When Graft Had Class

The passing of Lady Bird Johnson produced a slew of complimentary obituaries and remembrances of the former First Lady. Normally, Christopher Hitchens would supply the antidote for all of the flowing saccharine, but Hitchens is on assignment this week. Instead, Jack Shafer at Slate offers the belated rebuttal, pointing out Lady Bird’s role in amassing the Johnson fortune through a quaint form of graft, but one that may have some resonance in today’s political issues:

In 1943, the year Lady Bird Johnson purchased KTBC, the Federal Communications Commission, which reviewed all broadcast-license transfers, was close to being abolished, Caro writes. Lyndon Johnson used his political influence in both Congress and the White House to prevent that from happening. The FCC was among the most politicized agencies in the government, Caro asserts, and it knew who its friends were.
Johnson socialized with FCC Commissioner Clifford Durr at the time, “sometimes at Durr’s home, sometimes at his own,” although Durr says Johnson never mentioned Lady Bird’s application for KTBC’s license. Lady Bird, however, directly approached Durr about the station, and Lyndon phoned James Barr of the FCC’s Standard Broadcast Division. “He wanted to get a radio station, and what I remember is, he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Caro quotes Barr. …
Once Lady Bird completed her purchase of KTBC, the “five years of delays and red tape, or delays and unfavorable rules” from the FCC that had stymied the previous owners “vanished … and slowness was replaced by speed,” according to Caro. In short order she got permission to broadcast 24 hours a day (KTBC had been a sunrise-to-sunset station) and move it to 590 on the dial—”an uncluttered, end of the dial” where it could be heard in 38 surrounding Texas counties. It was no coincidence. Lyndon and Lady Bird recruited a new station manager, promising 10 percent of the profits, and Lyndon told him that the changes in the license restrictions that would make KTBC a moneymaker were “all set.” In 1945, the FCC OK’d KTBC’s request to quintuple its power, which cast its signal over 63 counties.
When Lyndon visited William S. Paley, president of CBS radio, and asked if KTBC could become a CBS affiliate and carry its lucrative programming, he didn’t have to spell out why the request should be granted. The radio networks feared the regulators in Washington as well as the members of Congress who regulated the regulators. KNOW in Austin had been repeatedly denied the affiliation because a San Antonio “affiliate could be heard in Austin.” CBS Director of Research Frank Stanton approved Johnson’s request.
Johnson shook down powerful companies to advertise on the station. Local businesses that wanted Army camps to remain located in Austin knew one way to secure Lyndon’s help was to advertise on KTBC.

Well, isn’t this all about Lyndon Johnson? Why bring Lady Bird into the story? Because without Lady Bird as a front, LBJ couldn’t have pulled it off. She used an inheritance received from a relative to buy the radio station, and that allowed her to keep ownership — and an obvious conflict of interest — away from LBJ himself.
Meanwhile, LBJ himself used his leverage to ensure that his wife’s broadcast assets remained highly profitable. The radio station led to establishing Austin’s first TV station in a bid with only one participant — Lady Bird Johnson. With the FCC heading for the scrap heap in the 1940s, LBJ provided a necessary bulwark against obsolescence. The agency made sure that any requests for better frequency assignments and power output got expedited and approved, making the stations even more lucrative for the Texas couple.
Now, had LBJ allowed the FCC to get cut from the federal government, it might have negated an argument that has appeared this year. Without the FCC in the 1940s, the Fairness Doctrine may never have been codified. It certainly couldn’t have been enforced. Interestingly, after LBJ’s rescue, no one has seriously challenged its existence.
Lady Bird undoubtedly deserved the outpouring of praise she received, but the truth of her role in enriching her family by her husband’s manipulation of governmental agencies should also be made clear. Jack Shafer manages to do it with a little less vitriol than Hitchens.

20 thoughts on “When Graft Had Class”

  1. Catch of the day, cap’n. well done.
    Today, Lady Bird’s holdings would of course be subject to reporting on LBJ’s personal financial disclosure statements, if jointly held or if LBJ derived any income from them.
    If you research every Personal Financial Disclosure document filing by every member of Congress and the federal gubment every year, then add a hearty dash of nexis/google, you’ll very quickly be able to piece together a dozen current situations similar to the Johnson family dealings.
    most would turn out to be legal, others not. but in nearly every case you would find corruption on some level.

  2. LBJ was a Dem and the MSM would allow this to happen. Now of course a GOP would be different. This is news?

  3. With the advent of cable and satellite, it’s not that important anymore, but it is noteworthy that of all the major cities in Texas, Austin has only one VHF (Ch. 2-13) frequency station — KLBJ Ch. 7 (which also was a CBS affiliate from its founding until a decade ago, when it flipped to Fox). All other Austin TV stations were relegated to the UHF dial, at a time when the difference in coverage area and ease of tuning made the ad sales by and value of VHF stations far higher than their UHF counterparts.

  4. Yes LBJ was a crooked politician, I have no love for the guy – I was one of those “dirty hippies” shouting ‘hey hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today’. That said it seems that he was less sleezy than the Duke Cunninghams and those associated with Jack Abramoff. And yes I realize full well that if the Democrats had been in power it would have been them that were hanging out with Jack. I also realize that no one talked about sex in those days and I’m not sure that was a bad thing. The politician back then didn’t talk hollier than thou and then act like rabbits when they were off duty – they just acted like rabbits.
    You are right Ed, it was still graft but it had a little more class.

