Cochran Senate “Victory” Would Have Made LBJ Proud
By Ryan S. Walters
Chris McDaniel and I are good friends and have been since our days together in grade school. He read my book, The Last Jeffersonian, while it was still in manuscript form and gave it a great blurb. I trust his judgment 100 percent and, given a conversation we had a couple of years ago, I would like to think he trusts mine just as much. It was a day in early 2012 and we sat down to lunch at one of our favorite spots, Pasquale’s in Laurel. He wanted to discuss the possibility of challenging Thad Cochran for the US Senate. My ears perked up and I was definitely on board with a race against “The Great Appropriator.”
We discussed the most recent Senate victory by a conservative, Utah’s Mike Lee, who had challenged and taken down RINO Bob Bennett in 2010. But there were very few such races to examine. As a historian I had to reach back in time a bit.
Even though he had not defeated a fellow Democrat, my first thought would be to follow the model of John F. Kennedy’s impressive Senate victory in 1952 against Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., every bit a stalwart in Massachusetts as Cochran in Mississippi. JFK’s planning and organization in that race were quite impressive. He simply out hustled and outworked Lodge, who gave no serious thought to young Kennedy, much to his own detriment. I believed Cochran would approach any challenge in a like manner.
During our conversation, as we knocked around ideas, I jokingly told him that there was one race we shouldn’t study: Lyndon Johnson’s victory in the Texas Democratic primary in 1948, filled as it was with fraud and dirty tricks. Chris wanted a good, clean race on the issues, not to wallow in the mud with the pigs.
But little could he have known, his unscrupulous opponents, the Barbour/Cochran machine, would dust off LBJ’s old 1948 Senate playbook and follow it step by step. Watching the campaign from afar, while ironically living in Texas, I couldn’t believe my eyes as the primary, and especially the corrupt runoff, unfolded.
The story of Lyndon Johnson’s “victory” for the US Senate in Texas in 1948 is a sad tale in the long annals of American political history, one that many thought could never possibly be repeated. But it was, 66 years later in Mississippi.
Lyndon Baines Johnson first arrived in Washington as a young congressional staffer, before winning a seat in the US House in 1936. But even in those early years, he had his eyes on the upper chamber. In a 1941 special election he made a try for an open seat in a special election, only to come up short. When the next opening came in 1948, he knew he had to win or his career, for all intents and purposes, would be over. A second statewide defeat for the same office would have done him in. But a fanatically ambitious man like Lyndon B. Johnson, as Machiavellian as you will ever find in the history of American politics, would never let that happen. He would stop at nothing to win.
In the 1948 Democratic primary he faced off against Coke Stevenson, a popular conservative Democrat who had served as Speaker of the Texas House, Lt. Governor, and Governor, a man who can accurately be described as a Jeffersonian. In the words of author Roger Stone, he was “a living embodiment of frontier idealism,” the quintessential cowboy.
Stevenson was laid back, a man of character and integrity, who preferred to stay on his ranch in Kimble County, working his land himself rather than participate in the rough and tumble world of Texas politics. He viewed a public office as a service to the people, not an opportunity for self-advancement and enrichment, and wanted to serve the people again in Washington. But he wanted to do it the right way.
While Stevenson was a man of character and decency, LBJ was quite the opposite. He was rude, crude, vulgar, and downright mean. Bobby Kennedy once described him as an “animal.” It was not uncommon for him to tell incredibly dirty jokes, expose himself, or relieve himself when nature called, even in the presence of ladies. And cheating on his wife, stealing votes, cutting corrupt deals, or as some have alleged arranging murders, bothered him not in the slightest.
Johnson’s womanizing would have put even John F. Kennedy to shame. At one time he was sleeping with at least five of his eight secretaries, the wife of a staffer and close friend, and an assortment of other women that his inner circle called the “harem.” Lady Bird even caught him red-handed with one “assistant” on the couch in the Oval Office while he was serving as President. Of these secret liaisons, Johnson produced at least three illegitimate children, perhaps even more.
LBJ used his offices to enrich his friends, as well as himself. Over the years Lady Bird Johnson had acquired TV and radio stations, and as a congressman, a powerful one at that, Johnson made sure the FCC treated them more than fair. In fact, their stations dominated in large markets that covered huge swaths of Texas, giving LBJ a tremendous advantage over his political opponents.
Johnson had friends who owned large businesses where he steered federal funds. One such business was Brown and Root, a Texas construction company later acquired by Halliburton. In return for contracts, LBJ got big campaign donations. These friends did all in their power to keep their man firmly entrenched in office, whatever the cost.
