texas Regulars two years hence. This bitter struggle for supremacy warrants further study as it reveals both the skill required to safely navigate the treacherous waters of postwar American politics and the depth of Lyndon Johnsons conviction that active government could improve the lives of all citizens.
The distrust of government and dread of highly centralized power in a remote national capital which underlay the 1836 revolution against the Republic of Mexico served as cornerstones of Texas political culture for a century thereafter. Residents regarded government as a necessary evil whose dangers had to be constantly guarded against and limited its size, cost, and power whenever possible. Adherents of Jacksonian Democracy, they resisted the growth of federal authority in favor of state and local programs viewed as more representative and easier to control. So strong were these beliefs that Texas chose secession and war in 1861 rather than accept the Republican partys promised use of federal power to create a national economic system and prevent the geographic expansion of slavery. Experiencing large, expensive, and active government for the first time during the Reconstruction era, Texans reacted with a vengeance in the aftermath, restricted it in every way possible under the Constitution of 1876, and accepted new laws and initiatives only when convinced of their absolute necessity. Only when the Great Depression ravaged the state in the 1930s were Texans willing to accept significantly larger government in both Austin and Washington, D. C.
The absolute dominance of the Democratic party was the other foundation of Texas politics. With the Republican party discredited by the Civil War and Reconstruction experiences, the state witnessed unbroken Democratic rule in the years following readmission. When discontent with the status quo surfaced from time to time, it found expression in either third parties or factional infighting within Democratic party ranks. Only against the backdrop of this traditional political culture and the absence of two-party competition is it possible to understand the reaction of Texans to the New Deal and the resulting bifurcation of the Democratic party in the 1930s and 1940s which proved the birth pangs of a viable Republican opposition in the Lone Star State.
Though sheltered temporarily by its distance from the nations financial centers and economic mainstream, Texas could not escape the ravages of the Great Depression beginning in October, 1929. Banks failed, crop prices plummeted, and unemployment climbed slowly but steadily as the deflationary spiral deepened. Five cent a pound cotton and nickel a barrel oil became inescapable facts of life. State and local officials, watching helplessly as government revenues shrunk, simply did not have the financial resources to meet the unprecedented demand for relief much less underwrite massive public works programs to lower unemployment and promote recovery. Political leaders were forced to turn to Washington, D. C. for help despite the traditional fear of government. The states powerful congressional delegation, working with Vice-President John Nance Garner and Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) chairman Jesse Jones, made Texans consistent winners in the appropriations scramble of the early New Deal. Jones RFC and the Federal Emergency Relief Act pumped nearly $50 million into the state in 1933-34 alone. Farmers received more than $44 million by 1936 under the Agricultural Adjustment Act while various federal agencies financed and/or constructed public buildings, hydroelectric dams, highways, parks, and playgrounds. Spending levels testified to both the successful efforts of political leaders and the new relationship with the national capital. While state and local authorities were spending $80 million between 1933 and 1936 on direct assistance and work programs, the federal government contributed $351 million!
While the majority of Texas Democrats gratefully accepted the infusion of federal monies, a small but vocal minority organized as the Jeffersonian Democrats in 1936, labeled the New Deal socialistic, and opposed the presidents reelection bid. Tracts such as Roosevelts Red Record warned voters that, if unchecked, the administrations program would ultimately destroy private enterprise and self-government. Given the peril, a return to Republican rule was preferable to four additional years of Roosevelt from which the country might never recover. The Jeffersonian Democrats, however, had little if any impact on the November balloting in Texas which the president swept by a seven-to-one margin. Their insurgency nonetheless testified to an ideological rift within Democratic ranks which any presidential miscalculation could well exacerbate. It occurred almost immediately.
The presidents ill-fated court packing scheme, submitted to Congress in February, 1937 without prior consultation and agreement with either party leaders or legislative powers, drove a wedge between moderate and conservative factions which quickly escalated into open warfare. Lyndon Johnson made the effort to philosophically redirect the court the centerpiece of his initial congressional campaign. By contrast, Vice-President Garner, Representative Hatton Sumners, and Senator Tom Connally argued that the plan was unconstitutional and, according to Sumners, a prelude to dictatorship. The defection of such powerful figures sealed the bills defeat. More significant in the long run, it signalled the end of the sense of crisis which had unified party ranks and temporarily muted Texans traditional fear of government and centralized power.
While the administration pushed an increasingly meager legislative agenda and halfheartedly tried to purge the party of its most conservative elements in 1938s nominating primaries, Texas voters turned to the colorful but reactionary W. Lee "Pappy" ODaniel to succeed Governor James V. Allred. Conservatives were in open revolt by 1940 when Roosevelt broke with tradition and pursued an unprecedented third term. Though he carried the state in November, the shouting matches and fistfights between Roosevelt supporters and those backing the candidacy of John Nance Garner at the partys state convention in Waco the preceding April were omens of even more bitter struggles ahead.
The special election necessitated by Senator Morris Sheppards death in April, 1941 proved yet another escalation in the struggle for supremacy. The multi-candidate contest quickly boiled down to the race between Governor ODaniel, an enigma whose isolationist views and vitriolic attacks on organized labor made him anathema to New Dealers, and Representative Lyndon Johnson, who asked for and received the support of the Roosevelt administration. The young congressman crisscrossed the state urging support for the commander-in-chiefs defense measures under slogans such as "Roosevelt and Preparedness" and "Franklin D. and Lyndon B." He warned voters that ODaniels isolationist views would leave the nation defenseless as the probability of war with the Axis powers grew ever larger. Early returns indicated a victory for the moderates. Vote fraud in the elections aftermath, however, denied Johnson the Senate seat he coveted and set the stage for his life-or-death struggles with Texas conservatives for the remainder of the decade. Blaming the conservative faction for his first electoral defeat, he determined to go to whatever lengths were necessary to insure survival and victory in future confrontations.
