The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Texas' own James Evetts Haley: would-be LBJ nemesis

In the spirit of ABB - Anything But Boston - and spurred by a jibe at Satan's representative on earth, Tom DeLay, heard on Air America last week, my attention wandered to that Democratic Hall of Famer and fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson.

My hypothesis was that, as a practitioner of corruption in all (all? say, a good many of) its forms, Johnson could wipe the floor with DeLay. And that partisanship and ignorance conspired to place LBJ's record safely out of mind.

(Listening today to AAR, I heard it said that, under Bush, the United States was now more divided than it had ever been. Evidently, the War Between the States had somehow slipped the speaker's memory - and, since the Democratic Party furnished the leading traitors, little wonder, perhaps [1]!)

The most commonly told tale of LBJ corruption is, of course, his 'victory' in the run-off primary election against Coke Stevenson for the 1948 US Senate seat not contested by incumbent Pappy O'Daniel [2], with the help of the Duke of Duval George Parr and former Klansman Justice Hugo Black, amongst others.

Less well-known is Johnson's lucrative career in broadcasting [3]. Not that the fortune he made wasn't known at the time - in good time to spoil his election as president in 1964, in fact. And isn't dealt with by his biographers, Robert Dallek and (I believe) Robert Caro [4]. But it's not part of popular history.

I then find I have a copy of Grassy Knoll-er [5] Joachim Festen's 1968 The Dark Side of Lyndon Johnson which (p57ff) looks at how he got his start - with KTBC Austin.

By 1942, Johnson was a coming man, making himself useful with fundraising for the 1940 Congressional elections, in good with FDR, not much damaged by his failure in the Senate election in 1941 (that time, O'Daniel stole the seat!) - but aware that, as a New Dealer in a state swinging right, he could be out of a job some time soon.

I recall that Al Smith, identified by Tammany as a useful man for the Governor's Mansion in Albany, was first installed as Sheriff of New York County - the holder of which office, in the manner of 18th century England, was legally entitled to a rake-off of fees and charges paid to the County - in order than he should amass a fortune suitable to the rank of Governor of New York (which was pretty high maintenance).

Johnson arranged something of the sort himself - with a little help from the FCC.

The details I'm not clear on; but, in outline, what seems to have happened is this: in 1942, KTBC was a recently established low wattage radio station in Austin which was losing money and in trouble on various counts with the FCC. The owners tried to sell, but the FCC refused.

Johnson entered the scene and persuaded the owners to offer him the station, at a knock-down price reflecting its current difficulties; this time, the FCC made no objection, and Lady Bird Johnson made the purchase.

The FCC troubles melted away - and over the succeeding years, the Texas Broadcasting Company was treated handsomely by the Commission, allowing it to increase KTBC's power massively, adding a TV license, keeping competition out.

Meanwhile, KTBC managed to get itself affiliated with CBS; and all sorts of companies found an urgent need to advertise on the station.

I'm staying away from the details for the moment - I really need to see Caro's treatment to feel I'd seen the most reliable versions available. But, in principle, the technique is stunningly effective. (I believe that other members of Congress also went into broadcasting, using their leverage with the FCC to help them going in - and once they were in. No other names, though.)

Now, one version of the facts comes from another of the long line of American legends I've never heard of: the said James Evetts Haley, a walking mini-series in himself: cow-man, chronicler of Texas life and no-hope gubernatorial candidate. With a masters degree in history.

Haley hated Johnson with a fiery passion: and, in 1964, self-published A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power which apparently sold 5½ million copies, and which looked, amongst other things at Johnson's broadcasting successes.

As well as the lucrative motive for the corruption LBJ benefited from, there was a political: the Dems from FDR downward had long been concerned at the concentration of airwaves in conservative hands (plus ça change...) - what better than that an important market should be served by a megaphone with a New Deal pedigree?

That's the deal in outline: a different matter to tie down the 5Ws of the initial purchase, let alone the couple of decades during which Johnson was able in one capacity or another to exercise influence over the FCC, advertisers, networks and the rest of those who contributed one way or another to his pile.

Plenty of scope, in any case.

  1. Not by any means that the abuse of history is a Democratic prerogative: back before the Iraq invasion, the right-wing prints were stiff with the most egregiously spurious analogies involving the appeasement of Hitler. But then Johnson got addicted to that vice himself.

  2. A 4,500 word undergraduate paper by one Jason Matteson Texas Bandits: A Study of the 1948 Democratic Primary seems to be the fullest treatment available online.

  3. There's nothing much online on the subject, that I can see.

  4. I've got hold of Dallek's Lone Star Rising, but not Caro's Means of Ascent - yet.

  5. He published a Lyn-dunnit on the Kennedy Assassination. He's a wacko - but most of his stuff on LBJ's big break in broadcasting is a clippings job.

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