Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Way Things Used to Get Done

The Washington Post’s David Broder set the Wayback Machine this week to recount an episode first revealed in the 7-year-old book Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. Broder’s intention was to ground Tom DeLay in a long-standing Texas tradition of “mixing money and politics, business and government” dating back to the Tory Democrats’ control of the state and personified on its grandest scale by LBJ. But the episode tells as much about the way Houston operated (or was operated) as it does about the supposed similarities between today’s premeier congressional shakedown artist and the corruptible Olympians of old.

Broder quotes a summary of the events by Taking Charge editor and presidential scholar Michael Beschloss, who relates that George R. Brown (founder of Brown & Root, antecedent of KBR, and namesake of the Brown Convention Center) was an acting as emissary to LBJ on behalf of Gus Wortham (of American General, namesake of the Wortham Theater Center, the Wortham Fountain, Wortham Park etc.) and John Jones (nephew of Jesse, then running the Houston Chronicle), who wanted the new president to ensure that the Justice Department would not raise objections to their proposed merger of two Houston banks.

LBJ was down for his end of the request, but he wanted something in return. “As a master horse trader,” Beschloss wrote in his commentary on the tapes, “Johnson … wants a written promise from Jones that the Chronicle will support him as long as he is president.” (Whether this letter would bind the newspaper in perpetuity, past Johnson’s death and the eventual change of the paper’s ownership, is unclear.)*

But Brown tells Johnson that Congressman Albert Thomas, another fixer of local renown who famously exerted his clout to ensure that NASA located in Houston, thought the deal “too much of a cash-and-carry thing” and potentially hurtful to all the involved parties (a man with scruples!)

LBJ, though, was undeterred. He promised to steamroller any opposition to the bank merger and pointedly told Brown that the boys in Houston would in turn provide him with his desired written profession of support “to hold their own jobs.”

Broder ends the anecdote there, probably because it goes without saying that LBJ did get his letter. Afterward, he rang up Jones and told him: "From here on out we're partners."

"Thank you," Jones replied. "Sure are."

“By the way, John,” LBJ added before concluding the conversation, “you shore got a pretty mouth.”**

This truly was in another world: Not only were the banks and media outlets and other sizable commercial enterprises owned by the same interlocking select bunch of locals, but the “support” of the Houston Chronicle was considered worthy of a presidential strong-arming.

Actually, the Chronicle support probably wasn’t worth all that much to a president back in 1964. LBJ just had that great need to be loved by everybody, even if he had to pay for it (not something we’ve ever imagined was a problem for DeLay---the need to be loved by all, that is).

*Not really.
**Just kidding! But he should have!

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