Congressman Kirk’s takedown of Freeman recalls an ugly chapter of LBJ’s rise

Felson writes:
Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk’s championing of Chas Freeman’s demise, in motive and method, calls to mind one of the uglier chapters in Lyndon Johnson’s political career. It was also a revealing chapter, both in terms of Johnson and the political system.

As meticulously documented in Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” LBJ arrived in the Senate in 1949 intent on using the body as a springboard to the presidency–as Kirk is said to be eying the Senate. Months into that first Senate term, President Truman formally re-nominated Leland Olds, the highly-respected chairman of the Federal Power Commission. The nomination was supposed to sail through without much notice – Olds had easily won confirmation to his initial five-year term in 1939 and to a second term in 1944.

But to the natural gas industry, Olds was a problem.

During his tenure, the use of natural gas had become widespread as vast pipelines were laid. Olds, as the head of the FPC, had exercised his power to regulate the price – low enough for consumers to afford, but, as Caro notes, “high enough so that the stocks of natural gas companies were among the most attractive investments on Wall Street.” But the natural gas titans wanted more: Deregulation would mean hundreds of millions of dollars more in their pockets. And Olds, who blocked their efforts to enact deregulation in 1948, was their main enemy. As Caro puts it: “A single figure was standing between the big producers, already the possessors of great wealth, and wealth far greater.”

LBJ, who had been elected in 1948 thanks to massive financial support from Herman and George Brown (who had grown rich off federal contracts), instantly recognized the significance of Olds’ re-nomination. Caro explains:

It was important for Johnson not only that Olds be defeated, but that he, Johnson, be given credit for that defeat…He would need their money for his 1954 re-election campaign – and for the campaigns he saw beyond. It was essential that he demonstrate to them that they could depend on him – that he could be counted on not just to work in their behalf, but to work effectively – and Olds’ nomination process was the ideal opportunity for such a demonstration.

LBJ requested and received the chairmanship of the subcommittee that would preside over Olds’ confirmation hearings. He realized that Olds, with his impeccable reputation and wonkish policy mastery, couldn’t be attacked on policy grounds. So instead, LBJ painted him as a communist, ambushing Olds at the hearings with hysterical “evidence” of his (non-existent) previous ties to the Communist Party and its ideology. He also saw to it that the subcommittee was packed with some of the Senate’s most reflexively anti-communist members, ensuring that Olds would receive a negative recommendation.

By the time the nomination reached the floor, almost no senator – even those sympathetic to Olds – would say a nice word about the incumbent chairman. The battle had become a referendum on communism (this at the dawn of the Cold War). Why would any senator risk the “pinko” tag for some FPC chairman? Old went down to defeat, he struggled with money for the rest of his life, and his wife suffered a breakdown and cursed LBJ’s name until the day she died. But LBJ got what he wanted. John Connally explained it this way to Caro:

This was his chance to get in with dozens of oilmen – to bring very powerful rich men into his fold who had never been for him, and were still suspicious of him. So for Lyndon Johnson, this was the way to turn it around: take care of this guy.

And now we have Mark Kirk, an ambitious 49-year-old Republican congressman from Illinois who plans to run for the U.S. Senate next year. Kirk played a leading role in the public campaign to force Freeman aside. Given that the “pro-Israel” community took pains to shield from public view its role in this affair, the cover that Kirk provided figures to endear him to a donor network as formidable as the one that LBJ courted all those years ago – and just in time for a campaign that will require him to spend millions of dollars for television ads on network stations in Chicago and St. Louis!

And Kirk is being just as dishonest about his motives as LBJ was with his red-baiting, pretending that Freeman’s Israel posture had nothing to do with his opposition – that the real issues were Saudi Arabia and China.

In 1949, the Brown Brothers and their friends didn’t want their fingerprints on the Olds job, so they turned to LBJ. In 2009, when AIPAC and its ilk wanted to keep their distance from the Freeman job, they had Mark Kirk.

