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:
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.