As Americans plunged into the war effort at home and abroad in 1942, the disintegration of the once dominant Democratic party coalition and the increasingly conservative political trend in Texas became unmistakable. Governor Coke Stevenson, in partnership with Lt. Governor John Lee Smith and the state legislature, restricted expenditures, decried federal price controls and rationing programs, implemented controls on labor unions, and defended white supremacy when racial strife broke out in Texarkana and Beaumont. Perhaps nowhere was the heavy hand of the conservative camp more evident than at the University of Texas at Austin. Frustrated in an earlier attempt to purge four economics professors whose ideas it considered too liberal, the universitys gubernatorially-appointed board fired popular President Homer T. Rainey in 1944 when he protested its decision to remove John Dos Passos USA from sophomore English reading lists. When the Board of Regents came under severe criticism for its action, its most reactionary members accused Rainey of tolerating communist teachings, coddling a group of homosexual faculty members, and favoring the admission of Negroes to the state university.
Emboldened by success at the state level, conservatives attempted to purge Texas congressional delegation of its most progressive members in 1944. The Committee for Constitutional Action, dispensing funds solicited from oil interests in Dallas and Houston, bankrolled primary campaigns against Wright Patman, Lyndon Johnson, and Sam Rayburn, who had assumed the speakership of the House of Representatives in 1941. One-time legislative clerk and political gadfly Buck Taylor assailed Johnson with charges of financial impropriety, favoring Negro equality and an end to the states white primary, and misrepresenting the nature of his military service in World War II. Taylor also sought to link the incumbent with the massive wartime bureaucracy and increasingly unpopular wage and price controls. While Congressman Johnson regarded Taylor as a nuisance rather than a serious challenger and easily won renomination, the well-financed and mean-spirited attacks convinced him that the political situation was likely to degenerate even further.
Conservatives attempted as well to deny President Roosevelt the support of Texas voters in his bid for reelection in 1944. Operating under a strategy devised by State Democratic Executive Committee chairman George Butler in consultation with Governor Coke Stevenson and others, anti-Roosevelt forces packed the state convention in May, enacted a platform which condemned the "Communist-controlled New Deal," and selected uninstructed delegates to the national nominating convention in Chicago. Catching Texas New Dealers unprepared, the Butler-dominated convention named a slate of anti-administration presidential electors and tabled a motion requiring them to cast their votes in the Electoral College for whichever candidate carried Texas in the general election. In essence, then, electors were free to cast the states twenty-three electoral votes for the Republican nominee or a third party candidate even if, as expected, Roosevelt was the overwhelming choice of Texas voters. When loyalists led by Austin attorney Alvin J. Wirtz reversed these actions at the second state convention in September and substituted a slate of electors friendly to the president, conservatives assumed the name "Texas Regulars", organized a third party structure, and asked voters to write in the name of any Democrat other than Franklin Roosevelt. Though the president swept to a four-to-one triumph, the internecine warfare had now escalated to the point where reconciliation was no longer possible. It came as no surprise, therefore, when the conservative camp launched an all-out effort to eliminate Lyndon Johnson in 1946.
While almost no one had considered Buck Taylor a viable candidate or realistic replacement as representative in 1944, Hardy Hollers was a serious opponent neither Lyndon Johnson nor his supporters could dismiss as a joke. A graduate of the University of Texas Law School, he had built a successful legal practice in Austin and functioned briefly as an assistant district attorney in the 1930s. Hollers, an Army Reserves captain since 1933, went on active duty in November, 1941 and served for the wars duration in Europe as a member of the Judge Advocate Generals office stationed in London and Paris. Attaining the rank of full colonel by wars end, his tour of duty culminated in Weisbaden, Germany preparing materials for the war crime trials eventually held at Nuremberg. Johnson also faced for the first time an adversary with the financial backing sufficient to match campaign expenditures dollar for dollar. For seven weeks the Hollers forces inundated newspaper readers and radio listeners with an ever-heavier barrage of advertisements and broadcasts savaging the congressman and the state of affairs in Washington, D. C. As Johnson responded and the war of words, charges, and countercharges intensified, the challenger kept pace each step of the way.
The open and enthusiastic support of ex-Governor Dan Moody greatly strengthened the Hollers campaign. Having presided over a reformist administration between 1926 and 1930, Moody had subsequently become one of the states most successful lawyers whose clients included its largest oil companies. His hatred of Lyndon Johnson, dating from the 1942 senatorial primary when Johnson had backed James Allred against both Moody and W. Lee ODaniel, grew to epic proportions throughout the 1940s and beyond as the Democratic party splintered into warring factions. While Moody had taken a prominent role in the effort to deny President Roosevelt renomination in 1944, Johnson had openly aligned himself with the Loyalists. Now, two years later, the ex-governor appeared repeatedly at the challengers rallies where he invariably berated the incumbent as ineffective and unworthy of the office he held. The endorsement and participation of Moody and other Austin conservatives gave the Hollers insurgency the imprimatur of the Texas Regulars, set the tone for the primary, and convinced Johnson that he was in for the fight of his political life.
The Hollers campaign was quintessentially negative in both tactics and tone. Shunning a reasoned exposition of current issues and alternative government policies, the challenger and his supporters assailed Congressman Johnson, his family, and his friends on a myriad of fronts. In a more innocent time before personal assaults and misleading allegations became the norm of electoral politics, Central Texans witnessed perhaps the nastiest campaign in area history.
