Editor-in-Chief's Letter: I Know Where to Look for It

From aiCIO's October Issue: Editor-in-Chief Kip McDaniel analyzes power through the lens of former US President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The great Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, had a room. Formally, it was H-128, a moderately sized but ornately decorated, high-ceilinged chamber on the first floor of the Capitol. Informally, it was the Board of Education (or simply “downstairs” to Rayburn), the room back to which the portly Texan would invite a few favored lawmakers to have a drink following a day’s work on the House floor. To be in this room was to be in power. The all-controlling Chairmen of the mighty standing committees of Congress frequented it; Democratic Party policy was often decided in it; Harry Truman, who one day in 1945 had just finished presiding over the Senate as Vice President, received the phone call there informing him that he was, following the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt, now President. To be outside this room while the Board was in session was to make painfully clear to the uninvited that they were not the paramount possessors of power in Washington. Thus, as a young Congressman new to Washington in the 1940s, Lyndon Baines Johnson, along with nearly every member of Congress, obsessed over one question: “How do I get in that room?”

We all want to be in that room. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. That room, at its most fundamental, is power—the acquisition, maintenance, and spending of power. From the President of the United States to the private-equity titan to the backcountry bumpkin, we all want to influence the actions of others. This is because we all require resources: shelter and food at its most basic, adoration and affection at its more trivial. Power is the avenue by which these resources are won or lost.

But how does one acquire, maintain, and spend this power? Lyndon Johnson’s story, popular now because of the sprawling, multivolume biography currently being written on him by über-biographer Robert Caro, is telling. Johnson—born dirt-poor in the hill country of Texas, largely uneducated, abrasive, unpopular—for five years in the 1960s became the most influential man on earth through a preternatural feel for the levers of power. (“I do understand power…I know where to look for it,” Caro repeatedly quotes Johnson as saying.) In those five years, the world saw the best and worst of what power can achieve. It saw a man, long thought to be a bigot, walk America’s disenfranchised black men and women into the ballot box for the first time; it also saw the beginning of the “credibility gap,” where Americans, largely through the lens of Vietnam, began to question the veracity of what their President was telling them. “Power corrupts,” Caro writes, “but power also reveals”—and with Lyndon Johnson, this revelation is about more than simply the acts of a President in office. It is the revelation of the very soul of power. It is the answer to the question: How do I get in that room?

Every field of study has its foundational texts, those works that for decades are the basis for the often-petty arguments that litter the academic landscape. Albert Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis—his frenetic year of 1905 in which he produced four groundbreaking papers—formed the basis of modern physics. Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is still debated today, a century on. The sleep-inducing title Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid is actually the proof, authored by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, of the double helix structure of DNA—the basis of modern biology. For the study of power—or, more formally, social psychology—John French and Bertram Raven are the modern founding fathers. In 1959, they authored The Bases of Social Power, which outlined five interrelated forms of power. Since then, academics have argued whether there are four, or two, or 14 bases of power, but any discourse on the topic inevitably, and rightfully, begins with homage to French and Raven.

Their construct was simple. One person has social power over another when they can induce a change in behavior. The size, scope, and permanence of that change is an indication of that power’s strength: if you only read this essay when I’m looking over your shoulder, I don’t possess a lot of power; if you read it regardless of whether I am there with you, it could be said that my power over you is strong. There are five broad categories, according to the authors, through which these changes occur: reward, coercive, legitimate, expert, and referential. 

Reward and coercive power, the most obvious of the five, are opposite sides of the same coin: when someone had the power to reward, or withhold, they can easily alter the behavior of others. Legitimate power, the “most complex” type according to the authors, is bestowed by the larger social compact and the values people feel to follow authority. Expert power, as the name implies, is a deferral to a person who is thought to be more accomplished in certain areas. Referential power stems from “a feeling of oneness,” of wanting to be part of an exclusive in-group. These five categories overlap and relate, the authors believed, and they form the basis of much of human interaction.

By the year that French and Raven published their treatise, Lyndon Johnson had answered the literal question of how to get into Rayburn’s room. As of 1959, he had his hands on all five of these levers of power—and was pulling hard. He controlled the Senate as no man before or since. He ran Texas from afar, his long-time assistant just three years shy of becoming Governor. Presidents relied on him to nurse their legislation through the halls of Congress—and, indeed, by 1959, he was privately intent on becoming President himself. French and Raven might as well have been writing about Lyndon Johnson long before Caro ever did (although not that long, since Caro started the first of what is now four books in the series in the 1970s). 

If they had indeed been thinking about Lyndon Johnson at the time they wrote their paper, French and Raven—who always listed reward power first of the five—would have instead started with the most obvious: legitimate power. 

