INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
by Steve Flowers
There are a good many stories about elections of the 1940’s and 50’s where vote were bought and elections stolen. The most brazen and blatant stealing of an election occurred in the 1948 race for the U.S. Senate in Texas. The players were Coke Stevenson versus Lyndon B. Johnson. Therefore, it can also be classified as one of the most relevant robberies in American history because if Johnson had lost, as he was supposed to, it would have dramatically impacted U.S. history.
Coke Stevenson was a legendary Texas icon. He was the epitome of a Texas gentleman and revered. He was Texas’ Horatio Alger and Davy Crockett combined. He raised himself from age 12, built a ranching empire, was Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, and a very popular Governor of Texas. Stevenson was above reproach. He would not lie, steal or cheat and Texans knew that about old Coke.
On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson had already earned the reputation in Texas that he would continue to earn in Washington, that is that he would do whatever it took to win. He was totally corrupt and ruthless, without any semblance of a conscience.
Johnson had been a congressman from East Texas for six years. When the U.S. Senate seat came open in 1948, he made the decision to roll the dice and go for broke. Lyndon did not know that the legendary former governor, Coke Stevenson, would enter the race.
The initial poll had Stevenson about 68% to Johnson’s 18%. However, Stevenson had no idea to what limits Johnson would go to be a U.S. Senator. Johnson applied modern day politics to that era. He introduced polling and what it meant in detail. He even used a helicopter to fly from town to town and land on court squares to speak and shake hands, but mostly he used negative and false campaign mailings to destroy the stellar Stevenson’s reputation. Stevenson was from a different era. He refused to go negative and would not reply to any negative accusations no matter how maliciously false.
Johnson was able to utilize this massive media blitz because he had more campaign funds than any candidate in Texas history. He had unlimited financial backing from the giant Brown and Root Company of Texas. They are now the Halliburton Corporation. They were then as now the recipients of gigantic government construction contracts. Johnson was their boy and would do their bidding as their senator so they poured money into the race like water.
Johnson outspent Stevenson 10 to 1, but it was not enough. When the votes were counted on election night, Stevenson had won by a narrow margin. However, the election was not over. Stevenson was about to be counted out.
The Rio Grande Valley along the Texas and Mexican border was known as the region where votes could be bought. Most close elections were decided in these counties, which would come in days after the original count with just the right number of votes needed to win the election. This is how Johnson won by only 87 votes in a race where over one million votes were cast.
Johnson became known as Landslide Lyndon in Washington because of this 87 vote victory. It was also an allusion to how he had stolen the seat. Some people think that Johnson’s title, Landslide Lyndon, stemmed from his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential Race, but it was actually from the 1948 Texas Senate Race.
A legendary tale that is attributed to Johnson in this infamous race claims that in the days following the election, while garnering enough votes for victory, Johnson and the political bosses of the Valley counties were going through cemeteries and taking names of dead Mexicans off of tombstones to register as voters. They could not decipher one of the names and asked Lyndon what to do. Johnson quickly replied, give him a name, he’s got as much right to vote as the rest of them in this cemetery do.
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 state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.