Implementing the first component of a four-pronged strategy to convince voters of the need for change, Hollers and his supporters argued that the incumbent had, by his own actions, broken faith with the people of the Tenth District and the entire state of Texas. Opening his campaign for the United States Senate in San Marcos on May 3, 1941, Congressman Johnson, Hollers reminded voters, had pledged, "If the day ever comes when my vote must be cast to send your boys to the trenches, that day Lyndon Johnson will leave his Senate seat and go with them." Though unsuccessful in his senatorial bid, the representative, a naval reservist since 1939, obtained an indefinite leave of absence from the House and went on active duty within hours of the American declaration of war against Japan. Assigned the rank of lieutenant commander, he surveyed manpower needs in stateside shipyards before departing the country in May 1941 as part of an interservice team ordered to assess the military situation in the South Pacific. The new lieutenant commander participated in but one combat mission, albeit one for which General Douglas MacArthur awarded him the Silver Star, before a presidential order recalled all members of Congress in the armed forces to their legislative responsibilities. Congressman Johnsons military service ended with his arrival in Washington, D. C. in early July, seven months following the attack upon Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Though Buck Taylor had made little headway criticizing the congressmans war record in 1944, Hollers made the issue one of the cornerstones of his challenge. Lashing out from a two-page spread in the San Marcos Record , the Austin attorney took Johnson to task. "Everyone - and especially those of you who served in the sea forces - know how he kept that pledge. He used his political influence on a naval committee to wrangle a commission as lieutenant commander while the great majority of you signed on as apprentice seamen or were commissioned as ensigns. He went to a few months sight-seeing tour of the Pacific with a camera in one hand and leading his publicity agent by the other. Then, before the navy, the marines and the army began fighting their way back up the long road that began at Guadalcanal, he hurried back to the safety of Congress."
Repeatedly denying any intent to belittle the incumbents war record, Hollers maintained the issue was solely that of honesty; Lyndon Johnson had failed to honor his word. The challengers scathing rhetoric, such as that at a Brenham rally, testified otherwise. "Johnson became a lieutenant commander without benefit of service as either an enlisted man or lower officer. As a lieutenant commander, he was supposedly competent to command a boat. I say that Johnson wouldnt know how to start a destroyer moving and that if he did get it moving by accident, he wouldnt know how to stop it or to run it anywhere but into the bottom of the ocean." In contrast to such deprecations, Hollers and his backers publicized his military record whenever possible hoping voters, and especially returning veterans, would reward an officer who had served in the European theater for the duration of Americas war effort.
Turning to a second theme upon which they hoped the campaign would turn, the challenger and his sponsors argued that Lyndon Johnson had proven himself unqualified for and unworthy of the position of honor with which citizens had entrusted him in 1937. Introducing Hollers at a mass rally in Austins Wooldridge Park, Dan Moody asserted that the incumbent was incapable of providing the representation in Washington D. C. area residents deserved and to which they had grown accustomed. Congressman Johnson simply lacked the abilities of predecessors Joseph P. Sayers, Albert S. Burleson, and James P. Buchanan. They had quickly become influential legislators of national prominence. According to the ex-governor, "Mr. Johnson has been in Congress now for approximately nine years. In that length of time, he has neither enacted a good law nor repealed a bad law and in my judgment he does not know which ones are good and which are bad, and if he was there for ninety years I dont believe he would either pass a good one or repeal a bad one." So ineffective was the current officeholder, Moody concluded, "...I think you could almost kill people with a stick on the streets of Austin who have a greater ability to act as congressman than Mr. Johnson does."
Building upon Moodys observations, Hollers repeatedly addressed the topic of ineffectiveness for the duration of the campaign. Chronic absenteeism, he suggested, was one reason his opponent failed session after session to craft legislative solutions to the growing list of national problems which beset the American people. Citing the Congressional Record as documentation in newspaper advertisements and radio broadcasts, the candidate charged that Johnson had missed nearly forty per cent of all roll call votes in the House of Representatives during the preceding year. Concluding that the incumbent spent too much time in Austin running family-owned radio station KTBC and touring postwar Europe on an extended congressional junket with no meaningful purpose, Hollers pledged to be a full-time representative for Tenth District constituents in the nations capital.
To make matters worse, Hollers continued, Johnson constantly claimed credit for work done by others in hopes of shielding his own poor record from Central Texas voters. Again and again he sarcastically ridiculed the congressmans assertion that rural electrification and the successful harnessing of the Colorado River were the greatest achievements of his tenure in office. "The credit for rural electrification does not belong to Lyndon Johnson. It is a matter of record that the Rural Electrification Administration was created on May 20, 1936 before my opponent was first elected to Congress ... As for the Lower Colorado River Authoritythat was created in 1934 -- three years before Lyndon Johnson became congressman. The heavy, back-breaking spadework of that great project was not done by Lyndon Johnson, butby Johnsons predecessorCongressman James P. Buchanan ...I pledge you that when I am sent to Congress from the Tenth Congressional District, I will not plagiarize my predecessor in office, by stealing from him any of the credit which is rightfully his just for the sake of a few votes."
A valid yardstick of Johnsons record, Hollers maintained, was his total failure as a member of Congress to anticipate and plan for the needs of the postwar era. The task facing the nation was indeed monumental. Would victory and peace, as many citizens feared, plunge the country once again into economic depression? Hundreds of thousands of returning veterans required both housing and jobs. Satisfying their demands would be exceedingly difficult given a scarcity of building materials and industrialists need to retool as quickly as possible for the manufacture of traditional consumer goods. Though no one wanted an inflationary spiral similar to the one that plagued the nation following the First World War, almost all Americans were eager for government wage and price controls and rationing programs to end. Grudgingly accepted by the majority of citizens as a wartime necessity, such economic measures became political dynamite with the military defeat of the Axis powers. Work stoppages were inevitable given organized labors determined efforts to defend and managements actions to reverse union gains of the preceding decade. Despite the immensity of the task, could any knowledgeable citizen, Hollers asked, blindly believe in mid-1946 that the federal government had not failed miserably?
Hoping to take advantage of the growing anti-government mood across the country, Hollers attempted to lay the many frustrations and dislocations of the postwar era on Lyndon Johnsons doorstep. He had to be "charged with his portion of the blame for what has happened to us during this hectic, disgraceful year of 1946." For example, the challenger argued, the acute housing shortage in Central Texas was an unnecessary tragedy. Given the probable influx of war veterans wishing to study at the University of Texas and other area institutions, the congressman should have foreseen and addressed the problem before it reached crisis proportions. The disgrace of homeless soldiers who had served their country with distinction could have been avoided had the Tenth District been represented by an efficient full-time congressman in Washington, D. C. Where exactly, the challenger asked voters, did Johnson stand on the Office of Price Administration? During his 1944 reelection campaign the incumbent had promised constituents he would move for its abolition with wars end but now, nearly a year after Japans surrender, he appeared willing to let bureaucratic interference in the private sector continue indefinitely.