Posted in Israel Lobby, Israel/Palestine, US Policy in the Middle East, US Politics

{ 11 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. TGGP says:

    I always hated, Hated, HATED Lyndon Johnson, but now I can point to one positive thing. Maybe he'll rise more in my esteem as the years go by as Jimmy Carter did.

  2. Jaffr says:

    Kirk is a good target — and a political test for our side of things!

    Get ready to help raise serious money for Kirk's Democratic Congressional opponent in 2010, or to defeat a potential Senate run. Opposition research would probably also be useful.

    This is doable and would send a huge message if AIPAC's poster boy (and the largest recipient of Lobby money) could be beaten.

  3. D. says:

    Kirk has earned the esteem of the lobby as a "righteous Gentile" second only to Ros-Lehtinen, as is made clear in this article from the Jerusalem Post last fall, discussing whether the likely U.S. election results were good for the Jews:

    "Pro-Israel lobbyist Morris Amitay said he was concerned about the prospect of losing some Republican seats, including Coleman's, in the Senate, and Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk's in the House, yet he sounded an uncharacteristically sanguine note for this election season. …"

  4. David F. says:

    Very interesting analysis. I often dislike your historical analogies, Phil, but this is a useful one.

    I might add, though, that LBJ's takedown required some real political skill and initiative, and had substantial payback for the rest of LBJ's career. Kirk is just getting a slightly better place ahead of the many other Zionist toadies at the pro-Israel feed trough.

  5. Scott says:

    Johnson always let it be known he would be friendlier to Israel than Kennedy, too. And he was!

  6. Some background on Kirk says:

    Kirk is a pathetic little twerp neocon clown. He's a military reservist and has some kind of a background in economics (though when I confronted him in public with some simple questions about his vote for the banker bailout, it was clear he didn't have a basic grasp of macroeconomics). He beat a moderate, black democrat (Dan Seals, a Northwestern U professor) rather handily last year, and owes his career to the mostly affluent, Jewish north suburbs of Chicago (Illinois 10th district). But his district also includes a number of large middle class burbs like Des Plaines, Mt. Prospect and Park Ridge that are predominantly protestant and have a substantial population of eastern Europeans. I think Dan Seals was too elitist for this crowd, but I think a patriotic, blue-collar, fiscal conservative dem or republican could take him down by attacking Kirk's spinelessness on economic matters, possibly his fealty to "The Lobby," and by suggesting that he's more interested in Roland Burris' senate seat than in serving his district. In fact, if he wasn't facing trial, Rod Blagojevich would be a pretty good archetype.

  7. Citizen says:

    i agree with the comments–Phil did a good analogy here

  8. Dan Kelly says:

    Nice analogy Phil. Very interesting.

    Ah, the good old days: to be courting money from natural gas advocates and oil men, as opposed to those whose allegiance lies with another country.

    Johnson always let it be known he would be friendlier to Israel than Kennedy, too. And he was!

    Kennedy's nonfeasance on issues important to Israel, and his refusal to play the international bankers' game, may well have sealed his fate…

  9. Julian says:

    "This is doable and would send a huge message if AIPAC's poster boy (and the largest recipient of Lobby money) could be beaten"

    How little you understand about politics. Congress people work their districts. Get to know as many as their constituents as possible. Do anything they can do to help them. They very rarely take positions against the vast majority of their constituents. If Kirk is pro Israel it's because that's the view of his voters.

  10. Rowan says:

    the view of his voters

    Don't you mean, the contributions of (often out-of-constituency) PACs?

  11. RE: "…massive financial support from Herman and George Brown (who had grown rich off federal contracts)…"

    ME: Hence the 'B' of the notorious 'KBR' – f/k/a Kellog Brown & Root (until a couple of years ago a subsidiary of the Dick Cheney's infamous Haliburton)

    SEE – link to en.wikipedia.org