To impress the voters, LBJ used a very fancy method of transportation to campaign across Texas in 1948. Flying around in a helicopter was an unheard of practice at the time that wowed crowds in small southern towns, many of whom had never seen one before. Johnson would eventually use a Bell helicopter and reward the corporation for their support of him. The company made off like bandits during the Vietnam War. And who owed lots of Bell Corporation stock? Lady Bird Johnson.
In his battle with Stevenson, Johnson thought nothing of tearing down his opponent with negative attacks. The LBJ campaign slung mud Stevenson’s way at every turn, attacking his character and his record in office. He was called “Mr. Straddler,” “Mr. Do-Nothinger,” and “Mr. Calculator.” To this Stevenson would not respond. He didn’t like dirty politics. He ran a clean campaign and wanted to focus on the issues.
But that was not the Johnson way. He refused to debate or make joint appearances, going to great lengths to steer clear of Stevenson, even blatantly lying to the press at one point. When both candidates were supposed to appear at the Texas Cowboy Reunion on July 4, with Stevenson riding the lead horse in the parade, Johnson knew he would be outdone with such a gallant display.
So, on the appointed day, while attending an event in Aspermont, Texas, Johnson told the press his campaign helicopter lacked the fuel to reach the Cowboy Reunion. But as he spoke a tanker truck rolled up with aviation fuel. LBJ walked over to his pilot and told him to have the truck leave and come back in two hours. He then returned to the press and told them the fuel tanker had brought the wrong fuel, which was a complete lie.
Despite the massive effort to tear down Stevenson, and to avoid debates at all costs, the Johnson team knew the race would be close, maybe even a nail-biter. In the July primary, Stevenson prevailed by 71,000 votes, but with other candidates in the race he failed to achieve a majority as required by law. So the race moved to a runoff the next month between Stevenson and Johnson.
In the runoff election on Saturday, August 28, Stevenson again prevailed, or so he thought. When the votes were initially counted, including the tens of thousands the Johnson campaign had stolen, LBJ was still more than 800 votes short, out of nearly one million cast. Johnson’s career was now on the line by just a few hundred votes but he never let a little thing like the integrity of the vote stop his reach for more power.
Allegedly Joseph Stalin once said, “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” This was true in Lyndon Johnson’s Texas in 1948. The vote counting, or “revising,” would continue all week, or, to be more accurate, the ballot stuffing.
To cut into Stevenson’s lead, several precincts around Houston, after late night phone calls from some of Johnson’s cronies, “revised” their numbers. This lead-trimming tactic could only garner so many “new ballots” but it would make it easier to “gain” the necessary votes in other precincts. And LBJ knew just the man who could fix things.
Down in in southern Texas, near the Mexican border, a political boss by the name of George Parr, known as the “Duke of Duval,” fully controlled the Democratic machine in two counties – Duval and Jim Wells. He had taken it over from his father, Archer Parr, who passed away in 1942.
Parr the younger had grown up with corruption and manipulation. You might say it was in his blood. In fact, he’d already pled guilty to income tax evasion, and other crimes, in 1932 but a favorable judge had suspended his two-year prison sentence. But four years later, after a slew of new crimes, including the assault of a state legislator and fraud, his probation was revoked and he served some time.
But his political connections eventually paid off when in 1946 President Harry Truman granted him a full pardon, an act of clemency that FDR had rejected. The judge who had originally sentenced him had warned Parr to “stay out of politics,” which he had not done, but the pardon opened up the corrupt floodgates once again.
Parr knew how to get out the vote and swing an election. One of his favored tactics was, in his words, to “vote the Mexicans,” and he was quite fond of using bribery, and even threats, to get them to the polls. Parr employed many Mexican immigrants on his lands and in various operations, and voting the right way was the one sure way to keep a job.
In the runoff election the Duke had delivered in his area. Duval County went for LBJ heavily. The county had 4,679 registered voters and 99 percent, or 4,662, voted in the runoff. And of the 4,662 who voted, 4,622, or 99 percent, voted for Johnson and just 40 for Stevenson. Parr was also known to hold back the votes of at least one precinct just in case, which he had done so in Duval, and the ballot stuffing helped LBJ gain such a large margin. Not only were the dead casting votes but it was rumored that Mexicans were coming across the border to support Lyndon too.
Now Parr was called on again to provide the extra boost LBJ needed. And he delivered in a fashion that today seems almost mythical, if not outright unbelievable.