Herein lay the real threat to Americas future. Johnson was an integral part of the bloated, expensive, and overly-bureaucratized government created to end the Great Depression but which had now outlived its usefulness and impeded every needed change. What was needed, he steadfastly maintained, was "...a return to our American way of life, an end to the despotic rule of arrogant bureaucrats...Congress must be given new blood, new leadership."
A third focal point of the Regulars battle plan was Hollers charge that Lyndon Johnson had systematically constructed and put in place a political apparatus which gave he and his cronies near dictatorial control of the Tenth District. Whenever the opportunity had arisen since his election to the House of Representatives in 1937, he had allegedly secured positions for a growing legion of sycophants with numerous governmental agencies such as the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), rural electrical cooperatives, and the postal service. Nor, according to Hollers, was the congressman reticent to demand repayment. "Lyndon Johnson has spent his time telling post office employees and other federal employees that to keep their jobs they had to work for him; he has spent his time telling civil service appointees that they cannot have their jobs unless he, Lyndon Johnson, approves their having those jobs. Hardy Hollers charges and dares him to deny that he has ruined and utterly devastated the great and good civil service system in this District." So commonplace had the congressmans manipulation of the bureaucracy for his own political advantage become by 1946, the challenger continued, he "...sent word to me through a friend that if I would withdraw from this race that he was sure that I could get an appointment to a certain high federal position in Washington."
Such a concentration of power, Hollers warned voters, struck at the very heart of representative democracy. It stifled criticism, gave the incumbent a near insurmountable advantage at election time, and insulated him from the control of the people. How could citizens rely upon an official virtually immune from the possibility of electoral defeat to hear and act upon their sentiments in Washington, D. C. ? Without the threat of removal from office, there could be no true democracy for the residents of Central Texas.
Who then did Lyndon Johnson represent? According to his challenger, only the wealthiest and most influential members of the congressmans inner circle benefitted from his efforts. For Herman Brown, prominent contractor and co-owner of the massive Brown & Root construction firm, he had pursued and secured numerous profitable wartime contracts. While average constituents had grappled with shortages and government controls during the war, Brown had grown even wealthier building military facilities at taxpayers expense. Alvin Wirtz, Johnson mentor, attorney for both Brown & Root and Humble Oil and Refining Company, and chief counsel of the LCRA, had soaked the river authority for almost $90,000 in legal fees while the congressman stood silently watching. Edward A. Clark and Everett L. Looney, partners in the legal firm which represented Congressman Johnsons own radio station, had muscled their way to the public trough as well. When Looney and Clark client Central Power & Light had property to unload in Central Texas, the attorneys found a willing buyer in the river authority over whose board of directors Wirtz and Johnson exercised complete control. The attorneys, Hollers inferred, also found the representative of invaluable assistance in obtaining Securities and Exchange Commission approval for a utilities merger they had negotiated and from which they stood to collect a hefty fee. While Johnsons coterie of insiders grew rich, the needs of average constituents received little if any consideration.
The final and most aggressively pursued thrust of the Hollers campaign involved an all-out assault upon the congressmans character and honesty. Building upon and expanding allegations first leveled by Buck Taylor in 1944, Johnson, according to Hollers, Moody, and others, was an unprincipled opportunist who had systematically used his position in the House of Representatives to enrich himself and various members of his family.
The most serious of the many charges involved Mrs. Johnsons acquisition of struggling Austin radio station KTBC in early 1943 and its rapid transformation into a profitable business enterprise. Seizing upon rumors which had circulated throughout the capital city since the date of the purchase, Hollers and Moody alleged that the congressman had exerted pressure upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deny a pending sale to rival applicant J. M. West, Sr. enabling the Johnsons to obtain the potentially valuable operation for a mere $15,500. Publicly ridiculing the congressmans assertion that the station was his wifes business in which he had absolutely no interest or involvement, they questioned in every available forum how long-denied requests for a change of frequency, an increase in power, and extended hours of operation suddenly won FCC approval shortly after the station changed hands. To make matters worse, they inferred, the incumbent used the radio station as a conduit through which he could receive and legitimize payments from area businessmen for defending their interests in the nations capital. According to the ex-governor, "...he has had advertising on that radio station from people who want favors in Washington in the way of priorities and other things and to my way of thinking, a congressman or a man in that business, if he is in that business, he has no business in Congress. He cannot serve two masters ... as long as Mr. Johnson runs a radio station and takes advertising from people who want favors from the department in Washington, Mr. Johnson ought not to represent this district or any other district in the United States Congress."
Nor, the opposition maintained, was the congressman content with but one radio station in the growing Austin market. Aware of efforts by at least one group of investors to gain FCC approval for a third Austin station, Johnson wielded his political clout to secure an operating license instead for ten war veterans, all of them close political allies. The congressmans intervention was yet another example of the preferential treatment received by members of the Johnson machine. Even so, the relationship between Johnsons KTBC and KVET, as the new station launched by John Connally, "Jake" Pickle, and eight others was dubbed, was indeed curious. Why, asked Hollers, would Johnson welcome, indeed help create, competition for his own prosperous business? Why would he grant the new station permission to broadcast its signal temporarily from the KTBC tower? While neither Hollers nor his supporters ever made the specific allegation, they clearly hoped that voters would surmise from such questions that the congressman was a silent partner who masterminded KVETs creation to avoid real competition and thereby strengthen his stranglehold on the Austin market.
