In the iconic image of Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in as president aboard Air Force One, a somber man with thinning hair and big ears stands just behind Jacqueline Kennedy. Jack Brooks—then in his sixth term as a congressman representing Beaumont and its environs—had been part of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade earlier that afternoon in Dallas, a testament to his work on behalf of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 and his subsequent support of JFK’s legislative program. After Kennedy’s assassination, Brooks was one of the people urging Johnson to take the oath of office as the plane sat on the tarmac at Love Field before returning to Washington. Brooks thought that the immediate installation of LBJ as president was necessary to guard against foreign machinations while obviating any interference from JFK’s brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who loathed Johnson. Once LBJ had settled into the White House, Brooks played a critical role in smoothing the passage of Johnson’s Great Society legislation, including the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, which proved deeply unpopular across much of Texas.
For some observers, this must have seemed like the inexorable continuation of liberal Texan influence on Capitol Hill. Despite growing disagreement within its ranks over social issues, the state’s Democratic party had strengthened its grip during the Great Depression, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal alleviated economic distress in Texas. While reluctant at first to accept FDR’s promise of widespread federal assistance, residents of the Lone Star State came to embrace programs such as the Rural Electrification Act, which helped bring power to the 97 percent of Texas farms unconnected to any grid. Likewise, at its peak the Works Progress Administration employed 120,000 Texans, who completed signature projects such as the expansion of the San Antonio River Walk. The success of these and similar initiatives elevated Democratic Texas legislators, including House speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who dominated Congress during the fifties.
But in hindsight, these mid-century giants were actually dinosaurs, soon rendered all but extinct by a GOP asteroid that within a few decades obliterated one-party rule in Texas by Democrats and opened the door for Republicans eager to limit Washington’s influence within the state. A pair of new books featuring Brooks and Johnson brings to life this bygone era while offering clues as to how and why it slipped away.
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In The Meanest Man in Congress: Jack Brooks and the Making of an American Century (NewSouth Books), the father-son team of Timothy and Brendan McNulty—a veteran journalist and a World Bank consultant, respectively—say their subject is regarded as “one of the most influential men that most Americans have never heard of.” This near-anonymity may stem from the fact that Brooks did not aspire to an office higher than the congressional seat he held from 1953 to 1995. Over the course of five-hundred-plus engrossing pages, the McNultys make a compelling case for Brooks’s importance.
Born in 1922, Brooks, like his mentor LBJ, grew up poor in rural Texas, which clearly shaped his belief that government should help the vulnerable and guarantee the wise spending of taxpayer dollars. If, as Sam Rayburn insisted, Congress consists of workhorses and show horses, Brooks was surely one of the former, sponsoring legislation that touched on aerospace, data processing, and government contracting and attending nearly 14,000 roll call votes during his career.
Besides Johnson, Brooks is most closely associated with LBJ’s successor, Richard M. Nixon, though in a far more adversarial manner. As a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, Brooks played a central role in the hearings on the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Afterward, he helped to draft the articles of impeachment that precipitated Nixon’s resignation, in August 1974, leading Nixon to dub Brooks “the Executioner.” Brooks had never liked the thirty-seventh president and said that he would have voted to impeach him the day after Nixon first took office. When it was all over, Brooks had a Capitol handyman carve several sets of gavels commemorating Nixon’s removal from office, fashioned from the podium on which Nixon had stood during his inauguration. Such spite is one of the fleeting intimations of the “meanness” referenced in the book’s title.
The McNultys’ portrait of Brooks foregrounds a set of attributes that most Americans—whether liberal or conservative—would wish to see in their elected officials. Brooks was a man of great personal courage, which he demonstrated in 1956 when, as a very junior member of the House, he joined a handful of white Southern legislators who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, which condemned the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Though deeply partisan, he eagerly collaborated with his political opponents to make laws. Not least, Brooks was unapologetically down-home. To wit: he won his first race for the House thanks in part to his college pal (and future Texas governor) Dolph Briscoe, who sold a herd of his own goats and donated the proceeds to Brooks’s campaign; after his victory, Brooks drove to Washington in an old car he nicknamed the Green Hornet, accompanied by his mother.
But The Meanest Man in Congress is more friendly than objective—no surprise, perhaps, given that the book features a foreword by the late U.S. House speaker Jim Wright, a fellow Texas Democrat and close friend of Brooks; a note of thanks from the Brooks family implying their authorization of the McNultys’ account; and a blurb from current House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who served with Brooks for the last eight years of his career. In this telling, Brooks, who died in 2012, is the hero of his own story from start to finish, and uncomfortable issues do not receive the critical analysis they merit, such as his role in passing the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, blamed by some for our current system of mass incarceration.
