"Liberal Nationalist: Congressman Lyndon Johnson and the Tenth Congressional District"

Delivered March 2, 1999

University of Texas Continuing Education Elderhostel Program


 
 




Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of, if not, the most fascinating and complicated figures in all of Texas and American political history. He was a larger-than-life figure while he lived and remains so today as his history and times are being written. He could be cruel and kind, petty and generous, egotistical and self-deprecating, gloating and magnanimous, all before breakfast on any given day. As one of his close presidential aides testified: "He was a dozen of the most fascinating people Iíve ever met in my life."

A quarter of a century after his death, however, two very different views of Lyndon Johnson the man and the political figure have emerged.

The first, given most popular expression by one-time New York journalist Robert Caro, sees LBJ as motivated almost solely by an unquenchable thirst for power. According to Caro, it was "a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will." On the altar of power, he sacrificed allies, ideology, and conscience. LBJ " displayed a genius for discerning a path to power, an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in that path, and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception, and betrayal in moving along it." Willing to concede only grudgingly that Johnsonís limitless ambition sometimes produced benefits for his constituents, Caro argues that it was power for powerís sake that motivated the lanky Texan.

While Caro is a magnificent writer who prose is captivating, he is, in the opinion of most reviewers, not much of a historian. While The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, the first two volumes of a projected series of five, have been best sellers, the one-sided portrayal of Johnson the power-crazed ogre from the cedar covered limestone hills has been savaged by historians. As Johnson scholar Christie Bourgeois recently remarked: "Caro not only does not place Lyndon Johnson in the context of national history, but he offers virtually no discussion of the chaotic world of Texas politics. Caroís Lyndon Johnson has no limitations placed upon him by the political context in which he operates. He simply controls events and people around him. What Caro perceives as Johnsonís failures are never explained even partially by forces outside the man himself, but only by his capacity for deceit, his ruthlessness and his amorality. When they entered Lyndon Johnsonís magnetic field, otherwise strong, domineering people lost their free will and became Johnsonís tools."

Evidence is twisted to put Johnson in the worst possible light. Whenever multiple explanations are present, Caro always chooses the one designed to support his portrayal of the power-seeking conniver. This reaches ludicrous proportions in Means of Ascent where, in order to make LBJ the villain, his opponent in the infamous 1948 Senate race - ex-Governor Coke Stevenson - is transformed from a reactionarily conservative red-baiting racist into "Mr. Texas" - the embodiment of everything good, honest, pure, and principled in the Lone Star State.

Robert Dallek, a prominent political and diplomatic historian, is the foremost proponent of the second major view of Lyndon. Dallek recognizes that Johnson had faults aplenty and he makes them clear in his two volumes entitled Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant. Unlike Caro, however, Dallek is willing to recognize that Johnson was multi-dimensional.

The major theme linking the various phases of olí Lyndonís political career was a liberal nationalism generated by his place and times. Dallek argues that from the beginning LBJ believed and acted upon the conviction that the South and Southwest would never be more than an economic colony of the northeastern United States until they took three fundamental steps. First, total reliance upon agriculture and the mere extraction of natural resources such as oil would have to be abandoned in favor of economic diversification and growth. That was where the real money was. Second, infrastructure development was a prerequisite to change, growth, and progress. Such development - roads, bridges, waterways, dams, electricity, etc. - would be expensive but absolutely necessary. Finally, and perhaps most wrenchingly, the South and Southwest would have to abandon their racist past and grant minority Americans the equality and constitutional rights of "true" citizenship. Persuaded during the Depression decade of the 1930s that the only way to achieve such changes for his region of the country was through an activist federal government, Johnson consistently sought those funds and initiatives to transform his native region.

Dallek acknowledges that Lyndon was extremely ambitious and willing to move only as fast as the times and his changing constituencies were ready to go. Nonetheless, the direction and the end goal remain constant.

Lyndon Johnsonís years as congressman representing the 10th District of Central Texas in general and solving the problems of flooding and the lack of rural electrification in particular attest to the Dallek interpretation. While Johnson amassed political i.o.u.'s across the district in hopes of moving on to the United States Senate during his years as a U. S. representative, his actions transformed Central Texas for the better utilizing the financial resources of the federal government. While the normal southern congressman was content to defend the status quo, maintain white superiority, and guard against federal intrusion, Lyndon Johnson worked for sweeping change.

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No project upon which LBJ worked as congressman had greater and more long-lasting impact upon the lives of his constituents than the taming of the Colorado River and securing all of the benefits the river had to offer.

Along with the beautiful landscape and central location, Austin came about in large part because of the Colorado River. It held out the potential of a transportation route to the Gulf coast, a reliable reservoir of drinking water, and the means to power machinery. City leaders dreamed big. Austin would simultaneously be the seat of state government, an inland port facility, and a great manufacturing center.