  5. Radio was not Lady Bird’s only endeavor. She also started Karnack Cable TV, which was only 12 channels. I was in on the upgrade to 23 channels when the Austin part of Karnack was sold to Cox Communication in the early 80’s. Austin Cablevision was then sold to Time-Warner.
    How was it that Lady Bird was able to start the only cable TV company in the area in those early days? I will let you be the judge of that answer.
    There are those who knew Lady Bird well. She, and her husband, were a good match as she could be just as strong willed (and as tacky, as we Texans say) as LBJ. And between them, when it came to a war of wills, Lady Bird won, not LBJ.
    Lady Bird was gracious, as were most southern women of her era, but don’t count her as a frail flower who was only interested in the beauty of the country. She was anything but.

  6. This isn’t new information. I’m pretty sure I first read about it in Caro’s book on LBJ years ago.
    Exactly what conclusion are we supposed to draw here about a woman whose husband used her name and money to advance his political or business ambitions? That she should have been more liberated, put her foot down, said no? Please. We’re talking about the 1940s. I’m sure she did exactly what LBJ told her to.
    This is just picking over old bones and trying to find something scandalous to write about the woman.

  7. Picking old bones? Not really. And if the truth is scandalous (and for Lady Bird and Landslide Lyndon it sure is) then let’s not forget the facts. Government regulation is often an opportunity for graft, which is one major reason why we need much less of it than we have now.

  8. Let’s not forget Lyndon and Lady Bird’s long association with the evil firm called Halliburton. Lyndon climbed into bed with them 6 years before Dick Cheney was created by Faux News in their lab.
    And for you folks who actually want to research Lady Bird, look under the name “Claudia Alta Taylor”, which she used on her business documents.

  9. KTBC is now the Fox broadcast affiliate. There is no KLBJ TV station in Austin. However, AM 590 is no longer KTBC – it is KLBJ (local morning talk/call-in show, followed by Neal Boortz, Rush Limbaugh, and then a local guy, Jeff Ward, in the afternoon who I think is a jerk). I never knew that about Lady Bird, but my dad did, apparently…

  10. I was 12 during the ’64 presidential campaign. I knew about this story then, which is to say everyone knew. LBJ was elected anyway.
    Americans, at this point, believe politicians have to be crooked to be effective. McCain on he right, Kucinich on the left, both honest, neither going anywhere.
    I don’t know who the next President will be but I know that he/she will be corrupt as a maggoty bucket of pig guts and as crooked as a dog’s leg.

  11. Ah, for the good old days when politicians stole honestly! When even Chappy Kennedy had the formality and finesse to wear a dollar collar on TV after skippering Oldsmobile and mistress off the bridge.
    I’ll have to admit, though, that LBJ and similar were far more polished than a Clintoon having the IRS audit his girlfriends / gropees or that famous express ride to Fort Marcy Park. Those heady days before Reno had the gall to openly compromise FBI files for Bouncer Craig and Hil.
    Mention of cable TV and of Cox Cable reminds of their keeping FoxNews out of cities like New Orleans for several years then eventually requiring purchasing premium service to access it. So Cox Cable isn’t simply the name of the company… it’s a pun. One stooge running that company in NOLA was none other than Mayor Ray “School Bus” Nagin of Katrina fame.

  12. How come all the crooks are in politics, and all us honest upstanding folks are not?

  13. Jack Shafer manages to do it with a little less vitriol than Hitchens.
    Is anything WRONG with VITRIOL in a story about the Lyndon Johnsons and the ENTRENCHMENT of BIG GOVERNMENT and graft?
    Reminds me of the story in the news about the RAPE TRIAL in NEBRASKA being called off in a mistrial, because the rape victim REFUSED the judge’s order to NOT USE the “CONCLUSIONARY TERMS” of “RAPE”, “VICTIM”, “ASSAULT”, and “RAPE KIT” to the jury – but was ordered to use terms like “THEY HAD SEX” – which as Sheppard Smith pointed out, are absolutely JUST AS “CONCLUSIONARY” as “RAPE” while giving what I might paraphrase would be a “LESS VITRIOLIC” impression of the events, too!
    Meanwhile the Pundit defending hte Judge’s position said she refused to cooperate because she was a Republican and was merely trying to POLITICIZE the proceedings.
    Sheppard wondered aloud which situation her failure to cooperate was seen as merely POLITICIZATION – THOUGH NOT IN THOSE EXACT WORDS, but certainly close enough!
    He demanded to know what being a Republican had to so with it, though!
    Does anyone think even Nathaniel Hawthorne could REALLY give as convoluted a sentence as I can? LET HIM SPEAK NOW! 🙂 hehehehe

  14. I lived in Austin in the late 60’s and early 70’s when it was the largest city in the country with a sole VHF channel, a CBS affiliate owned by LBJ’s family. For some mysterious reason, no other network could get a frequency assigned. However, if you wanted to view the other networks, you could subscribe to a cable service bringing in San Antonio stations, also owned by LBJ. Eventually some UHF licenses were granted, but most older t.v.’s only had VHF reception. Lady Bird may have been a pleasant person. So is Imelda Marcus for all I know. The family’s fortune is nonetheless based on corruption and theft.

  15. I know some men who worked as contractors in Southeast Asia for most of the 1960s. They’ve told me that a company known as Brown & Root had a lot of sweatheart deals for construction, especially in Vietnam. B&R was part of a bigger outfit that is now known as Haliburton. Lady Bird Johnson was a big investor in those companies. She and LBJ directly profited from the war in Vietnam. The men I know insist that’s why the war was fought so stupidly and dragged on so long – no one wanted to stop the gravy train. The next time someone shouts about Haliburton and Cheney (who sold all of his shares in 2000), remind them of this.

  16. Bennett’s correct. Caro reported the sordid details in his biography of LBJ years ago. We’re still reading obituaries calling Lady Bird an “astute businesswoman”. She strikes me as a nice lady, and the compliant tool of her overreaching, faithless husband.
    But “astute businesswoman”? Only to the extent that her “radio station” business was a front for payoffs to Lyndon.

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