As we close out this year of COVID and presidential politics many of you are still in discussions about Donald Trump. Some are still enthralled with the most colorful and controversial character in my presidential memory and are saying the election was stolen from him. Others are saying he is the most egocentric and crooked person to ever sit in the oval office.
Allow me to disagree with both sides. In my lifetime no man could come close to comparing with one Lyndon B. Johnson when it comes to crookedness, crudeness, and audacity. He was the epitome of an unbridled, unconscionable thirst for power. No election could be more brazenly stolen than LBJ’s means of assent to power in this first election to the U.S. Senate in 1948.
Johnson was a tall tough young East Texas Congressman making his play for a Senate seat from the Lone Star State. Most Texans thought it was a Don Quixote kamikaze mission because he was running against the legendary Texas Governor Coke Stevenson.
The Governor was a revered figure in the state. He epitomized a Texas legend. He was a successful self-made man who had built a large ranch and cattle empire. He was much like the father figure, Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Green in the old television series Bonanza. Stevenson was generous, plain spoken and very conservative. He had been a very good governor. Stevenson was from the old school and renowned for his integrity and he was above reproach.
Johnson was just the opposite. He had already earned the reputation that when it came to winning that was all that counted, and character, integrity, and honesty went out the window.
As might be expected, Johnson had unlimited campaign money, a lot of which was supplied by the Brown and Root Construction Company that is now Halliburton, which by the way is a major player in Senate races today. Johnson outspent Stevenson 10-to-1 as Stevenson would not ask for contributions.
Johnson employed new, modern campaign devices like polling and he even used a helicopter to land at rural towns throughout the gigantic state. He crisscrossed Texas and not only outspent Stevenson 10-to-1, he outworked him by the same measure. His hand was swollen from handshaking.
Coke Stevenson still beat Lyndon Johnson. However, Johnson was not going to take defeat. Duval County on the Mexican Border was known as the most corrupt political county in Texas, if not in the nation. It was legendary for bold, unadulterated vote manipulation. Johnson had cornered the bosses of Duval County and they held their votes out in case Johnson needed them.
Three days after Stevenson’s apparent victory, Duval came in. It had voted more than twice as many people as who lived there. Johnson got over 90% of the Duval votes that were suspiciously cast. When they got the Duval votes to Austin, it still was not enough to overtake Coke Stevenson.
Not to be outdone, Duval officials swore under oath that a box was still out. They said Box 13 has not reported. They came back five days later with just enough votes for Lyndon to claim victory. The margin of victory in the state of Texas was 83 votes.
When Johnson got to Washington as a freshman senator, the entire Senate and most people in Texas and a good many political observers around the nation, knew that Johnson and his allies had stolen the 1948 Texas Senate race. Thus, Senators and Washington insiders gave him the dubious nickname of “Landslide Lyndon” because of his 83-vote margin. Many people think that nickname was a reference to his actual landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, but it came from his unscrupulous election to the Senate in 1948.
A legendary story came out of that election about stealing an election or as some say, counting someone out. Supposedly, as Lyndon’s cronies were harvesting the last batch of needed votes from the infamous Box 13, they were going through an old Mexican-American Cemetery taking names of long passed folks either from Mexico or Duval County off of tombstones to vote them posthumously after the fact. Lyndon was actually accompanying the Duval voting officials to make sure they voted all the residents in the cemetery. They got to an old marker that was indiscernible. The harvester shouted out to Lyndon we cannot make out this name. Johnson replied, “Hell, make him up a name, he has as much right to vote as the rest of them in here.”
See you next week.
— Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the Alabama legislature.