Most of all, Brooks’s “meanest man in Congress” sobriquet (which many users intended as a compliment) hints at a disposition somewhat darker than mere furrow-browed dyspepsia, but this goes largely unexamined. Given the McNultys’ exhaustive and compelling treatment of their subject, it is difficult to imagine another biographer soon tackling Jack Brooks, meaning that a more balanced assessment is probably out of reach.
Of course, Brooks and Johnson would never have had the chance to build the Great Society had LBJ not won election to a full term as president, a contest that Nancy Beck Young takes up in her recent book, Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle Between Liberalism and Conservatism (University Press of Kansas). A professor of history at the University of Houston, Young is the author of several books about twentieth-century U.S. politics, including a biography of Democratic congressman Wright Patman, another liberal lion from Texas who served in the House for nearly half a century until his death in 1976. While the race between Johnson and Goldwater has drawn considerable attention in the past, especially from the swollen ranks of Johnson biographers, Young insists that “no scholar has written a full-throated history of the campaign that treats both parties and all candidates equally.” Maybe not, but the general contours—from Goldwater’s provocative aphorisms to the Johnson campaign’s controversial “Daisy” advertisement—will be familiar to many readers.
More distinctive is Young’s emphasis on the regional significance of the Sunbelt, a term coined by writer and Nixon election strategist Kevin Phillips in 1969 to refer to the lower third of the United States that stretches from Florida to California. Young argues that this geography was crucial in shaping the worldviews and campaign strategies of both candidates. Goldwater, she writes, embraced his identity as an Arizonan, conjuring an “idealized past” rooted in rugged Western individualism and self-sufficiency while promoting lower taxes and minimal government interference. His message, Young explains, resonated with “the new middle class—beneficiaries of the military industrial complex” (who, ironically, owed their jobs and prosperity to federal largesse). For his part, Johnson was molded as a progressive by his humble Hill Country upbringing, although he downplayed association with his home state because of the prejudice it engendered among Easterners (including members of JFK’s inner circle, who called him Uncle Cornpone) as well as its blunting of his universalist message.
Johnson rolled to victory in November, racking up 61.1 percent of the popular vote and therefore meeting his goal of besting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 60.8 percent tally in 1936 (though LBJ’s margin in the electoral college was slimmer than FDR’s). Johnson triumphed by running on Kennedy’s legacy and by staying out of his own way, watching as Goldwater was painted as a radical who was outside the mainstream on matters of personal liberty and especially the use of nuclear weapons. In some of the book’s strongest sections, Young demonstrates how LBJ received an unwitting assist from Goldwater’s GOP rivals, particularly New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose studied moderation offered an unflattering contrast with the Arizonan’s militancy. By the time the general election campaign got underway at the now unfathomably late date of September, Johnson found that Goldwater had been tenderized by rivals from within his own party.
But what seemed at the time a pointed rebuke of strident conservativism turned out to be the last gasp of the New Deal order. In quick fashion Goldwater’s ideas and tactics became Republican orthodoxy, and the GOP stranglehold on the South has endured ever since. Texas has proved no exception to this trend. Consider that when Jack Brooks first arrived on Capitol Hill, in January 1953, both of the state’s senators and all 22 of its representatives were Democrats (although many of them, by the standards of the day, were quite conservative). But after Brooks was voted out in the 1994 midterms (largely because the crime bill that he sponsored contained a provision banning assault weapons), thus becoming the most senior congressman ever to lose in a general election, Republicans held nearly half of the state’s thirty House seats and both slots in the Senate. Today, Republicans make up nearly two thirds of the state’s congressional delegation.
On a crisp winter day in January 1965, Lyndon Johnson gave his first and only inaugural address before a crowd of 1.2 million, the largest such gathering until Barack Obama took the oath of office, in 2009. LBJ spoke that morning of his goals for the United States and the role of the federal government in attaining them. “In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty. In a land rich in harvest, children just must not go hungry. In a land of healing miracles, neighbors must not suffer and die untended. In a great land of learning and scholars, young people must be taught to read and write.” While Johnson’s administrative program (animated by his force of will and political acumen) made great strides in accomplishing these objectives, just sixteen years later Ronald Reagan—one of Goldwater’s earliest and most ardent champions—famously declared at his own swearing in that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Such anti-government beliefs have held sway for nearly four decades and have been promulgated by lawmakers serving Texas, including Senator Ted Cruz, who led the 2013 effort to shut down the government in the hopes of defunding the Affordable Care Act. And yet, in a time of growing inequality of income and opportunity, many Americans have come to feel that politicians beholden to special interests have stacked the deck against them. Should enough voters decide that redressing these inequities requires a more active federal government, there might yet be an opening for the twenty-first-century equivalents of Jack Brooks and Lyndon Johnson to lead Texas Democrats out of the political wilderness.
Andrew R. Graybill is a professor of history and the director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “When Texas Democrats Roamed the Earth.” Subscribe today.