Flaws in this sweeping vision, however, quickly became apparent. The Colorado proved far too shallow to accommodate vessels of any real size. More importantly, highly variable rainfall patterns and topography combined to create two seemingly totally different rivers. The Colorado would all but dry up in periods of extended drought. But when heavy downpours blanketed the Hill Country west of town, the river became a raging torrent leaving physical destruction and loss of life in its wake. Situated along the Balcones Fault at the edge of the Edwards Plateau, the area was particularly prone to flooding. Precipitation raced off the limestone uplift into narrow channels - the Llano, the San Saba, the Pedernales, and others - before hitting the Colorado. The immense watershed channeled all the moisture towards Austin where it spread out after meeting the flatter land to the east. Floods devastated the entire watershed from the Hill Country to the Gulf Coast.

Repeated attempts to corral the Colorado proved futile. The original Austin Dam, a hydroelectric structure completed in 1893, fell victim to floodwaters on April 6, 1900. Rebuilt in 1913, the dam failed yet again just two years later when monsoon-like thunderstorms inundated the Hill Country. Despite the investment of much money and even more energy, the dreams of Austinites lay dashed. The lesson of such efforts was clear; a single structure was insufficient to the task. If the potential benefits of the Colorado were ever to be realized, a whole series of hydroelectric dams would have to be constructed. Such a massive undertaking lay beyond the financial resources of both the capital city and apparently the State of Texas.

Farmers and ranchers just outside city limits to both the east and the west had yet another problem. Like ninety-five percent of their brethren in rural America, they lived their lives without the modern conveniences of the electricity which urbanites in the United States had enjoyed for decades. Privately owned utility companies refused to provide such service, maintaining that rural electrification would be prohibitively expensive. There were simply too few people spread across too vast an area. The costs of constructing a distribution system under such circumstances would be astronomical. Sales of electricity to farmers and ranchers could never justify the expenditure of such sums. While government studies revealed that rural service would in the long run be profitable, private enterprise refused to move. As a result, those outside of urban areas such as Austin lived a lifestyle little different from that of their forefathers in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the fullest economic possibilities of the rural areas of the 10th Congressional District could never be realized without electricity.

Austinites and Central Texans had by the 1930s found no solutions to the dual problems of periodic flooding of the Colorado and the absence of electrical service. Only with the advent of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program to cope with the worst economic depression in all of American history did the means for successful action emerge. Those solutions, as Lyndon Johnson realized, lay not in Texas but in Washington, D. C.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), launched in Roosevelt's first months in office, was the fulfillment of conservationists' dreams dating back to the Progressive era at the turn of the century. Any number of river systems across the continent, including the Tennessee, lay uncontrolled and undeveloped. They suffered a variety of problems - flooding, soil erosion, grinding poverty, etc. Conservationists looked upon this as a needless and tragic waste of the nation's natural resources. If hydroelectric dams could be constructed in an orderly and systematic fashion in such watersheds, flooding could be controlled, soil erosion minimized, reservoirs created which would be a hedge against drought, and electric power produced and marketed on a non-profit basis in rural areas to transform people's lives. Proposals for the federal government to undertake such a program produced howls of protest from private utility companies about socialism and unfair competition with the business sector. Their opposition and the scope of such proposed undertakings stalled authorization.

Only when Americans demanded a full-blown government effort to end the Great Depression by whatever means necessary were such objections overcome. At Roosevelt's behest, Congress authorized and funded TVA as a multi-purpose effort to systematically develop natural resources in the Tennessee River valley. The federal government would pay for the construction and operation of an entire series of hydroelectric dams. Not only would flooding and soil erosion be brought under control, unemployed residents of the watershed would be given jobs, cash pumped into the deflated regional economy, and cheap electricity made available to rural Americans historically neglected by private utility companies.

Looking at these developments in the nation's capital, a group of Central Texans saw the TVA initiative as a blueprint for resolving similar problems in the Lone Star State. After years of hard work, influential Austin attorney Alvin J. Wirtz convinced the Texas legislature in 1934 to create the Lower Colorado River Authority as an independent state agency to develop the water resources of the river system. The state, however, lacked the financial ability at the depths of the Great Depression to fund the agency it had just created. Money to tame the river would have to be found elsewhere. Thus, Wirtz and others looked to Washington, D. C.

If Roosevelt's New Deal provided the model for the LCRA, it now extended the funds necessary to make it reality. LCRA directors applied to Harold Ickes and the Public Works Administration (PWA) for the money it could find nowhere else. Launched during the Hundred Days of 1933, PWA attacked the depression by lending or granting money to other governmental entities across the nation for construction projects, thereby reducing unemployment and attacking deflation. Competition for such monies was, however, extremely keen in a country devastated by economic disaster.