With the obvious irregularities in Duval County, Parr moved over to Jim Wells, in order to grab more votes for Johnson. And on the Friday after the election, with new revised numbers, Johnson finally prevailed over Stevenson by a mere 87 votes.
Stevenson smelled a rat and put together a legal team to investigate what was clearly fraud. And he knew exactly where the fraud could be found.
In the small town of Alice, in Jim Wells County, it was discovered that 203 people had voted at the last minute and these new “ballots,” all in Precinct 13, had, according to officials there, never been counted on Tuesday. Quite miraculously, all the additional voters but one had cast a vote for Johnson and, even stranger, all had cast their ballots and signed the poll book in alphabetical order. This would go down in history as the infamous “Box 13.”
When Stevenson’s investigators arrived in Alice to examine the ballots and poll books, which they had the right to do, they were denied access. All they were allowed was a quick look at one of the poll books, but not the ballots. Incidentally, there were three poll books in existence but two had gone missing. Parr said he lost one and the other one, in the hands of an Alice election judge, Luis Salas, a Parr crony, was stolen from his automobile, or so he said, while parked on the street near a bar. The only one in existence, after days of searching, was safe and secure, locked up in the courthouse in Alice, according to election officials.
But during their brief look at the lone copy of the poll book, the investigators noticed the alphabetical listings at the end and were able to memorize a few of the names. They also noticed two other strange things. Those names listed alphabetically had been written by the same hand and with different colored ink than those names before.
“I have been beaten by a stuffed ballot box,” Stevenson told to the media, “and I can prove it.” Parr laughed off Stevenson’s claims, referring to him as a “poor loser.”
But LBJ was smart enough to know that if any serious examination took place, it would doom his chances, so he had to stop any investigation into his alleged “victory.” To do that he used the court system and friends in high places to shut down an honest inquiry into the events surrounding the runoff election.
First and foremost, his legal team obtained a restraining order from a favorable judge, Roy Archer in Austin, some 200 miles away from Alice, to keep Stevenson from seeing the election records and to keep the county Democratic committee from throwing out the entire box, an action they were rumored to be considering. And during the intervening time period, the votes of the late arrivals in Alice strangely disappeared, while a mysterious fire destroyed poll records in Duval County.
Before long, though, the issue reached the courts, this time at the federal level. US District Court Judge T. Whitfield Davidson began hearing evidence in September of massive fraud in Precinct 13, including the strange poll book and testimony or affidavits from several citizens who said they never voted, even though they were listed on the poll book as having cast a ballot. In addition, at least three voters on the list were dead.
But the most shocking testimony came from voter number 841, Eugenio Solis, whose name appeared last on the poll book, just before the strange, alphabetical listings began. Solis told the judge that he arrived to vote at Precinct 13 a few minutes before 7 pm, when the polls were about to close. He saw not a single voter waiting to cast a ballot, and certainly not two hundred people.
The fraud seemed obvious and could be very easily proven, or at least that’s what Stevenson believed, if he could get an honest shake in court. Judge Davidson seemed to be just the man. After hearing all the testimony the judge said, “There has not one word of evidence been submitted to disprove this plaintiff’s claim he has been robbed of a seat in the United States Senate.” Davidson then issued an injunction to keep Johnson’s name off the ballot until the case was decided. He also offered the possibility of a compromise, by simply listing both Johnson and Stevenson on the November ballot with the Republican nominee. This LBJ could not and would not accept. In those days the GOP had no chance in the South but Johnson knew that he would lose a 3-way race.
Things swung decidedly in Johnson’s favor when his legal team got into high gear with a new lawyer at the helm, Abe Fortas. The totality of the legal case is far too complex to discuss in full here but, suffice it to say, Fortas wanted to get the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which would reject the Johnson legal argument, but from there it could be appealed to the US Supreme Court, where Justice Hugo Black would hear the case as a single justice. It was a legal strategy that might seem bizarre on its face, to push an argument in a court that would not fly, but it worked.
And the reason was a simple one: corrupt connections. Justice Black, a Southern Democrat and former member of the US Senate from Alabama, as well as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, knew LBJ personally, as well as Fortas. There were also mutual friends who came to LBJ’s assistance. President Truman’s Attorney General, Tom Clark, who would also serve on the High Court, was rumored to have spoken directly to Black to get a favorable decision, as did Fortas. And the Justice did not disappoint, granting a stay of Davidson’s injunction and ruling that federal courts had no jurisdiction over state election matters. An angry Judge Davidson denounced Justice Black’s order as “probably unlawful,” while pointing out that Black took the opposite position in 1944 in striking down what was known then as the “white primary” in Texas, thereby allowing federal courts to intervene in state elections to keep blacks from being disenfranchised.