Yet another allegation of potential misconduct involved the Johnsons 1943 purchase of a two-story triplex in the fashionable Tarrytown section of Austin. The residence, bequeathed by the late Mrs. Hazel Harper White to contractor W. S. Bellows who instructed estate administrator Charles F. Herring to sell, achieved notoriety when the challenger raised questions implying it was a payoff to Congressman Johnson from the construction firm of Brown and Root. Citing Travis County property records, Hollers informed radio listeners that the incumbent had signed a promissory note to Bellows at the time of purchase for $10,000 payable at a rate of $100 a month. Official documents, however, revealed that Bellows had released his lien against the property eight days later thereby giving the Johnsons title free and clear of all encumbrances. Equally curious, he noted, was the fact that Bellows was "...at that time a partner in Brown and Root Companythe very same company that built the Corpus Christi Naval Base on a cost plus contract and numerous other war projects while you were a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee." Inviting Tenth District voters to draw their own conclusions, Hollers demanded an explanation.
The avalanche of insinuation continued for the duration of the primary election, repeated again and again over the radio, in daily newspaper advertisements, and on the stump across the district. Why, for instance, had the federal government chosen property owned by Johnsons father-in-law, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, as the site of an ordinance works? Why had Mr. Taylor received $77,000 for his Harrison County property, nearly double what the government had paid any of his neighbors for their land? "Now why do you suppose," asked Hollers, "that this small country grocer suddenly blossomed forth with all this land on a site chosen by the ordinance work for a big government camp? Do you suppose Mr. Johnson had anything to do with it?" Why also had Mr. Taylor suddenly gone into the construction business at seventy years of age shortly after his son-in-laws election to Congress? Was it not true that the Taylor Construction Company, now valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, had prospered during the war years on projects involving rural electrification, an area in which Congressman Johnson "by his own admission, has been very active"?
While the campaign to unseat Lyndon Johnson concentrated overwhelmingly upon his alleged shortcomings and abuse of power, the Hollers platform, though couched in generalizations, was a classic indictment of modern American government by the Texas Regulars. Significant action was needed to solve a myriad of problems. Federal interference in the agricultural sector had to end. The pyramiding of unnecessary rules and regulations devastating the American businessman had to be systematically removed. According to Hollers, "...we ought to cut out these cost-plus contracts; these big bureaucratic salaries; this business of hiring everybody to work for the government who doesnt have the brains to make a living for himself in the ordinary walks of life." Strikes and lockouts should be outlawed, a permanent Office of Price Administration prohibited, and states allowed a free hand in the field of education. Useless agencies and bureaus had to be eliminated. If Americans would but demand a return to the concept of limited government upon which the country was founded, Congress and president could slash expenditures, reduce income taxes, and simultaneously balance the federal budget. While promising support for rural electrification, farm-to-market roads, and preferences for veterans, the Hollers program endorsed return to an earlier political era.
Having skirmished periodically with the ultraconservative element since 1940, Lyndon Johnson now found himself the target in a political war he could no longer escape. The postwar environment in Texas was perilous at best for a liberal incumbent long identified with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The opposition which had derisively shouted him down at the 1944 state Democratic convention as "Roosevelts pin-up boy" was organized and committed to his elimination. The president who had steered the nation through both depression and war was dead and gone and the country moving in a more conservative direction. While confident of his ability to defeat Hardy Hollers, the congressman understood the stakes involved were great. A narrow victory which revealed weaknesses and left the impression of vulnerability could well encourage future challenges to his House seat. Even more important to Johnson, still smarting from the theft of the 1941 election, a less than impressive triumph in 1946 would likely doom a successful race against Senator W. Lee ODaniel whose term would expire in two years. Accordingly, Congressman Johnson, upon learning of Hollers likely candidacy in March 1946, accepted and began to act almost immediately upon Alvin Wirtzs advice that he "had better get in shape and be prepared to go at it hammer and tongs."
From his arrival in Washington, D. C. in late 1931 as newly-elected Congressman Richard J. Klebergs secretary, Lyndon Johnson understood with greater clarity than any of his contemporaries the inestimable utility of information in the political arena. It was an edge he had sought to maximize ever since and one which now paid handsome dividends. The network of friends and allies so meticulously created and maintained throughout the years in Central Texas provided details gleaned from various sources on Hollers activities including strategy and financial support. Such information allowed the Johnson campaign to counter or blunt Hollers efforts. The congressman, however, wanted more information even if it involved overstepping the bounds of propriety.
Aware of Hollers hopes of capitalizing upon his military record, Congressman Johnson turned to Tommy Corcoran and James Rowe, government insiders and long-time friends, for assistance. Using his personal contacts within the War Department, Corcoran obtained Hollers service files dating back to 1918. Rowe, an ex-Roosevelt aide and Army officer assigned to the international tribunal conducting the Nuremburg Trials, sought information on the challengers legal contributions. Little, however, came of Rowes inquiries. As he wrote Johnson, "I tried to get CIC [Counterintelligence Corps] to move in on Hollers for me but they wouldnt - my contacts arent good enough - yet."
Using such contacts, the representative discovered that his opponent, a self-proclaimed veteran of World War I, had spent all sixty-five days of his enlistment on the campus of Southwestern University as a participant in the Students Army Training Corps while pursuing his college studies. As a colonel with the Judge Advocate Generals office during World War II, Johnson learned, Hollers had spent all but three months of his tour of duty in London and Paris working primarily on court martial proceedings involving American soldiers. As for the challengers work on war crimes cases, he was but one of a legion of lawyers preparing materials for the prosecution of Nazi officials. Johnson, however, made only minimal use of such information in public during the campaign. While he and his supporters occasionally referred condescendingly to his opponent as "the little colonel", he may well have sensed what Hollers and his spokesmen did not; voters were likely to resent politicization of any veterans war record and hold the accuser accountable.
The congressman did however move forcefully behind the scenes to limit Hollers access to voters. Only two area radio stations - Johnsons own KTBC and WOAI in San Antonio - had the signal strength sufficient to cover all ten counties of the sprawling Tenth District. Hollers speaking on KTBC was never a possibility but Johnson feared a repeat of the 1944 primary when Buck Taylor had used WOAI to blanket all of Central Texas with allegations of wrongdoing against the congressman. He therefore instructed John Connally, functioning as de facto manager of the Johnson campaign, to phone Hugh Halff, president of WOAIs parent company. "Ask him what time he has made available to Hollers and to what extent. Ask him if the same time will be made available to us. Of course, I would prefer that they handle the state races and not use their limited time in our district, but this must be handled carefully."