Luckily, the LCRA had good friends in the nation's capital. While LBJ was still state director of the National Youth Administration, the 10th District's representative was James P. Buchanan of Brenham, who years of continuous service and seniority had made chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. As such, he was an important member of the Roosevelt team whose intervention with the president was crucial to overcoming PWA resistance to expending funds on the Colorado River project.

Creation of the Highland Lake System

Acquisition of a half-finished privately financed structure outside Burnet represented the new river authority's first order of business. Samuel Insull's gigantic utility combine had undertaken construction of Hamilton Dam in 1931. The collapse of the Insull empire the following year caused work to be halted after an expenditure of $3.5 million. The half-completed dam seemed an appropriate place to start. Congressman Buchanan intervened with President Roosevelt, securing a $4.5 million loan from the PWA to purchase the structure and resume construction. Before completion in 1937, the price tag for Hamilton Dam, subsequently renamed to honor Representative Buchanan, rose to $10.4 million. The undertaking provided two thousand jobs at the depths of the Depression and proved an economic godsend for the people of Burnet and surrounding counties.

Buchanan Dam by itself was nonetheless insufficient to conquer the flooding problem. While it could "help" constrain the river in times of rampage, Buchanan existed primarily to create a massive reservoir and generate electricity. As the City of Austin's earlier efforts demonstrated, one dam was insufficient to tame the Colorado. Only a series of dams could accomplish the objectives. Therefore, a much larger dam would have to be built downstream.

That structure, located in western Travis County at a historic crossing on the Colorado known as Marshall Ford, would be incredibly expensive. Fearing that Ickes and the PWA would not provide that much money, LCRA and Buchanan developed a two-phase strategy. They would get the appropriation for a "low dam" in order to get started and would subsequently seek additional funds to build the upper portion of the dam without which the whole function of flood control would be unattainable.

It was a tremendous gamble and one that seemingly backfired when Buchanan died unexpectedly. The river authority had lost its most important champion in budgetary battles. The low dam was well underway but unless elevated could not be the flood control lynchpin of the Highland Lakes system. Fate, however, intervened. Enter Lyndon Johnson, who won the special election to fill Buchanan's seat by endorsing the president's highly controversial court packing scheme. Having triumphed by championing the president's cause, Johnson became FDR's fair-haired boy. Word went out within the administration that LBJ was to be rewarded in every way possible. He received deferential treatment from Harold Ickes and the PWA that no freshman congressman could ever have expected.

Jumping into the LCRA effort was certainly good politics for Lyndon Johnson. It was the biggest thing going on in Central Texas. If he could somehow complete what James Buchanan had begun, he would gain the future support of most political leaders across the district, the financial backing of Brown and Root Construction Company which was building the dam, as well as appreciative voters. That being said, Johnson fully believed that construction of the LCRA dams with federal monies was critical to the transformation of Central Texas. Much was at stake: conquering the Colorado, providing cheap electricity for his constituents that would bring economic development to the region, providing thousands of construction jobs at the depths of the Great Depression, and the infusion of desperately-needed moneys to combat deflation. All of this could be accomplished only through the agency of the federal government.

The necessary additional funding was quickly approved and the flow of federal dollars didn't stop until the project was complete. Johnson made up for his lack of seniority by making the most of his connection with the president, through brazen armtwisting, and by playing every possible angle.

The cost for the dam at Marshall Ford, later renamed in honor of Congressman Joseph J. Mansfield, grew to a staggering $29 million. Subsequent lobbying by Representative Johnson resulted in LCRA having to repay but $5 million of that total; the rest was converted into an outright grant from the federal government. Over two thousand Central Texans found employment on the construction project, which, in conjunction with other LCRA dams, finally tamed the Colorado. Every time a deluge inundates the Hill Country, Central Texas gives thanks for Mansfield Dam. One example must suffice. When floodwaters raced down the watershed in 1954, Lake Travis rose fifty-four feet in twelve hours! The devastation such waters would have caused in and below Austin boggle the mind.

Structural and political problems remained regarding Austin's inoperable dam, which had lain in ruins since the flood of 1915. The City of Austin, which owned its utility system and used the revenue it generated to keep property taxes down, wanted the dam rebuilt but failed to convince Ickes to bankroll the project. The stubborn Ickes refused to lend funds to another governmental entity that would be in competition with the river authority as a supplier of electricity. Such competition would hamper LCRA's ability to repay its PWA debts. He demanded the city give or sell the dam to the authority. Equally adamant, Mayor Tom Miller balked because lower electric revenues would drive up property taxes. LCRA refused to expend its funds rebuilding a dam it neither owned nor controlled.

Central Texas's new congressman miraculously worked out a deal acceptable to all parties. The City of Austin would rent the dam to the authority for fifty years and accept electricity from the reconstructed facility as rental compensation. LCRA had a long-term lease on the dam and avoided competition with the city. Once the river authority secured control of the structure, Ickes relented under pressure from Johnson and lent the $2.3 million required for reconstruction, which was completed in 1940.