But the fix was in and the election was over. “Lyin’ Lyndon” and “Landslide Lyndon,” two mocking nicknames attached to him as a result of ’48, had prevailed and there was nothing Stevenson could do about it. The clear choice of the people, Coke Stevenson, would not represent Texas in the United States Senate.
After such a “victory,” an honest man might have hid in shame but not LBJ. He seemed to wear his election to the Senate as a badge of honor and insisted throughout his life that it had been “fair and square.” He even told jokes about it. In one speech he told the tale of a young Mexican boy named Manuel whose father had voted in Alice in that 1948 election.
Manuel was seen sitting on the ground crying, when another Mexican approached him and asked him what his trouble was.
“My father was in town last Saturday, and he did not come to see me,” the boy said.
“But, Manuel, your father has been dead for ten years.”
“Si, he has been dead for ten years. But he came to town last Saturday to vote for Lyndon Johnson, and he did not come to see me.”
Coke Stevenson found no humor in such yarns. He retired from politics and supported the Republican Party until his death in 1975.
Lyndon Johnson would head to the United States Senate, dominate that body as majority leader, and join the presidential ticket with JFK a dozen years later. And in that election of 1960, LBJ’s partners in crime would turn Texas blue for Kennedy-Johnson.
As for the other major players in this ordeal, they were all rewarded for their efforts. Johnson, as President, would name Fortas as an associate justice to the US Supreme Court in 1965, and nominate him as Chief Justice in 1968 upon the retirement of Earl Warren, but the Senate wisely stopped his elevation. He left the Court in 1969.
Attorney General Tom Clark’s son, Ramsey, would serve as LBJ’s Attorney General and go on to a long, lucrative speaking out against crimes committed by the United States and in private law practice, representing some of the most reprehensible human beings in existence, including the terrorist Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein
And as for Boss Parr, well, he told the Houston newspapers that the election was “as clean an election as ever has been held.” He continued his corrupt dealings, under the protection of the powerful Lyndon Johnson, but within a few years of LBJ leaving the White House, he was back in trouble with the law. The year Johnson died, 1973, Parr finally admitted he was in direct contact with Johnson himself during the days the votes were being counted in 1948 and that Johnson had told him how many votes to add to the poll books in Alice. In 1975, rather than face a five-year prison sentence for yet another tax evasion conviction, he committed suicide.
Luis Salas, the election judge in Alice who reportedly had an official poll book stolen from his car, admitted in 1977 that he had lied under oath and had, in fact, helped rig the election with Parr’s orders and under LBJ’s direction.
Sadly, for those of us in Mississippi, the 2014 race followed an eerily similar path. It was, quite clearly, a tale of two campaigns.
Chris McDaniel crafted a campaign model based on integrity, organization, voter outreach, town hall meetings, and policy debates. He traveled tens of thousands of miles over 10 months, gave hundreds of speeches and interviews, and shook thousands of hands. His plan followed more closely that used by JFK in Massachusetts in 1952, as well as Mike Lee in 2010 and Ted Cruz in 2012. In the runoff he prevailed by at least 25,000 votes among Republican voters.
The Cochran campaign followed the LBJ model, a plan based on machine tactics, huge sums of illegal PAC money, dirty tricks, race baiting, mudslinging, vote buying, if not outright vote stealing, cronyism, and, possibly, judicial manipulation. Senator Cochran refused to meet with voters, give interviews to major outlets, or to debate his opponent. How he remained competitive is a mystery to me.
Coke Stevenson had won with legal Democratic voters in the 1948 Texas Democratic primary. Texas, as well as the nation, would have been immeasurably better with such a man of integrity in the US Senate.
Chris McDaniel won with legal Republican voters in the 2014 Mississippi Republican primary. And as we await the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court, let us hope history will tell a different tale this time.
Ryan S. Walters can be reached on Twitter: @ryanswalters73
Sources: Robert Caro, Means of Ascent; Victor Lasky, It Didn’t Start With Watergate; Phillip F. Nelson, LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination; Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising; Roger Stone, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ; P. S. Ruckman, Jr., “Speaking of All-Time Great Election Frauds!,” Pardon Power blog.