In Texas, Dirty Elections Are an Art Form

So we come rumbling, stumbling, and bumbling to end of another election, a great American exercise in lies, rumors, gossip, deceit, name calling and mud slinging – and I’m just talking about the newsmen. I haven’t mentioned the candidates yet.

It’s been a nasty election, I hear.

It’s been downright dirty.

A young Lyndon Johnson

I’ve seen candidates come up cleaner after wallowing all night with a pile of hogs.

Well, don’t whine to me about dirty elections.

I live in Texas. We invented dirty elections. Well, we may not have invented them, but we turned dirty elections into an art form.

Go back with me to 1948. We had this kid named Lyndon Johnson who was working hard to become a U. S. Senator from Texas, and he rolled up his sleeves, sold his soul to the devil or any other high bidder, and was fighting tooth and nail against Coke Stevenson in the Democratic primary run-off election.

Whoever’s name was finally stamped on the Democrat side of the general election ballot would be Senator. No doubt about it. In those days, Republicans were few, far between, and usually voted under assumed names.

Now no one thought Coke Stevenson would lose. Coke Stevenson never lost.

He had run for public office twelve times – once for county judge, five times for state legislator, twice for Speaker of the Texas House, twice for lieutenant governor, and twice for governor.

Nobody had beaten him yet.

The skinny kid with the bulbous nose from Johnson City didn’t stand a chance. That’s what the press said. But they didn’t know Lyndon Johnson.

His career was hanging in the balance. Lose, and he would drift off into oblivion, or so everyone predicted.

After all, Lyndon Johnson had already been branded a loser.

Back in 1941, the skinny kid with the bulbous nose from Johnson City had run for the Senate and appeared to have the race nailed down. With ninety-six percent of the ballots counted, he led by five thousand votes. He was ready to start celebrating.

Johnson lost to Pappy O’Daniel by 1,311 votes.

The four men who brought in the missing Box 13

And, overnight, he learned a hard and cruel lesson about politics and the art of ballot tampering. No one could figure out where those final votes against him had been cast, but somebody had stuffed the ballot box.

Johnson felt cheated. He would not be cheated again.

In 1948, Johnson shifted his political leaning and was no longer running as a Franklin D. Roosevelt New Dealer. Texas liked its politicians a little more conservative.

With five weeks left before the election, Lyndon Johnson unleashed a modern and aggressive campaign. While Coke Stevenson was leisurely riding around those Texas back roads in his Plymouth, talking to whomever showed up for courthouse rallies, Lyndon Johnson traveled by helicopter. Nobody had ever campaigned in a helicopter before.

The pundits referred to him as a razzle dazzle politician as he flew from farm to farm, from ranch to ranch, landing 370 times in a machine the press dubbed the “Johnson City Windmill.” He made speeches and shook hands in little rural towns that had never seen a real live politician before. When voters heard the loud roar of that helicopter, they came running. Johnson even had the gall to land one time in North Texas in the middle of a Coke Stevenson speech.

The two men were Democrats.

They were opponents.

They weren’t friends.

Lyndon Johnson regularly mailed his Johnson Journal to thousands of rural voters, even running one article whose headline announced: Communists Favor Coke. Give him a handful of dirt to throw, and Lyndon knew where and how hard to throw it.

Down in South Texas, George Parr, who ran Duvall County, with an iron fist, was a high bidder. He didn’t know what he was going to do with Johnson’s soul, but, sooner or later, he would figure out something.

The race is gonna be close, Johnson told him.

Don’t worry, Parr said.

Johnson was worried.

Late in evening on election day, Coke Stevenson led by 2,119 votes after 939,468 votes had been counted.

The counting dragged on for another six days, the lead switching back and forth every hour on the hour. Johnson was growing ill and ill tempered.

The ballots were finally all in. They had all been counted.

Lyndon Johnson was sweating.

The candidates were only separated by a handful of votes, and Coke Stevenson was officially declared the winner.

Lyndon Johnson had lost.

George Parr, the Kingfish of South Texas, had told him not to worry, and Parr snapped his fingers.

From out of the blue, here came an old black car with four men carrying a missing ballot box, Box 13, hauling it in from Jim Wells County. It had 203 votes packed inside. All but one good and upstanding citizen had voted for Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson won the election by eighty-seven votes.

It did not matter that all 203 voters in Jim Wells County had voted in alphabetical order. It did not matter that all 203 voters had signed their name with different colored ink, even though polls only used a single pen with the same blue ink.

The dead and the unknown had all voted, and Lyndon Johnson was on his way to Washington.

By the time he arrived, he didn’t feel dirty at all.

George Parr may have been a thief. He wasn’t. He was a U.S. Senator.

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