A week later Johnson stepped up the pressure with his own letter to Halff stating that he had done nothing in 1944 when Taylor had used a number of stations including WOAI to spread "...a pack of slanderous, libelous lies." Now Hollers, who had announced he intended to use the San Antonio station, "...is telling exactly the same slanders." Congressman Johnson concluded with a thinly veiled warning. "I am not going to act hastily in filing suits for libel and slander, but other people, not connected with me, are also brought into these libels and I cannot speak for them. Necessarily, the disseminator of a slander or libel is equally culpable with the person who utters it. I thought you would want to know my feeling in this matter." Whether because of such admonitions or not, WOAI broadcast but one address by Hollers who found himself limited to airing his speeches over KNOW whose signal barely reached the city limits of Austin.
Unlike 1944 when Buck Taylors charges of enrichment had attracted little attention and were therefore largely ignored by the incumbent, Hardy Hollers repeated allegations quickly became an unavoidable issue despite Johnsons efforts to limit his audience. Immediately following Hollers first speeches, Connally alerted the congressman that, "His insinuations about your affluence and the enrichment of your friends will have some effect and will have to be answered by someone. I do not think you will have to do it ... we will have the people to answer him when the time comes." It came quickly.
Convinced Hollers charges had to be addressed, the Johnson teams response was two-fold. While Lyndon or Lady Bird themselves would eventually have to knock down the allegations, the Johnsons friends and supporters took up their defense in mid-June with a series of well-publicized radio addresses. John Connally led the parade of speakers to the KTBC microphone with a scathing response to the politicization of the congressmans military record. Reminding listeners that Douglas MacArthur had awarded Johnson the Silver Star for his voluntary participation in what Brigadier General W. F. Marquat had described as a suicide mission, Connally denounced "the personal vilification and the slanderous tactics employed by this special interest candidate." As for the Johnsons supposed wealth, it consisted only of his salary as representative and what his wife had inherited from her deceased mothers estate. "To you, Colonel Hollers, and to your fellow-traveler Texas Regulars, until Congressman Johnson returns, I say that those of us who have fought this war on the battlefields will turn the revealing searchlight of truth on you and your purveyors of half-truths."
Over the next six weeks Johnsons allies systematically dissected and at least partially refuted the vast majority of the challengers accusations. Henry Moore, an ex-Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, stated that his examination of Johnsons financial records revealed absolutely no wrongdoing. Hollers comments to the contrary, he concluded, reflected either total ignorance of the facts or a conscious attempt to twist and misrepresent them for political purposes. W. E. Syers, one of KVETs ten partners, denied any financial involvement by the Johnsons in the new station and labeled Hollers insinuations as bordering on perjury. W. C. Wofford, attorney for the Taylor Construction Company, rebutted the challengers "scurrilous insinuations" and Charles F. Herring defended the purchase of the residence on Dillman Street as a standard real estate transaction. O. L. Norman, one-time chief engineer with the LCRA, and E. Babe Smith, an instrumental force in the organization of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, testified to the congressmans unstinting efforts on behalf of both flood control and rural electrification. While Hollers belittled what he termed a whitewash, their efforts provided voters with a rebuttal and helped make the challengers credibility and motivation major issues.
It was Lyndon Johnson, however, who delivered the decisive blow. Launching his reelection bid on the evening of July 6, 1946 before an overflow crowd at Wooldridge Park and a live radio audience, the congressman delivered the most important speech of his political career to date. Alone on the platform except for his wife and mother, Johnson reminded listeners of the Texas Regulars effort to unseat him two years earlier. "They spent untold thousands sowing down this district with slanderous yellow sheets. They sent hirelings to circulate - to whisper - to stand on street corners and questionto voice every foul rumor these evil minds could concoct." This time, Johnson continued, the same selfish interests "have dragged into the mire the name of my sweet wife." They were attempting to mislead with "craftily worded questions about property bought with money she inherited from her dead mother and business affairs of her father which took place while I was still in uniform." Their stories of wrongdoing, he insisted, were "political yarns ... fabricated and circulated by stooges of Standard Oil and Wall Street gold." He, however, refused to "wallow in their pigpen." Brandishing folders containing records of every private and business transaction which had come into question, Johnson climaxed with a dramatic gesture. "I am putting them on this table for any and all to see." There they remained, unexamined, for the remainder of the evening. As the candidate reminded voters in Washington County three days before the primary, not a single one of the ten thousand people present had come forward. "That information was available yesterday, it is today, it will be tomorrow to any sincere, honorable person who may have an honest doubt."
Having effectively parried the oppositions knockout punch, Johnson deftly turned the issue to his advantage during the campaigns final three weeks. Storming the district in his typical blitzkrieg fashion, the congressman concentrated on past contributions and the challenge of the future only occasionally referring to the oppositions charges. "My mother taught never to say ugly things about ugly people," he told voters. "I am not going to reduce a campaign for an important office down to a mud-slinging contest." Meanwhile, daily advertisements in the Austin papers under such headlines as "False In One Thing - False In All", "Slander or Statesmanship," and "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness" pointed out every inaccuracy in Hollers bill of particulars. The congressmans spokesmen did the same on radio. So completely had the issue been turned by campaigns end, Buck Taylor, who had first leveled such allegations of enrichment in 1944, endorsed the incumbent. "I have seen and heard and read a lot of abuse and slander and vilification in political campaigns," he noted. "But the boys who are putting it on Johnson this year have reached new heightsor, I should say, lows."