Johnson was a Boy Wonder of politics, comparable in career trajectory to President Barack Obama or even Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. After a youth of poverty that often included hard manual labor, with an increasingly alcoholic father running up debts at every store in their desperate pre-Depression town, Johnson worked his way toward Southwest Texas State Teachers College—where he promptly became the de facto leader of the student government. After a brief sojourn teaching, he went east to Washington as the assistant to a Congressman, where he came to control the Little Congress, a previously underwhelming organization that let assistants pretend they were the real thing. By the age of 28, he was a Congressman himself. He fulfilled a campaign promise to join the Navy, and saw brief action in the South Pacific before returning to Congress at President Franklin Roosevelt’s request. In 1948, at the age of 40, he became Texas’ junior Senator. By 1953, he was the youngest Senate Minority Leader in history—the official leader of his party in that body at 43. In 1960, he was named Vice President on the winning John F. Kennedy ticket. In a unique and controversial time in American politics—war after war was fought abroad while segregation tore apart the American psyche at home—Johnson was a unique, if not particularly controversial man. He was a Southerner but, as a Texan, not a realSoutherner. He was a Democrat, but not of the liberal Northern variety. And he had, all his life, been gaining more and more legitimate power—the power bestowed by the winning of seemingly legitimate means.

There is a sentence on page 317 of Caro’s fourth installment, The Passage of Power, which most succinctly details Johnson’s acquisition of legitimate power. President Kennedy, for three years the symbol of Johnson’s powerlessness, has been shot in the head. Johnson stands against a wall in a windowless hospital cubicle. He refuses to leave, despite the Secret Service’s insistence that they flee for the safety of Air Force One, until someone, preferably Kennedy’s closest aide Ken O’Donnell, confirms that the President is dead. Finally, O’Donnell walks in. Lady Bird Johnson, sitting beside her husband, looks up and sees “the stricken ‘face of Kenny O’Donnell who loved him so much.’” Caro describes the words that followed:

“‘He’s gone,’ O’Donnell said, to the thirty-sixth President of the United States.” 

And with those words, Lyndon Baines Johnson had all the power in the world.


Long before he became President of the United States, Johnson had mastered the four other bases of power. 

Cash is the fuel of elections everywhere, but nowhere does it play such a central role as in American politics. Modern technology and psychology grant contemporary campaigns an uncomfortable level of insight into how to spend this money, but even in Johnson’s time it was understood that more money meant more votes. In Caro’s first book, The Path to Power, he illustrates how, in 1940, Johnson came to understand this fact of political power, and to pull that lever. 

Johnson never had problems accessing campaign cash. His home state of Texas was in the early part of the 20th century a boom state based almost solely on what lay underneath it: oil. Newly rich wildcatters were more than happy to give cash to Lyndon Johnson. Being a Democrat in Texas in Johnson’s time was the equivalent of being a Republican in Mississippi or a Democrat in Manhattan today: You won. Thus, in 1940, Johnson turned his efforts to helping other Democrats maintain their advantage in the House of Representatives—and, not coincidentally, the advantage of their leader, Sam Rayburn—through the auspices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Whereas before desperate Representatives had “little hope that they would get what they asked for,” Caro writes—and these were sums of $250 and $500, laughable by today’s standards—Johnson made sure that many got what they asked for, and often more.

This was not altruism. Johnson intuitively understood that those whose campaigns he saved would remember him. They would remember him not because of what he did—favors in politics have a short half-life, Caro is quick to point out—but because he could do it again. If over the next two years they rebuffed a Johnson request, or slighted Johnson, or ignored Johnson’s friends, he could refuse to give them campaign cash in 1942, or 1944, or 1946. It was French and Raven’s most obvious bases of power in their purest form: Johnson had the ability to reward, and he had the ability to coerce. He happily did both.

Yet his mastering of the two other bases—expert power and referential power—was more nuanced. It was also more impressive and, for the arc of American history, more important.  

Johnson was a crude man. He would often call assistants into the toilet with him—even female assistants—to take dictation while he relieved himself. He casually used racial slurs. He would physically intimidate fellow members of Congress, using what came to be known as “The Johnson Treatment”: employing the entirety of his 6’4” frame, he would lean within inches of another man’s face, his large head looking down on theirs while his large hands poked or grabbed at their jacket lapel. In most pictures of this treatment, the man on the receiving end is leaning back. Many are even laughing, although often uncomfortably.


There exists a picture of Lyndon Johnson leaning over a man who is neither retreating nor smiling. Taken barely two weeks after Jack Kennedy was buried, it depicts the new President and Richard “Dick” Russell, senator of Georgia. Johnson is not grabbing his lapel; Dick Russell was too well respected to do that to, too much a father figure to Lyndon Johnson. Russell’s head is cocked toward the camera as he stands his ground, the men’s stomachs nearly touching. We don’t know what they are saying but, from their history, we can surmise.

More than anyone else, even more than Sam Rayburn—another lifelong bachelor who considered Johnson a son—Dick Russell allowed Lyndon Johnson his power. When Johnson entered the Senate in 1948, Russell was already its figurative leader—but that was as high as he was going to rise. Russell, a Southerner by geography and nature and an unapologetic racist intent on retaining a segregated South, would never be President. No Southerner had been President for over 75 years. But in Johnson he saw hope: Here was a man who he felt shared his values, but not his stigma. And thus Russell, secure in his assumption that Johnson believed what he himself believed, let the younger man amass Senatorial power. Over the next 12 years, Johnson would come to understand Senate rules and prerogative better than Russell. He would learn how to control the men and process of that institution. He would come to accrue even more legitimate power when Russell helped secure him the Vice Presidency under Kennedy—all because the Georgian, the leader of a Southern contingent that could scuttle most legislation through the filibuster, assumed they shared common goals.

