On the Senate floor, late each morning, a clerk might be desultorily shuffling papers on the dais, pages might be strolling through the deserted arcs of desks, laying out the Daily Calendar and the drafts of bills, one or two senators might be standing chatting near the door of each cloakroom, down in the well a little knot of journalists, assembled for the daily briefing by the party leaders, might be listening to Minority Leader William Knowland talk, in his ponderous, droning way, about the day's schedule – the Senate Chamber was the sleepy, slow-moving place it had always been.
And then, shortly before noon, the tall double doors at the rear of the Chamber's center aisle would swing open – wide open, so hard had they been pushed – and Lyndon Johnson would be coming through them. As they swung, he would, without pausing, snatch the brown file folder Gerry Siegel was holding out to him, and toss an order to George Reedy out of the side of his mouth. And then he would be coming down the aisle's four broad steps with a long, fast stride. Seeing the journalists' heads turn, Knowland, realizing Johnson was approaching, would stop talking. He would sit down at his desk, waiting to hear what the Majority Leader had to say.
Johnson would stand by his desk, in the center of that broad semi-circle of shining mahogany. Since he was on the first step, six inches higher than the floor of the well where the journalists were standing, he would be looking down at them from a height even greater than his own, and he also looked even taller than he was because the desk was so small. His thinning black hair was slicked down smooth so that, as his face turned to one side, there was nothing to soften that massive skull, or the sharp jut of the big jaw and the big nose, and when the face turned back, his eyes, under the heavy eyebrows, were those intent, intense dark eyes, always wary, that could in an instant narrow into slits and become so intimidating. And under the eyes was the grim tough line of Lyndon Johnson's mouth. "He would stand there very erect, so tall and confident, just the model of a take-charge man," recalls one of the journalists. "There was a nervous vitality that just poured out of him, almost an animal energy."
And his physical presence wasn't the only reason he seemed so big.
Other Majority Leaders who had met with reporters before each day's Senate session had traditionally been accompanied by assistants to fill in the details of the answers to the reporters' questions. No assistant accompanied Lyndon Johnson: he didn't need any; he knew the details himself. The file folder that Siegel had prepared contained the day's agenda, the Calendar of Bills, with notes on senators' views about various bills, and brief statements Johnson was to give. In the memory of the reporters who met with him regularly, Lyndon Johnson never – not once – opened that folder.
"Somebody might ask him about some minor bill," one reporter says. "He'd say, 'Oh, that's Calendar Number so-and-so.' He knew the numbers without looking. Or he'd say, 'That's not been discussed in committee yet. Looks like it might be coming out of the subcommittee this week.' He knew where each bill was – exactly where it was." He knew the activities that had occurred in the various committee and subcommittee hearing rooms that morning – the arguments that had been made, the actions that had been taken – as if he had been present in every room. "If you said, 'Look, such-and-such committee just amended that amendment,' he would say, 'That new amendment is there because . . .' He seemed to know every aspect of everything the Senate had done or was going to do." Says another reporter: "He knew the Republican strategy, too – how we didn't know. He might say, 'Now, we're going to debate an hour on this. However, the other side will try to amend the amendment. . . .' " He knew exactly what he wanted to say – what he wanted the journalists to know – and he said nothing more. As the journalists looked up at him, the clock over the double doors at the rear of the center aisle was in their line of vision, so they were constantly reminded that the bell would ring, bringing the Senate to order and their time to ask questions to an end, precisely at noon. "He not only had his physical, dominating presence, but the clock behind him," one of the reporters recalls. Not that he needed that assistance – or any assistance. "There would be little time for questions," Booth Mooney would recall. "Nor any need for them, in Johnson's opinion. The Majority Leader of the Senate had given them a basis for their stories. What more could they ask?" If there was a question that annoyed him, recalls one of the journalists, "he would answer the question. But he would put a spin on it, so he would be saying it his way." That was the only way he answered any question. "You didn't get any more than Lyndon Johnson wanted to tell you," a journalist says. "Never. I don't think, in all those years, he ever slipped up. He knew exactly what he wanted to say – and that was what he said. Period. I never felt in all those years that he ever lost control of one of those press conferences in the well]. He was always in charge."
Part of the aura that surrounded Johnson as he stood front-row center in the Senate Chamber was, as some of the reporters acknowledge, "the buildup, the accrual – the knowledge we had of what this guy had done, of what this guy could do. Of what he wanted to be." It was an aura of triumphs won, of triumphs anticipated. But the aura was more than reputation. "Power just emanated from him," another of the reporters says. "There was that look he gave. There was the way he held his head. Even if you didn't know who he was, you would know this was a guy to be reckoned with. You would feel: don't cross this guy. He was so big! And he would look around the Chamber – it was like he was saying, 'This is my turf.' "
More than a century before, a rider encountering big-eared, blazing-eyed John Wheeler Bunton on the Texas plains wrote of his unusual "bearing," others spoke of his "towering form" and "commanding presence." For more than a century, those words and phrases had been applied to generation after generation of Buntons. Now they were being applied to the Bunton who had become Majority Leader of the Senate. "He had the bearing of a man on a pedestal," one of the reporters in the well recalls. "He had the bearing of a man in command."
Then, at noon, the bells would ring, and the gavel of the senator in the chair - the senator Lyndon Johnson had put in the chair – would rap, and the Senate would convene. And Lyndon Johnson would still be in command.
The author is biographer in New York. The Text is an excerpt from Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2002, Knopf).