The Johnson camp succeeded as well in portraying Hardy Hollers as a creation of and front man for ex-governor Dan Moody and the Texas Regulars out to punish the congressman for his support of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Describing the Texas Regulars in radio broadcasts as the "illegitimate union of Republicanism and reactionary Democrats," Connally blasted Colonel Hollers and his "Houston millionaire Roosevelt-hating Regulars" for their smear tactics. Reminding listeners of Moodys role in the 1944 state convention, he left little doubt that the one-time governor was the primary architect of the Hollers campaign. The Austin American-Statesman, long supportive of both Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, echoed the same theme in a front page editorial endorsing the incumbent. Recalling for readers the Regulars uprising of 1944, the paper stated, "Mr. Hollers may not be fully aware of the kind of support his candidacy is being given by the interests nor the manner in which they are operating behind the scenes to add their control of the 10th Congressional District to that of their control of state government with which these interests have long been identified."
Despite the conservative mood sweeping the nation, the congressman himself embraced and promoted a clear-cut contest waged along ideological lines. The real opposition, he asserted, was not Hardy Hollers but PUP, an acronym for a coalition of petroleum, utility, and packer interests "sometimes called the Texas Regulars." Having failed to eliminate him two years earlier, the same forces were now committed to his defeat for one major reason: "I was for Franklin D. Roosevelt." Going down the line with the president since his election to Congress, he had incurred the wrath of Standard Oil and other petroleum companies by voting against legislation awarding them unwarranted windfall profits. He had enraged giant utility firms by supporting public power and ending their stranglehold on Central Texas. Agricultural packers had joined the campaign after Johnson sided with small farmers in defense of price controls necessary to check inflation and win the war. Expressing pride in his support for the dead president, Johnson lashed out at his adversaries. "I cry shame upon them tonight for carrying their hatred of Franklin Roosevelt beyond the grave." While Hollers, Moody, and others continued to allege wrongdoing and ineptitude, the congressman stressed his record of service and the challenge of the future.
Voicing his belief in an activist government, Johnson pointed with justifiable satisfaction to the amazing transformation of Central Texas since his initial election to Congress. Working with officials of the Roosevelt administration and the LCRA, he had helped secure the funds needed to complete construction of the hydroelectric dams which had subsequently tamed the Colorado River and brought public power to area residents. Devastating floods were a thing of the past and consumers enjoyed utility rate savings of $1 million a year. Utilizing funds available from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), farmers and ranchers with the assistance of their congressman had organized the worlds two largest electrical cooperatives and connected over 12,000 rural homes to the LCRAs power grid. Over $7 million in federal monies had paid for the construction of farm-to-market roads across the Tenth District since 1937 and Austinites enjoyed the benefits of slum clearance and low-cost, self-liquidating public housing. Soil conservation programs launched by the New Deal were preserving the farmers most precious asset. Effective representation in Washington, D. C. had also insured Central Texans a fair share of the wars economic windfalls. Military installations in Austin, San Marcos, and Bastrop had pumped federal funds into the region while simultaneously making a vital contribution to the war effort. "Those are some of the jobs which we, the people, have been working at since you sent me to work for you in Washington," Johnson told constituents. "I have asked for reelection on the kind of job I have done for you - as the best evidence of the kind of job Ill keep doing."
As the country struggled with reconversion, the congressman assured voters he was at work representing their interests. Acknowledging housing as a crucial need, he made public the award on May 1, 1946 of over three hundred housing units for area colleges by the Public Housing Authority. Added to the seven hundred units already secured for Austin, "the Tenth District," the congressman noted, "has now received more emergency housing than any other district of like size in the United States." His successful negotiations with the War Assets Administration on behalf of the University of Texas, came the announcement from Washington two days later, would return to productive use the governments abandoned magnesium plant north of Austin. Leasing the facility for a dollar a year with an option to buy, the university would utilize the property as a research laboratory and living quarters for five hundred veterans attending school under the GI Bill. The military, at Johnsons urging, had already agreed to maintain operations at both Bergstrom Field outside Austin and its helicopter base in San Marcos. Efforts were underway to save Camp Swift in Bastrop. Campaigning in Luling, the congressman announced approval by the REA of $1 million in loans for the electrification of another 3,000 Tenth District farms by years end. The message to voters was clear: Hollers promises while Johnson delivers.
Turning to the future, the congressman proposed two major projects vital to the regions continued economic development. The chain of highland lakes created by the damning of the Colorado River, he claimed, was an invaluable asset awaiting utilization as the recreational mecca of the entire southwestern United States. Parks and tourist facilities along the lakes in the picturesque Hill Country would inevitably attract a steady stream of fishermen, hunters, boaters, and vacationers with money to spend. "It will be," he maintained, "our insurance against the next great depression when business doors start closing. We have a great, year-round industry here, if we properly develop it." Vision and hard work were all that was required. Far more, Johnson conceded, would be needed to dredge and widen the Colorado River to the Gulf of Mexico in order to make Austin a great inland port. Such a project, though a massive undertaking, was feasible from both an engineering and economic standpoint and would, if successful, transform the Central Texas economy. "The same kind of cooperation that built the Colorado dams and worked other impossibles in the area," he stated, "can accomplish these plans as well." Hollers ridiculed the idea, joking that "only Lyndons dream boats will ever sail up the Colorado River." Responding to such comments, the congressman revealed much about his approach to politics and the breadth of his vision. "If we want the Colorado navigable," he thundered, "we can have it. Of course we wont get it by wishing for it, or by saying it cant be done. We have to make up our minds we want it and then go after it."