This picture shows the end of that assumption. Kennedy has died, his signature Civil Rights bill—which would force Southern states to allow black men and women to vote freely—threatening to die with him. But Russell has miscalculated—badly. He has learned just days before the taking of this photograph that Johnson actually wantsto pass a Civil Rights bill. Worse still, Johnson knows how to do it. He is an expert—and Russell knows he is an expert, because Russell taught him exactly how to move legislation through the Senate, the institution that had blocked such bills for generations. 


Russell and his fellow Southerners put up a fight against the eventual Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the form of a 57-day filibuster, but it was largely symbolic. Because Johnson knew how to pass it—knew how to keep the bill from being trapped in some archaic sub-committee, knew how to first shepherd through other bills so that they would not be held hostage by a filibuster—and because Russell and others knew he knew, the passage of the bill was nearly a foregone conclusion. There is a reason, after all, that Caro titled his third book Master of the Senate.Such expertise was the culmination of a career pulling the levers of power, and with this culmination came the fifth of French and Raven’s power bases: referential. Once, it was Sam Rayburn’s room that Lyndon Johnson so badly wanted access to. But when Johnson ascended to the Presidency, Sam Rayburn was dead. The room that everyone wanted to enter, to have “a feeling of oneness” with, was not on the first floor of the Capitol building. It was in the White House. With the Oval Office, Johnson had made his own room.


And with that, the flattering portrait of Lyndon Johnson—the master of power, the man who epitomized French and Raven in practice—seems complete. But this picture is imperfect.

Take Johnson’s meteoric rise from pauper to President. He was, in fact, almost universally despised at the college whose student government he controlled—despised to the point where former students still spoke of Johnson to Caro with vitriol 50 years after their graduation. His vaunted military service consisted, in fact, of a single observation flight. With the Little Congress, Johnson stuffed ballot boxes with illegitimate votes, a fact that would be amusing if it didn’t foreshadow a later election: the 1948 Senate primary against Coke Stevenson (the Democratic primary, much more than the general election in the pre-Civil Rights south, being the real election). Statistics alone showed fraud in multiple Texas counties where Johnson won by overwhelming—even impossible—margins. Then there is the infamous story of Box 13: Johnson had learned the hard way, in his first Senate race in 1941, that Texas politics demanded that he “sit” on ballot boxes in areas he controlled, so that when his opponent announced his final tally, Johnson could illegally add votes to top him. He had been on the wrong side of this equation in 1941. He would not make the same mistake again in 1948. Box 13, kept in reserve while Stevenson announced his vote total, was stuffed with 200-odd extra votes one week after the primary. The result was an 87-vote victory in a state that at the time had a population of 8,000,000. The ironic nickname “Landslide Lyndon” would follow him all the way to the Presidency, his legitimate power the direct result of fraud.

And take the financing of these campaigns—at this point some of the most expensive in American history—and the congressional campaigns of 1940. Johnson wasn’t collecting checks from civic-minded Texans. He was, more often than not, having his minions collect bags filled with unreported cash from men who wanted their government to loosen regulations, limit taxes, and give them large government contracts. From the beginning of his political life, Lyndon Johnson had been accepting large amounts of cash from these men, and had diligently served their interests. By being the conduit by which this money reached other politicians, it was clear to all involved the price of this generosity. While Johnson made his personal fortune elsewhere—mainly through a Texas radio station that benefited from government rulings on airtime and frequency—woven throughout Johnson’s political rise was this money. Indeed, at the very moment that a bullet entered President Kennedy’s brain, hearings were being held in a Capitol backroom on Vice President Johnson’s questionable assets. 

And consider Lyndon Johnson’s referential and expert power. That investigation in Washington, quickly suppressed after Johnson was elevated to the Presidency, had started as an investigation of “Little Lyndon”—a man named Bobby Baker, a Johnson protégé. Baker had started as a Senate page at 14 and had never left. He fell under the control of Johnson, doing his bidding without question. While Baker eventually started to live too large, spawning the investigation, there were scores of other young men who were unquestionably devoted to Johnson—the result of their belief in his superior knowledge, of their urge to be a part of his universe. For every episode of Lyndon Johnson’s expert and referential power being used for good (the pushing through of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example) there are examples of these men being crushed, physically and emotionally, under the will of Johnson—the result of those very powers.


Many boys and girls dream of being President; extremely few attain it. That dream, though, isn’t really about being the leader of the executive branch of the United States government. It’s about control—the ability, for good or ill, to give and take from others, and to be the one others turn to when they desire something. It’s about being in that room.

The path to power, as Caro proves, can be mapped. While few have the intuition of a Lyndon Johnson—“I do understand power…I know where to look for it”—the path is knowable. The question about that room, then, isn’t how you’ll get in.

It’s how far you’ll go to do so.