Over the years LCRA, with LBJ's continuous support, constructed additional flood control structures to complete the Highland Lakes chain. Construction costs eventually totaled $72.4 million. The effort, however, provided five thousand jobs and pumped desperately needed cash into the entire region throughout the latter years of the Depression. According to long-time chamber of commerce president Walter E. Long, corralling the Colorado was "the major factor having to do with the growth of Austin." Without it, the Sunbelt metropolis along the tranquil river under the hills would never have occurred.

Wires Across the Countryside

While the LCRA initiative at long last dealt successfully with flooding throughout the watershed, the task of rural electrification remained. The dams up and down the Colorado would shortly begin generating cheap public power. That power would benefit rural Central Texans little without a massive transmission and distribution network. Such a grid would be both difficult and expensive to construct. Only with such an undertaking, however, would the twentieth century finally dawn across the limestone plateau ranches to the west and the fertile blackland farms to the east of Austin.

The river authority lacked authorization under its charter from the state to construct any transmission and distribution systems. As far as the legislature was concerned, the production of public power had been a tangential consideration. LCRA's foremost mission was flood control and every penny it could put its hands on was committed to the erection of dams. Nonetheless, the river authority's financial viability depended upon the resolution of this problem. Only from the sell of the electricity it would soon be generating could it generate the revenue required to repay its debts to the PWA in Washington, D. C. Without such sales to farmers, ranchers, and cities throughout its service area, loan default was inevitable. The entire undertaking would collapse. Lyndon Johnson, Alvin Wirtz, and others ramrodding the LCRA were determined to prevent such a nightmare at all costs. Once again, the solution lay not in Austin or Texas but in the nation's capital.

As part of the Second New Deal to reverse the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt launched the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935 to enable rural Americans across the country to obtain the life-transforming benefits of electricity for the first time. In the best of economic times, farmers and ranchers lacked the financial ability to generate, transmit, and distribute power. Their inability was even more pronounced at the depths of the worst depression in the nation's history. Therefore, REA would attack the problem by lending rural dwellers who banded themselves into economic cooperatives the funds necessary to obtain electricity. Such monies would be repaid to the government over a thirty-year time span with a minimal rate of interest. A family's financial liability was limited to the $5 membership fee to join the cooperative; it was technically the cooperative which borrowed the funds from REA and was legally responsible for repayment.

With necessary funding to complete construction of the authority's hydroelectric dams secured from the PWA, Congressman Johnson, working with Alvin Wirtz, LCRA directors, and other Central Texans, now undertook the task of convincing Central Texans to form cooperatives and apply for funds from the REA. Farmers and ranchers were leery of going into debt and risking their property to foreclosure should they go into debt that they could not repay. They had to be persuaded that their liability was limited only to their membership fee. Cities had to be persuaded that it was in their best financial interests to switch service from private sector companies to cooperatives affiliated with the REA. All of this had to be done in the face of the militant opposition of private utilities such as Texas Power & Light, which railed against socialism and unfair competition with the federal government. Johnson put his future on the line by challenging the private utilities. Publicity campaigns throughout the region only slowly converted those dubious of the benefits of electrification, public power, or the program's practicality. The Pedernales, Bluebonnet, and other rural cooperatives resulted. Additionally, cities such as Bastrop, Smithville, Elgin, Brenham, and others abandoned private suppliers and signed on with LCRA once convinced by Johnson's personal intervention that rates would fall and service would improve. Loans totaling millions of dollars from the REA followed shortly thereafter, but only after LBJ personally intervened with President Roosevelt to overcome a bureaucratic regulation that the coops couldn't meet. Utility poles began sprouting across the countryside, holding aloft the transmission lines connecting the dams to Central Texas farms, ranches, and cities. The long-delayed dreams had finally become reality and Central Texas would never again be the same.

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When one considers the evolution of Austin and Central Texas as the century draws to a close, one cannot overlook actions taken in the years of the late Depression by many people. Among that select group who undertook initiatives that would transform Central Texas forever was the newly elected representative from the 10th Congressional District. No knowledgeable observer could have predicted that the lanky kid from the Hill Country was capable of replacing James P. "Buck" Buchanan, whose power derived from decades of seniority and chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee. Nonetheless, Johnson made up for his lack of seniority with sheer brazenness and arm-twisting in pursuing every available federal dollar from the New Deal for his Central Texas constituents. Those dollars were spent on projects with long lasting value not twittered away. Without question, Johnson had his eyes on winning reelection every two years and taking the next step up the political ladder, yet his vision of bringing his district, his state, and his region into the economic and political mainstream by drawing upon the resources available from the federal government was apparent from the very start of the elective career which would end at the Oval Office. Ambition yes, but vision also.

© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999