Peace, however, was the greatest challenge of the future. "We the people whipped the depression, we the people won the war and," he pledged, "we the people will win the peace." Warning against an isolationist retreat which would lead within five years to a confrontation "that actually will be the war to end wars," Congressman Johnson forcefully advocated an internationalist approach in foreign affairs. The United States simply could not abandon its global responsibilities as it had following World War I. Foreign aid, such as the bill assisting Great Britain for which he had just voted, was essential to the stabilization of Western Europe. Arguing for collective security, he pleaded, "the United Nations has got to work. Its our last chance." International tribunals such as the World Court needed the power to resolve disputes between nations. Above all else, atomic warfare had to be avoided. "Should we not all be frightened men," he asked, "in the face of the sure knowledge that we can keep the secret of the bomb no longer than months, perhaps, or a year, or at the most, five years?" While voicing his support for an American military sufficient to protect national interests and help the United Nations in its mission, Johnson proposed outlawing nuclear weapons. Given sufficient safeguards, atomic technology should be shared with the rest of the world and its limitless possibilities turned to peaceful purposes. The people of Central Texas could then live in security and, he predicted, "...put kernels as big as walnuts on your ear of corn and raise pigs which are three-fourths pork chops"
Corresponding with Jim Rowe in late May, Lyndon Johnson had set his sights high. "I would like to get a landslide vote this time and thereby obviate the necessity of having to put up with any more Taylors and Hollers two years from now." On Saturday, July 27, 1946, Tenth District Democrats awarded their representative the sweeping victory for which he had hoped and worked so hard to achieve. Receiving nearly seventy per cent of the votes cast, he carried all ten counties of the sprawling district for the first time ever. "I will go back to Congress," he promised, "strengthened by your expression of trust and confidence, and humbly, as your servant, I will continue to work and fight for your welfare."
His had been a masterful campaign from start to finish. Taking seriously the threat posed by Hardy Hollers and the Texas Regulars, he mapped and carried out a complicated and grueling three week schedule of appearances and radio addresses other political candidates could only regard with envy. In one eleven day period he personally visited 162 of the 188 voting precincts lying outside Austin and appeared in every town with a population of 300 or more. He brought his bid for renomination to a close with a one day tour of the entire district culminating with four separate rallies in the capital city featuring singing cowboy Gene Autrey and free watermelon. As Edward Clark noted of Johnsons campaign style, "I never thought it was possible for anyone to work that hard."
The Johnson apparatus, painstakingly constructed over the preceding nine years, functioned flawlessly as well. Allies collected information on the opposition, helped with arrangements for every Johnson appearance, and effectively rebutted the challengers charges of enrichment. Austins power structure endorsed his candidacy and lauded his record of accomplishment. The Austin dailies owned by long-time supporter Charles E. Marsh provided their traditionally strong backing. The candidate, however, wanted and got the weekly rural newspapers as well. Glowing accounts of his visits to every community, written on the spot by reporters in his own entourage and fed by Johnson to country editors happy to print the stories as their own, invariably appeared in his wake. Every step that could be taken to insure victory was. Lyndon Johnson, however, paid dearly for his sweeping victory.
While Hollers and his supporters clearly overplayed their allegations of wrongdoing against the congressman, some contained elements of truth. Subsequent investigations by both journalists and historians have disproven Congressman Johnsons protestations that KTBC was his wifes business in which he played no part whatsoever. Following their acquisition of the property in early 1943, both he and Mrs. Johnson jointly hired new personnel, reorganized the languid station, and aggressively pursued new advertising accounts. While Lady Bird Johnson owned the station and operated it on a day-to-day basis, the congressman, at work in Washington, D. C., won FCC approval for the changes in frequency and power allowing KTBC to reach all Central Texas listeners. He successfully importuned Columbia Broadcasting System officials William Paley and Frank Stanton for network affiliation and its popular entertainment programming. Congressman Johnson neither shook down powerful constituents nor gave advertisers preferential political treatment; he did make every effort through the years to guarantee that the investment in broadcasting was a profitable one that would provide for his familys future.
Without tangible evidence of such involvement, however, Hollers, Moody, and others could not prove their case. They severely damaged their credibility with voters by arguing that Lyndon Johnson belonged in the federal penitentiary rather than the United States Congress. Their other charges of financial chicanery did not bear up under examination. Couched in misleading innuendo, they were easily and dramatically refuted by the incumbent and his numerous defenders. Rather than helping the Hollers cause, their oft-repeated but unsubstantiated charges regarding KVET, the house on Dillman Street, and T. J. Taylor played directly into Johnsons hands by fostering a backlash of sympathy for the congressman which he utilized effectively as the campaign drew to a close. "...if you expect me to match mud-slinging with the abandon of a low-born fish wife," he said in Washington County, "then Im sorry, Im not your man. Im not going to say, now or in the future, that any man is a liar, a thief, a perjurer or an accepter of bribes except when I have evidence to lay before a grand jury. Then Ill say it in the privacy of the grand jury chambers."
Though his greatest triumphs still lay ahead, Johnsons reputation never completely recovered from the onslaught in 1946. Questions of personal finances, perpetuated by Dan and Mildred Moody, Hardy Hollers, J. Evetts Haley, and other arch-conservatives for the rest of their days, simply refused to go away. Two decades later during his campaign for the nations highest office, Johnson was still trying to refute stories of his involvement in KTBCs affairs raised by Haley in A Texan Looks At Lyndon and journalist Louis Kohlmeier in The Wall Street Journal. The 1946 race also set the tone for his future battles with political reactionaries in the Lone Star State. Having witnessed the lengths to which the conservative camp would go to oust him in the mid-1940s, Johnson, with his future hanging in the balance, responded in kind two years later. While vote fraud in South Texas provided the razor-thin margin of victory over Coke Stevenson in 1948 and thrust Johnson into the United States Senate, it also fixed for all time the image of a wheeler-dealer willing to do whatever it took, ethical or not, to insure triumph. It was a perception he never shook.
Most significant, however, Lyndon Johnson refused to abandon his faith in activist government despite the increasingly conservative environment and the withering assault of Hardy Hollers and the Texas Regulars. Neither an ideologue who would sacrifice elective office rather than adapt nor an unprincipled opportunist who constantly reversed directions, he worked within the constraints of electoral politics to better the lives of all constituents and develop the resources of the Tenth District through the best means available. If circumstances forced limited retreats as his constituency, opportunities, and responsibilities grew in future years, his last race for the United States House of Representatives provided a clear indication of the course to which he would always return.
©L. Patrick Hughes, 1999
Originally published in Locus (October, 1992).