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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Lyndon's Law

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr
Is it legal in Texas for a politician to run for two public offices at the same time? It is if your name is Lyndon Johnson.

In 1959 Johnson was majority leader of the U. S. senate and the most powerful politician in the country, next to the president (although some Washington insiders put Johnson at the head of the list). No one knew the nuances of the political process better than Lyndon Johnson. He was smart, brash, arrogant, and ambitious. Running the senate was a difficult task, but Johnson made it look easy. He seemed to be born for the job. He was a master technician, and an expert in senate rules and procedures. Nothing happened on Johnson's watch without his knowledge and his blessing.

Johnson was a Democrat, but he was no ideologue. He was a pragmatist who excelled at making government work. He was an expert at manipulating men and issues toward a political goal. No politician, before or since, could grease the wheels of congress like Lyndon Johnson.

How good was Senator Johnson? In September 1959 Judge Joe Fisher was a candidate for federal judge in the eastern district of Texas - a position that required a presidential nomination and senate confirmation. President Eisenhower, with Lyndon Johnson's strong endorsement, made the nomination on a Monday. The next morning the Senate Judiciary Committee, packed with Johnson loyalists, held a hearing on the nomination. The hearing lasted ten minutes. At noon the committee recommended that Fisher be confirmed. On Wednesday the Senate confirmed Judge Fisher's nomination. The speed of that process, unheard of in today's dysfunctional and partisan Washington, was all in a day's work for LBJ.

By 1959 Johnson was a dominant figure in national politics, and as the 1960 presidential election approached, there was talk of the Democratic Party nominating him for president. Johnson wanted to be president more than anything, but the timing presented some unpleasant possibilities. The election for his senate seat would be held at the same time as the election for president. Because Texas law would not permit his name to appear twice on the same ballot, he would have to give up his party's nomination for the senate to run for president. If he lost his bid for president, he would be out of government altogether. He would have given up his powerful position in the senate for nothing.

To a man like Lyndon Johnson, who had grown accustomed to having his own way, neither scenario was acceptable.

So Johnson devised a bold plan with odds much more to his liking. He had friends and allies all over the country, especially at the state capital down in Austin, Texas. Over the years he had done a lot of favors for his friends in the state legislature. Now it was their turn to do him a favor. They didn't let him down.

On April 27, 1959, both houses of the Texas legislature passed a bill that allowed a person's name to appear on the Texas general election ballot both as a candidate for president or vice-president of the United States and for a state-wide office. The new law, passed specifically for Johnson, allowed him to run for re-election to the U. S. Senate while at the same time running for president or vice-president on the national ticket should he get the nomination. The vote in the Texas House of Representatives was 129 for the bill and 15 against. In the senate the vote was 31-0 in favor of the bill. All 31 state senators were listed as sponsors. Lyndon won in a landslide.

Not only did the legislature change the law so LBJ could keep his old job while seeking higher office, the Texas House of Representatives changed the primary schedule to Johnson's advantage. The house advanced the primaries, scheduled for July and August, to the first Saturday in May. That change allowed LBJ to complete his campaigning for U. S. Senate and win his party's nomination to a third term before focusing his full attention on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that July.

On July 14, 1960, after the Democrats selected John Kennedy as the presidential nominee, Lyndon Johnson accepted his party's vice-presidential nomination. On November 5, 1960, voters elected Lyndon Johnson senator from Texas and vice-president of the United States. He resigned his seat in the senate on January 3, 1961 and took the oath of office as vice-president later that month.

There was some opposition to Lyndon's Law, but not much. A 24- year old North Texas State College student challenged the law in court, claiming it violated his voting rights. On August 5, 1960 Federal Judge Ben H. Rice dismissed the case.

But for the most part there was little concern that Johnson had used his considerable influence to advance his political career. State Representative Joe Chapman of Sulphur Springs probably spoke for most Texans when he expressed his support for Johnson as senator but noted that "a poor Texan would be better than any Yankee" on the presidential ticket.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
September 7, 2015 Column
Sources:
Robert Caro, The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).
New York Times, May 6, 1959, May 10, 1959.
Abilene Reporter-News, August 6, 1960.


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